It’s ironic, really. Colin Chapman’s nickname was ‘Chunky’ — yet that was the last adjective you would describe any of his cars by. There was nothing big or overweight about them, they were quite the opposite in fact. “Simplify, then add lightness” was the Lotus founder’s mantra and it is a motto that the British sportscar maker still lives by 66 years since its inception. Although this formula has served them very well (the Elan, Europa, Esprit and more recently the Elise, Evora and Exige are all fabulous sportscars), there was a rather worrying engineering failure in the early days with one particular model...
The 1958 Elite was produced out of necessity to allow Chapman to finance his racing activities and buying customers had to be found to pay the freight. The Elite was their first volume-production car; designed for the streets, it also left its mark in racing by winning its class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans an impressive six times thanks to its kerb weight of just 503kg and punchy 1.2-litre OHV inline-four Coventry Climax engine. In order to keep it as light and therefore as nimble and as quick as possible, materials other than steel were required in its construction. Aluminium would have been ideal but it was expensive but the Hethel carmaker had found the perfect solution: fibreglass. This magic weave was the carbon fibre of the Fifties. It was tough, versatile and lighter than steel and more importantly, it was cheaper than aluminium and it was only natural that Chapman used it for the Type 14 — not that there was anything novel about doing so; the ‘53 Chevrolet Corvette and the ‘54 Kaiser Darrin both featured fibreglass bodies — but Lotus being Lotus pushed the boundaries too far... The Elite sure was a pretty little thing and this made its common ailment, its suspension mounts piercing right through the stressed unreinforced fibreglass skin, all the more painful to bear. The body, made by Maximar Mouldings, was way too thin on the early Series 1 cars and it couldn’t cope with the structural strain it was put under, resulting in the mounts popping right out of the beautiful body. Ouch!
This issue was solved when the Bristol Aeroplane Company was handed body production duties and the model went on to become one of the most memorable Lotus ever made.
You may also like: Not their finest hour: Jensen S-V8