The Elite

An Aesthetic Appreciation of Lotus Car body shapes – The Elite

Introduction [With photographs by the editor]

lotus elite 003

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The Elite was launched at the 1957 Earls Court Motor Show. It is believed that customers received their cars towards the end of 1958.It is believed that the Elite sold for approximately £1949 during its brief production life and was in the same price bracket as an E Type Jaguar.

The Elite is frequently listed as one of the most beautiful cars in the world. This assessment is attributed to its absolute grace and poise.

It was a daring bold conception with exceptional performance. This was borne out by its success at Le Mans. The use of fibre glass was not new. It had been pioneered in America. Jensen, Chevrolet, Turner and Rochdale are believed to have used this material for body work.

Chapman’s conception was radical in that his conception was for the material to form a monococque chassis .It was believed that considerable advantages existed in particular the strength to weight ratio. The Chapman design incorporated steel sub frames moulded in. These were metal hoops for jacking points, pick up for door hinges screen surround – thereby avoiding bulky pillars and for the front suspension and steering .The body was formed in three major pieces, these varied in thickness depending on the function they performed.

The Elite was a considerable competition success; particularly at Le Mans winning its class and that of Thermal Efficiency. It is considered less of a commercial success.

To assist the reader assess the Elite please see recent articles “Motoring Icons of the 20C” and book reviews.

Basic specification.
Quoted from “Observers Book of Automobiles “5th Edition 1959*
Model: Lotus Elite Grand Turisimo Coupe cylinders: 4: Coventry Climax
Cc: 1220
CR: 8.5:1
BHP: 75
Overall length: 12ft
Overall width: 4ft.10”
Height: 3ft.10”
Wheelbase: 7ft.4”
Fuel Tank capacity: 9 Imperial Gallons
Weight less Fuel 10.3/4 cwt
Not quoted:
Top speed approx 115mph
Petrol consumption: 40mpg

Aesthetic Appreciation

In the Observers book noted above a brief description is offered:

“Small car with frontal appearance similar to Le Mans 85. Very small radiator intake set low, flanked by divided bumpers.
Headlamps recessed slightly, straight through wings to square tail with angular bumper.
Flanged rear wheel arches, windscreen well wrapped around, curved rear window in gently sloping roofline; wire wheels with knock off hubcaps”.

The Elite has been referred to as aesthetically captivating and a technical “tour de force”. The basic styling was undertaken by Peter Kirwan –Taylor in conjunction with Colin Chapman. John Frayling and a dedicated small team and made plaster models. The final shape was perfected by Frank Costin with aerodynamic considerations in mind. It is believed that no wind tunnel tests were performed.

The aesthetics of the Elite speak volumes of understatement. It’s a near perfect statement of form and function; a unity of theory and practice; attention to detail within a harmonious whole. The drag coefficient is estimated at 0.29.
Perhaps some of the beauty can be ascribed to the G.T. layout. The car is possibly a little over 12 ft long overall. About 40% of the length is the engine compartment, 35% cockpit and 25% boot.

The proportions are deftly handled, particularly the cockpit roof and rake of the main windscreen / rear window glass. The lines have dynamic fluidity of motion both in elevation and section.

The cockpit is visually deceptive. Its shape, size and volume appear to be the minimum necessary. Often when a hard top is added to sports racing car the proportions are lost or distorted. The “cabin” of the Elite adds to the dynamic and seems not to interrupt the visual flow.This I would venture is extremely precise and not the product of guess work.

Perhaps also significant and complementary to the overall aesthetic is the body detailing. The wire wheels, bumpers, grill surround, windscreen and indicators seem light, delicate and consistent within the concept. No component seems an afterthought or production compromise. [This is a considerable achievement considering that parts were used from other cars].

Exquisite details of the Elite include the racing filler cap, the side window, door catches and front number plate arrangement [fixed directly to the mess guard].

The Elite has been compared with the Porsche 356 although the front and rear engine cars have considerable structural and constructional differences.

The essential elegance of the Elite seems to reside within its refinement and taught understatement. No line or curve is over emphasised or extended or accentuated more than is necessary.

There are no design gimmicks or stylistic trademarks. From the slightly recessed front headlamps and delicate elliptical radiator through the shrunk wrapped cabin bulge to the radically terminated tail, the Elite have the cleanest of lines.

For me the Elite possesses a sculptured quality in a near perfect integration of curving and straight lines. This is reinforced by the internal treatment and layout which seems to echo the overall concept and design philosophy although this might have been unintentional.

Of all the design elements the greatest genius seems evident in the proportion of the cockpit windscreen and roof. Here the car could have been destroyed or made too top heavy like a saloon. The lines here are so decisive and critical. Fractions of an inch or degrees of rake are crucial. What has been created is a visual illusion of lightness, almost evaporation or disappearance. Here design genius is akin to the conjurer’s art. All seems to have been achieved by the taughtness and rapidly receding contours. The cockpit cabin alone is a lyrical design poem of multiple compound curvatures. The two tone finish might detract from the homogeneity.

The statement is sports car without compromise … despite the roof.

The Elite might also be compared with the T.V.R of the period. Whereas the T.V.R. has an aggressive and dramatic truncated tail, the Elite design is composed, balanced and thoroughly integrated. The design is possessed of classical simplicity and timeless elegance. The product of an intelligent mind for whom function alone does not satisfy the searching soul in its relentless quest for beauty.

Observers Book of Automobiles*
Inside 100 Great Cars Ed.David Hodges*
Great Classic Cars by Alan Austin and Chris Harvey
Cast scale model of the Elite.

Author John Scott-Davies