Lotus Elite M50 Type 75

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Lotus Elite M50 Type 75

1974 - 1982
United Kingdom
4 cyl.
71-105 bhp
5 spd. man
Top Speed:
125 mph
Number Built:
3 star
By the time the Lotus Elite M50 was released, the company had won three World Championships in racing, introduced a 2 + 2 Elan and the midship Europa, and developed an all-Lotus engine - the 2-litre 16-valve four which was used by Jensen-Healey. No longer regarded as a maker of “kit cars”, the company had matured, along with the products they developed. By 1974 both the Europa and the front-engine Elans were nearing the end of their production lives – although newly introduced US safety regulations (and the US was Lotus’ biggest market) hastened their replacement.

The Elite was a name used for Lotus's first production coupe and was a favorite of Colin Chapman's. In M50 guise, it was a full 4-seater and by a wide margin the biggest car Lotus had ever produced:

Length, in. Width Height Curb Weight, lb

- Elite (1958) - 144.0 / 58.0 / 46.0 / 1420
- Elan (1963) / 145.2 / 56.0 / 45.0 / 1500
- Elan + 2 (1968) / 168.0 / 63.5 / 47.0 / 2000
- Elite (1974) / 179.5 / 71.0 / 47.5 / 2390

But even with the stretch and poundage of bumpers and body strength to meet U.S. safety standards, included in the new Elite's measurements here, Lotus stuck to their “light and tight” mantra in the cars development, so the M50 was neither a large nor a heavy car. They bent the rules just enough to provide a luxurious 4-seat package.

It has been rumored that the body of the new Elite (designated M50 at the Lotus works) was designed by Giorgetto, but we do not believe this to be the case. The tale apparently originated when an M50 prototype was seen by a journalist at Giugiaro's Ital Design, but it was there only for interior design work: though Ital Design was given the job of creating the cabin, Lotus's own design department conceived and executed the sleek wedge shape. Another rumor was that the Mercedes 350-450SLC served as inspiration for the new car's conception, and that rumor was true.

At some point in the M50's development the SLC was introduced and Chapman discovered it at a European show. Surveying luxury-sporting 4-seaters at the time, he was taken with its highly integrated design - the taillights, door handles, instruments, ventilator ducts, etc all designed specifically for the car rather than bought from other manufacturers, and from that point on he wanted to make his new model as much like this as possible. Chapman bought an SLC for his wife, which shows just how much he liked the design. But what was perhaps inevitable was that, unlike Mercedes, Lotus would never be able to provide every single part for the Elite. Borrowed were things such as the AM Gremlin exterior door handles, MGB interior handles etc.

Another first for Lotus was a simultaneous worldwide introduction of the new Elite; since it was conceived to meet the most stringent regulations it didn’t have to be progressively adapted to export markets. The old Elan Plus 2S 130, was no longer sold in the U.S., but remained in production alongside the Elite as Lotus didn't want to abandon the 2 + 2 market. Later a 2 + 2 version of the Elite, with a falling roofline and less rear headroom but the same 97.8-in. wheelbase, was introduced. Yet another new thing for Lotus was more extensive testing and development: two early production cars were taken from the assembly area and put on 50,000-mile test on public roads.

Body & Chassis

The Elite's structure was unit fiberglass with steel sub-frames. Like the original Elite, the M50 was conceived as an all-fiberglass structure. To overcome some of the complaints levelled against the old Elite, namely noise, the M50 didn't remain all-fiberglass. Large-section structural fiberglass "boxes" surrounded the passenger shell. Plastic foam was enclosed in them, not for structure but because it was used for forms around which the fiberglass was laid to form them. They gave it adequate structural integrity, according to then Lotus Chief Engineer Tony Rudd and Product Engineering Manager Mike Kimberly; they set out to double the U.S. requirements for strength in rollover or side collisions.

But the body suffered severe "drumming", so, as with most unit-steel bodies, the Elite was given sub-frames: two triangular ones, the front for engine and suspension and the rear for differential and suspension. Then, to stabilize the two frames and avoid any possible steering from it, a spine-like section of light-gauge steel about 3 ft long was interposed, connecting them. All these steel members were bolted directly to the body; all the rubber used to isolate road and mechanical noise and vibration was between the sub-frames and mechanical components. Because the sub-frames were more rigid than fiberglass, attenuate vibrations were eliminated. The whole concept has been under development at Lotus for over four years.

Bumpers to fulfil U.S. requirements were an integral part of the Elite concept, and all Elites met at least the original 1974 standard calling for 5-mph front and rear barrier crashes with no damage to "safety-related" components. But the regulations changed yet again during the M50’s development, and some US states legislated that a car should suffer no damage at all in 5-mph barrier crashes. This pushed the Elite's introduction back by nearly a year; and U.S. versions had bumpers protruding a few extra inches, backed up by extra fiberglass reinforcing boxes. But otherwise they looked much the same as the normal Elite bumpers: big, black, "soft" plastic bars nicely in harmony with the body design, not mounted on hydraulic cylinders. That all the requirements have been met with a fiberglass body, without cylinders and without ugly protrusion demonstrates that the standards were reasonable but that new approaches were needed to meet them gracefully.

