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Restoring a Lotus Elan kept me sane during lockdown

by Conor Twomey

Photos: Conor Twomey

During lockdown, millions of people across the nation have been finding ways to alleviate the pressure of a world changing in the face of a global pandemic. I can honestly attribute a large portion of my sanity to the car you in these photos. It arrived in the middle of coronavirus madness and if it wasn’t for the distraction the challenge of a Lotus Elan restoration provided, I’m not sure what state my head would be in today.

My wife is a care worker, working regular 12-hour shifts caring for vulnerable old people through the height of the pandemic, meaning it fell to yours truly to “home school” three kids of varying ages while simultaneously figuring out how to do my job at Mitsubishi Motors UK remotely. All this while regularly queuing endlessly, online and in person, to ensure we had enough essential supplies; constantly sterilising our home operating theatre standards and trying to prevent a household – not usually used to being confined together for weeks on end – from becoming a crime scene.

In the midst of all this, I tweeted innocently one evening that I really wish I had a classic convertible in my life. Minutes later, the Lotus Elan M100 you see here pinged into my timeline: “Something like this?” a friend replied. I groaned; I knew the second I saw it I was going to have it.

"Your new Lotus, Sir!"

Fortunately, the car world being a relatively small place, I knew the custodian well so I was able to ask a lot of questions – way more than I would normally feel comfortable doing (sorry, Ralph) – and while he vouched for the basic solidity of the car he was also very honest about its overall condition: not great.

But because I was a cash buyer and the car would be disposed of quickly, he suggested that the owner would be up for a sensible offer. A cracking deal was struck, and it was mine.

The reincarnated, front-wheel drive Elan was built between 1989 and 1996 and was hoped to resurrect the fortunes of Lotus. Although it’s not all that old, my car, a 1991 example, had enough problems to ensure it stood no chance of having an MOT. That meant shipping had to be arranged, no bad thing given the lack of public transport at the time, but before I had even arranged payment the Elan showed up on my drive. Dusty, neglected, rough and very saggy, but it was pretty much all there. Good job, too, because hard-to-find pieces sell for daft money – a set of tail-lamps alone, shared with the Renault Alpine GTA and A610 go for £700.

All that was left was a quick HPI check, and the deal would be…. Hang on, what’s this? An insurance writes off in 2001? Hell’s bells!

Headlamp aligment was one of the few jobs that required external expertise.

I inform the vendor that the deal is off ask where they’d like me to deposit the Elan. Rather than being disappointed, I was quite relieved. I’d been doing lots of research on the car and the prices of some parts – parts which it needed – were eye-watering. Plus, how bad was this write off? I may have had a lucky escape.

Back in 2001, when it was written off, these cars wouldn’t have been worth very much and the parts and labour involved in even a minor shunt would be enough to consign it to the scrap heap. My main concern was if the structure had been compromised and was no longer safe. I didn’t want to take the risk.

The seller was genuinely surprised. He’d asked a professional vehicle assessor to look over the car before he bought it a few years before, but he needed shot of it as his storage arrangements had come to an end, he was no spanner-man and the recommissioning costs were likely going to prove prohibitive. Yet like so many enthusiasts of a certain age, he also didn’t want to scrap it because he remembers the car when it was new and lusted it after it then. “Make me an insulting offer,” he said. So, I did, and once again the Elan was mine, only this time at a quarter of the original price.

Spark plugs and battery tray had seen better days...

This is rule number one of getting into old cars – buy them right. By that I mean, either buy a project and be prepared to roll up your sleeves or spend the money and get one that’s sorted and just enjoy it.

Rule number two is do your research. The middle ground can seemingly offer a nice blend of value and usability but in my experience, it’s usually the worst of both worlds: not pristine and likely in need of (sometimes costly) attention in places.

I’m very much in the former camp – cheap wrecks – but I dive in with my eyes open. I know my limitations: I do not have a garage, for example, nor have I access to hoists or ramps so I buy cars I know I can work on. I do not know how to weld (yet), nor am I a painter of any description so, again, I either avoid that work altogether or I factor in the costs before I commit to buying. In the back of my mind, I am always thinking – if I need to sell this in a hurry, will I get at least most of my money back? Nothing will devour time and money like a car recommissioning or restoration so know your budget and stick to it.

Lots of trouble - usualy serious

And be prepared to put the time in. The Lotus absorbed my free time for the two solid months, although on the plus side I needed that space away from everyone – although my wife and children would often wander out for a natter and to sit in the sunshine with me while I worked. A more usual timeframe would probably be six months or so to get where I currently am and that is another very important consideration when considering putting an old car back on the road. They will always, always, always take twice or three times as long as you think, so be prepared for the long haul and lots of setbacks and frustrations along the way.

Labelling or recording electric connections can save on a lot of cursing

If it sounds like I’m desperately trying to put you off taking on a restoration or recommissioning then let me assure you, I’m not. I offer the above as advice but let me also offer the following encouragement. First and foremost, you do not need to be a trained mechanic, nor do you need Edd China’s toolkit to take on a project. You need patience, above all else, a basic understanding of how things work, a degree of mechanical sympathy and a willingness to learn which includes reading the instructions, following workshop manuals and taking help and advice from people.

You will also need to invest in a basic set of good tools and get specialist kit as you need it. I’m amazed how many tools or bits of equipment I’ve reluctantly bought for just one job in the past that I’ve ended up using over and over again.

Seat covers cleaned up well but the seats themselves had seen better days...

As for my Lotus Elan M100, it’s still not back on the road. When I took it for its MOT it failed on binding brakes, misaligned headlamps and slightly high CO emissions, so my work isn’t finished. But all the work I did has paid dividends.

The interior, which I stripped out, cleaned, rebuild, re-wired and reinstalled – all done while learning as I go and documenting my steps – didn’t squeak or rattle and everything worked perfectly. The engine, which was so close to death the old timing belt snapped in my hand as I removed it, ran sweetly and boosted strongly and will probably right itself emissions-wise with a little more fettling and a good, hard run to the MOT centre. The headlamps, which needed complete refurbishment, will have to go for professional adjustment but that’s not too expensive, and the brakes I’ll rebuild myself because they’re actually a pretty basic set up that anyone could tackle.

The timing belt was one revolution away from destruction

And while I was initially frustrated, I couldn’t get the Elan back on the road, part of me is secretly pleased. It’s been one of those cars that really wants to come back to life, working with me at every turn and providing immeasurable pleasure whenever something broken or tired springs back to life.

The brakes are currently terrible, but I couldn’t have known that until I drove it for the first time to the MOT centre, but once I rebuild them, I’ll be able to feel the difference my work has made and I’ll remember that every single time I step on that pedal. No, honestly, I will. If you have a drop of unleaded in your veins (or maybe leaded if you’re old-school) then I promise you that nothing is better for the soul than bringing an old car back to life.

Just make sure you don’t ruin that fun by overspending or allowing it to drag on too long. Discipline is the key but a car you know and love intimately will be your reward.

The dazzling Lotus Elise is 25 – do you know these 25 facts about Britain’s game-changer?



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