The cars we loved.
In 1974 after a 10 year absence Lotus released an all new and updated Elite, called not surprisingly the Elite II. Although there was one 2.0 engine used in the Elite, it was available with 160 or 142hp. The new Elite was notable for a few reasons. First, it was the first four passenger car ever from Lotus. Second, it was the first car from Lotus to use the innovative aluminum block 4-valve DOHC four-cylinder 2.0 engine. That’s right you read that right, DOHC in 1974! Dual overhead cam engines were not new. European race cars from Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Peugeot used them as early as 1912! Manufactures were slow to implement them into mainstream production cars for reasons related to cost and mechanical complexity.
A 1970’s 4 cylinder engine putting out 160 hp was not at all typical. It would be more than 30 years before sporty cars typically could match that power output from normally aspirated “4 bangers”. Europe had already made the switch to small 4 cylinder and the occasional 6 cylinder engines in the 50’s, while America continued with the no “replacement for displacement” V8 era well into the 70’s.
The Elite was all but forgotton by the time the Esprit came out. One of the reasons the James Bond character chose the Esprit was that it embodied the high technology that was the best of what England had to offer. Actually it all started with the Elite. The technical innovations in the Elite would later become the basis for the Esprit, but what made the Elite special was its light weight (just over 2000,lb.) and odd design. It’s not likely that Bond would have been taken as seriously if he opened a hatch and removed say a bag of groceries. The Elite was as practical as it was sporty and equaled the early Esprit in many respects.
The two-door hatch design was similar to AMC’s Grimlin compact, but with sportier proportions. By the time of the Elite’s release other manufactures caught on to the merits of the odd shape and began producing their own hatchback coupes. Besides being aerodynamic, the Elite chassis was well-balanced with a typical front engine, rear wheel drive layout. Combined with the 5-speed manual gearbox, the Elite had near supercar performance in it’s day and even by today’s standards would be an admirable performer. The interior was well appointed and seemed to have more in common with American luxury cars than an English exotic.
The Elite carried on until 1982, by which time its engine had grown from 2 to 2.2 liters and could be had with a 4 speed automatic transmission. It’s general appearance was quite the same with the exception of minor tail light trim changes resulting in less chrome. Less than 3,000 were produced and far fewer than that are still on the road. As a collector item, its looks were too far out there to appeal to anyone other than the diehard Lotus aficionado. Had James Bond chose the Elite over the Esprit (whose development overlapped) the reputation and awareness of Elites might have been quite different today. James Bond being the aesthetics connoisseur, might have waited for the better looking Eclat or Excel, all based on the Elite. A new Elite has been promised by Lotus for production in 2014. The new car will be a V8 with an electric hybrid powertrain. In an unusual twist, the engine will be sourced from Lexus and is said to have 600hp.