A visitor to classic Lotus events over the past few may have been intrigued to see an unusual Lotus Elite, slightly different from those around it. The eagle eyed may have recognised the colour scheme as one of Lotus’ long list of Formula One sponsors. But this wasn’t a home brewed homage by a enthusiastic owner, this car once bathed in the glamorous aura of the F1 circus and rubbed shoulders with the great and the good, including it’s creator Colin Chapman.
Since emerging from the shadows a decade ago the amount of interest at shows and in the classic motoring press are testiment not only to the newfound appreciation for the model, but also renewed interest in Lotus’ brief, but dramatic, flirtation with the Essex brand which produced some of the most eye catching road and competition cars ever seen. We’ll let the Elite’s owner, Leigh Greenham, take up the story of it’s discovery and restoration…
“As a young engineer in the very early 1980s driving a somewhat rusty Lancia HPE, I remember approaching a roundabout in High Wycombe and drawing alongside a very smart, dark blue, brand new Lotus Elite containing four adults. I was impressed by the space that they seemed to have inside such a stunning, British car, and I wondered whether I would ever be able to own such a car. The list price of a well-equipped Elite was over £20,000 in 1982! So in the mid 1990s I started to research the availability of Lotus Elites. I was struck immediately by the low price of those on the market and by the almost universal sucking-in-of-air-through-the-teeth-noise made by all those who I talked to about running an Elite. However, I persevered, and learned that most of the bad reputation that the cars seem to have belonged to the 2 litre cars built between 1974 and 1980, and that most of the weaknesses were ironed out in the 2.2 litre cars produced between 1980 and 1982.
The decision was made, we would look for a cherished Elite S2.2 and try and give it a good home. The search would prove to take longer than we had expected and we went to see more than a dozen over an eighteen month period. Then, at the Club Lotus Festival at Donington in 1997, we saw a small notice advertising a collection of 12 Lotus cars in Holland, the list containing a dark blue Elite S2.2 with a special link to Colin Chapman. The reason for the notice was that Eugene van Herpen, the former chairman of Club Lotus Holland had a recently diagnosed heart condition and had to sell his collection, so I arranged to visit the car in May 1997 for a look-see. Eugene had told me that the car had been his for ten years, was in average condition, but was in a barn in the far north-east of Holland as he hadn’t used it for the last two years and didn’t have enough room in his basement garage in Amsterdam, which had space for only ten of his cars.
Eugene drove us up north in his baby Elan, and we found the dust-sheeted Elite next to an engineless Lotus Sunbeam in a huge barn. The dustsheet had not done its job, so first impressions of the bodywork were not very favourable, with the spiders-web gel-coat cracks being emphasised by trapped dust, and a large crack in the windscreen. The full leather trim was intact but dry, cracked and had faded from its original red to a patchy orange. A mobile phone had been fitted and removed, leaving some holes in the centre console and an aerial on the roof. We had taken a fresh battery with us, so were able to check that the majority of the electrics worked, and after sorting out the oil and turning the engine by hand, we tried unsuccessfully to start it. Eugene called out the Dutch equivalent of the AA and their two mechanics spent an enjoyable period proving that the Lumenition was duff. Eugene had wanted £5000 for the car, but we agreed that if he fixed the Lumenition and got the car to Amsterdam, I would pay him £4250 and drive it back to England.
This price was still above the market rate, but I had decided that the car had every thing that I had been looking for. It was the right colour, had full leather, power steering, air conditioning and had supposedly a very interesting history. The Owners Handbook certainly had Colin Chapman’s name on the first page, and Eugene had a 1987 reply from Andrew Ferguson at Team Lotus proving that the car had been owned by the team in 1980/81. It was taken to all of the European Grand Prix circuits for Colin’s personal use during the Formula 1 weekends. This was the Essex Petroleum sponsoring period for Lotus, but although there were always Essex Esprit Turbos around, Colin preferred to use a four-seater. Consequently, this very early Type 83 Elite had been painted Essex Blue, had the same red Connolly leather as the Turbo Esprit and had a thin Essex stripe of red and chrome along its sills (not anything like as brash as the stickers on the Essex Turbo Esprit!).
