Elite 6 SML at Earls Court 1958
Originally published in Club Elite UK Magazine, reprinted in Club Elite Newsletter (Issue 31, December 2011).
My interest in Lotus in particular as opposed to sports cars in general developed at Hatfield during my time as an engineering student at the de Havilland Aeronautical Technical School and subsequently. Here we learnt all about the importance of efficient structural design, the sine qua non of minimum weight, and aerodynamic drag. Names there who moonlighted on occasions for the burgeoning Colin Chapman included Gilbert Mackintosh, Frank Costin and Maurice Phillipe, all of whom I knew and who vicariously fed this interest.
I don’t remember the Elite at Earls Court in 1957 but soon became aware of this extremely pretty and doubtless highly efficient car. The fact that it employed good streamlining and a lightweight monocoque construction scored heavily in any aeronautical engineer’s eyes although I never at that stage had any thoughts of owning one, being well satisfied with my TR2. However in 1960 I must have made enquiries at the Chequered Flag for I have a letter from them dated May that year offering two used Elites, a BRG one having been raced extensively by Jim Clark here and abroad “with immense success”. At £1665 it had extensive engine and brake modifications and was, they said, capable of “in excess of 130mph”. At £1685 the other (#1008) in pale blue was the October 1958 Motor Show Stand Model, subsequently covering 15000 miles in the hands of “one well known owner” who was, it transpired, Keith Hall, a Lotus works sports car driver at the time. The car was “hand built” and had a Stage II tuned engine. After some careful thought I went for the blue one and they graciously accepted the humble TR2 in part-exchange. As I took delivery I fervently hoped 6 SML wasn’t flattering to deceive. It didn’t take long to find out.
Chequered Flag letter offering Elite #1008, the 1958 Earl’s Court Show Stand Model
So long TR2 - hello Elite.
Elite #1008 sprinting at Brands Hatch
The next 3½ Climax powered years saw a mixture of emotional highs and financial lows in broadly equal measure. The highs come to mind more readily, some of them stories in their own right. As well as everyday transport, the Elite provided plenty of fun from sprinting at Brands Hatch and elsewhere, night rallying, the occasional autocross (once managing to satisfy the scrutineer with no brakes whatsoever) to a race round 12 nominated pubs scattered throughout the length and breadth of Hertfordshire during opening hours one Sunday evening, an obligatory alcoholic drink being consumed at each. Everyone reached the finishing pub before closing time and our total mileage as I recall was around 100. It competed in sprints against the clock in the dark hours around a circuit of narrow lanes starting and finishing in Ayot St. Lawrence. Good to relate, 6 SML held the lap record for a while until taken by someone on a motor bike. For some unaccountable reason, sense must have prevailed at that juncture and we didn’t try to wrest it back
On another occasion concealed police took exception to my driving as they (thought they) saw it and radioed ahead for me to be stopped. The attempt failed and by pure luck we avoided a road block thoughtfully set up a few miles further down the road especially for our benefit. Next day we were honoured with a personal visit by a police officer. Fortunately it all ended fairly amicably with a grudging letter from Police HQ in Kidlington: “Having considered the matter…… no further action on this occasion…….. however I should warn you……etc.” The usual stuff.
In the very early days a trip made was to Italy, where the car spent ten days in the Lancia/Alfa Romeo garage in Alassio having a front prop shaft U/J replaced by mechanics who had only heard of Elites racing at Monza, never having seen one in the flesh. They declared the job would take just two days including getting the bits – impossible I told them suspecting what prop shaft removal entailed. Their faces were a picture after putting the car on the lift to show me how wrong I was.
Crossing the Italian Alps in Elite #1008
At the outset we had crossed the Channel from Lympne on a Silver City Airways Bristol Freighter. There staff insisted on taking the keys and loading the car themselves, despite my protests. I was sniffily informed they dealt with hundreds of cars without damage (to their planes I assume they meant) and mine would be no different. There followed a long and unexplained wait in the “Departure Lounge” until a loudspeaker announcement requested the presence of 6 SML’s driver. Full of foreboding I accompanied them out to the car, still on the tarmac. Despite prolonged efforts they had failed to discover how to open the bonnet to check chassis and engine numbers against the paperwork. Their injured pride was palpable and satisfying.