An odd drop in the windows' lower edge just aft of the windshield was adopted, according to Lotus, to accent the strong wedge shape. It polarised opinion on how the car looked, To our eyes, the shape is good looking, clean and even today looks modern – there was a lot of glass through which to see out of, although under the Aussie sun that was not always such a good thing. Belgian Gleverbel VHR thin safety glass was used for the windshield to save weight; its shape and a huge single wiper reflect the U.S. requirement that 80% of its area be cleared by the wiper. The rear window was a hinged hatch, on gas cylinders like the Datsun Z's to hold it in any open position; this was the only access to the exposed luggage area behind the rear seats, as there was a fixed glass partition between seats and roof for noise reduction.

Giugiaro's interior was good looking too, giving the Elite a look of contemporary luxury no previous production Lotus had. Instead of the usual flat wood dash there was a complex set of padded mouldings, forming two panels at the sides and a central one. All major instruments - speedometer, tachometer, oil pressure, coolant temperature, voltmeter and fuel level - plus warning lights were in the panel before the driver; the centre panel carried heating, ventilating and air-conditioning controls plus two air outlets and was illuminated by a square light beam from the roof rollbar. Simulated wood adorned parts of the dash and door panels. Very low, moulded one-piece rear seats gave fair headroom and reasonable long-distance comfort.

An interesting touch in the rear compartment was that the stereo radio speakers were mounted facing into the body-side cavity and their sound emerged through large openings beneath: Dr Bose's "reflected sound" principle in a car. The air-conditioning unit was a factory-installed system by Delanair, similar to that used in the Jaguar XJs but without automatic temperature control. This unit featured twin fans with three speeds (capable of delivering 300 cubic feet of air per minute), vacuum-operated flaps, and a Frigidaire compressor – but it was heavy. It added 135 lb to the car, requiring different front springs, and the smooth but demanding compressor could sap up to 8 bhp.

Suspension & Brakes

There was nothing particularly radical about the Elites suspension setup. The front suspension had lateral A-arms at the top but simple lateral links at the bottom to comprise the usual unequal-arm geometry; the old MacPherson trick of using the anti-roll bar to provide longitudinal location of the lower arm was used. Rubber mountings for the anti-roll bar also gave the desired compliance for softening bumps. Coil springs (frequency 65 cycles/min) and the biggest Armstrong shock absorbers that would fit were used. At the rear the axle halfshafts acted as upper lateral links, as on the Europa, Jaguar E-Type and Corvette. Here all the fore-aft loads were taken by an extremely wide-base lower A-arm; it and the half-shafts again formed unequal-arm geometry. The hub carriers (uprights) were aluminum castings. Coil springs (78 cpm) were tapered and there was no anti-roll bar. Suspension travel was a fairly generous 4 in. up, 3% in. down at both ends of the car.

Front brakes were Girling discs, with solid rotors of 10.50-in. diameter. The rear drums were mounted inboard at the differential, they were also Girling units of 9.00 x 2.25 in. Many speculated why a car of the Elites calibre was not using rear discs instead, and there was one theory that the company were reluctant to pay the price of German Ate brakes, as used on Porsche and other continental makes. There were two wheel-tyre combinations, and in working out the suspension geometry on computers at Ford Great Britain, the optional one was favoured. Standard were 185/ 70VR-13 fabric-belted radials on 13x5'/2 steel wheels; the option is 205/60VR-14 steel-belted radials on good looking cast aluminum wheels. Burman rack-and-pinion steering with 3.1 turns lock-to-lock was used; another surprise was a power-steering option of Cam Gears manufacture, which was offered sometime after initial production.
Engine & Drivetrain

The Elite was probably designed from the outset to take a V-8 engine developed from the Lotus 2-litre four, but some time during the development it was decided to stick to the 16-valve DOHC four of 1973cc, laid well over on its side and looking like half a V8. As mentioned earlier, Lotus had been making this engine for the Jensen-Healey for well over a year. For the US market it was tuned exactly as it was for the Healey, with twin Stromberg 175CD emission-control carburetors and about 140 bhp. Owners would soon figure out that they could get more power provided they fitted a carburetor with a throat larger than 1.75 in. Though the same Borg & Beck clutch used in the Healey was also used in the Elite, Lotus went its own way with gearboxes. The standard one was a Ford 4-speed unit with ratios of 2.97, 2.00, 1.40 and 1.00:1; or an optional Lotus-built 5-speed which was basically the same box introduced earlier in the Plus 2S. The same 3.78:1 final drive was used with both gearboxes, so the 5-speed had both a shorter 1st gear and a taller top.

The driveshaft was one-piece, to avoid a potential vibration source in the centre universal joint, and those who had trouble driving Elans smoothly (and we think that was pretty much everyone) would have been thankful that there was no rubber in the rear half-shafts. When it was released, it was reported that Colin Chapman was unhappy about the way U.S. safety and bumper regulations – which he felt had almost prescribed the type of car he had to build. But he took on the challenge and won. The Elite M50 today is considered a wonderful car – it proved that Chapman could still be innovative even with, or despite, the US safety legislation.

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Also see:

Lotus Elite Type 75 (AUS Edition)
Lotus Elite Type 14
Lotus Heritage
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