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Lotus Elan - A Restoration Guide

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The story of restoring an Elan +2 and Elan Sprint to concours edition. Advice on how to purchase a suitable car for restoration plus detailed practical information on preparing bodywork, trim, chassis, suspension, wheels, hydraulics, engine, electrics & wiring etc.
24 Chapters, plus appendices, give information on chassis changing, body restoration, including Elan +2 sills, rebuilding the Lotus/Ford Twin Cam engine, electrics including fitting a new loom, insight to tuning and running in, Elan developments, a remarkable Elan +2 Estate, rebirth of an accident damaged Sprint.

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24 Chapters

Format Buy Remix

Chapter 1 - Why An Elan


“Lots Of Trouble Usually Serious” – Myth or Legend. The Lotus virgin, an often-quoted term in Lotus Club circles, refers to people who have taken the plunge into the unknown, “Well it’s only a car isn’t it?” The mystique of the marque has all the hallmarks of prestige, uniqueness, charisma and most of all ELAN. The French definition of Elan is panache, speed, effervescence, style, liveliness, etc.

Most Lotus owners will give you a different reason for buying the particular model they drive. The legacy of Formula 1, the performance per pound (sterling), the road-holding potential and ride. You name it, the reason will be there. It is in fact all of these things and more.

Many buyers of old Lotus, whatever the model, will have come from motoring backgrounds where the very basics of automotive reliability are expected in the most decrepit of old bangers, given a little bit of on-going maintenance here and there. Not so with the Lotus. What you have to understand is that the Lotus, when bought new, was a rich man’s toy. When passed on to second and third owners, after the guarantee had expired, the unfortunate owner then found he was on his own. In the mid-seventies, the cars began to suffer from neglect. Parts were expensive, if you could find them. Dealers were rare and scattered to the four winds. Unreliability became the password and the mud stuck. In the hands of unwary unfortunates who attempted to run these vehicles on a limited resource and experience, disaster was the only outcome.


Chapter 2 - The Car - It’s Lineage


Back street special to Supercar status

A legend in its own lifetime – enigma or hype. The Lotus Elan was a natural progression of what was a course of classic lateral thinking. Up until the mid-1950s, the accepted path to automobile performance was big is beautiful. In the austerity years just after the war, enthusiasts were making their mark in racing and trials with derivations of small family saloons. These set the stage to prove that good things come in small packages. The most famous exponent of the genre was, of course, Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman. His quick succession of mark/type developments indicated that the man thought on his feet. His successes in motor racing proved this point for so long by his being one jump ahead of the competition most of the time. Occasionally he made a blunder but then he who never made a mistake never did anything.

Lotus 9 Sports race car. Lotus Enthusiasts Car Show. Newark 2000

The stories surrounding the formative years at Lotus are many, and legendary, I do not intend to go into great depth here as there are many histories available. The birth of the Elan came out more of frustration than anything else. Chapman’s fledgling company had achieved acclaim and success within a very short space of time. His attempts to bring the company into mainstream car production had nearly bankrupted him. The Climax Elite was way ahead of its time and would have been a headache for a large company to produce, never mind a small, under-funded concern like Lotus. Then again, the large companies would never have considered it in the first place.


Chapter 3 - Basic Description


Dispelling the myths

So what have we got here? A car that is as nimble as a Mini, would stay with an E-Type up to 100mph, could out corner virtually anything on the road, would out-perform all other cars in its class and return 30mpg under most conditions, even more if you could keep it off the carburettor main jets for cruising. It all sounds too good to be true, in fact it was and there was a down side. Because of the Elan’s legendary performance, some early owners thought they were capable of much harder use; long stints at maximum revs and some owners removed the rev limiters out of the distributor in an attempt to enhance the performance in the gears. This had disastrous consequences, shortening engine life if not terminating it.

In order to achieve a marked increase in performance, the engines, and in fact the whole car, required much further development. Enter the Type 26R, an Elan developed by Lotus specifically for racing, and even further by other concerns. These specialist cars showed up the basic weaknesses in the road going Elan, which vindicated the comments made by Chapman at the time that the Elan was never intended to be a racing car.


Chapter 4 - Where to Start


Read Lotus Books

We are not talking rocket science, you do not need a degree in astro-physics or engineering to restore an Elan. Basic common sense, adequate resources, a lot of patience and technical know-how is all that is required.

Common sense – you either have it or you don’t, only you can answer that one.

Adequate resources – we will cover this one later.

Patience is not everyone’s forte but can be learnt quickly when you realise the consequences of the lack of it.