Elite #1008 being driven into the Bristol Freighter after the bonnet opening fiasco
The minutiae of the mechanical lows have largely faded into oblivion, probably through selective amnesia, and had I not made a point of retaining pretty well all paperwork connected with the car, they would have remained so. But trawling through it revealed invoices for all manner of work of which I have little recollection. For example,
Remove and skim head, renew diff oil seals……£55
New crankshaft, conrods, pistons, jackshaft, weld crankcase etc. £1925 (following blow up after 6 months, just outside Chequered Flag’s guarantee and more than I paid for the car!)
New camshaft bearings and exhaust valve, examine conrods and pistons £14
Certainly there were other engine related problems on a fairly regular basis, broken dynamo brackets, flooding SU carbs, leaking head gasket/dropped liners, air drawn into the slave cylinder. I was told “What do you expect from an engine one day frozen solid and the next boiling its head off in traffic? It was designed for racing, flat out or nothing.” Just the reassuring words I needed.
More public of the lows were three total and unheralded brake failures on the road, one of which resulted in shooting the North Circular Road through red lights, fortunately without hitting anything. A couple followed unsuspected fluid loss from the rear calipers, the first of which occurred near Farnham. I drove the car, very carefully, to Mike Hawthorn’s garage. There I was redirected to another nearby where resided one Brit Pearce who looked after Lotus(es?) belonging to a well known driver – Innes Ireland springs to mind though I could be mistaken. The third failure followed the top master cylinder attachment bolts pulling through the fibreglass, which was easily reinforced. The leakages were solved for good thanks to a de Havilland Tech School friend whose father Joe Wright was Managing Director of Dunlop’s racing division as I recall. A visit to their Silverstone caravan during a meeting elicited a handful of high temperature caliper seals with their compliments.
During another trip to Silverstone, probably to Friday practice before a GP, I spotted my old TR2’s registration number in the car park – lucky because the car had changed from dark to light blue and now sported a TR3A front! I left a note on the windscreen and we met at The Green Man afterwards. Following heavy frontal damage the owner had decided he preferred the look of a TR3A in pale blue! A couple of apparently surplus bolt holes in the engine bulkhead had always puzzled him since no other car had them and nobody could offer any explanation. The reason took him aback somewhat. To improve the TR2’s performance I had fitted a supercharger but two halfshaft failures later I removed it again. Later on, when the crown wheel and pinion started breaking up during a trip to Switzerland, I realised it had left a little legacy for me.
The most dramatic low was when 6 SML was comprehensively T-boned on the driver’s side by an Alfa Romeo which had jumped red lights. Such was the impact he ended up on Shepherds Bush Green while I was spun through 270º having become an uncomfortably snug fit between the door and the transmission tunnel. The repairs by Lotus at Panshanger, being up the A1 from de Havillands, enabled me to keep general tabs on them but even so, progress was slow. I saw them repair a corner on Les Leston’s DAD10 in under a day following a practice off at Brands, revealing a hitherto unsuspected ability to do something quickly.
Eventually I collected the car and that evening visited a basement flat in London. Afterwards there was a distinct smell of gas and on reaching street level I found 6 SML guarded by a policeman with sand sprinkled around, the “repaired” scuttle tank happily leaking its contents into the gutter. It was towed to a nearby garage - an uncomfortable experience in the dark with the driver’s carpet soaked in petrol. The keys were pushed through the letterbox with a note and another placed on the windscreen: “DO NOT START”. Back at Panshanger they fitted in the scuttle an alloy tank specially made by the racing department at Cheshunt. There was an upside to all this. Before the work was completed Yorkshire Insurance paid me the agreed repair estimate and walked away, perhaps versed in matters Lotus and anticipating the bill. The icing on the cake was that I never received an invoice from Lotus, inefficiency rather than shame I assume.
In the mid 60s a small garage across the road from DH was occupied by two ex-Lotus mechanics and naturally 6 SML attended on a regular basis. Both were aware of my disillusionment with Coventry Climax and one day said “That’s what your Elite needs.” “That” was a Cosworth Mk VIII 1500cc ex-Lotus Super Seven engine and close ratio gearbox sitting on the floor. Despite being an iron engine, it came in at only a few pounds heavier than the Climax, thanks no doubt to its very shallow block, while for good measure both the bell and tail shaft housings were alloy. Somehow I acquired from the factory a lines drawing of the Elite body shell while Ford provided an installation drawing for the engine. Checks suggested no show-stoppers (i.e. no surgery to the body shell so the installation would be easily reversible) so I went ahead but it was clear from the outset that five particular issues needed addressing,
• Repositioning of the Ford filter bowl to clear the steering column,
• The gear lever would be in the wrong place,
• The existing engine mounting points could not be used,
• Relocation of the radiator’s inlet.
