How to Formulate a Restoration Plan | Restoration Impossible Lotus Elan Project Car Part 2

Part 2 of the magazine series

We’ll be the first to admit we have a problem. Where others see abandoned vehicles that are too far gone to be worth saving, we see potential projects. 

Never has this been truer than in the case of this Lotus Elan. When we discovered it, we had what seemed like a great idea: Rebuild the car, which had spent nearly 40 years rotting in a Michigan field, while promising to make it nice enough for the Amelia Island Concours.

Since we like our projects to be especially challenging, this one came with an added degree of difficulty: Before coming to rest in that field, the Lotus had been hit—hard. 

So we left Michigan with about three-quarters of a car, a dream, and little else. 

Once we got the remains back to our Florida shop and unloaded the pile that had been unceremoniously dropped into the back of a U-Haul utility trailer, the real work could begin. We had lots to clean, lots to figure out, and lots to replace.

Fortunately, along the way we’d meet some other folks crazy enough to support this rather daunting project.

The Allure of the Elan

The Lotus Elan is a cornerstone of our world, but it’s not something you see every day. Rather, its enduring presence is in styling cues and engineering breakthroughs that continue to be found on sports cars being produced today, more than half a century after the Elan’s debut.

Lotus had spent the decade before the Elan’s introduction developing a reputation for elegantly engineered race cars that established the British manufacturer as a track favorite. It wasn’t until 1957 that Lotus attempted a production car, the Elite. This lightweight coupe joined the Corvette in introducing the car-buying public to fiberglass construction, but the Elite took it a step further by using the material for structural members in addition to the bodywork.

Five years later, the Elan came along and gave Lotus its first real success with the masses. First appearing for 1962, the Elan featured a fiberglass roadster body perched atop a unique forked-backbone chassis. The twin-cam engine and four-speed gearbox fit into the front fork, while the rear one contained the differential.

Where the earlier Elite had introduced the fiberglass monocoque, the Elan’s chassis was equally groundbreaking—and could be built at a lower price point. Lotus later used this chassis design for its Europa, Eclat and Esprit models. Also ahead of their time were the car’s four-wheel independent suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, which made for a chassis that was almost otherworldly in its capability. 

Then there was the powerplant, Lotus’s now justifiably famous Twin Cam. The first 22 cars produced featured 1498cc engines, but displacement was soon bumped up to 1558cc. Either way, buyers got a notably smooth and willing engine that consisted of Ford’s Kent four-cylinder block topped with Harry Mundy’s very trick twin-cam head. 

The Elan’s combination of ride, handling and performance turned the sports car world on its head. Road testers raved, and enthusiasts took note. 

The first couple of model years, now known as Series 1 machines and identifiable by their small, twinned round taillights, are considered to be the purest examples: They provide minimal weather protection and spartan cabins. They’re also the lightest Elans produced.

The later Series 2 cars (1964-’66) feature larger, single taillights at each corner of the rear. The Series 3 (1966-’68) and Series 4 (1968-’71) Elans sport metal window frames and additional creature comforts, including electric windows. 

The entire model range, which eventually expanded to include coupes with room for both two and four people, ended in 1973. Estimates of total cars produced vary, from about 9000 total to more than 12,000—small numbers for major automobile manufacturers, but an unprecedented success for Lotus.

The Story Doesn’t End There

Nearly 45 years after the last Elan rolled off the line, we found ourselves in possession of the sad remains of a once elegant piece of engineering. We knew we probably had a Series 1 car since we had a rear panel complete with that model’s proper taillights. Still, we couldn’t confirm that for sure because the panel wasn’t actually attached to the car (and, in fact, there was nothing to attach it to). 

Once we got the car home and thoroughly inspected, we discovered that it was, indeed, a late Series 1 Elan. The serial number indicates that it’s a 1965 model that was probably built in the fall of 1964, just before the Series 2 was introduced. 

This means that our car did come to us with the proper rear panel. It also means that it came with the correct, early Lotus “rope seal” Twin Cam engine and close-ratio Ford Cortina gearbox. 

Aside from the rather shocking crash damage, our car was surprisingly complete and original, though it had suffered the additional indignities of some ’70s shag-tastic carpet and an exceedingly ugly aftermarket radio.

