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In Praise of the Type 83

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(This article is a rework, by the author, of the one that appeared in Chicane Nos 64 and 65)

TBH 260W came into our lives in 1989. We had returned from living in the Middle East in September 1988. Part of the "haul" from our overseas acquisitions was a four-year-old Range Rover. In my ownership this poor vehicle had been driven across the desert, along the beach, up the mountains and through the wadis. It had given brilliant service. I always said that if I had woken up one morning to find the thing in bits on the drive then it would owe me nothing. It had been abused horribly, and had given immense pleasure to the driver whilst scaring the passengers out of their wits! We had been lucky enough to have the vehicle flown back to UK, at no cost, in July 1988 and continued to enjoy its benefits on the highways and byways of Britain until the engine ran a main bearing or two on the M4 one day. The engine failure was terminal and almost certainly due to unreasonable amounts of sand in the oilways! A replacement engine was the only logical solution and cost a reasonable £1000. Fuel consumption for such a vehicle was never good. Petrol is cheap in oil rich Arab states but very expensive in England. The car was subject to a 1-year tax free restriction. We decided that as soon as the car came off its tax restriction we would sell it and it went in Jul 89. The sale realised £6000. I announced firmly to my wife and young family that the money was to be put to good use - I was going to buy "something interesting".

The search started immediately. I had always had an interest in "fast" cars including a series of RS Fords and the like but I was 36 years old. It was time for something with a bit more pedigree. I quickly realised that I couldn't afford a Ferrari, I had no interest in a Porsche (any of them - they bore me - no passion!) and had always fancied a Lotus. According to my mother, I told her when I was three years old that I was going to have a Lotus. So, a Lotus it was to be, but which one? Well, at the time son James was 8 and his sister Debbie was 6. There were, of course, a number of models in the Lotus marque with 4 seats; this seemed to be a sensible compromise that would indulge my passion and my family. So, it was either an Elan +2, Elite (type 75 or 83), Eclat (type 75 or 84), or an Excel. I searched for, found, looked at and tested a number of each. I now knew that any of them would do nicely, although I had developed a preference for an Elite or an Excel, provided that I could find a good one. It was in early in September that TBH 260W, a Series 2.2 Elite came to light. It was advertised in Exchange and Mart for £7000, about typical for a good Series 2.2 Elite at that time. I drove 60 miles to see it and knew instinctively that I could stop kissing the frogs because I had found the prince.

It was stunning; a January 1981 car and one of the first of its type it was immaculately prepared and in beautiful condition, fully documented, taxed and recently MOT'd. I later found out that the vendor had owned seven Elites over the years, virtually a new one every year. He didn't like the replacement (i.e. the Excel) and had decided to keep the last, and best, one that he had owned. He was now getting older and less agile and had reluctantly decided to sell it. By now I knew that I wanted this car and because I had done so much reading I knew what to look for. TBH 260W was honest and sound and drove very well. Not only that, it was in an unusual but particularly effective colour scheme that I had not seen before (or since!) and I was told that this was because the car had been produced to order. The colour is Onyx Green according to the driver's handbook and it has a beige full leather interior. It had originally been supplied by Campden Motors who had used it as a demonstrator for 2 months before selling it (Series 2.2 were very new in Jan 81). It had cost over £16000, a shade cheaper that a Ferrari 308 GT4. I haggled over the price and by the end of this first visit the vendor and myself had agreed that I would take the car for £6000. A deal was done! I collected the car on the 16 September 1989. The chap who gave me a lift to pick it up simply said "Wow!" as we entered the yard and I knew that "my" car was genuinely seductive and that I wasn't suffering from Homer’s (mythical?) lotus essence seduction. By the time I got home 60 miles later, I felt 18 again. I was already totally in love with the car.

The front engine, rear drive combination in a 4 seat, low and wide configuration enables legendary Lotus handling and road holding. The engine is torquey and tractable. The body doesn't leak (it was raining on the way home), a significant improvement over the type 75. Contemporary road test reporters loved the car; " a very delightful machine which is truly satisfying to drive" (Autocar); "exceptional handling and road holding" and "the Elite is now very difficult to fault" (Motor); "altogether a lovely car to drive" (Motor Sport). If the colour scheme is right (and with the type 83 they mostly were) they can look stunning too.

However, it didn't take me long to realise that the type 75 and 83 Elites are just about the least respected of all Lotus cars, surprisingly even by Lotus aficionados. I did not, and still do not, understand why this is so. It is particularly annoying to hear so called Lotus fans and experts knock the car. I can accept that the styling is a little curious at the rear quarters and that the earlier, type 75s, were somewhat unreliable but the car embodies the Lotus spirit in so many respects. It was, of course, a callous attempt by Chapman and Lotus to hold on the buyers who had an Elan and a young family and were now earning enough to move up market….