Within a few weeks of my trip to Holland, a new Lumenition had been sourced, Eugene and a friend had made the car roadworthy and driven it to Amsterdam. On July 12th 1997, he picked me up from Schiphol airport in the Elite and we went to his home (called ‘Colin’s Hill’!) to inspect the car and do the deal. Did I have a smile on my face as I drove back down to the Hook of Holland ferry or what? It ran pretty well all the way home, a bit lumpy below 2000 rpm, but the oil pressure, brakes, charging voltage and engine temperature were all fine.
Before driving the car any further I wanted to get the Elite looked at by a professional, so Peter Day agreed to undertake a mechanical inspection and repair. In the two months that he had the car he replaced most of the rubber parts (mountings, bushes, and belts), new exhaust valves, windscreen, clutch, brakes and he also replaced the headlining which had started to rot. After this work, the car drove as tightly as new with no slop at all and, with a fresh MOT, the DVLA allowed me to re-register the car with its original mark LCL 852V. I was then able to enjoy the car for a year before I decided that it needed its next bout of improvement, with the fibreglass and paintwork being the target.
Robin Alabaster has an excellent reputation for his fibreglass skills, and he was finally able to start work on the Elite right at the end of 1998, hoping to complete the work in time for the following summer. I partially dismantled the car before taking it to Robin’s workshop in Aldermaston, where he always has many jobs on the go at any one time. Ensuring that we had the original paint colour took a bit of research, as the L44 paint code on the car’s data-plate and original paperwork did not seem to exist. Several other numbers existed for Essex Blue over the years, but I was keen to use the original shade. Fortunately, one of Robin’s paint suppliers found a list that cross-referenced L44 to the old Mercedes colour ‘Magnetic Blue’, and a sample proved it to be the exact shade of metallic paint. Robin laboriously took the body back to raw fibreglass, filling the mobile phone aerial hole and fitting a new radiator mounting panel. With the car in bits, we also took the opportunity to recondition the leaky power-steering rack and refurbish the original Speedline alloy wheels. The body was primed and painted by the summer of 1999, but due to a house move, I asked Robin to slow the project down so that he could hang on to the car into the autumn until our garage was clear of packing crates.
With my garage finally cleared early in 2000, Robin and I finished off the remaining tasks on the body of the car. Team Lotus were able to give me the name of the Norfolk company that had made all of the Essex decals and labels and they were still in business and able to produce precisely original stripes for me. The finished bodywork looked fabulous! In fact, it was so good that the faded and cracked leather interior really had to be attended to, as it was now letting the car down.
The original leather had been supplied by Connolly, whose records showed the exact shade of red that had been used. Mr Tim Connolly actually remembered the car as it was a rush job and they didn’t want to let Colin Chapman down. I took the car down to their works in Wimbledon where their expert recommended that the front seat ‘horseshoe and bolster’ panels needed to be replaced, but the rest of the leather could all be re-coloured back to its original condition. They no longer did restoration work themselves, but recommended their former sub-contractor, Benchmark Renovations in Battersea who did a marvellous job in just three days.
I am now very pleased with the overall condition of the car, which has been widely admired by both experts and non-experts alike. It drives extremely well, although with 117,000 miles on the clock, has started to burn a bit of oil, not enough to stop it romping through the MOT emissions test each year. Super-unleaded fuel seems to agree with it (especially Shell V-Power), which is handy when driving the car around the UK and Europe. The Elite was never intended to be an out-and-out performance sports car but more of a long-distance grand tourer, but it is never disgraced on a circuit thanks to its 0-60mph time of 7.5 seconds and top speed of 130mph. Interestingly, it was originally marketed as a businessman’s car, with the radio-cassette unit having a removable microphone, conjuring up an image of the driver dictating memos and letters on his drive into work, then tossing the tape to his secretary as he gets to his office.
Over the thirteen years of my ownership of the Elite, it has also been fun discovering more of its early history while owned by Team Lotus. DVLA offer a service where for a small charge they will supply the owner with photocopies of all archived data related to his vehicle. This produced the original licence application handwritten by Lotus in April 1980, as well as the ownership transfers and paperwork related to its export to Holland in 1987. The Lotus factory archives were able to give me a copy of the original build specification of the car, including enough detail to show that the key numbers were still the same. At the 1999 Donington festival I bought a copy of the Team Essex Lotus 1981 brochure which contained a review of the 1980 F1 season including a photo of the team buses on the harbour-side at Monaco with my Elite in the foreground! This brochure credited LAT Motorsport for the photos, so a visit to their archive in Twickenham yielded another Monaco picture with the back of the car in full view parked next to an Essex Mini, as well as a picture of Mario Andretti relaxing outside the Team Lotus motorhome at the Spanish Grand Prix with the car in the background.
