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MOTORING JULY: Lotus Plus 2 Automatic

NAH 120F – Lotus Elan Plus Two automatic – born 1967.

Malcolm Ginsberg, Public Relations Officer, Lotus, during the Formula One glory days, tells the story.

“The 1967 Lotus Elan Plus Two (M50), was the fourth Lotus true passenger car coming after the Elite (M14), Elan (M26) and Europa (M47).  The Plus Two 130 and Plus Two 130S were later developments. As a stretched Elan it could easily accommodate two children in the purpose-built rear seats. 

Clive Chapman, son of Colin Chapman the Lotus founder, who was about five at the time, cannot recall testing the single chairs, but Sales Director Graham Arnold’s twin sons Chris and Paul, aged 10 had their photograph taken and were happy to ride in the back.

In 1967 the first Plus Two was produced in the so-called ‘kit car’ form to overcome UK purchase tax rules, but it was an upmarket car and from the Plus Two S in October 1968 only factory-built cars were available.

It was initially conceived by Chief Designer Ron Hickman (later the inventor of the highly successful Black & Decker Workmate workbench) at the Lotus factory in Cheshunt, where it was designated Metier.

Production began early in 1967 in the new purpose-built plant on an ex-US Airforce bomber base called Hethel, near Wymondham, Norfolk.  It was to remain on the line until 1975 with approximately 5,200 built. The original Elan had appeared in 1962 and ceased production in August 1973.  By then the Elan Sprint, often seen in the Gold Leaf Team Lotus livery. The exact production number is not known, Lotus not renowned for bookkeeping.  A figure of 4,862 has been suggested. 

The Lotus M100 series Elan was launched in August 1989, reviving the Elan nameplate after 14 years. Altogether just 3,855 M100 cars were built between November 1989 and July 1992. Whilst favoured by a few devotees the only ever front-wheel drive Lotus was neither a public nor commercial success.

Lotus Elan Plus Two, registered NAF 120F, is by far the most interesting Plus Two of all time, the car departing Lotus in 1971 with the deposed Sales Director Graham Arnold at the wheel and re-registered in 1974. There were various owners according to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) records until Tony Allery in 2016.  

NAH 120F Lotus Elan Plus Two started life as a Director’s car in 1967 and then joined the press fleet.  

Denis Jenkinson, journalist, and Stirling Moss, navigator for the historic 1955 Mille Miglia, a Jaguar E Type fan, describes in Motor Sport a Continental run in the car.

“On the journey across France mostly on minor roads avoiding trunk routes, and big towns, the Plus Two really came into its own and ownership began to grow on me just as the original Elan had done on similar going.

“I could now see the whole point of Lotus as it wafts along in the 75 to 85 mph speed range over indifferent surfaces around corners in the most delightful manner. My passenger had joined me on the Autostrada sections of the journey and was a bit anti Lotus. He did not take to the car very seriously especially bearing in mind high cost but after an hour or two of French road motoring he became very appreciative of the real Lotus character which is road-holding ride and handling. It does not encourage sloppy driving or lazy driving, or bad footwork or RPM can cause wind up on the rubber doughnuts in the drive and if you surge back and forth as you accelerate.  You realise why Lotus have been Grand Prix champions for three years. If you design and build anything that is different or good there will be plenty of sceptics most of them have never even driven the car in question.  When I was a Porsche owner I was always being told how bad they were especially by people who had never driven one”.

The Plus Two was the obvious choice for an automatic Lotus aimed at the North American market.  

Typical Arnold, instead of going through a proper development programme (he was also responsible for the road-going single-seat Lotus 21 Formula Ford, complete with lights, and brake warning rear) he turned the car over to the press garage team and sought the assistance of Borg Warner, experts when it came to auto boxes.  An oil temperature gauge was fitted. With a bit of hacking away of metal and fibre glass a three-speed box was fitted, but the ground clearance was marginal, a problem experienced by the author in a recent run out with the car.

Engine-wise a high torque motor was incorporated from Expert Engineering of Ware but the most disappointing aspect of the car was the performance with the change-up when indicating 7,000 rev at 50 and 85mph.  Arnold liked it (and so did this writer) but the project got a thumbs down by the Lotus Board and in any event by August 1971 the car, and its regular driver, had disappeared.

Allery discovered NAH 120F on eBay in 2016, when he needed an engine for his restored Lotus Cortina.   It was in Halstead, Essex, underneath a carport with a tarpaulin thrown over it in a bit of a mess but with no serious damage. It is now taxed as a historic car that does not require an MOT, but has passed that test with 89,924 miles on the clock.

Allery, something of a Lotus enthusiast, says that once he realised what the car was he had no choice to rebuild it, and to a standard that Colin Chapman would have been proud of.  How many hours he has spent on the project over the eight years he does not know, but the quality of the work is outstanding and the new wooden dash exceptional. Brand new it had been in parts storage for 40 years. The upholstery and trimmings are the original, refurbished.

With a backbone chassis, Lotus restoration of a car is relatively easy as the major components can be simply accessed and repaired or replaced.  The chassis was in remarkably good condition, which just needed to be sandblasted and repainted.  When Allery acquired the car it was fitted with steel wheels, so a refurbished set of alloys were sourced, which look lovely.  NAH 120F has the original vacuum style headlamps.   At dealer receptions a simple test was applied, which annoyed many a salesman.  If you press the nearside module the offside light is raised too.  Good for a joke at a sales evening.

All the gauges in the car are original, and this includes the Borg Warner instrument for the automatic gearbox temperature, which still works fine to this day. The rev counter has been refurbished and also changed to accept electronic ignition, which has been fitted to the car.  The front bumper has been re-chromed and for the rear bumper a new one was sourced.  The front seats are the originals but recovered, likewise the rear seats, which were probably created at Ketteringham Hall, a nearby Chapman-owned property, then a covert design centre and the home of Gold Leaf Team Lotus.  

The car has a replaced new wiring loom from front to back. Other new parts include the exhaust, back axle components, radiator, gearbox oil cooler, with the seats being recovered. The website eBay proved to be an excellent source for the numerous items that were required including a virtually brand-new Elan Plus Two dashboard.  Now fitted it looks magnificent.  

The engine was completely rebuilt from the ground up and the gearbox was checked and any required parts were replaced.  This work was meticulously carried out by the late Stephen Cawley, described as an “old school” engineer. He had blueprinted his own motorbike engines and was a product of the Ford engineering school at Boreham, Essex.

When it comes to performance this Plus Two is noisy and it has not been checked against the stopwatch.  In its prime it was sluggish compared with normal four-speed manual box Plus Twos (a short run of five speed cars were produced right at the end of production).  A Plus Two should be able to manage 0-60 in under 8 seconds with a top speed of 120mph plus.  The Elan Sprint, as tested by Autocar in 1972, was good for 6.5sec, but it was not a normal car!  A Plus Two could manage around 25mpg and was good for making north London and back on a Lotus factory fill-up. By comparison the Lotus 7 press car TNG 7G of the same period needed to refill half way".

See also Classic Team Lotus Garden Party 2024 in this issue.


George Loveridge is back next month with a KGM Torress.



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