Elan Bodywork

This is an article I wrote for the local Lotus club.

Elan Bodywork

In 2001 I purchased a 1966 Elan Coupe with “minor” damage to the body and major damage to the driver’s door. When I started restoring the car I fully intended to do all of the bodywork myself. I was shooting for a nice driver, not a concours winning car. I’d read the various tomes on the subject and had even done some fiberglass work on small boats. I thought I was well prepared to undertake this part of the restoration.

Left side of car. Notice the drivers side door. This will come to haunt me.

There are four main steps to body restoration: removing the paint, repairing the fiberglass, preparing the body, and painting. My first task was to remove the paint down to the gelcoat. With most fiberglass bodies, such as boats or another model of fiberglass car, I could have used some sort of media blasting to remove the paint. But, as is so often the case, the Lotus is a more fragile creature and is known for its very thin gelcoat. I needed to remove the paint without damaging or removing the gelcoat as well. From my research I learned that most experts believe media blasting will damage the gelcoat, so I opted for a more precise but more labor intensive approach. I sanded the paint off. And sanded and sanded and sanded. I went through a variety of electric sanders, block sanders, little pieces of folded sandpaper, and lots of elbow grease.

After what seemed a lifetime of being covered in British Racing Green dust, all the paint was off and I could see the damage under the paint. I discovered what I believe were three damage/repair cycles that seemed to have been gotten progressively worse. After looking at the damage to the left door and rear quarter panel of the car I was much less confident of my ability to complete the fiberglass work. None of the contour details around the door were present and the left rear tail light mounting area was a patchwork of repairs. The rest of the car was also in bad shape with cracks and bad repairs on every corner. It was time to find a professional to repair the fiberglass.

I asked around and got the names of several people who either specialized in Lotus repair or who had a good reputation working with fiberglass cars. I contacted all of them, asked for references and examined their work. I found that several of them were doing good work with the heavier bodied American fiberglass cars, like Corvettes, but didn’t have experience on the more delicate Lotus bodies. Then I found Randall Fehr, a Lotus restoration specialist based in Seattle. As luck would have it, he was down from Seattle to attend the fall 2001 Lotus Club track day with his Series 1 Europa. After the track day, Randall came over to the house and looked over the car. We talked about what I wanted for a completed car and we eventually agreed on a price and found time in his schedule for him to do the fiberglass repair. The delivery of the body to his Seattle shop would wait until spring. Meanwhile, I needed to remove more paint.

In the spring, I delivered the body, two new bumpers and a new bonnet to Randall. After Randall had a chance to do a detailed assessment, he found other issues:
• The left door and surrounding area were damaged worse than originally thought.
• The gelcoat, had so many cracks that it was irreparable
• The left rear corner needed to be completely remade

Ready for Paint

After 5 months of repairs, the structure of the body had been restored but the original gelcoat had to be removed. It was a web of cracks. Only two small areas of the original gelcoat remained: one small section under the boot and another under the nose. In the process of repair, the fine details of the body had also disappeared.

The next step was to do the filler work and reshape the body. I got a quote from a business Randall was associated with, but the number of hours needed drove the price fairly high. To save some money on the project, I decided to this work myself. I lined up another car in Portland to use as a model so I could match the contour lines. I started pondering how to cordon off a section of my garage to provide the necessary contained space. I also needed to do the work when the temperature wasn’t too cold – a challenge in Portland in December in my unconditioned garage.

Over the winter, there was a business change at the restoration shop that resulted in a more favorable estimate for filler and a final paint job. When I weighed the price against the complications and risk of doing it myself, I decided to go with the shop. I contracted with Stephen at Liquid Reflections to complete the body filler and paint. We agreed on the level of quality I was aiming for: a nice street driver. Stephen spent about 75 hours doing the final body prep work and was patient with me while I tested and selected the right shade of paint.

Ready to put on the chassis

Now, after thirteen months in Seattle, the smooth, shiny body is in my garage. I have a little work to polishing out the orange peel. In the end it will be nicer than when it rolled the showroom floor.

Author: Jim Boone

Jim is the resident photographer and web dude. He enjoys driving, practical shooting, and the occasional shotgun game. He is classified as A in USPSA Open and is working hard to be a real A class shooter.