Lotus Elite Type 75

Lotus Elite Type 75

The Luxury Lotuses. Once two of the most expensive four-cylinder cars in the world, the Type 75 and 76 were huge departures for Lotus in the 1970s. Today, however, both can be had for relatively little money, if you’re careful. Words: Jack Wood. Pictures: Adam Wilkins.


Buyers’ Guide Lotus ELITE AND ECLAT

The inside line on buying a great 1970s wedge without succumbing to any of the pitfalls.

The shooting brake profile of the Lotus Elite Type 75 was new for Lotus.


With a decade of F1 wins behind it – with more to come – the 1970s would see Lotus attempt to shake off its kit car roots in favour of a new-found prestige image and line-up. The all-new state-of-the- art, all-alloy 900-series engine was at the heart of this upmarket push, with two make-or-break models developed around it to take on the likes of Ferrari and Jaguar in the showroom. By 1975, both the popular Elan family and Europa would be dropped from the range entirely, and the cash cow Seven sold on. The supercar Esprit and four-seater Elite and Eclat replaced all three.


Lotus Elite Type 75

The Esprit alone was a huge gamble for Lotus, but the Type 75 grand tourer would be its most significant production car departure yet.

Luxury and lightness rarely go hand-in-hand, yet the top-tier Elite would price itself into direct competition with the likes of Jaguar’s equally new XJ-S (later XJS), which had three times the cylinders and nearly double the horsepower. Where the Jaguar was a difficult evolution of the much loved, but ageing, E-Type, the new Elite was a whole new entity and modern through and through.

Like the original Type 14, the Type 75 was a revolution in the market. Under two thirds the weight of the competition, and much more aerodynamic too, it allowed that busy 2.0-litre four-pot to make the most of the Chapman influenced chassis and suspension. Yet with its svelte shooting brake bodywork, from ex-Jaguar draughtsman Oliver Winterbottom’s ruler, and stylish interior, from Giorgetto Giugiaro, the Elite was just as handy in the city. A professional athlete, in a tailored suit.

A year after the Elite’s launch, the more conservative Eclat coupé joined the range.

Available in cheaper 520 form, it featured smaller brakes, a Ford 4-speed gearbox and none of the special amenities deemed ‘too soft’ by Lotus’s grassroot supporters. Initially the least popular of the ‘wedges’, the Eclat would go on to lay the foundations for both cars’ replacement model, the Excel (originally Eclat Excel) in 1982.

When new, the Elite was the most expensive four-cylinder car in the world yet, in the years that followed, both it and the Eclat have struggled to keep up with Lotus’s more budget-orientated designs, in both popularity and sales. Now the tides appear to finally be turning, as more and more enthusiasts buy into the last of the Chapman developed production Lotuses.

Don’t let their reputation for trouble deter you from joining the club; with careful selection, and a few choice upgrades, an Elite or Eclat can make for a very rewarding ownership experience today. Here’s how to grab a good one, while their values are still on the up.


WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR?

As with any potential classic car purchase, the process for buying the right Elite or Eclat should start at home. The killer with both cars is maintenance, or lack of it. Two decades of criminally low values haven’t helped matters here, and until recently it was quite difficult to find an Elite or Eclat that hadn’t been run on a shoestring budget – though times are thankfully changing.

Research is key. As well as checking through the advert for positive signs, such as a full specialist service history and a clean recent MoT, it pays to look through the photos thoroughly. The pop-up headlights can be a dead giveaway on S1 cars. If the pictures only display the lights in the ‘up’ position, then there is probably a leak in the vacuum operated system, which could signify a serious corrosion issue. Elite and Eclat S2s featured electronically operated units in their place, meaning the jammed lights are likely due to an electrical fault instead.

The backbone chassis on S1 cars (Type 75 and 76) weren’t galvanised, and early rust protection from the factory wasn’t great – some cars were known to have had replacement chassis at as young as three years old. Elite and Eclat S2s (Type 83 and 84) featured a much improved galvanised chassis, and many earlier cars will have received these or similar aftermarket replacements over the years. Despite this, it pays to thoroughly check the steelwork on all potential purchases. Rust is often most prevalent where the crossmembers meet the bodywork, as the protective felt barriers are known to absorb water. Replacement chassis are still available from suppliers such as Lotusbits, though it’s obviously a body-off, engine-out job and very involved. It’s likely to cost more than the car is worth – though this may not be the case for much longer.

As with the previous Lotus range, the Elite and Eclat borrowed heavily from the British Leyland and Ford parts bins, with Standard Triumph providing several of the suspension components. The Triumph Herald front uprights are a well known weak link, which require regular lubrication with heavy oil – not grease – to stay at their best. The Austin Maxi derived rear wheel bearings need regular greasing too, and must be torqued up to 200lb ft when refitted – a higher figure than many home mechanics have access to.