Another great discovery came via Clive Chapman at Classic Team Lotus. His initial reply to my letter was that there were no records of my car, but some months later when clearing out some old drawers, he came across the original insurance file. This contained the original memo from Team Lotus to Lotus Cars formally requesting that an Essex Elite be built for ACBC, insurance cover notes in all of the relevant European languages and ferry tickets for the 1980 Belgian Grand Prix. There was a hand-written note on Team Lotus headed paper requesting that the service department take special care with LCL 852V as it was Colin Chapman’s car, and a two page letter from the Team’s retained driver, Ernie Huppert, concerning an incident that happened when he was transferring the Elite from the Monaco Grand Prix to the Italian GP. In San Remo he misjudged the width of the Elite, and its wing mirror scraped the wing of a parked VW Golf, so he was concerned that may be an insurance claim. Team Lotus Manager, Andrew Ferguson, wrote to their insurance brokers about it, but nothing more was heard.
As part of my ongoing search into the car’s Team Lotus history, in 2003 I contacted Sutton Motorsport’s photo archive in Towcester, as I had heard that they had acquired the photos of David Phipps, the Team Lotus photographer from that period. This contact turned out to be fabulous, as they were able to unearth a sequence of photos from the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in August 1980 where my car had pride of place in the paddock. One particularly posed shot has Colin Chapman, Mario Andretti, Elio de Angelis and a sponsor all grouped around the bonnet. Other photos of the car were taken alongside the Orient Express, which was chartered by Tissot, another Lotus sponsor at the time, and brought to Hockenheim with one hundred or so invited guests aboard. Colin drove the Elite to the sidings for a promotional dinner on the train and was photographed standing in front of the car with two sponsors in fancy dress.
The Essex Petroleum sponsorship deal fell apart midway through 1981, when the Monaco-based company went belly-up and its owner, David Thieme, did time for fraud! Team Lotus sold my Elite through the Lotus dealer Cooper City in London to a Graham T.R. Moody in October 1981, who ran it for six years before selling it to Eugene. I was able to track Graham down, and he kindly sent me pictures of the car, which he had re-registered as ESX 2, outside his home in Twickenham and his holiday home in Spain. Since I have owned it, the car has enjoyed meeting up with two of its old racing car colleagues from the days of the Formula 1 team. The Type 81B was Nigel Mansell’s first Grand Prix car in 1980, still resplendent in its original livery and being raced in the FIA Thoroughbred Grand Prix series at various circuits throughout Europe. Getting pictures of the two cars side-by-side in the paddock at Donington was great fun. Also, the Type 88 has now been restored by Classic Team Lotus; this was also an Essex liveried car, famous for being banned for its innovative twin-chassis in 1981, and has more recently been shown at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and raced in the TGP series.
Where have we taken the Elite in the ten years since its restoration? In short everywhere, flying in the face of the Elite’s reputation for fragility………Normandy, Zandvoort at the Club Lotus Holland 25th anniversary event, France several times, Belgium, the Isle of Man, Ireland, the list goes on. The car has also proved itself on track days, reliability trials, and classic tours and always behaved impeccably.
It’s always a special occasion when the car returns “home” to Hethel; at the Classic Team Lotus 50th anniversary day a couple of the workers from 1980 remembered the actual car and its special colour scheme! The Hethel 40th celebrations had us displayed alongside a spectacularly restored Essex Esprit Turbo. While we were queuing to get onto the test track in a convoy of cars built at Hethel, we noticed two young boys trying to cadge passenger rides, so when one of the boys got into an Elise ahead of us, we offered the other boy one of our rear seats, which he jumped into. One of the women with the two boys then told us that our new passenger was Magnus Chapman, son of Clive and grandson of Colin, sitting directly behind the seat that his grandfather had occupied some 27 years earlier!
So, 2010, where shall we go……?”
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