Complete and original don’t mean clean, though. The interior was a moss-covered rotten mess, and while the switch gear and rare (and valuable) original wooden steering wheel were present, both had seen better days. The “seats” consisted of melted upholstery atop rusty frames. And the windshield was broken, as was one of the side windows. In short, most junkyard vehicles would be embarrassed to find themselves next to our new Lotus project. 

Being the eternal optimists we are, however, we took joy in a couple of our discoveries. The odometer showed about 40,000 miles, which we believe to be correct since the car made an abrupt exit from the road in 1978. The rest of the gauges were surprisingly intact, and we were delighted when our friends at Nisonger said that they could rebuild them. 

The frame offered a mix of surprise and horror. The crash had badly damaged the left-rear corner of the frame as well as that suspension upright. This damage extended to the left axle and guibo, which was torn in two. 

There was some good news to report. The differential looked okay, and the frame was only a little rusty. (In fact, we miraculously broke only three bolts when dismantling the car.) We think the bulk of the frame can be saved if we graft in new sections from parts cars—because we’re going to save as much of this Elan as we can. 

As for the body, well, the news was not so good. Both rear quarter panels were pretty much gone aft of the rear wheels; the deck lid was missing as well. Maybe the wildlife ate it. On the bright side, we had that taillight panel, complete with the original lamps. That entire assembly looked to be in quite good condition, too. Sometimes it’s the little things that can salvage an outlook. 

We saved the best news for last: The engine and transmission had been stored inside during the decades that followed the crash, meaning they were in good shape. The original sidedraft Weber carburetors were also present, which Steve Smith of Twin Cam Sports Cars told us was a big plus—although we would learn they were in horrible shape once we sent them off to the Weber gurus at Pierce Manifolds for restoration.

We Can Rebuild It; We Have the Technology

Although our cleaning and investigation revealed more bad news, we finished up this stage of the process feeling somewhat encouraged. At this point we had a disassembled car that had been thoroughly pressure-washed, and we had put together a shopping list of needed parts. 

We also had a plan. Once the drivetrain is restored and the body put back together, we will repair and restore the frame, then join it all together. After that we’ll have an interior to redo, a wiring system to recreate, and about a million other small jobs to tackle—and we’ll need to do it all to a level that is appropriate for Amelia Island.

Easy, right?

Step 1: Once we got the car home and on our lift, we were able to inspect it more carefully. Our assessment: Despite the crash damage at the rear and the effects of nearly four decades spent outside, our Elan was surprisingly intact and savable. 

Step 2: These cars are not impervious to rust: Underneath that fiberglass body, the bonded-in steel webbing had rusted and would need to be cut out and replaced.

Step 3: The rear upright was cracked, bent and damaged beyond repair; we would need to replace it. Thankfully our friends at Automotive Restorations had a rough Lotus parts car lying around that we were able to purchase cheaply and use to source some of this stuff.

Step 4: Sitting in a Michigan field for nearly 40 years can be tough on a car: We scooped out handfuls of organic matter mixed in with the remains of the Elan’s interior. We had to carefully sift through it all to make sure we didn’t throw away anything valuable.

Step 5: It’s probably time to add replacement seats to our parts list, since the original pieces had disintegrated to the point where they could barely be recognized as seats.

Steps 6 and 7: The wiring and gauges were surprisingly intact; the latter will go to Nisonger Instruments, which specializes in restoring these old British gauges. 

Step 8: After viewing all of the carnage, we were shocked to find the glove box still intact and complete with its original key and Lotus key fob. We were also lucky to source a perfect used dash cover. Some of the switch gear will be cheap and easy to replace, but not all of it; we might be able to restore some of what we have.

Step 9: The beauty of a fiberglass car: Despite spending decades unpainted and exposed to the elements, the floors were perfect and still in their pristine original raw fiberglass finish.

Step 10: The interior responded to a good cleaning by becoming remarkably carlike again, but the wood dash and steering wheel will both need to be replaced. Several companies make dashboards for Elans, but original steering wheels are rare and cost upward of $1000. We lucked out and found a replacement for next to nothing.

Step 11: Even a couple of the hubcaps were too far gone for restoration. Thankfully we had a couple of different Lotus Owners Group members offer us original hubcaps in great condition, so we now have a good complete set.

Step 12: The original engine and transmission will be shipped off to Twin Cam Sportscars, where shop owner Steve Smith specializes in these renowned Lotus engines.