Like many cars from the era, appropriate upgrades are well worth seeking out if you want to use yours regularly. Later bushes are a particularly good addition to well worn cars, though do check that all upgraded parts are attached using later Lotus specification nuts and bolts, as earlier items were made of a weaker grade of steel.

All but the base Eclat 520 – which inherited the Plus 2’s Triumph front brakes – featured sizeable discs and strong calipers at the front, and MGB derived inboard drums at the rear. The MG derived parts are relatively tough and easy to source, though extremely difficult to access on the Elite and Eclat. For this reason, you should check the rear diff erential for any leaks that could lead to brake contamination, then feel for any sponginess through the middle pedal.

The 900-series engine came in two forms over the Elite and Eclat’s production life. S1 cars featured the 2.0-litre 907 unit that was previously seen in the Jensen-Healey, and S2 cars came with the later 2.2-litre 912 powerplant that evolved from the Lotus Sunbeam Talbot project. All are great fun, and strong, assuming that they have been well maintained – large receipt fi les are again a huge bonus here.

Some oil consumption is normal, even on known good units. The earlier 2.0-litre powerplants are expected to consume up to one litre per 500 miles, which means the tiny 6-litre sump requires regular top-ups with the recommended Valvoline 20/50 formula oil (or similar). Oil leaks, however, should be viewed with more suspicion.

The cam covers on earlier engines are the most common area for seepage due to a poor early gasket design. A common side effect of this is an accumulation of oil around the spark plug wells, which often leads to shorting on start-up. An improved gasket is all that’s needed to fi x the issue, though leaks in other areas could suggest serious wear or a bodged rebuild – neither is good news. All 900-series engines are of an interference-type design too, meaning cambelt health is of prime importance. All belts should have been changed every 24,000 miles, or more likely every two years (whichever comes first). The tensioner should be changed as well if it exhibits any sign of wear. One ill-advised but surprisingly common modification is the removal of the belt guard. Make sure any potential purchase has one, otherwise road debris may find its way into the mechanism. This can either damage the belt or help it break free, at which point you’ll be excavating valve gear from your pistons.

As an all-alloy unit, corrosion inhibiting anti-freeze is another must-have on these cars. Excessive corrosion of the waterways will lead to hotspots, then more serious damage. The tight tolerances required by the 900-series can make home rebuilds difficult, so you’d be best to find a good one in the first place.

The Dell’Orto carburettors are well-regarded for their reliability and ability to stay in tune, though they can be difficult to set up once worn. Unbalanced and out of synch carburettors will be most noticeable on tick-over, so keep that in mind. The last under-bonnet check is an obvious one, but make sure it is a Lotus engine! This may sound silly, but the cheap nature of the early wedges meant it was once common for them to be used as donor vehicles for Esprit restorations and Lotus Sunbeam rally cars. There’s nothing wrong with a Rover V8 conversion, or the like, but it’s not worth paying Lotus prices for one!

The Getrag 5-speed gearbox found on the later cars is probably the best reason to seek out a 2.2-litre engined S2 example, as it’s by far the best unit for both. All but the base Eclat 520 S1 manual cars inherited the Lotus made 5-speed box from the Plus 2, which could just about manage the weight of the old four-seater and its 1600cc Twin-Cam engine. The heavier GTs though, with their torquier 2.0-litre powertrain, could prove a little too much for the Austin Maxi derived internals to handle, especially when driven as a Lotus demands. The Ford Granada 4-speed found in the 520 is much tougher, if a little out of sorts with the grand tourer intent of the Eclat. The optional Borg Warner 3-speed automatic, however, is much too GT-like for its own good in a Lotus – though also strong, if the fluids are changed on time. A later Toyota Supra or Ford Type-9 replacement is a bonus for anyone who isn’t looking for complete originality. While assessing the life of the gearbox, it also pays to get a good feel for the clutch. It’s an inherently strong unit, but needs to be checked for any signs of wear or slippage as replacing it will be an engine-out job.

Bodywise, there’s not too much to worry about. As well as being the masters of chassis and suspension sorcery at the time, Lotus was well ahead of the curve when it came to fibreglass body production in the 1970s. The Elite and Eclat were the first Lotus models to pioneer the use of the revolutionary Vacuum Assist Resin Injection (VARI) process, which was borne from Chapman’s involvement in boat production via his Moonraker brand. The VARI system split the bodies into two halves, top and bottom, using vacuums to create a more uniform construction – the chrome strip on the Elite and Eclat hides where the two halves join. This process allowed Lotus to produce its best body finishes yet, and quality gelcoats ensured that each finish had a better chance of lasting the distance. Cars stored outside will still show their age, though repairs can be made at home with the help of a guide. Accident damage is, thankfully, much harder to hide, due to the GRP’s propensity to shatter instead of bend. Any mismatched paint or uneven panels should be viewed with suspicion.

