Radical, gorgeous, advanced, race winning, and all but forgotten today, the 1956-63 Lotus Elite seemed to have everything going for it. But its delicacy and limited production numbers have consigned the pretty little coupes to a forgotten corner of automotive history. The Elite’s timeless design gave it few peers in the automotive beauty pageant.
Colin Chapman founded Lotus to sell used cars, but that soon became boring, so he began modifying cars to race them. Soon he was building his own racecars based on an "add lightness" approach that quickly made Lotus a fierce competitor. Even with tiny engines, Chapman’s cars routinely triumphed over larger, more powerful competitors due to their flyweight construction and brilliantly engineered chassis.
The radically engineered, stunningly gorgeous Lotus Elite coupe was developed as Chapman’s first road car. It was the world's first production car to utilize all plastic construction--even its chassis was glass fiber. This led to teething problems as the car saw real world service. Later, race cars would adopt a variation of this construction. It appears increasingly likely that someday, production cars will be too. Plastic can allow for safer, lighter, more efficient automobiles. Though a typical economy car weighs in at around 2,500 lbs., the flyweight Elite came in at less than half that at under 1,100 pounds.
The Elite’s drag coefficient rating of .29 is an excellent aerodynamic number today and all but unheard of at the time. Its mighty all-aluminum four cylinder Coventry Climax engine turned out 75 horsepower, far less than most economy cars today.
The Elite looks delicate, but it became a fierce competitor in endurance races, winning its class at the grueling Le Mans 24 hour race no less than six times. Still, road-going examples have proven fragile over time..
If you notice a little Mazda Miata design DNA in the Elite, there's a reason; the similar-looking Lotus Elan successor to the Elite inspired the Miata’s design.
Chapman built just 1,030 Elites. Today, Lotus still produces sports car beloved by purists worldwide. The company’s Elise served as the basis of Tesla’s sports roadster. Surviving Elites are highly prized as collectibles and vintage racers and its graceful, sensuous lines remain as beautiful and timeless as ever.