The Tokyo Elite

| 14 Jan 2022
Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Few engineers have made as great a contribution to the advancement of their field as Colin Chapman.

First from the stables behind the Railway Hotel in Hornsey, and then from the firm’s small factory in Cheshunt, the ideas that emanated from Lotus Cars Ltd rippled across the automotive world.

At the same time, on the other side of the globe, another giant of the industry and tremendously gifted engineer was taking his first steps in designing his own car: Soichiro Honda.

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

“I was too afraid to ask [to drive the car] because my father hated Colin Chapman”

It wasn’t just Chapman’s revolutionary ideas that were exported.

At that time the streets of Tokyo were filled with big American imports, lorries fuelling the rebuilding of the capital and smaller three-wheeled Mazda K360s and Daihatsu Midgets that jostled busily for position.

But in 1962 they were met by a sleek vision of the future: a Poppy Red Type 14 Lotus Elite, which had been ordered new by Honda himself.

Chassis EB1837 joined a personal collection of vehicles that featured a number of European cars including an MGA and a Jaguar Mk2, with Honda’s sharp engineer’s mind no doubt drawn to the Elite’s glassfibre monocoque design – then a groundbreaking step in road-car construction.

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

The Elite’s clean shape was drawn by Peter Kirwan-Taylor

A looming government decree had threatened to silo Japan’s different industries, triggering a race for Honda to build its own car and broaden its horizons beyond motor-scooters.

Unlike its rivals, which licensed existing models from the UK such as the Austin A30, Honda started from scratch and likely took inspiration from the lightweight Lotus.

“The Elite was like an egg – a world first,” explains Hirotoshi Honda, son of Soichiro and father of the firm’s tuning arm, Mugen.

“No frame, no separate chassis: it was kind of like a UFO at that time, and my father was always interested in something new.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite
Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

The Elite’s final cabin fit-out will be completed when the car returns to Japan

Fascinated by how things worked, the young Hirotoshi completely stripped and reassembled the Elite in the family garage to gain a better understanding of the glassfibre shell, a feature that may well have influenced the similarly constructed Honda Juno scooter.

Elements of the Elite were also reflected in the S600 sports car: “My father hated things that were copied but, in my honest opinion, the dashboard, speedometer and tachometer – the shape is quite similar between the Elite and the S600.”

Despite his position, the only new machine that Hirotoshi Honda was ever given was a 50cc Super Cub: when it came to borrowing the cars, he had to wait until his father lost interest.

As a young man he would sneak the keys from his father’s drawer before pushing the MGA down the driveway in the dead of night, then jumping in and starting it up once out of earshot.

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Sublime styling and balance

He toured the entire country in the MG before it was sadly destroyed, a painful lesson in not lending your car to a friend to take a girl on a date!

“My father never asked him to pay for the car or to have it fixed – but he ordered me to stay at home,” Hirotoshi recalls with a grin.

Just as the MGA fell out of favour and became available to borrow, so too did the Elite, though young Hirotoshi never requested a drive.

“I was too afraid to ask because my father hated Colin Chapman,” he chortles. The allure of the little Lotus proved too great, however, and taking it out became a regular treat.

Among the longer journeys undertaken – no mean feat in a country where asphalt roads rarely extended beyond city limits and punctures were the norm – was a 400km drive from Tokyo to the newly opened Suzuka Circuit, Honda’s bespoke test track in Mie Prefecture, with racing driver Tetsu Ikuzawa.

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

From a crash at Suzuka to its rebirth at Lydden Hill

The son of its creator holds the dubious honour of being the first person to crash at the famous Formula One circuit.

“It happened in 1962,” explains Hirotoshi. “Ikuzawa was the best driver in Japan – he drove for two or three laps, but he was a professional so there was no problem.

“The first time I drove the circuit I had an accident at Spoon Curve, where the car overturned and finished upside down; fuel started pouring out and I thought maybe I was going to die. I kicked out the window and managed to get out, then waited along, long time for someone to come to help.