Technical know-how – this can be taught but only learned if the person being taught is receptive. The best way to learn is to read about your subject whilst you are doing it. You can see the point being made and quickly realise that without this information at hand the blunders that could be made being costly in time, money and your patience.

A selection of books are available to give insights into Elan restorations, some better than others. The most essential of course is the official Lotus Workshop Manual. Do not attempt to touch an Elan without reading this from cover to cover. Then read it again as you are doing the job in hand.


Chapter 5 - The Initial Purchase


What to Look For

You will probably have an idea already on which Elan you prefer. If you want to carry children as well as adults then the Elan +2 will be your target. The same applies if you have a limited budget but want the Elan experience. Remember though that the saving will only be on the initial purchase. Most other costs will remain the same. Early +2s are usually cheaper than +2 S130s and 5-speed models.

Two-seater, or baby Elans as they are often now called, command a higher price because of their popularity and scarcity. Some have been written off, some have been exported overseas, mainly to Japan and the ones that remain are treasured possessions that people are loath to part with, even if the car is a wreck. So finding a restoration example is not going to be easy. There are cars out there for sale but the trick is finding one suitable for restoration at the right price.

The final choice may not be yours at all but finding something close that meets other criteria better. S1 and S2 Elans are rare and command high prices. S3s and S4 Elans are more prolific, the SE versions again commanding a premium. Further up market is the Elan Sprint and finally, drop-head versions of all models command higher values.


Chapter 6 - Bite the Bullet - Reflect - Get Stuck In


Assess the Situation

Now you have the time to look at what you have bought in the cold light of day. Take your time. The old adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” never rang so true. You have done your homework. You know what has to be done. Do not, I repeat, do not start pulling the car apart straight away. Think long and hard about it and in what order it should be done.

The Importance of Photography

Obtain plenty of film for your camera. Then get snapping. Take pictures of the car from every angle, inside and out. Remove the bonnet, take every conceivable angle, where you can get a good view in good light, of every component that will be removed. Use flash if you have to.

Many people will make the mistake of removing parts from a car, convinced that they will remember where it came from. Wrong! This tip is the best advice I can give to anyone. It will be obvious also from this statement that photographs taken at every stage of the restoration will be useful, the build stage in particular. These photographs will be worth more than any stack of bills that you collect throughout the whole project. If at any time you have to sell the car, they will be worth their weight in gold.


Chapter 7 - The Strip Down


Safety Precautions

Fire in a garage is one of your greatest perils. All the ingredients for a massive conflagration are present, such as petrol, cleaning fluids, lubricants, paint, thinners, welding equipment, battery chargers and so on. If you smoke, stay outside. A Lotus of any description makes for a good bonfire, toasted shredded wheat springs to mind. Once alight they will burn with great fury. The essence of this little tale is have a good fire extinguisher, fully charged and ready at all times. Make sure you know how to use it before you need it.

Static objects never killed anyone, unless you run into them. Heavy objects will do serious damage to you if they fall on you. Many a DIY car mechanic has been maimed if not killed by a car falling on them. Never work under a car unless it is well chocked up on axle stands or better still, on off cuts of railway sleepers. Working under a car held up only by a jack of any description is stupid. Take it from me, it is not worth the risk.

Remove the battery from the car and store fully charged away from frost. Drain the fuel tank, storing the petrol in suitably marked cans, which can be used for cleaning later.


Chapter 8 - Body Restoration


DIY Body Work

There are no short cuts, no magic words or whatever. It takes a professional 200 man-hours on average to prepare a fibreglass body fit to receive a topcoat. It takes 20 minutes to apply the paint. If you are determined to do this yourself and you have the kit and the knowledge, then go to it. Seriously though, there is a lot of satisfaction to be gained in preparing and spraying the car yourself, if you have the wherewith-all to do it.

My Sprint in early restoration days. The new chassis awaits

If you have separate premises for preparation, a dust-free, temperature and moisture controlled heated spray booth and professional spraying equipment complete with compressor, you could produce a concours paint job. For the rest of us though, plan your bodywork for the warmer, dryer part of the year. Work in a well-ventilated area and keep dust to a minimum when you are applying paint. Be sure to follow the paint manufacturers COSHH details that will outline the safety hazards and what measures to have in place to alleviate those hazards. This is most important as some paint products contain very hazardous materials. Reading books on working on GRP bodies is strongly recommended as there are a lot of pitfalls for the uninitiated to fall into. You only want to do the job once.


