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Kamm-Tail Project: 1974 Lotus Elite

1974 Lotus Elite

Have any of you been bitten by the cheap project car bug? I’m sure you have. The symptoms are as follows: low purchase price, famous nameplate, potentially great handling, polarizing design, and finally, the belief you can correct all of your project car’s ills with minimal loss of cash, blood or sweat (and tears, too). That’s what immediately came over me like the onslaught of a bad cold when Barn Finds reader David B sent in a 1974 Lotus Elite here on craigslist in San Francisco for $3,000. There are times when it’s a good thing to be on the opposite coast!

Lotus Elite Project

When Lotus introduced this funky 2+2, it drew praise for the usual Lotus strong suits: excellent handling in a thoughtfully-designed, lightweight package. Unfortunately, the typical negatives were part of the package too, troublesome reliability and a high price tag which earned it the dubious title of the most expensive four-cylinder car in the world at the time of launch. With its fiberglass body shell, however, the Elite made the most of its Jensen-Healey mechanical roots and delivered brisk performance and the handling Lotus was known for.

1974 Lotus Elite Interior

These days, you can count on seeing any number of vintage marques at events like Cars & Coffee or other enthusiast functions. While Lotus may be best known for the Elan and the Esprit, I feel like the Type 75 has been lost to the history books and rarely seen anywhere, much less as a running project on craigslist. The last time I saw one in person was in the paddock at Lime Rock Part on Memorial Day weekend several years back, and I was just as smitten with it then as I am now. How can you not love the idea of a sports car with room for your friends and a cooler? And don’t get me started on my infatuation with pop-up headlights.

Lotus Elite

Here’s the problem: even for just $3,000, you’ll likely need to plan for another $3,000 in parts hunting, mechanical refurbishment and cosmetic repairs. This is assuming you’re like me and at least want a proper headliner and an interior that doesn’t make you twitch just looking at it. Plus, a decent paint job is going to clear $1,000 easily. While buying a running car is a good start, there’s so much more involved in making sensible project car decisions and this one needs to be a few dollars lighter in order for me to feel good about righting its wrongs. If any of our readers are disciples of Colin Chapman, would this ‘70s shooting-brake pass muster as your next project? Or is it best used as a rolling parts car? Leave us your thoughts below.


  1. jim s

    interesting car in better condition then some i have seen. no motor or underside photos so a PI would be needed first. might be more in parts then the asking price. nice find

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  2. mbell666

    I am a big Lotus and Lotus +2 guy, I own one. This doesn’t make much sense, a decent one is 5K to 10k. Very much better to buy the best one you can afford at present time. Only way it works is if you can store it for 10 years and wait for prices to rise (I think they will). Then there might be some headroom to restore it or profit on a re-sell.

    The gearbox is weak point but also plus point. Believe it to be the Maxi based 5 speed Lotus box. With a new bell housing and selector set up it will fit an elan or elan +2. So some value there. Probably get a decent amount for the gear nob as well.

    $1k for a paint job?!?!? If you pay that its a complete waste of money. These cars need a lot of prep work and very high quality paint job to look good and last. A $1k blow over will look worse than it does now within a year or two.

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  3. Mark in Medford

    $1000.00 wont cover the cost of the red paint materials, a 40 year old fiberglass body isnt going to be easy or cheap to repaint but I believe it would be worth the investment.

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    • jimbosidecar

      Whew! I’m glad 2 of you chimed in about the $1000 paint job. I just finished painting my truck and that was $6000. I felt like an idiot when I read about a paint job for $1000, until I read both your comments.
      Thanks. I feel better now

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      • Jeff Lavery Staff

        Maybe I’m fortunate to have a fairly cozy relationship with a local body shop, or maybe my standards are lower. My cars are drivers, so I’ve done remarkably well for $1000 (or in the neighborhood). I’m sure I could spend a lot more if I wanted it to be perfect – but then I’d never drive the thing!

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      • Horse Radish

        @ Jeff L

        I live in Southern California and have been watching the EPA drive anything paint related away and farther away.
        The sh*t they have been throwing on cars , even Mercedes after 1990, don’t get onto a car I that I would restore. A complete waste of money, if that (again) sh*t blows off the car after a couple of years or you can actually peel it off in sheets !
        I would rather roll on some rustoleum and be done with it !

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  4. tom999p

    Anyone who’s looking at an Elite or Éclat as an investment is in the wrong business. These cars are just for tinkering, driving, and fulfilling your need to have a super cool and rare car to tool around town with. Then after it’s done being enjoyed, pass it on to the next enthusiast, who hopefully will love it just as much….

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  5. Horse Radish

    Gee, how times change.
    I was offering my 77 Eclat a couple of years ago.
    In better shape and for less money and NO TAKERS, not even any interest…..

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    • erioshi

      I’d love to add an Eclat to the garage, once I made room, but then I’m already infected. I was lucky enough to find a solid ’71 Europa that ran but needed brakes, was 100% complete, and still needs a really good going over, and I absolutely love it. The Europa bug was passed to me by another local Europa owner .. he let me drive his.

      I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to own and drive a wide variety of sports cars over the years, and the Europa was one of only three or four models of car that gave an experience so compelling I felt I had to go out and buy one. A vintage Lotus in good nick on a properly twisty road is something that really must be experienced to be understood.

      Unfortunately the visual appeal of the Elite is what would keep one out of my garage. I just can’t get past the aesthetics. That may sound odd coming from a Europa owner, but a Europa is so low that the side view never really comes into play when you see them in person, it always feels like you are looking at the car from a top 3/4 view.

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  6. crazychevy

    Sorry but that thing needs to go back in the barn!!! It is past ugly it’s FUGLY!!!!!

