Luke Gilbert’s unique take on one of Lotus’ forgotten ’70s gem has the power to snap necks, drop everything and simply stare in astonishment. We take a closer look.
The ‘70s were defined by certain key stylistic trends, and while most of them (flares and perms) have dated horribly, some have more than stood the test of time. A great example of this is the wedge, an automotive styling trend that looked utterly out of this world when it first broke in the early part of the decade. Countless manufacturers jumped on the wedge-shaped bandwagon and the shape came to dominate car design for a good few years, though you could make a strong case for the British being its most passionate devotees. Lotus was particularly enamored with the shape and opted to base its whole model range round it, giving us the Esprit, the Eclat and the car you see here, the Elite.
The Elite is an arresting looking car, that ‘shooting brake’ rear end still having the power to make people stop in their tracks and simply gawp, but this one? Well this one really is something very special indeed. Built by long time Lotus fan Luke Gilbert, this particular Elite looks better than any other and it’s all down to the modifications applied by its owner, that and a carefully photoshopped image that provided Luke with the inspiration needed to take the plunge in the first place.
“I’d owned an Esprit before this and a lifetime spent obsessinabout car and hot rod culture meant that I knew right away that I wanted to play around with it, but the Esprit was just too clean, plus it was about the same time as Dean Chad’s example broke cover and I didn’t want to simply copy him,” Luke recalls. “In the end I found this Elite advertised online and it looked and sounded to be a decent car, if a little tired in places.” The only downside was that the Lotus was many, many miles away from Luke, so far in fact that the only logical way to go and give it a once over was by doing so en route to somewhere else, specifically the return leg of a trip to Italy. So it was that Luke found himself poring over an example of Colin Chapman’s finest at 1am by torchlight, hardly an ideal scenario we’re sure you’ll agree!
“I already had an idea from the seller’s description that it was potentially a good car, if a little tired looking,” explains Luke. “It turned out to be even better, with an arrow straight body, recent chassis change and a healthy sounding engine. Needless to say, the deal was done there and then.”
The next few months saw the tired looking Lotus pulled apart and a comprehensive restoration process begun, Luke calling on the mechanical skills of his friend Charlie Croker to help him get started. Though far from an immaculate example the signs were that it was a decent, solid prospect, and this was confirmed when Charlie and Luke took it apart. In fact the only mechanical issue of any significance was a failed clutch, other than that it was simply a case of restoration, renovation and cleaning, lots and lots of cleaning. The interior was in an especially bad state thanks to its time spent outside and a previous owner’s lackluster attempts at reupholstering it, the latter having left the Elite with a hideous colour combination and poorly fitting trim.
‘I spent the next eight months trawling the internet for Elite interior bits until one day, bam! I hit the jackpot – an unrestored and original interior in perfect condition…needless to say it was on my drive the very next day,” chuckles Luke. ‘I could literally fill this magazine with all the little jobs I have completed on the car; hand crafted headliner, rails and pillars, a custom fit carpet set and endless other details, all handcrafted as I went along.”
There’s no getting away from the fact that this car’s signature feature is its air suspension and accompanying ground-scrubbing stance. It sharpens the look of an already pretty car and makes it look far more dramatic, but that doesn’t mean getting it to this stage was in any way simple, not by a long chalk.
“Sorting the suspension involved three months of head scratching and grazed knuckles, and I lost track of how many times I crunched my head on the wheel arches! Coilovers and lowering springs were both considered at first but it soon became clear that the only way for me to stay true to my original photoshop was to install airbags, so that’s the route I went down.”
No doubt getting the Universal Sport air bags to function in the correct manner also caused its fair share of headaches, but the air suspension did result in one of Luke’s favourite moments, one that gave him a massive mojo boost and made all the hard work more than worthwhile; “It was the first time I pulled it out of the garage in ‘maximum slam’ mode,” he explains. “After months of blood, sweat and tears, working out of a dingy old garage so small that space was measured on the nano scale and where tools seemed to jump in and out of a parallel universe, I stood back, and pow, there it was! Bloody hell it looked good, and that was the moment that I knew I was onto something special.”
Other areas of the Lotus needed less work to get right thanks to its fairly decent mechanical condition, with the engine being a case in point. The twin cam ‘slant four’ developed by Lotus for the Elite would eventually see service in all manner of cars (including the range topping Esprit) thanks to its light weight and decent performance, with a handy 160bhp on offer thanks to deep- breathing Dell’orto DHLA 45 carbs and free-flowing manifold. Granted that might not sound a lot now compared to today’s hot hatches that make well over 250bhp, but its modest grunt is delivered in a wonderfully smooth manner and accompanied by the kind of noise that only an old school engine fed by equally old school carbs can deliver.
The reborn Elite broke cover at the start of last year and, perhaps predictably, was an immediate hit. Sections of the ever popular Retro Rides forum went into meltdown, positive comments flowed and Luke and the car made the 2015 show circuit their own. The combination of ‘70s Lotus styling, an amazing drop in ride height (plus the Rota alloys tucked under each arch), perfected paint and reborn interior has yet to date, with Luke’s months of hard work having been rewarded many times over by countless well wishers and fans.
As for Luke’s plans for the car moving forward, well who better than the man himself to explain things; “I want a V8 of some kind, ideally a 4.2 Maserati if I can find out how on earth to make it fit,” he explains. “It may well be that it’s just too damn big to fit in the wedge’s engine bay in which case I’ll consider slightly smaller options from Italy or, in a worst case scenario, something American.”
A ‘70s Lotus wedge powered by a whacking great Italian V8? Now that sounds like quite something, wouldn’t you agree?