Can We Rescue This Lost Cause Lotus Elan? | Restoration Impossible 1964 Lotus Elan Project Car Part 1

Part 1 of the magazine series

Restoration is a strange game. While some people learn their lesson after slogging through their first restoration–if they even get that far–others become serial restorers. Like addicts, they seek out ever bigger and more complex projects to satisfy their cravings.

Sadly, it appears we’re in the latter group.

We could argue that we do this all for you, that we throw caution and common sense to the wind in the interest of our readers’ entertainment. Or we could insist that starting with a basket case saves us a lot of money. Or that performing these restorations ourselves ensures that each step is done to the highest standard. 

Our personal favorite justification: If we don’t save these great cars, who will? 

Do you buy any of this? Neither do we.

Search and Rescue

A while back, one of our readers told us about a pair of Lotus cars languishing in a field just south of Traverse City, Michigan. Typically we wouldn’t venture from one end of the country to the other to look over such basket cases (okay, truthfully, sometimes we do), but by sheer luck we were just days away from visiting friends in Traverse City.

Was this luck good or bad? We decided to accept either possibility and agreed to check out the cars once we arrived in town. 

The front of our Elan looked bad, but the rear looked even worse: The car had been involved in an accident in 1978 that tore off its entire back end.

What we found was a total mess. We waded through waist-high ferns to reach the first car, a late Mark 1 Lotus Cortina so rusty it could barely be moved. Other than its original engine, however, nothing seemed to be missing. 

In front of it was parked a late Series 1 Lotus Elan. A creampuff it was not. The car had been sitting in this very Michigan field presumably since 1978. That’s when the owner, by his own admission, crashed the car. He walked away unscathed, a testament more to the role that luck plays in our lives than to the structural integrity of a Lotus Elan. 

This car was mangled. First, a truck had knocked off the entire tail of the bodywork, twisting the frame in the process. Then there was the damage inflicted by 40 years of Michigan elements and the state’s bountiful animal life. 

The interior fulfilled the rear end’s promise. The convertible top had buckled years ago, letting the elements ruin just about every aspect of the cabin. Moss had grown over some very ratty shag carpeting from the ’70s, while the seats were totally demolished and in need of replacement. At least what survived was totally original, including the rare early Elan steering wheel.

There was a bright spot, though: The engine and transmission–both original and correct to this forlorn Elan–had been removed and stored inside a garage.

When it comes to car shopping, we always recommend buying the best, cleanest example you can afford. Considering these were likely the two worst Lotuses on the planet, we of course immediately turned and walked away.

As we made our escape, the monkey on our back began to whisper in our ear. “What a shame to give up on an automobile as rare and iconic as an early Lotus Elan,” it said. “You can fix it. You can save it.” 

We stopped in our tracks, suddenly overcome with a familiar craving, and turned to the seller. “What would it take to buy these two cars today, cash money, and have them out of the yard by tomorrow night?” we heard ourselves ask.

No, wait. Rewind. This was not happening.

But happen it did: 10 minutes later we were $2500 poorer and two derelict Lotuses richer. Both cars had clean titles–if very little else. We figured that we’d quickly part ways with the Cortina and concentrate on saving the Elan. 

We bought the cars as a package deal. Sadly the very original Lotus Cortina was so rusty that it started to break apart when we moved it. Instead of bringing it home, we sold the Cortina to help fund the Elan restoration.

Challenge Accepted

Purchasing these two cars went against every bit of rationality in our brain, so why the about-face? What made that monkey so convincing? 

Well, a Series 1 or 2 Lotus Elan had always been on our wishlist, and we never could bring ourselves to fork over $25,000 to $35,000 for a decent driver. Besides, a car like that deserves better than to disintegrate in a field, right?

Okay, fine, we’ll come clean with the true reason: We couldn’t resist the dare to restore something deemed unrestorable.

There was one bit of good news to come out of this mess: The original engine was stored inside a garage, and it looked complete and in good condition. We’ll have a better idea once the Lotus specialists at Twin Cam Sportscars go through it.

Think of how boring life would be if the envelope weren’t constantly being stretched. We don’t want to live in a world where Chuck Yeager only flew coach, Reggie Jackson always took the bunt, and Evel Knievel never let his wheels leave the ground. 