The Elite and Eclat were the beginning of Lotus’s leap into luxury, as such any well-specced model will feature lots of trim, dials and toys – all of which are difficult to source today. This means it’s imperative to check everything is there, even if it doesn’t all work. This also means the lower specced 501s (Elite), 520s or 521s (Eclat) can make more sense if you only intend to use the car sparingly. The ’70s beige and brown fabric hues soil easily too, and the headlinings sag, though all fabric or leather trim can be repaired or retrimmed by a specialist. A tired interior can be a good haggling point.

RESTORATION, MODIFICATION AND TUNING

With the Elite and Eclat, it’s all about picking your battles. Engine work and drivetrain modifications are all perfectly doable at home on a reasonable budget, though engine rebuilds and chassis repairs are likely to be too involved and costly for many. GRP and interior repairs are all within the remit of the hobbyist restorer.

As both cars were the starting point of a long evolutionary cycle for Lotus, which ended with the Excel nearly two decades after the Elite’s launch, there’s no shortage of upgrade scope for early models. If it was our money, we’d replace as much of the Triumph and Austin derived mechanicals as possible, before looking towards upgrading the engine and gearbox.

The Lotus 900-series can see a healthy 200bhp from simple camshaft and head upgrades, and more so again with larger carburettors fitted. The Esprit Turbo ‘gubbins’ would be a nice-to-have, though are you really going to put your wallet and gearbox through all that stress? Speaking of which, if you have the weak-link Lotus 5-speed, miserly Ford 4-speed or Americanised Borg Warner automatic fitted then there is lots to be gained through a transmission upgrade. The Toyota Supra derived box from the Excel may sound like the best bet, but it’s actually the Ford Type 9 that’s the easier to fit – it’s also cheaper, and has more scope for swapping cogs.

WHICH TO BUY?

This all comes down to personal preference, and what you want from your Lotus GT. Fans with more traditional tastes tend to prefer the more conservative silhouette of the Eclat coupé, whereas Lotus-oriented fans tend to prefer their wedges as Winterbottom intended. Don’t be fooled into believing that an Elite will offer more versatility though. Its shooting brake styling isn’t quite as practical as it lets on, owing to its Citroën style glass boot partition and fixed rear seats. Later cars do lose some of the earlier purity with their Rover SD1 tail lights and bigger bumpers, though the bigger engine, better gearbox, galvanised chassis and electric pop-up headlights make them our pick for usability.

When new, the Elite had four specifications. The 501 was the base, 502 added aircon, 503 added power steering and the 504 an automatic gearbox. The Eclat followed the same structure, but with the 520 denoting a sub-base spec (4-speed gearbox and Plus 2 brakes) car, and the 521, 522, 523 and 524 specifications mirroring those of the Elite. As many of these cars will have been restored from the parts of other Lotuses, and as certain amenities fail, these specifications are no longer as important as they once were.

As with the previous range, there were special editions too. These included the rare sportier Eclat Sprint and semi-open Eclat Riviera, neither of which offer a totally different experience to the main range or affect values too much. In reality, it pays to buy on condition, then add your own upgrades later.

WHAT TO PAY?

As little as five years ago it would have been possible to pick up a near-mint Elite or Eclat for less than £5000, which is around the value of a semi-usable rolling project today. The only ‘cheap’ Elite and Eclats left on the market are ones that are best avoided by all but the most masochistic home restorers. We’d expect you to pay at least £4000 for a project car, and £7000 for something more usable today, which is still very little money for what both cars offer. It appears that only the very best examples manage to break the £10,000 barrier privately, which cannot be the case for too much longer.

VERDICT

It’s fair to say that Lotus has come a long way since the launch of the Elite in 1974. For many the executive Lotus was too much of a push away from the manufacturer’s sports car roots, and it never quite received the same accolades, or ultimately sales, of the Elan and Plus 2 it replaced. But to ignore it or the Eclat today, as the market has for so long, would be to ignore Lotus’s evolution into a true mainstream brand under Colin Chapman’s direction. You would also be sleeping on two of the best driver’s cars ever to be offered in the executive segment.

All the correct Lotus ingredients are there in the early wedges. Both have a small but powerful engine. Both have the classic backbone chassis, with the usual Lotus suspension trickery. Both are unique in their field, and both weigh over 100kg less than a current generation Ford Fiesta. It’s time we finally gave the Elite and Eclat the respect they deserve.

Elite and Eclat had several different wheels designs. Stuck headlights could spell trouble on S1 cars. Leather interiors tend to wear better than the very ’70s hued fabrics. Original headlingings often sag with age.

