Sorting, Perfecting and Showing Off Our Rehabilitated Classic | Restoration Impossible Lotus Elan Project Car Part 10

Photography by Tim and Tom Suddard

We did it. It was one of the most daunting projects we’ve ever tackled, but we managed to beat the odds as well as the clock. 

The task? We dragged a broken, battered 1964 Lotus Elan from a Michigan field and turned it into a rolling piece of art worthy of the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance show field. 

Finishing this one in time, we admit, took some real heroics–and that was after we made it an even bigger priority in our schedule. That just goes to show how long a restoration can take, regardless of how many successful ones you have under your belt. 

 

Time Was Not on Our Side

We found the Elan, rodent-ridden and threadbare after some 40 years of exposure to the elements, in the summer of 2015. Where others saw a heap of despair and a hopeless case, we saw potential. Determined, we labeled the project “Restoration Impossible.” Could we really turn nothing into something? 

We started reviving the car in January 2016. The body went to Blast Masters for blasting, while Twin Cam Sportscars handled the engine rebuild. Yes, that weather-mangled body actually came with its numbers-matching engine. 

A year later, once we’d wrapped up some other project cars, we finally dove into the Elan in earnest. The car was expected to roll into Amelia a little more than a year later. We budgeted three days a week for shop time, but looking back, perhaps we should have made it four. 

Fortunately, though, not everything was stacked against us. The Elan is a rather simple car. Plus the support from both clubs and suppliers is amazing. Sure, there were times when this mountain seemed too tall to scale, but compartmentalizing jobs and taking them one step at a time kept us climbing toward the next summit. 

 

The Amelia Experience

This wasn’t our first entry into the Amelia Island Concours. We’d shown two cars before the Lotus Elan, one of which even earned an award. 

Despite our gallant efforts and the Elan’s incredible transformation, we didn’t bring home any hardware this time around. Once our little roadster was flanked on the show field by an original Shelby Cobra289 and an Aston Martin DB5, we knew we’d brought a knife to a gunfight. 

And neither of those cars won, either. Top honors went to a stunning 1967 Shelby Mustang. 

Just being invited to Amelia, though, was a win in its own right. And adding such an achievement to a car’s provenance never hurts. 

 

Looking Back

Was it all worth it? The late nights, the overnighted packages, the aches and bruises? Absolutely. 

Our efforts produced one of the prettiest and most desirable Lotus sports cars ever built. We devoted thousands of hours of labor to the project, but when it comes to dollars, we invested only half of what we figure our car is currently worth. 

Of course, much of our Elan’s value is intangible: We love this car and treasure the relationships it helped us forge in the Lotus community. There’s also the sense of satisfaction that comes with accomplishing what others believed couldn’t be done. No, they said, this car can’t be saved. We proved otherwise, And at the same time, we built a keeper for the Classic Motorsports fleet.

Step 1: Our Elan’s big debut was set for the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance. We carried the car to Amelia on our ramp truck and unloaded it at a reader’s house near the venue.

Step 2: Final touches: Tim McNair of Grand Prix Concours Preparation detailed the car. His goals? To increase contrast while removing, or at least minimizing, any imperfections.

Step 3: We spent the days before the concours leading our Orange Blossom Tour. The Elan sat for the week, snug in its Covercraft cover.

Step 4: The evening before the concours, we rolled the Elan into place on the Amelia Island show field.

Step 5: Then we sized up the rest of our class, Sportscars 1965-1975. First came an original Cobra 289, which parked next to us. Then an Aston Martin DB5 flanked our Elan on the other side. The Amelia Island Concours offers no awards for most improved car in class, so we went home empty-handed. 

Step 6: Regardless of finishing position, every participant got a nice memento: the placard describing their car and its history. It also serves as proof that the car was invited to one of the world’s finest concours events.

Step 7: Throughout the day we answered questions about the Elan. Yes, we assured many people, this is the same car we found in that Michigan field.

 

Behind the Wheel

Driving a Lotus Elan is a surreal experience. Despite the tiny proportions and tight pedal placement (wear your narrow driving shoes), the car is actually comfortable for larger drivers. Six-footers can stretch out, and those in need of a little extra width will find it. Even with the top in place, there’s room in the cockpit for a wide range of gestures. Plus, it’s easier to climb in and out of an Elan than some other British sports cars. 

Nothing on the car is overbuilt. The tactile experience is one of dainty lightness, from the slivers of chrome that serve as door handles to the steering wheel and teeny-tiny shifter. Ham-fisted operators will soon become acquainted with their own strength. 

Then there’s the iconic Lotus Twin Cam engine. Whether hot or cold, it quickly rumbles to life, while the big Weber side-drafts provide plenty of fuel. The oil pressure gauge awakens immediately, and the tach needle wastes little time settling down to about 900 rpm. The stock exhaust is so quiet that the engine is barely audible–well, until you run it through the gears with some zest.

The shift lever slides so easily between gears that it makes a Miata’s seem coarse. Once underway, the Elan truly feels like the sub-1500-pound car that it is: The steering is very light and direct. For such a small car, though, the ride quality is rather good. Even speed bumps are damped surprisingly well by the clever suspension design.

The Elan isn’t overworked at highway speeds. The stock final drive is a 3.90:1 unit, but we subbed in a more comfortable 3.70:1–a decent compromise. The close-ratio gearbox perfectly complements the engine’s 6500 rpm redline. At 60 mph, the engine turns less than 4000 rpm. Even at higher speeds the ride remains surprisingly supple and relatively serene, while the car tracks true–no darting around.

The Elan really shines in the twisties. Thanks to its suspension, stock aside from some Koni dampers, the car cuts through corners with minimal lean and lots of authority. Only our old Mini Cooper S sliced through turns so well. Braking is sure and swift thanks to the four-wheel discs. 

You can now add us to the list of believers: An early Elan is one of the world’s great driver’s cars.

 

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Comments
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Tom_T
Tom_T New Reader
5/3/21 1:42 p.m.

Tim -

What you were quite obviously missing, was an Emma Peel lookalike in a hot 1960's body suit to be with the car!  Heck, you even got the blue that hers was on the Avengers! 

Nice Resto!

Tom T

Orange CA

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noddaz
noddaz UberDork
5/3/21 2:52 p.m.

Home run!  That is such a pretty little car.  You and your team have out done yourselves!

997Ronald
997Ronald
5/5/21 8:43 p.m.

Tim,

 

Congrats on your perseverance on this Lotus Elan project!  My wife owned an Elan fixed head coupe when we were dating, so this brings back lots of memories.  We still have the original Lotus "Owners Handbook" for the series 1 Elan and if I can find it, would you like to have it for your cars' glovebox?

 

Ron H

Newman Lake WA

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