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  7. JagManBill

    I love these…but I always wondered, 74 wasthe first of a string of really bad years for Jaguar (Series 2 XJ) for electronics/etc, and I see the same switches on the dash. Anyone with experience want to shed light on that thought?

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    • Greg S

      My first Jag was a ’74 Xj6-L. Got so much attention it was beyond flattering, infact downright embarrassing. As embarrassing as the time the total rear exhaust came loose on the freeway at night. Friends behind me said it was the best light show ever. At times, people would flag me down to let me know that flames were emitting from the tail pipes, and indeed they were! My partner literally cried tears of joy when it finally sold at a loss. Dealers refused to take it in as a trade-in as well.

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  8. DT

    Theres some of that British craftmanship!

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  9. 8banger Charlie Y-Blockhead Member

    Would LOVE to see the engine.

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  10. Maestro1 Member

    Lotus was always a sort of eclectic brand, with polarizing effect on most of my car nut friends.
    I think this one is interesting, but agree with the person who said no pictures of its Bones (underside) and no pictures of the engine or honest description of its condition/needs.
    With a paint job that deserves being on the car and who knows what else I would be in the area of about $8000. in reconditioning, assuming that open heart surgery was not required.
    And frankly i think that’s a low number. On the other hand, its pure speculation. I don’t have enough information. Also, for those of us no longer able to wrench, the labor cost becomes a consideration.

    Great Site, interesting cars and folks commenting, thank you.

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  11. RickyM

    Love that shape. Very 70’s wedge shape. I feel that this could be a money-pit though – not the best period to get a car with UK electrics. That being said, I hope it does get rescued as it is a rare car. I have not seen one for a long time.

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  12. Rancho Bella

    I almost look forward to death………….so that may ask Mr. Chapman……..
    “what on earth were your thinking?”

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  13. FergusO

    loving those deep dish back seats. Great, eclectic styling. Slap in a mid 90’s Miata drivetrain, good paint job (prep by hand, deliver to those that paint more often), keep the hood shut, and drive for 10 yrs, then sell in equivalent condition as it is now.
    Isn’t that the goal of all this?

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  14. John M

    Hey, if your going to put money into a British car with all the bad electrics and oil leaks that come with the territory, why put that $$ into something that has investment power and will also turn heads,…like a Big Healey or a TR3, or? With this thing, you will suffer through all the typical British head aches and when you finally get it on the road nobody will care except the three Lotus Elite enthusiasts out there. ;-)

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    • mbell666

      Your probably right but I think your missing the point of owning this car. Driving it! You are not going to make much money on it, you may well avoid very public places in it, it will leak fluid, have electric issues, breakdown and generally be a nightmare.

      But when its working you may find yourself intentionally having arguments with the other half so you have to sleep on the sofa and can sneak out at 3AM for a country lane blast in it. During that blast the amount of enjoyment you’ll get out of the car will make everything worth it. You’ll care deeply about that experience and not care that no one else cares about it.

      While there many issues with these, they have to represent the very close to the best pure driving experience to $ ratio of any car you could buy today.

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  15. Dave Wright

    I bought one of these from an Oakland junk yard about 6 years ago for 200.00, It had a straight body and interior, complete engine etc. the body fit was so poor that the rear section had maby 20 gallons of rain water in it. I got it running and sold it for 750.00 had tons of people interested but very few real buyers. Colin Chapman was a race car chassis builder, he used other manufacturers engines and only built street cars to finance his passion (like Ferrari) his street cars were examples of poor parts support, British Union workmanship and designs plagued with afterthought engenering. These early attempts at manufacturing for the public were poor when new and worse when old………….

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  16. JERIC

    I like it, but that is personal taste, you can make or get good wiring harness for these, harness is not very complicated, origanality who cares, find modern switches that work and drive the car

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  17. Mark Aitken

    ..c’mon guys Britain has made some decent cars, take the Caterham as an example it was Originally the Lotus 7 & its STILL an absolute beast if U really want a Car that Handles, they are absolutely fantastic & pass Modern Emissions regulations with modern Ford engines but there’s also a Kit Car which looks not dissimilar which uses BMW E30/6 mechanics.

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    • Dave Wright

      Britain has built some great cars…….but look at the common thread in the cars you noted, simple design, few parts, little manufacturing sophistication. When they attempt to compete with complex cars built in other countries, they usually fail. Particularly in the years this lotus was built. Many prewar or near post war british cars were works of art and competed well on the world stage, but, the more complex designs built in the post labor union era could be really bad.

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  18. Gary Held

    Just chiming in after reading the complete list of responders. I bought on of these a couple of years ago. Add said that it needed a repaint. It didn’t say that it needed a repaint because someone botched a repaint… I do agree, if you are really not capable of doing the body work and spraying the car,you might be in for a rude awakening. The paint for my car cost $1000.00. And that was 2 years ago.
    If you weren’t aware of Smith instruments, Lucas electronics, parts from other automobiles combined to make Lotus’ Life is going to get interesting.

    As for the engine, originally the engine bay was designed to accomodate the Rover 3.5L aluminum V8 (spelled Buick 215cid). The oil embargo of 1973 cured that and the 4 cylinder Lotus was considered more marketable; the V8 was out. A canadian company, I believe they called themselves D&D, converted these Lotus’ into V8’s using this aluminum motor. Actually lighter weight than the Lotus 4. Here in the US, this is an easy motor to get, build dress-up and maintain. Mine has had that conversion. Virtually love the car with this motor. I have taken care of one frustration with the headlights. Engine vacuum holds the headlights down. Overnight they come right back up. Linear actuators. also switched the headlights to US rectangular lights that only had the open half as much as the large round originals.
    If you like the looks, are hands on, you’ll love driving this car. Don’t be afraid of it.

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