Lotus Elite Type 75

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Lotus Elite / Lotus Type 75

1974 - 1982
United Kingdom
4 cyl.
71-105 bhp
5 spd. man
Top Speed:
125 mph
Number Built:
3 star
Lotus Elite / Lotus Type 75
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3


Launched in 1974, the Elite Type 75 was Lotus' very first saloon car, which featured a fibreglass hatchback bodyshell designed by Oliver Winterbottom, mounted on a steel chassis that had evolved from the Elan and Europa. The Elite was powered by a new Lotus engine - the 907 alloy-block unit displacing 1973cc, with twin overhead camshafts and 16 valves giving 160bhp and delivering power to the rear wheels via a five-speed gearbox derived from an Austin Maxi unit.

When unveiled to the Press at Hethel the initial reaction was mixed. Underpowerd and overpriced pretty much sums up a lot of what was written at the time, but over the ensuing years the Elite would set about changing the minds of even the cars biggest opponents. Jensen played a big part, but we will talk about that later.

The three different models, the 501, 502 and 503, could each be ordered with varying levels of equipment and trim, quite a deviation from the normal Lotus boy-racer formula. For example, the 503's option pack included air-conditioning, power steering, a heated rear window and Philips stereo cassette/radio. The car looked great from every angle, and many motoring journalists believed a four seater Lotus warranted closer inspection. Those that tested a car fitted with the optional 4.1:1 final gear ratio (which cost an extra £46 in the UK), were in for a pleasant suprise.

Widely regarded as a huge improvement over the standard 3.7:1 ratio, the optional ratio gave 20.8 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in fifth gear as against 22.9 m.p.h. per 1,000 for the standard ratio. High-speed cruising with the lower ratio remained quiet and restful, while acceleration through and in the gears was much improved, as the torque of the 2-litre engine simply couldn't cope with the higher ratio.

That led many to question why Lotus didn't make the lower ratio a standard fitment, the answer was that Lotus engineers were working on the extraction of more low-down torque from the engine so that the higher, and more economical ratio could be utilised efficiently. On the road the four-seater Lotus proved not only pleasant to drive and to be driven in, but quite unexpectedly endearing, combining qualities of comfort, relative quietness, tractability, restfulness and, above all, quite exceptional standards of handling and roadholding, so much so that it quite literally created a new class, that of "practical sports car".

A New Injection Moulding Process

The Elite's glass-reinforced plastic body had a magnificent finish, an injection moulding process was evolved for the production of the body, which was made in top and bottom halves, the two being joined along the waist-line masked by protective rubbing strips. The wedge-shaped looks represented the 1970's interpretation of sleek, modern styling, and in our minds still looks great today. Not suprisingly the Elite had one of the lowest drag coefficients (0.3) of any production car. Yet it was almost 4 ft. high and only half an inch short of 6 ft. wide. The secret was in the tiny frontal area: the nose was as low as legally permitted in the UK and included retractable headlights which operated much more efficiently than Lotus headlights of old, being raised by springs and lowered by vacuum instead of the other way round. Finally you could actually flash the headlights, as raising them took just one second.

Beneath the bumper was a deep spoiler designed for anti-lift and to channel cool air over the front suspension and brakes. Air from the AE-Covrad adhesively bonded aluminium radiator was ducted away through slots in the bonnet top. The vast tinted windscreen was of "Glaverbel Very High Resistance" laminated glass, stronger than conventional laminate and, like the Triumph TR7 windscreen, bonded into place by the Solbit hot wire system to make the screen an integral part of the body structure. The fixed side windows were similarly treated.

Gradually growing shallower from the front, the side-window line swooped up into a ridge at the rear extending over the roof to aid aerodynamics. The side centre pillars hid air extraction vents and Lotus's "Ring of Steel", a complete roll-over hoop which, along with the impact-resistant GRP bodywork and strong, steel side intrusion members in the doors went a long way to proving Lotus's claim that the Elite was an exceptionally safe car as being very true.

The thick end of the wedge incorporated an opening tailgate of glass in an aluminium surround, hinged at the top and supported by pneumatic struts which would self-raise the gate when the knob was pulled within the offside rear passenger's armrest area, though possibly because the struts were affected by the cold temperature, that of the test car did not always raise itself. When the gate is opened it reveals a peculiar boot arrangement, with another rear winndow and bulkhead cut off the fully-carpeted boot from the cockpit. The boot was long from side to side but narrow, the sloping rear window, its delicate heating elements and the threat to mirror vision discourage the piling up of luggage. The Lucas battery lived beneath the offside of the boot and the wheel brace doubled up to wind down the under-slung spare-wheel cradle.