Chapter 9 - The Rolling Chassis



The body will be away for some time so take this opportunity to make good use of the space available. This will be the dirtiest part of the whole job, so on with the overalls and get weaving. This is the part of the restoration that can be therapeutic but also exasperating. Parts that have been screwed together for a long time sometimes do not wish to become undone. You have probably come across this already taking the body off. Clean off as much of the accumulated filth as possible. Just an observation, but have you ever stopped to wonder why the maintenance books you have read always show pictures of the strip down of perfectly clean assemblies. Of course they are stage-managed, but in some cases the cars they pull apart are fairly new anyway. You do not have this luxury.

My Elan +2’s early rolling chassis. This is an early Lotus replacement ungalvanised example

Plusgas penetrating fluid is as good as anything. Liberally soak every nut and bolt with it and leave for at least 24 hours. Now find something else to do.


Chapter 10 - Preparation for the Rebuild


Make a List

By this time you will have a good idea of what parts you wish to replace with new, and the parts that are worth renovating. Make a list and shop around to ensure that the parts are available, at what cost and whether they are on back order at the factory. Some parts may be discontinued and you may be left with making the best out of what you have got, or search the small ads in Lotus club magazines. Some parts can be obtained at autojumbles, especially at Lotus events around the country. A word of warning, there is a lot of rubbish about so be selective. Know exactly what you want and how much you are prepared to pay. Some parts though will command a high price if rare and in good condition.

Reverse all Strip Down InstructionThe Great Manual Get Out Clause

All workshop manuals seem to rely on this method of rebuild instruction. It saves on print and paper, but is no help to you when no way will an assembly go back together the way it came apart. In some cases things have a habit of falling apart when you least expect it and the manual description is meaningless. Remember the photographs you took a while back? Dig them out and see if any you took have some bearing on the problem in hand. If you took adequate notes and made sketches at the time these might be of some help. This is the time when you wish you had made sketches, took more photographs, but hindsight is a great leveller. When you do start to strip anything, think. Will you be able to rebuild it in two years time when you have forgotten every thing you did at the time?


Chapter 11 - The Rolling Chassis Rebuild


Start Up-Side Down

The easiest way to start a chassis rebuild is the wrong way up. This enables you to attach brake-pipes in comfort. Raise the chassis on stands, blocks, Workmates, etc, to a comfortable height. This will take the strain off your back and make things much easier to see. The chassis at this stage only weighs about 75 pounds, light enough for two people to move around with ease.

Corrosion Protection, Do it Now

All of the running gear and suspension arms will require re-bushing. Even if not evidently broken or badly deformed, rubber does age and loses its elastic properties. This will show up in a spongy ride and inferior handling.

After removing all rubber bushes from the suspension arms, remove all old paint, grease, oil and rust. Plenty of elbow grease or the use of a good grit blaster is recommended. Paint all non-mating surfaces with a good paint system of your choice. Some people will recommend two pack paints, others powder coatings. Certain two pack paint systems can be more durable and abrasion resistant but others prefer the impact resistance of the powder coatings. There is not a lot to choose between the two.


Chapter 12 - Fitting the Body


This is relatively straight forward as it is practically a reversal of the dismounting procedure. Much more care should be exercised, as you would not want any damage to occur to it at this stage. This is done in two stages, one to mark out the fixing holes in the chassis, and the final fitting when the holes have been drilled and tapped.

Body of the Sprint just mounted on the completed rolling chassis

Glue down the felt to the chassis backbone, not forgetting to cut the holes for the front propshaft access and the seat belt anchors. Then with your army of helpers, lift the body sufficiently to clear the engine and rear uprights, and lower down gently onto the chassis. The body will attempt to find its own location guided by the rear chassis tubes and the interference of the felt. With your band of lifters taking the weight of the body, make sure that the body is as far forward as it will go to ensure that the body bobbins in front of the parcel shelf are in contact with the chassis. If you fail to do this, the body will be stressed in these areas and could cause localised cracking.


Chapter 13 - Electrics



Replace the baby Elan heater intake plenum chamber if it has been removed. Ensure that the drain hose at the bottom is intact and mates up with the hole in the body and is adequately sealed with silicone sealant. Pour water into the plenum to test this feature or the carpets will never be dry. Before fitting the plenum chamber, fit any soundproofing that you may have removed against the engine bulkhead.

The heater unit on the baby Elan is a simple affair that is easily stripped down. Clean it out and pressure test to make sure there are no water leaks. Test the fan motor for quiet operation on both speeds. Rectifying faults like these at this stage are much easier than finding them in a fully assembled car. The same applies to the +2 heater but this is a little more complex. Connect the heater pipes to the heater unit ensuring the pipe runs do not interfere with other dashboard fitted items, such as the radio on the baby Elan. The +2 heater pipe connections are made on the engine side of the bulkhead and are just as inaccessible when the carburettors are in place.


