The tale of the Loti: Tantalized by an Elan and Eclat
A few weeks ago, I wrote about trying to find another project car before winter that’s “space worthy”—e.g., something that’s worth buying even though I, at this point, have negative garage space. Near the end, I wrote “What would be space-worthy? Well, that’s another story, but maybe … a Lotus Elan +2 coupe. Maybe the right looking C3 Corvette. An Opel GT. A Studebaker Avanti. If I’m feeling particularly masochistic, a Triumph GT6. I’ll know it when I see it.”
Well, funny story.
As you probably know, I love my 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special. It’s weird, buzzy, slot car-like, and addictive in a way that no other car I’ve ever owned is. I’d love to broaden my Lotus experience, so “Lotus” is very high on the list of search words I reflexively type into Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace several times a day. These days, though, much of the action has passed from the former to the latter, turning Craigslist into a shell of its former self. Although I continue to search there, I don’t really expect to find much.
So I was stunned when I saw the following two ads on Boston Craigslist:
Ad #1: “1973 Lotus Elan +2. This is an ancient photo; car is currently up in the air with engine and transmission out. Head NOT Weber, head NOT “big valve.” Has modifications including non-standard carburetors. I cannot properly store this car any longer due to deindustrialization and real estate development, would like to pass it to someone who enjoys working on their cars. $10,000 or best offer.”
Ad #2: “1976 Lotus Eclat V-8 conversion. Florida car, garaged, no rust except needs fuel tank. Engine runs. Cracked windshield. Needs brake and electrical work. V-8 conversion hastily done and needs improvement. I cannot properly [etc] … $4000 or best offer.”
If you don’t know these two cars, here’s a quick taxonomy. The Elan is the much-beloved little two-seat front-engine roadster sold from 1963–73. It’s the car that the Mazda Miata was largely patterned on, right down to the little smile.
The Elan +2, sold 1967–74, however, isn’t the same as the Elan roadster. In the Lotus lineup, it was positioned as a hardtop version of the Elan with a back seat, but unlike most other stretched 2+2s, the body and the interior of the Elan +2 are completely different than the Elan. The pop-up headlights and near-smiling radiator opening are certainly Elan-like, but the droop of the nose is different. In addition to being longer, it’s also wider. And from the side or rear, the two cars have very little resemblance, with the +2’s steeply-raked rear windshield and sculpted hindquarters looking almost nothing like the tiny Elan’s back end. Back in the day, the Elan +2 was marketed as a sports car for a man with a family. It may not have been quite as knee-weakening as, say, an E-type 2+2, but it’s generally regarded as lithe and svelte. I think they’re unique and beautiful, especially in two-tone paint. Hey, we love what we love.
Both Elans and my Europa share two things—a chassis design utilizing a fiberglass body on a steel backbone, and an engine. The Elans and the Europa Twin Cam like mine have the legendary Lotus-Ford Twin-Cam engine, which is a 1558-cc Ford block with a Lotus 8-valve twin-cam head on it. The block is often incorrectly referred to as a Pinto block. The root of the confusion is that it’s a Kent 1500 block bored to 1558 cc, but the engine displacement is commonly rounded up and referred to as 1600 cc. And Ford also made an actual 1600 cc “tall” Kent block with a different deck height that was used in the Kent 1600 Crossflow engine (the regulation engine used in Formula Ford racing). And, yes, in the I-4 1600 engine that went into the 1971–73 Pinto. The head, though, is unique to the engine. Unlike most cylinder heads, the intake manifolds on the Lotus Twin-Cam head are an integral cast-in part of the head, and there are different heads with different cast-in manifolds for the Weber carburetors that the European market got, versus for the U.S. Federal-spec engine with the Stromberg carbs (hence the comments in the seller’s ad for the Elan +2). So, you can’t just slap Webers on it as you can with many other European cars. The most desirable configuration is the so-called “Sprint spec” engine with the Weber version of the “Big Valve” head and the Sprint-specification cams and pistons, good for about 130 horsepower.
The Eclat—the fastback version of its Gremlin-like hatchback sister, the Type 75 Elite—is part of a whole new generation of Lotuses. Exterior-design-era-wise, The Eclat and Elite are “wedge cars” of the 1970s. Although they share the fiberglass-body-on-steel-backbone construction with the Elan/Europa, the interior and dashboard have none of the classic charm of the 1960s-birthed Loti (sounds better than Lotuses). For power, the Eclat / Elite were fitted with the Lotus 907 16-valve twin-cam engine that was also in the Lotus Espirit and the Jensen Healey roadster. Unlike the Lotus-Ford Twin-Cam, the 907 is not a legendary engine; it appears to be mostly known for low midrange torque and timing belt issues.