It won’t be easy. It probably won’t be economically viable. But we’re going to restore this car, and we’re going to enjoy every minute of it. Fortunately, we’ll have some allies in the form of the marque’s amazing club and network of vendors.

That doesn't mean we haven't met our share of skepticism: We were going to order a new frame from Spydercars, install a fresh body, and simply swap VIN plates, right? Or merely turn this basket case into some kind of gutted race car/hotrod project?

No, those options would be too easy–and also too smart. We are going to restore this car, using as many of its original parts as possible, to concours condition.

And by concours condition, we mean nice enough to enter–and hopefully win–one of the most prestigious concours in the land. Yes, our Lotus Elan has already been accepted into the 2018 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. Just a little over a year from now, we’ll be rolling it out onto the showfield. 

So, dear reader, follow along as we take you for what will hopefully be the ride of your life. Yes, we’re going to tackle this one together. We’ll get our hands dirty; you get to watch. 

Uprooting a Lotus

We had our Elan, or most of one. We had a plan–again, most of one. Next, we had to deal with the fact that the car was planted in a patch of ferns some 1300 miles away from our workshop. 

Although we had our trusty Honda Ridgeline with us, we didn’t have a trailer. Since the Elan didn’t even roll, never mind run and drive, shipping it wasn’t an option. We called U-Haul and were quoted nearly $1000 for a one-way rental of a car hauler. 

However, U-Haul did have some good news: Presumably because they needed to get utility trailers south, they were offering one-way rentals of them for less than $100. These 10-foot utility trailers were not to be used to haul automobiles, but we argued that our load was technically a jumble of automobile parts. That, the loan agreement stated, was okay. (Just to be sure, we loaded everything when no one was looking.)

Of course, there was still one problem. A stock Lotus Elan is about 12 feet long. Ours, having lost its rear end, was closer to 11 feet. Elementary-school mathematics told us that our car was still too long for the 10-foot utility trailer.

To get the car home, we rented a 10-foot U-Haul utility trailer. Hagerty interns helped us load the Elan, a job made difficult by wheels that wouldn’t turn and a badly bent frame. The car didn’t quite fit that trailer, but some careful engineering solved that problem. We had no trouble towing the wrecked Elan at highway speeds.

So we called in some high-school geometry: What if we raised the car’s front end a bit? We headed to Lowe’s and purchased two 12-foot boards to lift the nose above the front lip of the trailer.

Our geometry wasn’t very good, though, and no matter how hard we tried, we could not get the tailgate to close–that is, until we took the air out of the front tires. That allowed the car to roll forward another inch and then–clunk!–the tailgate finally shut. We set off for home with our pile of prized but questionable possessions in tow. 

One Quick Stop Along the Way

Even before we arrived home, our Elan became a show winner. We made a stop in Plymouth, Michigan, to visit the Concours d’LeMons, an event that celebrates odd, ugly, underappreciated classics. 

On a whim, we entered the Elan in the Rueful Britannia class to vie for worst English car. We even left it in its trailer. Result? First in class. Yeah, we’re not sure how that happened, either. 

As a joke we entered the Elan in the Concours d’LeMons at the St. Johns Concours. We took first place. (Okay, technically we were the only car in our class.)

The rest of our journey home was uneventful–besides the weird looks from fellow motorists. Were they just confused or did they actually feel sorry for us? We’re not sure, but next issue we’ll dive into our pile and tear it apart to determine how much sympathy we really deserve.

Home at last. We used our lift to extricate the Elan from the trailer.

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View comments on the CMS forums
noddaz UltraDork
3/15/21 3:07 p.m.

Tetanus shots for everyone!


aircooled MegaDork
3/15/21 4:44 p.m.

Where exactly do you find a Lotus ass?

Brian_13 New Reader
3/15/21 5:25 p.m.

In reply to aircooled :

You can follow the whole project (which started in 2015) by following the link at the top ( The 2017 Jan 25 updates mention the rear panels and subsequent updates show their repair.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
3/18/21 8:12 a.m.

In reply to aircooled :

We found it in two pieces from readers around the country.

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