Elite and Eclat

Chassis: Steel backbone

Suspension: Front – Independent wishbones with coil-over dampers. Rear – Independent with trailing arms and coil-over dampers

Engine:

S1 – Lotus 907 2.0-litre all-alloy 16v slant four with twin Dell’Orto carburettors, 150bhp.

S2 – Lotus 912 2.2-litre all-alloy slant four with twin Dell’Orto carburettors, 160bhp

Gearbox: S1 – Lotus 5-speed manual, Ford 4-speed manual (Eclat only),

Borg Warner 3-speed automatic. S2 – Getrag 5-speed manual, Borg Warner 3-speed automatic

Brakes: Front – Discs. Rear – Drums

Wheels: Various alloy and steel options from the factory and selected dealers

Interior: Adjustable leather or fabric front seats, with a matching fixed bench in the rear

Wood veneered dash, various stereos, electric windows and optional air conditioning.

Exterior: Split VARI moulded GRP bodywork.

USEFUL SUPPLIERS

Lotusbits Rugby, Warwickshire.

T: 01926 633211.

W: www.lotusbits.com

Esprit Engineering Salisbury, Wiltshire.

T: 01725 514449.

W: www.espritengineering.co.uk

FJ-RS Engineering Marton, Warwickshire.

T: 01926 290275.

W: www.fjrs-engineering.co.uk

CHECKLIST

  • History: Check all the paperwork for signs of a properly maintained service schedule, go over the recent MoT history and look out for any receipts that hint at appropriate upgrades.
  • Engine: Check for oil leaks and any signs of engine fatigue. Ensure the belt guard is still fitted, before feeling the cambelt and pulleys for good tension and health. Also ensure that the car has been run using the correct antifreeze formula.
  • Transmission and clutch: Feel the clutch and gearbox for any wear, the earlier Lotus boxes can be particularly temperamental and difficult to fix. The later Getrag, Toyota and retrofitted Ford gearboxes tend to be much longer lived.
  • Electrics: Flick every switch to ensure that everything works as Lotus intended. Wayward headlights on S1 cars are typically vacuum faults, which can signify corrosion problems.
  • Chassis: Check the backbone structure for signs of corrosion, especially on early cars. Rust is most commonly found wherever the chassis meets the bodywork.
  • Bodywork: Check for any signs of accident damage or bodged repairs. Faded gelcoats can be sorted more easily at home.
  • Suspension: Assess the health of any rubber bushes and check that the Triumph and Austin derived components have been maintained properly, or replaced.
  • Brakes: Feel for any sponginess – it could signify an issue with the hard-to-access rear brakes.
  • Interior: Be wary of any interior with missing parts, as replacements will be hard to find. Worn fabrics and leathers can be repaired or replaced more easily.

TIMELINE

  • 1972: The production Lotus 907 engine is unveiled as the powerplant for the new Jensen- Healey. The first M50 executive prototype (yet to be labelled the Elite) is completed at Hethel.
  • 1974: Colin Chapman unveils the new Elite in May, which is built alongside the Elan Plus 2 until the following year.
  • 1975: The more conservatively styled Eclat joins the range, with the 520 base model replacing the Elan Plus 2.
  • 1976: The Lotus Esprit joins the range, further boosting Lotus Cars’ new-found upmarket image. The Borg Warner 3-speed automatic option becomes available in all-markets for the first time.
  • 1978: The Elite S2 and Eclat launch with the new 2.2-litre 912 engine, revised styling, a galvanized chassis and electric pop-up headlamps.
  • 1981: The final Elite and Eclats are produced at Hethel, the targa-top Riviera model is launched.
  • 1982: Lotus re-engineers the Eclat using Toyota Supra sourced parts, which is launched as the Eclat Excel. The Elite is dropped from the range.
  • 1984: The Eclat moniker is dropped.
  • 1992: Excel production ends at Hethel.

Chassis corrosion can make restorations difficult. The 900-series is strong, but requires maintenance.

I OWN THREE

Martin Williamson is a passionate Lotus fan, with no fewer than three Elites and three Esprits in his growing Lotus collection – which includes the silver Elite S1 photographed for this guide. Martin admits that he originally purchased the car with the intention of using the parts to restore one of his other Lotuses, though the condition and smart silver colour scheme soon won him over.

While in great condition, Martin’s car currently features a Rover V8 engine in place of the 907 unit expected, though he has a correct engine on his workshop table that’s awaiting fitment soon. Otherwise the immaculate interior, fully-working electrics and tidy chassis make it a fine example of the breed. It has an interesting history too, having been owned by a sound engineer for the Rolling Stones twice before, and features an unusually tidy Rover V8 conversion that used a new engine at the time – one that had only covered 2000 miles at the time of writing.

In addition to this Elite S1, Martin also owns a later 2.2-litre Elite S2 and a rare 504 3-speed automatic example.

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Votren De Este Votren De Este 2 years ago #

Cool article — like new all WIKI

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