Chapter 14 - Finishing the Body



The +2 door window motors and mechanisms are a vast improvement on the baby Elan’s flimsy wires and bobbins. They are almost un-burstable and should give very little trouble in service. A good cleaning and greasing of the mechanism runner at the bottom of the window is usually all that is required.

Follow the workshop manual to the letter if you are going to dismantle the doors and winder mechanisms. This, of course, goes for the baby Elan, but you will probably have to anyway.

The lower section of the baby Elan’s window frames can badly corrode whereby the wire guide pulleys will seize up, wearing prematurely. The whole lower frame could collapse rendering the motor useless. These frames can be replaced at a high cost. An alternative is to have the lower steel section replaced with a new piece and then the whole frame re-chromed.

Decrepit window frame. The bottom section is steel, the rest is brass. The lower section was replaced and then the whole lot rechromed

Window winder capstan wheel prior to renovation


Chapter 15 - The Boot


Petrol tank

The +2 petrol tank is neatly positioned behind the rear seats, between the rear suspension turrets. As such it is saved from most of the corrosion problems of the baby Elan’s position in the bottom of the boot.

Remove the tank and inspect for any leakage. Small holes can be repaired if the tank is adequately steam cleaned internally to remove all traces of petrol vapour. If the tank is badly corroded, get a replacement. Remove all traces of rust and paint. When the paint is dry and hard, rust proof the under side with rust proofing wax.

Because of its higher position the +2 tank feed pipe is half way down the tank. To enable it to be filled to the top it has a complex breather system comprising of two plastic pipes being fed from the top corners of the tank. These breather pipes run upwards over the roof lining, crossing each other in the process, down the other side, alongside the rear vent, and then through the rear inner sill to emerge under the car.

The Sprint petrol tank removed from the boot, finished in new black paint


Chapter 16 - Sill Members +2


In order to accommodate the longer body length of the +2, and give some additional sideways protection, steel structural members are bolted to the inner sill between the inner and the outer sills. The lower outer sill seam is bolted through the sill member to the inner sill, which provides for vastly improved stiffness. The centre reinforcing plates also act as anchor points for the seat belts. At each end of the sill members are tubes welded into the structure to serve as jacking points.

My +2 sill members after I had replaced them. Note the abundance of Wax oil.

If a +2 has not had the original sill members replaced they are probably lying in heaps at the bottom of the sills. Having taken the sill rear closure plate off to gain access to the boot release cable, have a good look at the sill member. If it is still covered in paint and rust proofing wax, and more so is all there, then you are lucky. Someone has already done it. If it is just a mass of rusty bits resembling nothing at all, covered in road filth, then you will need new ones. Complete kits are available from various sources that include reinforcing plates, sill closure plates and all fixings.


Chapter 17 - Under the Bonnet



In most cases old vehicles hydraulic systems will be suspect, with seals and cylinder bores all in need of replacement. If they all look as if they have not been renewed lately, then replace with new, including a new servo unit if one was fitted originally.

Original Girling Power Stop servo units are getting difficult to find as they are only available part exchange. They do turn up at brake specialists from time to time, if they get old ones back. So remember to return yours, another enthusiast may be dependent on you. Lockheed units can be made to fit but in slightly revised positions.

Fit all new hydraulic hoses in the engine compartment, and all new flexible hoses, preferably stainless steel braided, on the brakes and clutch slave cylinders. Fill the systems with Dot 4 brake fluid and bleed to remove all entrapped air.


Weber, Dellorto or Stromberg, there is not a lot to choose between the three. Weber DCO40s are the traditional fitment, with Dellorto filling gaps in when Weber could not supply for whatever reason. Strombergs were Lotus’ attempt at meeting emissions regulations and, without the re-circulation idler mixture system installed for the North American market, could be made to work just as efficiently as the 4-branch systems.


Chapter 18 - Preparation for the Big Day


Setting up

Fill the petrol tank and then raise the car to sit on railway sleepers on its wheels. Work the suspension to level out the ride height. Weight the car as recommended in the workshop manual or ask some nimble people of similar weight to sit in the car. With the torque wrench set at the correct readings, tighten up all the suspension nuts and bolts that were left loose previously. Return the car to the ground and check the ride height with the heights quoted in the workshop manual.

Before you do anything else, check all around the car for the obvious things you may have missed. Double check that all hoses are tight and that there are no petrol leaks. Connect up the battery and remove the spark plugs from the engine. Turn the engine by hand with a spanner on the engine pulley bolt, ensuring that all is free. Remove the spanner. spark plugs from the engine. Turn the engine by hand with a spanner on the engine pulley bolt, ensuring that all is free. Remove the spanner.

Under the bonnet. All finished and ready to fire up


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