Over the past 14 years Tolman Motorsport has restored many Elites for customers in numerous countries around the world. Due to our racing activities, we see many racing Elites at various race tracks and I’m proud that Tolman parts feature on a large number of them. However, we’ve never had the opportunity to run a racing Elite ourselves.
The latter half of 2020 provided some time for reflection and for us to focus on a few things we can’t always prioritise. In my case, it was the continual development of our Coventry Climax race engine. We have been building these engines ever since our fist Elite came through the door 14 years ago. I never intended to do so much development, but I saw the potential to start producing to very high-quality, parts for both race and road spec engines where such high quality items weren’t readily available. We now offer our own spec parts including pistons, cam shafts and 5 bearing aluminium cam carriers, engine fasteners, exhaust manifolds, inlet manifolds, block strengthening plates, back plates, water pipes kits, race clutch systems, and much more.
We already had some great results with customer’s engines, seeing peak power figures over 120bhp on the engine dyno. I felt there was more available with some concentrated work around the cylinder head and cam profiles, so that’s exactly what we did on the build for our FIA compliant, full race, 1220cc engine. This unit was built from an original block and cylinder head, the rest being new parts. The learning process was extremely interesting and involved many days on the dyno. Sure, we had some issues on the way and some directions that were not the chosen path, but we did get the results we were looking for. Ultimately, we completed 6 hours of running at simulated race loads without issue. The result 138bhp on an FIA compliant engine.
As a business, we work very closely with MK14 Components – supplier of all things Lotus Elite – on both the supply of parts and the sourcing of quality components. Will, MK14 Components proprietor, and I had been talking about building a racing Elite for years as a tool to promote both our businesses. Will had a car with a log book that he’d always offered to us as a base for the race car, but the restoration costs associated with getting it ready were massively prohibitive for us.
Overhauled brakes benefited from an ATEC brake line kit, while a Tolman electronic distributor, high flow fan kit, internal battery master cut off and USB charging point completed the modernisation, although all “mods” are completely reversible and “non-invasive”.
Fiberglass, as a material, was in its infancy in the 1950’s and Colin Chapman was an early adopter. That was 70 years ago! Now we know that while the strands of glass fibre themselves do not rot, the resin bonding agent that creates the strength, does. When restoring a body shell, we carefully remove the paint, and gently soda blast the entire shell to remove any rotten resin. The results are astonishing – leaving the shell looking like a piece of lace. We can then apply fresh resin to all surfaces to replace the structural integrity of the shell. This is process is extremely labour intensive and therefore expensive – so much so it can be twice the outlay of purchasing a new body shell.
Will has invested a huge amount of time and money getting his reproduction glass fibre Elite bodyshells up to the high standard that is required in today’s market, and they are indeed far superior to an original, in both finish and integrity.
The MK14 Components bodyshell, whilst superior to the original, is not considered suitable for racing by many, as it was said to be too heavy, and the resulting finished car could not be down at the minimum weight.
Around March 2021, Will had a new body shell close to the end of production but it was not sold, and we had a hot engine sat on a stand without a buyer… Those talks of building the Ultimate Elite race car suddenly seemed to fall into place.
The race is on.
We made the decision in late April 2021 that it was viable to build the car from a new shell and have it ready to race at the Silverstone Classic on July 30th.
The new body shell arrived at the Tolman Motorsport workshop on 6th May to commence the build. Over the years I’ve had many thoughts on how we would build an Elite race car utilising all our knowledge from racing contemporary GT cars and the technology therein.
When a car is built for racing, it must be done to the latest standards of safety. Back when Colin Chapman conceived the Elite and went racing with them, they were essentially a road car with carpets and a passenger seat (and a spare wheel on board!), albeit with a factory race engine. The Elite was homologated (sanctioned for racing with FIA) in 1961 which is what we as preparers now must comply with.
We had 12 weeks to between receiving the shell to competing at Silverstone. During this time, we had to account for the following: 3 weeks having the bespoke FIA roll cage manufactured and 10 days at the paint shop. This left us with about 6.5 weeks to dry build, design, and manufacture, assemble, test, & get an inspection from the FIA for the all-important Historic Technical Passport (HTP).
The biggest factor to a new race car build is weight. The homologation papers states that the minimum allowed is 576kg or 550kg depending on which page you look at – UK scrutineers will always go for the heavier! This stated weight was from the days before we had to have roll cages and a fire extinguisher, so getting the car down to the minimum these days requires more effort.
