Its streamlined elegance flabbergasted the motoring world when it was unveiled at the London Earls Court Motor Show of 1957. The Lotus Elite’s fiberglass monocoque engineering was the very first combination of its kind. It was also the first ‘regular’, road going, production sports car created by the maverick engineering genius, Colin Chapman and his team, even if the first line-produced car was not made until mid-1958 (and bought, incidentally, by the celebrated jazz musician, Chris Barber).
Though there was a steel sub frame to support the engine, suspension and essentials like the door hinges, the Elite’s featherweight and advanced aerodynamic construction balanced on four-wheel independent suspension, made it a dream to handle.
It was a wonderfully quick car. In fact to begin with, the 1.2 liter engine made it almost overpowered — but it provided the Elite with the authentic sports car performance that gained it, among many triumphs, six class victories in the Le Mans 24 hour. The interior had carefully matching, stylish practicality — including a metal dashboard shaped exactly like the Elite’s exterior profile.
There were major problems. The drive was bolted directly to the monocoque without even rubber cushions. The noise was horrendous. Forget ‘opening the windows’: curved on two planes so they couldn’t wind down into the doors, the only option was to remove them completely and stow them in special pockets behind the seats. Worse, the glass fiber bodywork was liable to crack.
Not even shifting body manufacture to the Bristol Aircraft Company resolved the Elite’s shortcomings. Yet its performance belied its fragility — and when you see one today, zipping along with fluid elegance, it’s impossible to forget that the Lotus Elite is a car whose subsequent influence entitles it to be universally lauded as a genuine ancestor.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
1957 (prototype); 1958 (production) (until 1963)
1,216 cc Straight Four
Top speed of 115 mph (185 km/h); 0-60 mph (97 km/h) in 12.2 secs
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
If you enjoy automotive mathematics, investigate the Lotus Elite’s incredible drag coefficient. Those gentle, delicate curves contain nothing superfluous. The Elite’s beauty is dedicated to achieving its coefficient of 0.29, brilliant today, and simply unheard of in 1957.