Of course, the road test magazines didn't have to live with the car and I can only assume that it is poor reliability that has given the car such a sad reputation. TBH 260W has left me stranded thrice; once when the clutch cable snapped (this part is modified from a Bedford CF van by the way!), once when the water pump decided to part company from the engine and once when lack of use welded the flywheel to the clutch plate such that a gear could not be selected and it couldn’t be driven out of the garage. The water pump was due, I suspect, to poor attention to detail by the mechanic during a routine cam belt change. Despite having to use my RAC "get you home" cover twice I feel that the lack of respect for this model is totally unfounded and its reliability is certainly no worse than many other Lotus cars. If properly maintained, these cars will give nothing but pleasure, particularly behind the wheel.

My assertion that the car needs to be properly maintained is an expensive one, however. I have never added up the servicing and repair bills that I have for my car but I am confident that any attempt to calculate the "cost per mile" would lead to an immediate divorce! That said, this is a piece of engineering history, one of the last "Chapman" cars. The "built in lightness" is bound to introduce a certain amount of fragility, particularly with a body as heavy as this one, and this must be taken into account. If Chapman had intended that these cars were cheap to run he would not have sold them at Ferrari prices. It is indeed unfortunate that their reputation has made them cheap to buy thus putting them into the hands of people who cannot afford to maintain them properly and thus perpetuating, and probably enhancing, their record of unreliability. Shame.

The chassis number of TBH 260W puts it the thirteenth type 83 to leave the factory. It is early enough to have the "hybrid" engine, the one which has been stretched to 2.2 litres but which retained the original valve gear operated by different camshafts, a combination which is reputedly a bit more powerful than the final production version. The rumour that any 912 engine which sounds like a bag of nails when cold but which is 'sweet' when hot is a 'goodun' seems to be true. I cannot believe, some 19 years on, how awful the (now rebuilt) engine sounds from a cold start but how pleasant it is when hot and being pushed - remarkable! (Incidentally, the inverse of this is that, if your engine sounds good from a cold start but rattles a bit when hot then it is a 'badun'). The Getrag type 265 gearbox baulks into second when cold but is otherwise superb. The galvanised chassis has never given any MoT tester any worries. As TBH 260W approaches its 30th birthday the coachwork remains good, all the electrical bits still work, the leather is still good and the shiny bits still shine. Lovely.

So, why is it that after some 19 years of ownership of one of the least loved of Lotus cars that I, Mike Stripe, am prepared to go into print and sing its praises? The answer is not simple but what follows are some of the reasons why:

· Stunning looks. I don't care if you think it's the ugliest car in the world, whenever I'm out and about in the car it always attracts more than casual glances. I still believe that the colour scheme of my car is unique; I have never seen another one like it but at least one person has told me that he has seen another one in the same scheme. I think he's wrong. One thing is for sure, the Onyx Green (as Lotus have called it) with gold coach stripes looks good in virtually all light conditions and the cream (champagne?) leather interior complements it beautifully. A girl friend once described it as "like climbing into a cosy leather handbag". It smells good too of course. Black bumpers, dashboard and carpeting finish the effect. Incidentally, the rear seats are comfortable in that they are nicely shaped and hold you well but, in the same way as aircraft seats don't, they do not allow any movement; deep vein thrombosis sufferers should be wary! The paintwork is original and still looks good. Miles Wilkins once described my car as exquisite, and he's seen a few over the years.

· Practicality. Even with a young family it is possible to "do a weekend" with this car. All right, you have to pack sensibly, but it can be done. Four seats and a boot mean that there is plenty of space for 2 however. I've used it to take stuff to the council tip, for trips to Sainsbury's, for the School run and for fun. Try doing that lot with your Elise! All of the 'user service' items are handily placed. The basic layout has been copied by Honda (Aerodeck) and Volvo to name but two.

· Performance and Sheer Driving Pleasure. It is a 35 year old design! OK, there's many a hot hatch can blast it in a straight line these days but it can easily hold its own in modern traffic and returns excellent point to point journey times. It is fast without trying too hard and, consequently is easy to drive quickly without having to be spectacular or taking risks. That said, I seriously doubt that people who have not driven one of these cars can appreciate that it can handle as well as the 'small' Lotus cars and I bet they would be surprised if they did drive it. During the early part of my ownership, TBH was featured in "Behind the Wheel" in "Your Classic" (what ever happened to that?) and the journalist compared the handling to that of a Mini. Graham Arnold said he must be mad but what he meant was that the thing sticks like glue, is very 'chuckable' and predictable at the ragged edge. The torque curve (a gigantic step forward for the 912 over the 907 engine) is amazing and the car is wonderfully tractable in all gears. Power delivery is consistent and smooth above 2000 rpm and, whilst you never seem to get that kick in the back that you get with some performance cars, there is no doubting the car's acceleration, particularly in the 50 - 90 mph range. If you use the gears wisely there is absolutely no need to use the rev limiter (a simple spring weighted bobbin in the rotor arm) to supplement the torque to achieve stunning progress. As I said above, the Getrag box is wonderful when warm, but baulks into second when cold. By all accounts it is a significant improvement over the original Lotus/Maxi hybrid found in the earlier cars. The brakes are from 30 years ago! They have never let me down, have never suffered any serious fade, have never squealed and have generally been as good as Chapman would have demanded but only a fool would try to out-brake a modern ABS fitted sports saloon! Even now I still go for a drive just because I want to but I always remember to brake early!