Much of what I do as a not-a-collector is predicated on “crimes of opportunity”—checking out cars that are close enough that I can easily drive there and see them with my own eyes and, if I like them, buy them and drag back without having to pay steep shipping charges. With both an Elan +2 and an Eclat just 30 minutes away from me in Andover, Massachusetts, how could I not contact the seller and go have a look? At a minimum, I’d get a story out of it. I shot an email to the seller’s Craigslist address, and a day later found myself on the phone with him. Interesting guy, interesting story. Turns out the seller, like me, is a former software engineer. We compared notes on our now-obsolete sets of skills. Coincidentally, his name is also Rob.
I learned that the Lotuses hadn’t been on the road for decades. They were stored together in a rented one-car garage at a house near where Rob lived. He described a Byzantine arrangement of engine hoists which held the Elan up over the Eclat. I couldn’t quite visualize it, but it sounded ingenious. Unfortunately, the house had been sold and was slated for condo conversion, so the clock was ticking on the rented garage space, but a precise deadline hadn’t been given.
I asked about looking at the cars. Rob said that the Eclat had been pulled out of the garage. He’d gotten it running, but it was not yet drivable. He explained that the V-8 engine in the Eclat was a Rover 3500 installed by a previous owner. This is the all-aluminum small V-8 that began life as the Buick 215. General Motors sold the tooling to Rover in 1964. In addition to being put in Rovers, the engine found its way into a variety of factory British cars including the MGC and the Morgan Plus 8, but it was also home-retrofitted into many other Brit bits. So, although it wasn’t the Eclat’s original or correct engine, it had some pedigree and appeal. At least it wasn’t a small block Chevy.
Unfortunately, the Elan +2—the car that most piqued my interest—sounded very problematic. Rob said that although the car was originally a Sprint-spec Elan +2 S130, it had lost its original engine decades ago due to stringent Massachusetts tailpipe emissions testing. I understood the context, as I recalled moving back to Boston from Austin with a BMW 2002 into which I’d transplanted a 292-degree Schrick cam and had to pull the cam out in order to get the car to pass emissions testing, a situation you wouldn’t face now due to a rolling 15-year tailpipe testing window. Worse than that, though, the drivetrain was out of the car, the engine was in pieces, the Sprint-spec cams were gone, and there was a sad story involving a botched crankshaft regrind. Having bought my Europa with a seized Twin-Cam engine, I know better than most that there’s no easy way out of this. Lotus made only about 30,000 “Twinks,” as the engines are called, you virtually never find good used running ones, and rebuilds with provenance easily top eight grand.
Still, two local vintage Loti? How can you not go and check it out? So, on a Saturday in early December, I drove up to Andover. I met Rob in the driveway where the rented garage was. He appeared to be about 10 years older than me, maybe in his early 70s, but other than that, a kindred Hack Mechanic spirit, scrappy and practical. The Eclat was sitting in front of the garage.
Although I went up there having no real interest in the Eclat, sometimes when you see a car in the flesh, you’re surprised by an unanticipated attraction. As I wrote about in my piece The Rules of Attraction, we tend to fall in love with cars if we love the exterior, the interior, and the driving experience. That is, you look at the car, and it clicks. Then you sit in it, and start to think, “Yeah, I like this, this is cool, I can see myself owning this.” Then you drive it and realize that you’ve already decided to buy it, or at least make an offer.
None of that, however, was the case with the Eclat. While it’s certainly prettier than the bizarre Elite hatchback, it lacks the integrated appeal of the wedge-shaped Espirit that succeeded it. Plus, interior-wise, the Eclat’s dashboard struck me as the same joyless march of plastic rectangles that afflicted nearly every American car beginning around 1968. If I owned a giant warehouse, I might have been intrigued, but with winter approaching and one fewer space than cars, it wasn’t even close to being “space worthy.”
Still, I was there, I had time, so Rob and I fired up the Eclat with me in the cockpit and him spraying starting fluid into the carb. I found that the brake pedal went easily to the floor but hardened up a bit when I pumped it up, and I offered him some advice about bleeding the air out of the brakes.
Then, the prize. Rob opened the door to the garage and revealed the Elan +2. It was hovering about five feet in the air via an absolutely ingenious Rube Goldberg-like arrangement of four engine hoists, one at each wheel, braced for stability. I’d like to describe exactly how this was done, but Rob has asked me not to, saying that he studied mechanical engineering and knew how to brace it so he felt it was safe, but would never advise anyone else to do it. Suffice it to say that it was brilliant. I just stared at it. Finally, dusting off my bachelor’s in physics, I said, “So, it’s a statics problem, right?”
He thought about that, then joked, “Unless it becomes unstable, in which case it becomes a dynamics problem very quickly!”
(Tune in next week to see whether I was foolhardy enough to pull the trigger on either of these needy Loti.)
Rob Siegel’s new book, The Best of the Hack MechanicTM: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem, is available on Amazon. His other seven books are available here, or you can order personally-inscribed copies through his website, www.robsiegel.com.