The brilliantly blue Lotus that took a whole lot of heart to restore
Blue was precisely how the owner of this roadster felt in the middle of the car’s significant overhaul. But his doldrums have now been replaced by something much sunnier.
Words: Jane Warwick Photos: Tessa Chrisp
Hamish Hood can’t remember what prompted him to start the renovation of his father’s old Lotus Elise Series 2. He had plans for a makeover, but it had been 18 months since Murray swapped the keys from his keyring to his son’s, and Hamish was too thrilled to be the vehicle’s owner to give more than a passing thought as to what he might do to upgrade it. After all, why waste time with your head under the bonnet when you could look out over that bonnet at the wonderful stretches of Lotus-worthy roads ahead?
By admission, he is “absolutely no mechanic”, and the only overalls he might don would be those sometimes worn during his duties as a police officer in Auckland. But he does have friends in the right places — Tim Hart of Compact Motorsport in Birkenhead and Kevin Hunt of Redline Enterprises in Kumeu — who he can call when he’s scratching his head.
So while it became increasingly apparent that the car would need a significant rebuild — although it was more than warrantable — Hamish still wasn’t in any hurry. He saw a suitable new engine on Trade Me that he bought, which sat a bit forlornly in his North Shore garage as a sort of inadvertent objet d’art while the Elise happily purred away with its original heart. Hamish started amassing other parts, too, which joined the engine in what was beginning to look like a rather specialised Meccano collection.
In the beginning, Murray, who previously owned an MGA and then a Triumph Spitfire, had his eye on the Elise Series 1 when it was first released. But a low-slung sports car didn’t cut it when he now had three long-legged kids who were all elbows and knees and a wife who wasn’t excited by the firm ride and calisthenics required of a sports car. Not that Christine would have stopped such a purchase, but Murray thought it didn’t seem fair.
The day came, however, that the stars — and family wants, needs and finances — aligned, and Murray finally got his Lotus. Not an Elise S1 but the new 2003 Series 2 in an eye-catching shade of deep blue, especially spec’d by Murray.
It wasn’t a compromise — the car still had its original 1996 shape, only slightly modified to meet new regulations and still faithful to the original concept. He loved it. And so did Hamish.
And then Murray did something so surprising, so extremely generous, that Hamish is still astonished more than 20 years later. “Dad let me have a go in it. I was 16. I just had my licence, and although I had done a defensive driving course as part of that, I was hardly skilled. He must have been mad!
“It was like nothing I had ever driven, which was not a lot, I admit. No airbags; no ABS, no driver aids. Regulations wouldn’t allow a vehicle like that now. It was like driving a big go-kart. It was wild. It was — and is — one of the most direct and raw driving experiences you can have. I fell in love instantly, and that defensive driving course paid dividends.”
The Elise became Murray’s everyday car, driving it from his home in Northcote (Auckland) to his electrical engineering project-management job. Eventually, time and older joints caught up with Murray and Christine; in 2018, he replaced the Elise with a Jaguar F-type for a little more comfort and a change of pace with a supercharged V6.
Murray and Hamish came to a satisfactory agreement and the Elise keys changed hands. After 20 years of near-daily use, it had clocked up more than 100,000 kilometres, the upholstery was a bit worn, the suspension bushes tired, the shocks rattled, and an engine swap was in order.
So, yes, work needed to happen, but there was also ecstatic driving to be done, and for a while, Hamish’s someday one-day intentions remained just that.
“I can’t remember what spurred me to start work on it; one morning, it just felt like time. But what I thought would be a straightforward job took three long and sometimes frustrating years. At times I got sick of it and disheartened by imported parts that didn’t suit. I bought some engine mounts from the UK, and they didn’t fit, so that was an expensive setback. It was disappointing missing all those perfect driving days.
“I had done engine swaps before and had a little bit of experience and understanding of what was required. I came up with a plan to swap the current 1800cc Rover Series K engine, which is not known for its reliability and leaves the car feeling underpowered by more modern standards, and replace it with a 2000cc Honda K20 engine and gearbox, and upgrade and refresh the suspension. It is a known swap within the Lotus community, and in my opinion, the high-revving K20 engine is the one the Elise should always have had. With the right gear, I couldn’t see why I couldn’t do it myself.”
He fixed the brakes, replaced the cooling system, and pulled apart the clamshell fibreglass body and its extruded aluminium chassis, and almost three years later — with some help and supervision from Tim and Kevin — and at more than twice the original budget, had rebuilt it from a bare chassis. Every mechanical system was given attention, the focus being on reliability and road use more than ultimate performance.
“I had the car dyno-tuned with a result of 240 horsepower (up from 115 horsepower) and managed to retain a kerb weight of only 875 kilogrammes, more than fast enough for me, and it handles like a dream — better than when it was new.”
Tim and Kevin further helped the project by providing garaging and a workspace when Hamish and his partner Tracey Kimble, who works in finance, swapped their house and double garage for an apartment with a view.
“There are still several external cosmetics and a retrim of the interior I would like to do, but for now, I am just enjoying having it back on the road as my father demonstrated that cars are made to be driven. I am not too precious about the odd stone chip in the paint or scuffs in the interior.”
This is just as well because although one of his favourite drives is down the not always well-maintained Old Taupō Road and the western side of the lake to his friend’s bach at Kuratau, he and Tracey are also planning on exploring as much of Aotearoa as possible. That includes backroads, a lot of gravel, uneven surfaces and probably more than a fair share of potholes, but the little blue car with its wide-eyed headlights and jubilant grill grin will wear those grazes like badges of honour.
THE GIFT OF ELISE
When the Lotus Elise Series 1 was conceived, it was considered a genuine pioneering car that rewrote the rule book on lightweight automotive engineering. It was a great success, so much so that the body became an instant classic and has barely changed in the past 28 years.
When the cover was lifted from the new marque at its launch at the prestigious Frankfurt Motor Show in 1995, not only was the vehicle revealed, but so was two-year-old Elisa Artioli sitting behind the steering wheel. She is the granddaughter of Romano Artioli, then chair and owner of Lotus and Bugatti, and the Elise is named after her. Two years later, her grandfather gifted her an Elise S1, which she started driving when she was 19.
In 2021, the very last Lotus Elise, the Sport 240 Final Edition, rolled off the production line and this vehicle, too, was gifted by the manufacturer to Elisa, although her grandfather sold most of his stake in Lotus in 1996, and Elisa has no official ties to the company.