Turning Three Lotus Elan Frames Into One | Restoration Impossible Lotus Elan Project Car Part 4

Part 4 of the magazine series

The Lotus Elan might look like a traditional little British sports car, but under the skin it’s its own unique animal. Instead of using a unibody or even traditional body-on-frame construction, Lotus built the Elan using a fiberglass body paired with a steel frame that, when viewed from above, resembles an X. 

Like many of Lotus’s other street-bred machines, this model ties into the brand’s racing program: Their Formula 1 car used a similar X-shaped frame, although there the driver sat inside the X and not outside it. 

This frame design gave the Elan a remarkably light, strong and rigid backbone. It was also relatively straight-forward to repair, which in our case was a good thing: While nearly 40 years in a Michigan field left our frame surprisingly rust-free, the crash that took the car off the road badly bent the chassis. Yes, the world’s worst Elan needed major frame work on top of all its other warts. 

Fortunately we had something to work from: When the cars were new, Lotus sold both frame repair panels and printed, accurate drawings that showed the critical dimensions. Between those drawings and a pair of used frames, we figured that could make proper repairs on the cheap. As a bonus, at the same time we’d technically be preserving our original frame.

Step 1: Our frame wasn’t too rusty, but it was badly bent at the left-rear corner. In fact, the frame was so tweaked that we had difficulty removing the body from it. Welding on a loop allowed us to pull the frame enough to separate the two. 

Step 2: The Elan’s frame features a serial number on the right-side rail, near the engine mount. This number matches the body’s number. To keep our car as original as possible, we’d need to retain at least this part of the frame. 

Step 3: Another frame, a rusty one donated by a friend, would supply some of the parts needed to fix ours. Like many Elan frames, this one had rust in the usual areas, including the base of the front suspension towers. 

Steps 4 and 5: We started the repair process by measuring every critical dimension, including taking cross measurements, and comparing them against the ones shown in the shop manual. 

Step 6: A straight edge, like a metal yardstick, and a tape measure would tell the story. Every single critical measurement was taken and marked on the frame before any cutting commenced.

Steps 7 and 8: A second donor frame, one that was bent at the rear, would also supply parts for ours. We salvaged and reused its rust-free front crossmember and front uprights (8), duplicating the factory welds along the way. 

Step 9:  We couldn’t just grab the rear uprights to repair our smashed ones, unfortunately. One was tweaked, and we’re guessing that the cause was a failed Roto-flex coupling. Once those couplings break, the axle is free to thrash about.

Step 10: To repair this part of the frame, we cut off that bent support piece, fixed the hidden damage, and then welded in another support tube from the car’s original frame. Basically, we used the good parts of each frame. 

Step 11: After much heating, hammering and dollying, the rear of the frame was looking much better. While this type of work does take experience, it also requires the right selection of hammers and dollies–and lots of patience.

Step 12: It was time for an expert’s evaluation of our work, so we brought in Tom Prescott, owner of the The Body Werks, our local high-end paint and body shop. Having a second set of eyes inspect a major project is never a bad idea. Tom double-checked all of our crucial dimensions and helped us realign the right side of the repaired crossmember. After some hammering and welding, the frame was perfectly straight and in spec. 

Step 13: Tom caught another issue that we had missed: Notice how part of the frame curves away from our straight edge? We had to straighten that. 

Step 14: Measurements are nice, but we still had some anxiety resulting from the reality of our situation: The body had been snapped in half, and we used three different frames to make a good one. Would everything fit together as planned? Happily, the answer was yes. Rebuilding our frame took us a few days, but saved us the considerable expense of a new one. Plus, we have the pride of doing the job ourselves and saving as much of the original car as we could.

Step 15: Lotus Elans were originally sold with the frames covered only in red primer–no wonder they rusted so badly. We wanted to duplicate the original look while providing the poor car with more protection. Fortunately Eastwood has introduced a rust-encapsulating product that does not need a top coat, and red primer is one of the colors offered. 

Step 16: We found the Eastwood Rust Encapsulator easy to spray, and it covered well. When using spray finishes, always wear a mask and work in a well-ventilated area. 

Step 17: And now we have a completed Lotus Elan frame–it’s both repaired and wearing the correct color. Next we can restore the suspension and hang it on our rejuvenated frame.

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