Restoring The Subassemblies | Restoration Impossible Lotus Elan Project Car Part 8

Photography by Tim Suddard unless otherwise credited

A Lotus Elan is a tiny car–bigger than a breadbox, sure, but much smaller than a Miata. Blown into pieces, however, an Elan can fill an entire workshop. We’ve kept the sprawl in check by taking a methodical approach to our own restoration project. 

One of the keys to that approach is focusing on the subassemblies as separate projects. Last issue we covered the restoration of the wooden dashboard face. Now we’re ready to tackle the other parts and pieces that allow our Elan to motor down the road. 

How do we contain the chaos? We use two heavy-duty rolling shelving units to hold nearly all of our Elan’s parts. The first set of shelves houses items awaiting restoration; when it’s time to restore one, we remove it from the shelf, make it concours-correct, and then place the finished product on the second shelving unit. 

This system keeps us both organized and motivated: As the first set of shelves empties and the second fills up, we can watch our project move closer to completion.

Step 1: Even a small, simple car like a Lotus Elan takes up a lot of space once it’s broken down into its individual parts. We battle the forces of entropy by keeping all of the car’s parts and hardware on pair of, movable shelving units. The result: much easier reassembly with the added benefit of no lost parts.

Step 2: Time to turn our attention to those components. Old English chrome is surprisingly robust: We managed to resurrect much of ours with steel wool.

Step 3: Many of the larger pieces needed be sent out to be re-chromed, however, a process that takes months to complete. We photographed the entire job lot before it left to help ensure that we got back everything we sent. (And yes, those door handles will need to be disassembled before they can be replated.) Since we wanted a finish worthy of the Amelia Island Concours, we sent our pieces to Graves Plating. 

Step 4: What a difference a few weeks and some expert attention can make: As usual, Graves totally renewed our bent, rusted and mangled chrome parts. 

Step 5: Just about anything steel and crusty went through our Eastwood media-blast cabinet for cleanup. The wheels were a bit too large for that, though, so they went to Blast Masters for stripping. 

Step 6: After the media blasting, a couple of coats of Eastwood Chassis Black had things looking great. We painted the radio speaker grille, too, before realizing that it should have a wrinkle finish. We redid it using some black wrinkle-finish paint from a local auto parts store.

Step 7: After spending 40 years hosting rodents in a field, our heater was a bit worse for wear. So we needed to weld up a few holes before we could repaint it.

Step 8: See? Much prettier. The original fan motor even worked perfectly once we disassembled, cleaned and lubricated it. We’ll eventually reattach the handles that open the vents. 

Step 9: Before calling our heater restoration complete, we pressure-tested our heater core using compressed air and a bucket of water. Somehow, after all the decades of abuse, the core was still in good working order.

Step 10: We scored a used air filter housing, but it also needed some work. After its media blasting, we had to sand it and fill in some rust pits.

Step 11: And, like the heater assembly, the air cleaner housing now looks much better. 

Step 12: Our pedal assemblies were also showing the ravages of time. We media-blasted them, then checked everything for play. We found the pedals to still be serviceable.

Step 13: We painted the pedals, lubricated the pivot points, and installed new pedal pads from R.D. Enterprises.

Step 14: The switches for the vacuum-operated headlight units are unobtainable, so we had no choice but to make ours work again. After freeing everything up with CRC penetrating oil, we carefully eased the mechanism back and forth. Once we felt pretty good about their action, we tested the switches with a multimeter. After they passed that test, we could clean, paint and polish the switches.

Step 15: Fortunately, R.D.  Enterprises had a new knob for our light switch. 

Step 16: Our windshield wiper assembly was caked with stiff, 50-year-old grease. A good cleaning and greasing had the old Lucas motor working just fine again. 

Step 17: We restored every single light on the car. We were able to clean, polish and save most of our lamps. Some white toothpaste and, as needed, Meguiar’s new PlastX brought back the shine. Sandpaper was used on the deeper scratches: We started with 220 grit and worked our way to 2000 grit. Then we’d polish. To replace the ones that couldn’t be saved or had gone missing, we dug into our stash of used and NOS Lucas lamps; whenever we saw one at a swap meet, we grabbed it. 

Step 18: Forty years of sitting out in the weather left nothing of our original seats but a pile of rusted metal and rotted fabric. Thankfully the crew at Twin Cam Sportscars supplied us with a decent starting point: a pair of seats removed from an Elan that was being built into a race car. We sandblasted the frames before coating them with Eastwood Chassis Black paint.

Step 19: Famous Frank’s makes a very accurate seat upholstery kit for the Lotus Elan and Europa. We installed the kit using a combination of original and new foam. 

Step 20: Our steering column would also need to be cleaned, re-bushed, painted and reassembled. Thankfully the Elan uses a Triumph Spitfire column, so parts are readily available.