· Reliability. I can hear the groans of disbelief now. It's true! I cannot think of any reason to describe it in any other way. For a performance car, and a Lotus to boot, two visits from the RAC in 12 years is hardly anything to be ashamed of! In many respects both failures could be ascribed to poor maintenance as well. Yes, it's infuriating when you take your performance car out of the garage where its been languishing for ages, drive it and it breaks. But, did you really look after it properly? Was it really ready to be thrashed mercilessly? I'm sure that the only reason the water pump parted company from the block was because at least one on the bolts had not been fitted properly the last time that part of the engine was violated to fit a new cam belt. In fact I know that a lazy mechanic did not bother to refit the bolt that he cross threaded, nor did he bother to tap it, drill it and fit a helicoil as had to be done eventually. And I should have taken notice of the creaking from the clutch cable over the roller wheel in the footwell as soon as I heard it and not waited until the cable snapped whilst driving off from the village post office.

So, there you have it. The modern Lotus Elite is a good car. Ownership is rewarding and fun but you do have to put the effort (and the money!) into keeping it right. The poor old type 83 (and the 75, 76, and 84) is in a 'Catch-22' downward spiral. Some (typical Lotus) built in fragility leads to breakages, leads to expense, leads to massive depreciation, leads to low prices, leads to boy racers, leads to poor maintenance, leads to frequent failure, leads to low prices, neglect and the breakers yard. If you covet or own one of the type 75 and/or the type 83 Elites, please do your best to stop the so called experts from knocking them (and their Eclat brothers). If you are one of the sceptics, then I hope that this article will cause you to review your opinion. It's better than you think. Try one if you don't believe me.

There can only be two outcomes; either the cars will become so rare that the aficionados will realise that we are about to lose site of a great Chapman car and prices will begin to recover or, they will all be scrapped. The latter option is unthinkable but is a real possibility. It is time for so called Lotus fans to give these cars some support and recognition. Buy one now before its too late. One final thought; if Lotus only made 133 of the type 83, as Graham Robson's book "The Third Generation Lotuses" (and other sources) assert, and some of them were exported, how many are left in the country? How long before their undeserved reputation sends most of what is left to the breakers yard? How many will be left then? Will the dissenters then be happy?

LOTUS ELITE Series 2.2 (Type 83) DATA SHEET

Engine: 4 cyl twin OHC; 95.28 x 76.2mm, 2174cc; CR 9.4:1; 160 bhp (DIN) at 6,500 rpm;

160 lb ft torque at 5,000 rpm (140 lb/ft at 2,400 rpm!).

Transmission: Getrag 5 speed all synchromesh manual gearbox; 4.1:1 chassis mounted final drive unit; overall gear ratios are 3.33, 4.1, 5.7, 7.91, 12.14, reverse 15.91:1. This gives 21.14mph/1000rpm in top gear.

Suspension: ifs consisting of coil springs, upper wishbone, lower arm with anti-roll bar and telescopic dampers. irs consisting of coil springs, wide base lower wishbone, fixed length (load bearing) drive shafts and telescopic dampers.

Steering: Power assisted rack and pinion.

Brakes: Hydraulic with vacuum assistance; 10.4 inch front discs, 9 x 2.25 inch inboard rear drums.

Wheels & tyres: 7 x 14 inch cast alloy rims with 205/60 VR 14 tyres.

Dimensions: Wheelbase 8ft 1.8in; front track 4ft 10.5in; rear track 4ft 11in; length 14ft 7.5in; width 5ft 11.5 in; height 3ft 11.5in.

Weight: 2,645lb, unladen; maximum payload 860lb.

Production data:

Period: 1980 - 1983.

Numbers: 1980 - 105; 1981 - 13; 1982 - 14; 1983 - 1; total 133.

Price: (May 1980) £16,142 plus optional extras.

Options: Radio or Stereo radio cassette, power steering, air conditioning, automatic transmission, full leather trim, metallic paintwork etc.

Performance Data:

Acceleration: 0 - 60, 7.5; 0 - 100, 22.5; 50 - 70 (top gear),9.2,

Standing quarter mile in 16.1 seconds.

Maximum Speed: 132 mph

Consumption: Manual (Auto) mpg: Urban 20.0 (19.5), 56mph 36.2 (30.3), 75mph 29.4 (24.9)

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