“The car was badly damaged on the roof and the top of the wing near the headlamp, but I was really surprised: the plastic monocoque was so strong. It slid for maybe 10-15 metres on its roof – I saw the scratches on the ground.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Twin carbs and a higher compression yield 95bhp in this Lotus Elite

Hirotoshi set about having the Elite repaired, but with glassfibre being such a new technology it proved a challenge to find anywhere capable of doing the work.

“At that time there were only two Lotus Elites in Japan, so nobody could fix it,” he recalls. “I eventually found a small garage in central Tokyo, but it took a long time.”

During the rebuild the Lotus was refinished in jet black, and Hirotoshi continued to use the car to cut about the capital at speed – though not always without incident.

“At that time, more than half a century ago, there weren’t many lights at night in Tokyo. So when a small, low, black car comes along it can be dangerous – and it was quick!

“Many people walked across the street at night and I almost got into so many accidents, so I changed my father’s mind and we decided that this car must be white.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite
Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

The Climax engine’s origins lie in the Godiva fire pump, hence the gold detail

Not long after, Hirotoshi left Japan to travel the world, and when he returned two and a half years later, his father had given the Lotus to Honda’s Technical College, where it was studied and dissected by students until 1980.

From there it passed to collector Naoki Baba, and was moved between garages in Shizuoka and Saitama as little more than a shell and boxes of assorted bits.

The Elite received a reprieve at last in 2018, when a restoration was begun in earnest, with Baba eventually contracting the task to Kent-based Bushell’s Vehicle Restorations, whose work on the Costin-Nathan prototype had put the firm on the radar in Japan.

“It came to us already stripped, and it had been that way for about 40 years,” says Derryl Bushell. “Unfortunately some parts had gone missing in that time. We sourced quarterlights and a window frame from the US and had them refurbished locally.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

‘Honda’s sharp engineer’s mind was no doubt drawn to the Elite’s glassfibre monocoque, then a groundbreaking step’

Though some preparation of the shell had been started in Japan, it quickly became clear that a great deal of work was going to be required to make good the monocoque, with Bushell’s team going to great lengths to ensure the shell’s structural integrity.

“Previous repairs had to be undone first,” he explains. “When it came to us it was pretty asymmetrical. You can buy a new shell, but that would lose the soul of the car, the past it holds. You don’t want to restore that out of the car completely.

“Sometimes we had to dig deeper than we’d have liked, but it was necessary: there was major damage to the internals of the roof.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

A patch on this Lotus Elite’s bootlid has been left unpainted to show the previous layers and its history

It didn’t take long for the Elite to reveal its story, as another layer of red, black or white paint began to appear with each pass of the sander – along with evidence of the terrifying crash at Suzuka.

Look closely and you’ll see scarring on the polished-steel driver’s window frame, which Bushell has left in acknowledgement of the event.

“It’s important for the owners to keep that lineage,” he explains. “At the request of Naoki Baba, we’ve also left two small areas unpainted – one under the bootlid and the other in one of the wheelarches – so you can see its journey through history, its transition from then to now.

“Naoki quickly drew these areas with a chalk marker, but we actually painted outside of that as well, so his lines are still there.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Scuff marks from Hirotoshi Honda’s original Suzuka crash remain

Rather than a factory colour, the Lotus has been finished in Honda Grand Prix White, in a nod to the car’s final colour change before it was disassembled and hidden from view for four decades.

Further evidence of the Elite’s famous past surfaced when the shell was receiving the finishing touches, during a visit from owner Baba and his friend Kazuo Ugai.

With the body on a rotisserie, the pair began to hunt for a number that had been stamped on one of the subframes when it arrived in Japan 59 years ago, gently rubbing down a small area of the fresh paint.

With a direct line of ownership back to the Honda family, the identity of the Lotus was never in doubt, but finding confirmation was an important step in the car’s journey.