The first thing was to weigh the shell, so we knew our starting point. Our standard off-the-shelf MK14 Components body shell tipped the scales at 111.5kgs, excluding the bonnet, boot, and doors.
Start at the beginning.
We know our way around Elites here at Tolman Motorsport like the back our hands, and we know how to build racing cars of the highest quality, so the first thing to do was sit down with the new bodyshell in the workshop, the homologation papers, the FIA appendix K rules, the championship rules and discuss all our ideas for how to put together ‘The Ultimate Racing Elite’ – and within the time frame we had available.
We knew what components we wanted to use, and we knew we had a great engine, dampers, gearbox, & differential. We had to manufacture the window frames, the boot and bonnet hinges and we had to comply with many changes to the homologation document. When running an historic racing car, there are many things that historically have been ok but now, to adhere to FIA HTP you must change and adapt. So as a new HTP applicant, we needed windscreen rubbers fitted; a solid rear screen; window frames with a ¼ light appendage; a functioning handbrake; an external fuel filler cap, and most of all, for the car to visually identify as an Elite in as many ways as possible.
We dry built the entire car with a dummy engine, gearbox and diff assembly. The crucial things were to decide on the positioning of several key components. Certain things had to stay where they were originally situated like the battery, but other components could be positioned in more advantageous places. Whilst at this stage, we had to decide on how the wiring was going to sit in the car. We decided from the outset that we’d build a bespoke race car loom using modern components and manufacturing techniques. The loom offers a considerable weight saving and a major area of improved reliability.
Due to the way the FIA cage is designed and manufactured, the tubes and sections must be made bespoke to each car. They are all tacked in position, removed from the car, welded on a large jig plate, before being assembled back in the car.
The nature of the glass fibre body dictates that the driver’s seat should be hard mounted to the roll cage, as bolting it through the glass fibre floor would not be a safe or sensible option. With limited space in the cabin, and our MO to create the Ultimate Elite, we opted for a Tillet full carbon fibre item. The seat was a perfect fit, not to mention feather weight. Making this decision at this point was crucial, as the roll cage incorporates the base mounted seat points. The cage itself is substantial in size and complexity, and manufactured from T45 thin wall tubing.
Whilst the body shell was away, it allowed us time to concentrate on all the sub-assemblies used on the car. Will supplied all new front upright components, rear upright components and sealed wheel bearing conversion, front wishbones, diff casing, various lights, door handles & furniture, MG gear box casing and straight cut close ratio gear set and a myriad of preciously rare and original parts. Tolman had the engine, rear wishbones, radiator, top links, steering rack, driveshafts, prop, and steering column. The rest we sourced from our suppliers; the brakes & clutch are from AP Racing, the LSD from Gripper diffs, the lightweight plumbing from ATEC Autotechnic, fire extinguisher from Lifeline and harnesses from TRS.
The gauges were a big investment from Farringdon Instruments. Their stepper motor gauges are extremely high quality and the company was very happy to help out with this project. Not only did they make us a rev counter to replicate the original (ok so it goes to 9000rpm!) they also allowed us to supply them with dial faces we had specially made so they would have some “age” to them. The net result is a set of instruments that look like Elite originals, but work like the space shuttle! We can get a full playback of temps and pressures against RPM, and they have LED warning indicator lights built in.
The artist’s touch.
We have a great relationship with our paint shop. They not only do a fantastic job in terms of paint finish, but also in turning around work quickly – a staple of the motorsport industry. They specialise in race cars and motorsport but are growing in the high-end classic car business. They push the latest in technology and comply with the latest standards. They paint with nitrogen as opposed to air; this means there is no water in the paint so the finish is better from the gun and they use much less paint resulting in another weight saving.
When choosing a colour for the car, I wanted something that would stand out from the crowd, and be different to any other Elite out there racing. The new body shell had arrived from Will in a rather pleasing grey gel coat, and our company colours are grey, black and red. A short discussion with the paint shop and we decided a period flat grey and black roof, with the red pin strip, all painted and lacquered in. As a motorsport specialist, they appreciate the importance of weight saving, so with almost no filler used in prepping the body for paint, only 3kg was added to the weight of the car.