The Elite followed previous Lotus practice of having its body mounted upon a steel backbone chassis which carried the entire powertrain and all-independent suspension. The rear- suspension had tubular lower links and diagonal radius arms, the upper links were formed by the Hooke-jointed driveshafts, while there were coil spring/damper units and aluminium hub carriers. Inboard rear drum brakes were 9 in. x 2¼ size. The front suspension was the usual Lotus design, utilising upper wishbones with single lower links, an anti-roll bar and coil spring/damper units. Outboard front disc brakes were 4 in. diameter and rack and pinion steering was fitted.

Jensen Get The Engine Sorted

Lotus were fortunate (or very clever) in having Jensen to sort out the early teething problems in the Lotus 907 engine. Bigger Dellorto carburetters (38 mm. chokes) gave the Elite's version of the 907 engine a power advantage over that in the Jensen-Healey, Lotus now claiming 155 b.h.p. for their Elite's 95.28 mm. bore x 69.24 mm. stroke, 16-valve, belt-driven twin-overhead camshaft, 45-degree inclined, all-alloy engine. A cable-operated, 81- in. diameter diaphragm clutch took the drive from the Hethel-made engine to Lotus's own five-speed gearbox, which had a direct fourth gear and an overdrive fifth ratio.

Access to the front seats was quite easy, though the wide doors, which closed with a very satisfactory heavy "thud" not expected from a fibreglass car, were operated by flush-fitting, Morris Marina-type handles. Rather more agility was required to climb into the rear seats, and it proved pretty easy to clock your head on the (fortunately well-padded) roll-over bar if you were not careful. Once ensconced in them the rear seats were extremely cosy, being very deeply bucket shaped, with thick armrests and open glove lockers at each side and the comfortably upholstered backbone chassis, incorporating a fixed picnic table and ash-tray, in the centre.

There were built-in headrests too, though to the driver these were more a hindrance than a means of comfort, as they seriously obstructed mirror vision to each rear quarter, a situation partly rectified by the paired door mirrors. Pity then that, as passengers were likely to occupy the rear seats for only a small part of the car's life, Lotus did not make these detachable. Headroom in the rear was adequate for anybody up to about 5 ft. 8 in., but much taller and you would be forced to stoop slightly. There was more leg room than appeared, because the sitting angle kept the lower limbs upright. Certainly Lotus were justified in calling the Elite a true four-seater.

The Elite On The Road

Like all previous Lotuses, the Elite became an extension of the driver. The front seats were soft, well-padded and upholstered in brushed nylon (as were the rear seats), and these proved to be extremely comfortable. Fast cornering in the Elite created some pretty incredible "g" forces, which overcome the efforts of the front seats to stop driver and passenger rolling about and sliding down into the footwells. The central backbone chassis prevented occupants rolling too far and acted as an arm rest. On this was mounted the handbrake, although many complained that it was mounted too far back and required a degree of dexterity to operate.

The speedometer, tachometer, oil pressure gauge, voltmeter, fuel gauge, temperature gauge and two vertical rows of warning lights (including a seat belt warning, invisible from the passenger seat) were deeply recessed in a black plastic panel, virtually eliminating any night-time reflection. Triumph-type steering column stalks controled the single arm wiper (which clears a huge arc of screen very effectively and, since a new rack had been employed, no longer obscured the driver's vision when it was parked), the two, twin jet screen washers, headlight dipping and flashing, horn and direction indicators. Other switches and the clock were grouped in the recessed walnut central fascia console, which was illuminated by a single tiny spotlamp in the roll-bar, aircraft style: rocker switches for electric windows, heated rear screen, rear screen washer-wiper, hazard warning and knobs for the lights (pulling out this switch lifted the headlights, overridden by the headlight flasher), panel light, cigar lighter and three-speed heater fan.

