Lotus Elise: Rebuild Part 1 (Where to Start)

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As I said in the reintroduction, I let my once pristine Lotus Elise sit in disrepair for 4+ years with a suspected head gasket failure. Now a simple repair has become much more involved. My intent here is to offer a summary of the repair and service steps I’ve completed thus far to catch things up. Maybe diving a little deeper with supporting posts in the future.

Diagnosing the Failure 4 Years Back

I’m emphasizing the timeline here to demonstrate what happened to the car throughout the years. When I initially parked the car it was at my previous residence and I was pretty quick to inspect the oil and run a compression test. The oil was mixed with coolant giving it a chocolate milkshake appearance. From what I could tell the oil was still doing it’s job of lubricating the bearings as there were no indications of a spun bearing. A compression test yielded low comp on cylinder 4.

 

Repair Prep
Half way point?

The Lotus Elise is a complicatedly easy car to work on. Complicated in the sense that it has a fragile, fiberglass body that is a P.I.T.A. to remove the first time. But absolutely a joy once off as the entire drivetrain, top to bottom is exposed for very easy access. Anyone that has removed an Elise rear clam before would be wise to invest in one of the few quick release kits. I particularly like the Modular Rear Clamshell Kit from Radium Engineering. A simple and inexpensive kit that brings the attachment points down to five or ‘sixish’ for rear clam removal. Greatly reducing removal time.

Pitfall 1: Upgrades

Anytime a car is down for ‘major’ maintenance it’s time for upgrades … right? One big upgrade I was looking into before the failure was a 4 point roll cage with cross bar and harness bar. There are many bolt-in harness bars on the market but they not only look very suspect in my opinion, but with the Elise’s reducing radius roll structure and bolt on rear supports, may honestly be dangerous. And seeing as US prices on anything roll cage related for an Elise were just insulting, I contacted a company in the UK (name when I can find it again) that shipped a fully welded and triangulated 4 point roll structure to my door for half the price of the US market. This replaced the factory roll hoop and allows for the proper addition of a 6 point harness.

The pitfall being I had to wait a month for delivery and got distracted with my venture into 944spec and time trialing in the BRZ. Also realizing I would have to cut some of the precious fiberglass on the Elise to make the new cage fit. (A.K.A. point of no return). I sat on that decision for a year.

Sporadic Work

That’s when Veronika and I realized we weren’t enjoying suburban life and started looking for something with more space but a smaller house. With a move impending, a fire was lit under my ass to revisit the Lotus. I took a saw to the fiberglass, installed the 4 point roll cage and 6 point harnesses, went over the suspension adding a few choice bits. Also installing a laminar flow oil cooling solution with an upgraded radiator. And finally ditching the AC. It was terrible anyway. Notice there is still no mention of what I actually needed to fix for this car to move under it’s own power. Again I became distracted and busy and had to move the non functional Elise to the property we purchased months later. It now resides in a temporarily converted barn next to a chicken coop no less. Still in a million pieces.

Getting Serious

At this point another year has passed bringing the grand total to 4 years and change. I’m still busier than ____ but we are talking about a supercharged Lotus Elise here so yeah, time to get serious. I’ve been combing over every system in the car looking for neglect and/or any potential repairs. All fluids were drained/flushed and refilled. Fuel tank was dropped cleaned and to my surprise, looked absolutely fine. Everything was put back in order and I finally jumped into the engine.

Looks quite different with the body work removed.
Laminar flow oil cooler riveted in place before reinstalling the engine.
Finally onto the Engine Repair

Wanting to do things right, I pulled the motor and transmission a little over a month ago to get ahead of my self imposed Feb 1 deadline. Once on the stand, I noticed the engine was pretty much seized. A lack of oil for years will do that. I dropped a little oil into each cylinder, pressurized the cylinders to 100psi and was able to force a bit of oil onto the piston rings. This reduced the resistance enough to start rotating the engine. Then a leak down test pinpointed the issue discovered years ago. Specifically, air blowing into the block when #4 is pressurized. With the coolant and oil mixing this would almost certainly be a head gasket issue as opposed to ring failure. Either way, it’s off with the head and then some.

I went ahead and fully disassembled the motor. Checking and lubricating every bearing surface and I must say, aside from the head gasket, this motor looks amazingly clean. The motor has been reassembled with a multi layer steel head gasket and ARP studs. A new clutch and lightweight flywheel were installed as well.

To Supercharge or Not to Supercharge

(Low hanging fruit removed.)

I initially started the reinstall of the drivetrain with a supercharged motor in mind. Hence the addition of the MLS head gasket that lowers the compression half a point and the ARP studs to hopefully yield a rock solid package in the future. However, even though I bagged, tagged and boxed virtually everything that came off the Lotus, I could not find this one stupid bracket that supports the rear of the supercharger. In fact, I was 95 percent finished when I hit that roadblock. Wanting to finish, I pulled the supercharger to swap it out for the factory intake manifold. Soon discovering that now I cannot find the throttle body to manifold adapter to finish this configuration. Frustrated but not defeated, and usually struggling to keep my workspace clean, I tell myself I will start cleaning the garage and whichever piece I find will determine the nature of the 2zz-ge living in the Elise.

This highly tedious process revealed the aforementioned ‘stupid bracket’ first. Leading to the reinstallation of the supercharger once again. Per usual, I literally found the throttle body adapter for the NA configuration about 5 minutes after reinstalling the supercharger. Things can never be simple.

To Be Continued …
By Chris Simmons

Chris Simmons is a race car driver, instructor, business owner and all around gearhead. His passion for motorsport started in the drifting community over 10 years ago and progressed into wheel to wheel racing of all kinds. When off track Chris can be found training and working on a myriad of projects. After a hiatus from writing, he is back to share his passion, knowledge and experience in regard to motorsports on and off the track.

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