The final countdown
Once the body was back from paint, the task of final assembly was down to our talented technicians. To complement the new loom and gauges, the centre console is a break from the traditional, but it serves a few crucial purposes. All sections of the wiring looms (engine, dash, and chassis) plug in here and acts it as the control centre and circuit breaker centre for the car. Where we have used pull type circuit breakers they can be used as switches rather than having something separate – thus less parts to go wrong, and less weight. The detail is in the little things and a huge amount of planning and thought went into the design of the wiring loom and the battery master switch arrangement.
The fuel tank is again an area of speciality. Our bespoke tank has a large capacity and an internal collector, trap doors and weir to manage low fuel volumes. The pump is mounted inside the tank with the return going straight into the collector. The 3” Aston fuel filler cap was chosen should you wish to compete in an endurance race where refuelling would be necessary, and to enhance the period look of the car. We modified it for current FIA regs by fitting an ATL ¼ turn cap inside, and removed much of the mechanism to reduce weight. All the fuel hoses are the latest specification and can cope with racing fuels and the new E10 pump fuel.
We used aircraft grade NAS bolts on all the safety critical areas of the suspension and steering, plus K-nuts and AN washers. The drive shafts and prop shaft were made from thin wall T45 tubing and the joint housing machined down to save the last few grams.
To finish the build, we opted for the latest WRC flush fit sliders for the windows made from polycarbonate. We chose a steering wheel that looked as similar to an Elite as we could find, but it’s a modern one with suede covering and a good dish to position it in the right place for the driver. The mirrors we chose to adhere to the period appearance of the car.
Whilst this car is the Ultimate Elite racer, time was very limited and we could not fit in both a test day, and a day at the four-post rig. I made the difficult decision the concentrate our time on the four-post rig test. This is a whole car rig test we take advantage of to get the best from the car’s suspension. It can tell you exactly the right damper curves, spring rates, tyre pressures, and roll stiffness and roll rate you need. It’s another big investment, but in my experience it is vital. Tolman Motorsport will never run a race car without a first going to the four-post rig. It gives you reliable scientific data; you do not use any tyres, fuel, engine mileage, gearbox mileage and you can’t crash it! It takes out of the equation the opinion of the driver, and even the best professional drivers often feel they want a very stiff platform from which to operate, but that does not always produce the fastest lap times. The rig gives us raw data, and with knowledge and experience we can translate this, along with the drivers’ comments, in to a highly competitive race car.
Following a short shakedown to check the car’s systems, we descended upon the Silverstone Classic 2021!
Our first test session was red flagged from the first minute, all we could do was half an out-lap. The next session was better, and we were able to dial in the dampers to the circuit and do a few changes to driver comfort but that was about all.
In qualifying we had a small technical problem on our second flying lap, necessitating a quick stop in pit-lane. Unable to carry out a full repair, we were grateful that our pro driver, Craig Dolby, had already put the car on class pole on his first lap!
Saturday saw us line up for the start of the race, having out qualified all the other Elites and quite a few Jaguar E types along the way, with a great sense of pride mixed with trepidation due to the lack of track time. The total length of uninterrupted running the car had seen was just 12 minutes, and this was to be a 50 minute race! It started well and Craig kept out of the way of the first corner bumps and scrapes of which there were many, dropping a couple of places but keep the car safe. The big issue was the confusion over the start position, and many went without seeing the green flag. Craig soon battled his way up the leader board and was in 1st place (in class) when it came to the pit stop window.
We were able to stop early and quickly realised we had an issue with the carburettors. The engine was suffering from a fast idle, making it difficult to drive. Some checks with the engine turned off did not show anything obviously wrong but as soon as the engine fired up again, the idle was around 4000rpm. This made it almost impossible to engage first gear and pull away. The car did re-join the race but after dropping nearly 40 seconds. This left us a long way behind the class leaders, and Craig started to battle his way back through the field only to have the safety car be deployed. Now this would normally be a cause for celebration in a situation like this as we could catch up as the pack bunched up, however this time we were stuck behind a car that was lapping slower that the safety car! Once the safety car was back in, Craig drove the socks of the Ultimate Elite to bring home 3rd in class. Needless to say after such a quick build and with no testing, the whole team were delighted!
The ultimate performance of the car has not been realised just yet, but it did everything we had hoped for out of the box! We met our objectives of building the car down to the minimum weight, it was fast, and it was reliable from the outset, firmly putting Tolman on the Lotus Elite racing map.