Step 13: The rare and valuable original Weber carbs went to Pierce Manifolds, who told us that these were some of the most derelict carburetors they’d ever seen. Nevertheless, they assured us they could make them like new.

Step 14: Once we got everything cleaned up under the hood, it didn’t actually look that bad. We found evidence at the right front of a minor shunt, but we can easily build this fix into the rest of the fiberglass work.

Step 15: One of the reasons we were able to disassemble this Michigan field find with relative ease was that before we started, we soaked pretty much every nut and fastener with CRC Industries Ultra Screwloose.

Step 16: We expected all of the nuts and bolts to be rusted solid, but were shocked when nearly every fastener came apart easily.

Step 17: Back on the ground, the cleaned-up Elan started to look much less daunting. Three of the wheels now turned, although the left-rear corner needed to be supported by a car dolly. 

Steps 18 and 19: The first step in the actual restoration would be removing the body from the frame, but there was one small problem: The chassis was so bent that it couldn’t be parted from the body. We used a truck, a tree and some muscle to straighten things out enough to separate the components, and welded a mount onto the shock tower to safely grab it and pull it from the top.

Step 20: In addition to our primary Elan, we also disassembled a later frame that we got from Automotive Restoration Services.

Step 21: Once the chassis was free, our Kärcher heated pressure washer made short work of the 50-some years of grime that had accumulated on it. Although we found lots of damage, we were surprised to find little rust. 

Step 22: After dismantling our badly damaged Lotus Elan body and chassis, we were ready to begin the actual restoration work. To keep thing simpler, we would leave the chassis assembled until we were ready to tackle it. Keeping the major assemblies together not only saves storage space, it makes it easier to remember how it all goes back together. 

It Takes a Village

We’re not afraid of admitting when a project is beyond our knowledge base or expertise, and we quickly realized this one was going to take some help. So we reached out to the Lotus community, and were humbled by the response. 

Advice was readily forthcoming from members of the Lotus Owners Group, the main American club for these cars, while we got help finding much-needed parts from one of the best forums that we’ve found for the Elan, lotuselan.net. 

Our forums at classicmotorsports.com and grassrootsmotorsports.com have also been hugely valuable. When we put out the call that we needed a deck lid, a reader living just 20 minutes away from Traverse City came through with a replacement at a very reasonable price. Another reader in Chicago sold us a right-rear quarter for $300. Lotus parts purveyor Dave Bean donated the remains of a new-old-stock left-rear quarter.

In addition to Dave Bean Engineering, RD Enterprises is also partnering with us on this project. There’s pretty much no Lotus part or needed answer that cannot be found between these two sources, while we’re getting expert assistance with the drivetrain from Twin Cam Sportscars. We should be able to find remakes of pretty much the entire interior at Famous Franks Lotus Parts. And BlastMasters, the South Florida outfit that has helped strip several of our project cars, will gently remove the paint from the delicate fiberglass body. 

Thanks to these sources, we’re confident that we can rebuild this car with relative ease—“relative” being the operative word here.

Not for Love nor Money

Money can’t buy you love, but love can sure spend the cash. Just ask anyone who’s ever let sentiment lead them into spending more than a car is worth on its restoration. And while we’ll be the first to admit that a restoration like this one is probably not economically viable, we do have some pragmatic reasons for jumping down this particular rabbit hole.  

We took on this project to prove that it can be done; plus, there’s editorial value in it for us that a “normal” restorer wouldn’t find. The fact that we get to save another classic from a certain grave is just icing on the cake.

In rough math, a perfect Series 1 Lotus Elan is worth upward of $45,000 in today’s market. Between the initial purchase and the parts that we have scrounged so far, we already have about $10,000 in our project. We’re going to budget another $10,000 for the drivetrain rebuild, plus $10,000 more for paint and bodywork; these figures assume that we’re going to do much of the work ourselves. So we will end up with between $30,000 and $35,000 in this project. 

That’s very little return on at least a thousand hours of work, so there’s no question that the smart move would have been to just find a nice, clean car. But where’s the fun in that?

Join Free Join our community to easily find more project updates.
Comments
View comments on the CMS forums
Sponsored by

Classic Motorsports House Ad

Our Preferred Partners
ByBnRQ5wXvFoGkJU7GpmicNMRe0KGyGnVakdn3fTZiF1b4bfjpHvWLxHlcinDsq3