“And they found it,” says Bushell with an excited smile. “It was a lovely moment to see two very happy men, and to have been part of that story.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Even during our low-speed run, the talent of the Lotus shines through

There’s a sense of history coming to life on seeing the intense white paint and shiny brightwork gleaming in the sun for the first time in four decades, and as the twin tailpipes bark with an angry report everyone is keen to see the little Lotus make its tentative return to the track.

Guy Sheppard of Rawlson Racing is on hand to make sure it performs, and takes a quick break from fettling the carbs to run through the mechanical specification.

“There was a great big sheet of photographs that came with it all, and we immediately noticed that there was no diff and no fuel tank,” says Sheppard.

“There was a set of rusty wire wheels that were huge – they must have been off an E-type or something. It came with a ZF gearbox, but it wasn’t until everything was painted that we noticed the hole for the gearstick wasn’t in the right place; it probably had an MGA ’box originally.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite
Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

The wire wheels glisten in the sunshine, while the twin pipes give a distinctive crackle

Rather than go the easy route and buy an off-the-shelf aluminium tank, a bespoke steel part to original specifications was commissioned, while the factory suspension components were carefully rebuilt and refurbished.

Other parts were restored in Japan, such as the heater matrix, then carefully installed in the shell with minor adjustments.

“It’s nice to work on something so clean and neat and tidy,” enthuses Sheppard. “Once we’d overhauled the components it was like putting together a brand-new car.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

The Type 14 Elite was launched at the 1957 London Motor Car Show

Peacock Engineering was tasked with building a suitable motor, and supplied a superbly rebuilt, all-aluminium, sohc 1216cc Coventry Climax FWE in-line ‘four’ to the factory’s Super 95 specification.

Its higher compression and twin SU carburettors boosted output to 95bhp, some 20bhp more than the earliest cars and well ahead of even the 85bhp Special Equipment model.

It’s a sweet lump that’s full of zip, filling the cabin with an excited chatter and revving eagerly to each blip of the throttle.

The steering, meanwhile, is drum-tight, with a rubbery resistance that betrays a lack of road miles and box-fresh components – as does the ride height, with the little Lotus yet to settle on its springs.

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite
Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

The dainty ZF gearlever and familiar Smiths dials inside this classic Lotus

With the immaculate machine only days away from being shipped overseas and a noise restriction at our test track, it’s perhaps for the best that we aren’t able to push the sports car to its limits – especially because its famous first owners never fully regained their trust of the Elite’s minimalist and sometimes troublesome ‘Chapman strut’ independent rear suspension.

But we are able to get a sense of the featherweight road racer’s agility, the stiffness of the futuristic monocoque and the crisp, snappy gearchange of the silky ZF four-speed.

“It’s an interesting idea for that suspension, but it’s bad,” says Honda. “But the engine, the chassis I remember being so good! It was a little noisy, but that ’s okay.”

Classic & Sports Car – The Tokyo Lotus Elite

Over six years, a little more than 1000 examples of the Type 14 Elite were built by Lotus

There’s a palpable excitement that surrounds this entire project, from the hours of dedicated work poured in by Bushell and his close-knit team to owner Baba, a passionate collector of British machinery and friend of Hirotoshi Honda; no one is in any doubt that the ultimate aim is to bring a smile to the face of its first owner’s son.

The pair are set to be reunited when the Lotus returns to Japan, and the 79-year-old will take to the wheel for the first time in almost 60 years.

“It looks beautiful,” enthuses Honda. “So pretty, just lovely; it’s like a brand-new car.”

Regarding a return to Suzuka, spiritual home of Honda motorsport, the automotive giant is more rueful: “I’m a little bit afraid,” he says with a smile. “It will stay in the garage many more times compared to before the accident!”

Images: Max Edleston

Thanks to Lydden Hill; Bushell’s Vehicle Restorations


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