• Fabrication of a new exhaust manifold
Whereas I relished the problem solving, design and drawing processes, detail fabrication was greatly aided by unwitting help from de Havillands where best quality materials in sensible quantities could be “obtained” while turning and welding cost merely the price of a drink or packet of fags. All the operatives needed were proper drawings. So in order :
Elite #1008 arriving at de Havillands in 1960
I made and fitted a half inch thick alloy adapter with skewed oilways between the block and pump/filter head assembly enabling the filter bowl to be rotated anticlockwise to miss the steering column. It required a lot of hand fitting though DH very kindly made a longer oil pump drive shaft. I decided against a remote filter which, on the face of it, would have been far easier but cannot recall the reason though it must have seemed a good one at the time.
The Cortina GT remote control alloy die casting was shortened and re-welded by DH and a modified selection mechanism designed and made which shortened the gear lever throw across the gate. I remember being pleased with the result and gaining more satisfaction from changing gear than hitherto.
Existence of the oil filter bowl and steering column on one side and the dynamo on the other prevented the car’s engine mounting points being reached from those on the side of the Ford’s block by any practical structure. So triangulated tubular mounts (by DH naturally) located the engine on new mounting points about 4ins further aft, each in turn being tied to the sub-frame’s top tube. This setup gave no problems.
Being of brass, the radiator was easily modified. Its top inlet was moved from left to right, the filler hole blanked off since it no longer appeared to be the highest point in the system, and a Triumph Spitfire remote header tank fitted. The lower outlet now has the longest flange possible while still allowing radiator installation. I recall the standard installation is a pipe stuck through a hole with an ‘O’ ring in it which I feared would leak once reassembled with the new installation.
A full sized jig was constructed replicating the head’s inlet/exhaust face together with a rubbing, the bits the new manifold would have to miss and where it had to end up. This was despatched to Downton Engineering in Wilts, such fabrications being outside the norm for DH. Soon it returned fitted with a beautiful manifold for the princely sum of £16-10-0.
The rest was minor stuff, recalibrated speedo, electronic rev counter, modified prop shaft, throttle linkage and fuel piping to suit the Ford’s Webers, sundry electrics, oil pressure piping and temperature capillary, smaller clutch master cylinder to suit the Ford’s slave cylinder and a machined alloy bracket (made by guess who) to match the rear gearbox mounting to the Elite’s large rubber bush. An oil cooler was installed for good measure since the Ford’s sump seemed hardly to stick in the breeze at all.
With more torque and flexibility and unchanged handling the car seemed greatly improved and gave, for the first time, trouble-free fun until a friend turned up one day in 1967 with a newly acquired E-Type for me to have a go in. The result was perhaps predictable. I knew I could never sell 6 SML so she was put in the garage with a promise she would come out on high days and holidays and not be forgotten. To my everlasting shame she never turned a wheel again for 43 years until in 2010 I resolved to get her back on the road and enjoy her while I still could. Soon afterwards and by the very best of good fortune I met Malcolm Ricketts who, after examining the car with his colleague Mike Loughlin, undertook to put the necessary work in hand in his workshop, my own days of diving into and under the car with gay abandon being long past. Malcolm was very polite about the engine, saying “We all do these things when we’re young.” What a true gentleman!
Mike fitted the car with new dampers all round, new wishbones, driveshaft U/Js, wheel bearings and seals, new discs and new tyres and tubes, while the calipers were reconditioned and the electrics persuaded to work, old and brittle though they are. With a new distributor the engine burst into life, a nasty shock for it after such a long and comfy hibernation. He told me working on my old prototype had been “interesting” but his expression suggested “interesting” may not have been quite the right word. Now she has returned home, freshly MoT’d and ready for a spot of restoration work on the original Motor Show trim. Then another previously unknown example will rejoin an Elite world which hardly existed in her youth. And no, I haven’t still got the Climax (#7611).
Not the most ethical of owners perhaps, I have remained with her longer maybe than many and rejuvenated her with, I believe, a transplant for the better, though doubtless outraging purists in the process. I have allowed her a long rest from the harsh and ever more aggressive motoring world into which she will soon re-emerge with not a little trepidation (on my part that is, she will love it!) I wonder how things would have turned out had I chosen the green one.
John Hellings, England
Copyright © 2011 John Hellings All rights reserved.