Photography Credit: Sarto Rocheleau

Step 21: Our original steering wheel was junk, but a reader hooked us up with a replacement. Then we heard from another reader, Sarto Rocheleau, who said he restores steering wheels like ours as a hobby. Once we saw his work, we quickly sent him our wheel. The restored piece is beautiful. 

Steps 22 and 23: Like everything else on the car, our gauges looked like junk. As usual, we sent them off to Nisonger Instruments, which specializes in restoring and recalibrating British automotive gauges; the experienced techs there did a superb job for us. With completed gauges in hand, we’re getting close: Our car’s final assembly is coming up in the next installment.


12 Tips  for Better Project Car Management

Restoring a car is more than just the grunt work. You need to have a game plan, too. While there are many mental aspects to classic car restoration that are no doubt best left to highly trained psychiatric professionals, here are some quick tips regarding the organization, timing and motivation required to properly tackle the job. 

1. Determine the Scope:

One of the first decisions you need to make is whether you want a rolling restoration or a full, ground-up redo. There are pluses and minuses to each plan. 

A rolling restoration is less daunting and easier to manage. It will also usually require less money, or at least spreads expenditures over a longer time period. On the downside, don’t be surprised when you can’t access everything as you’d like. Also, a rolling restoration can be very frustrating because it’s often tough to mark a stopping point. 

Personally, we have gotten to the point where we like to strip a car and then fully rebuild it. Even at our frantic, deadline-driven pace, a full restoration takes about a year–and that’s mostly weekends and evenings, with the paint and final blocking farmed out. 

2. Have Enough Space:

A disassembled car seems to take up three times as much space as an assembled one. 

3. Disassemble Only as Necessary:

Sure, you have to take a car apart to restore it, especially if you’re doing a full ground-up job. However, you don’t need to take it all apart at once. We leave subassemblies together until it’s time to tackle them, meaning things like the dashboard, drivetrain and suspension corners remain intact until we are ready. 

The reasons for this approach are manifold. First, it is easier to stay motivated when you’re focused on completing only one thing at a time. Second, it is easier to remember how things go back together if they have only been apart for a short while rather than years. Perhaps the biggest reason, though, is that this approach seems to make the entire restoration less daunting, since there are fewer small pieces to face. 

4. Order Parts in Advance, but Don’t Go Overboard:

Inventory control is a science, both in business and in project car management. If you order parts too early, you risk losing them or becoming unable to return them should you need to–but if you wait too long to order parts, the restoration can grind to a halt and you can find yourself spending more than you had to, since over time prices tend to go up and not down. 

5. Take Pictures:

Now that every cellphone is a camera, you really have no excuse not to take a lot of photos–like, a lot. And don’t lose them, either. Once you’ve documented everything, then you can start to disassemble, bag and label pieces and parts. 

6. Slow Down to Go Fast:

Taking apart the car is the easiest–yet one of the most critical–stages of a project. Yes, it’s hard not to get excited–after completing some 50 restorations, we still forget and jump ahead–but it is critically important not to disassemble components before you’ve properly documented things. Do as we say, not as we do. 

7. Take Notes:

We’ll make a preliminary shopping list while disassembling the car. At this stage we can usually figure out about 90 percent of the parts we’ll need to complete the restoration. This gives us a head start on our hunting and gathering. 

8. Save Money on Parts by Not Rushing:

If you have a plan and a schedule, you’ll have time to query club members, cruise the swap meets, wait for sales, find the best deals, and combine items for efficient shipping.

9. Be a Loyal Customer:

Managing a restoration parts source is hard enough without customers running to someone else to save 50 cents. Pick one or two shops and become a loyal customer. You’ll find those shops to be friendlier when you need advice or a favor, and their knowledge is usually worth far more than what you’d save by bouncing around the cheapest sellers. 

10. Remember, Shipping Matters:

Ordering parts individually can get very expensive thanks to the shipping costs. That’s why we try to compile bulk orders, especially in the early stages of a project. As the job is winding down, we try to keep those final miscellaneous needs to just a single order per week. At all stages we keep the timeline in mind to minimize expensive overnight shipping charges.

11. Understand That Costs Are Surprisingly Similar:

A Jaguar XKE may be worth 10 to 20 times more than a Triumph Spitfire, but the restoration costs aren’t proportionally higher. Regardless of make and model, restoring an engine, suspension or even interior is usually relatively inexpensive, simple and straightforward. Rust repair and paintwork are often the most expensive and time-consuming parts of a restoration. 

We are not suggesting that you not restore the Spitfire, but if you’re looking to have some equity in your finished project, be aware of your restoration expenses and do the math to determine how they relate to the car’s final value. And speaking of money, while coming up with $25,000 to $50,000 to fully restore a car sounds daunting, breaking that total figure into a monthly budget can help ease the pain. 

12. Be Realistic About How Long It’s Going to Take:

Don’t even start the project until you can commit a year or two of 10-hour work weeks to it.

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