An Interior By Giugiario of Ital Design Beautifully Executed

The air-conditioning/heater were both controlled by the same two quadrant levers and there were two air vents in this console and one at each end of the fascia. The Philips sound system combined radio/cassette stereo player/mono recorder; standard equipment in the 502 and 503, also shared the centre connsole, while its microphone hung to the left of the real leather-rimmed steering wheel. There was a roomy walnut-faced, lockable cubby hole to the left of the fascia, arm-rests were built into the deeply padded doors and on the whole the Elite's interior, designed by Giugiario of Ital Design, was beautifully executed.

Just like the previous bearer of the model name in its day, the Lotus Elite was one of the finest handling production cars in the world, arguably better than a Porsche and almost on a par with the Ferrari Dino. To many it remaind a tragedy that Lotus did not give it more power to exploit those magnificent virtues. Screamed up through the beautifullly spaced five gears, the 22-cwt. Grand Tourer would accelerate to 60 m.p.h. in under 8 seconds (just reached in second gear) and to 100 m.p.h. in less than 25 seconds. Commendable acceleration but misrepresenting the Elite's characteristics in the gears, as the 2-litre engine simply did not have sufficient torque to give the effortless perrformance you would expect from an expensive "Grand Tourer".

Ironically the 16-valve engine showed tremendous tractability in built-up areas, being able to trickle along quite happily at 25 to 30 mp.h. in fifth gear. The engined proved to be a particularly smooth and quiet engine compared with the earlier iterations, although it would become slightly harsh near to the 7,000 r.p.m. red line. At least Lotus made the need for frequent gear-changing to be a pleasure rather than a punishment. Apart from a rubbery reverse gear engagement many believed the Lotus five-speed gearchange to then be the best thing since sliced bread, and well on top of any other offering, even from Japanese carmakers. The Lotus box had no real spring bias, though the leather-knobbed lever was self-centering in the 3rd-4th plane and needed just a gentle hand to send it skittling through the 1st to 4th H-pattern, with a little more conscious effort to push it into, and pull it out of, the 5th gear dog's leg to the right.

Except when maximum revs were being used, the four-cylinder engine remained extraordinarily unobtrusive, even approaching its 125 m.p.h. maximum speed and the whole car had a most unexpected air of refinement engendered by its comfort and surroundings and a general low noise level. There was minimum tyre and suspension noise, and on the open road the Elite was almost relaxing, aided by impeccable stability. But the real virtue of the Elite was its handling and road-holding. The power steering was superbly weighted, with assistance only being noticeable when a great deal of lock was applied at low speeds. The feel was excellent, however there was minimal amount of castor return - the wheel having to be straightened consciously. At 3.5 turns lock to lock it was too low geared: the manual steering being geared to 3.1 turns.

Weight distribution was excellent, and under conditions of docile driving it was almost neutral, but at speed in fast corners there was marked understeer - the attractive GKN alloy wheels with 7 inch rims shod with fat 205/60 VR 14 in. radial Dunlop Super Sport tyres, specially designed for this car clung to the bitumen like glue. If you were in danger of running out of road, lifting the throttle momentarily eased round the tail. In spite of its size, the Elite could be thrown around with the verve of a Europa, although if an unexpected sharp bend appeared it could be thrown into an oversteer condition and controlled with opposite lock and throttle, though the return to the straight ahead could be ragged, largely because of the steering's poor self-centering.

For a truly sporting car the ride was excellent, following Chapman's practice of soft springing allied to well-controlled damping. Stopping power of the brakes was tremendous, though the pedal feel could be spongey. There was no fade, but hard driving was rewarded with some roughness from the front discs. Lotus sold the car originally on the premise of exceptional economy. Once you got the hang of it the Elite could be tremendous fun - and a very easy drive. These virtues along with the comfort and refinement overcame many who were initially disappointed with the lack of power. But then there was the price tag, which suggested there was a little more under the bonnet than there actually was. Truth is, the Elite deserved at least a small V6 - although we are in no position to hypothesise on how that would have tarnished the exceptional dynamics.

It is no surprise then that the Elite struggled to sell, particularly when you consider that for not too much more you could be driving a Porsche 911. A 911 may not have had the practicality of seating for four full adults, but was a far safer bet for the driving enthusiast.

Lotus Elite Type 75
Lotus Elite Type 75
Lotus Elite Type 75

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Also see:

Lotus Elite M50 Type 75 (USA Edition)
Lotus Elite Type 14
Lotus Heritage
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