Richard Norman in his V8 Lotus Elite

Richard Norman's 298cid/4.9L Buick V8 Powered 1974 Lotus Elite

as published in British V8 Newsletter, Volume XV Issue 1, April 2007

Owner: Richard Norman
Model: 1974 Lotus Elite
Engine: Buick V8
Conversion performed by: Owner

I bought my '74 Lotus Elite in 1982 with a slipped timing belt which had lunched all 16 valves in the 2.0 liter aluminum twin-cam 4 cylinder engine. On this engine, if the timing belt slips just one tooth it bends all of the valves, every time. The repair bill is about $2,000, or about $600 if you repair it yourself. I got the car for a good price and was just going to fix and resell it. The car came with low-grade cloth upholstery and cheesy, fake rosewood dash, door and console cappings. After only 28,000 miles the upholstery was shot. The original paint was an ugly brown. After I wasted a couple hundred bucks on advertising with no takers, I decided to do a makeover.

Before Picture: Richard Norman's 1974 Lotus Elite
Stock 1974 Lotus Elite

The Lotus Elite always handled exceptionally well. After all, it is a Lotus and their Grand Prix innovations were legendary. Lotus changed the racing world as well as road cars. The Elite's fully independent coil-spring suspension, with the rear half shafts doubling as transverse links, proved supple and sensitive just like their race cars. It's something you just have to experience to really appreciate. Lotus originally designed the Elite's chassis to take a V8, but at the last minute Lotus decided to install a 2.0L twin-cam engine because they feared the oil embargo would shift demand toward more fuel efficient cars. The Rover aluminum V8 was even tried in the car prior to production and everyone liked it, but Colin Chapman was just too proud to use it and wanted a Lotus-built engine. Sadly, the Lotus engine just wasn't up to the job. A driver must keep the revs up toward redline to get the stock Elite to move with anything close to good response. In 1974, the engine was further detuned for the States so it would pass emissions. The detuned engine had 140hp and 135 lbs/ft of torque compared to about 160hp in Europe. There is no power down low - it is all at the top end of the rev range. It requires lots of gear shifting.

Lotus's engine selection for the Elite was very unfortunate because the car already had great brakes, a race-tuned modern suspension, and glue-like tenacity on twisty roads. It is really a blast to drive - except for the lack of power.

I thought about rebuilding the original Lotus engine for more power (with different cams, increased compression, better carburetors, etc.) but it is really a lousy and unrefined engine. It's noisy, rough, unreliable (the worst part, and typically British) and it's very expensive to rebuild. The engine can produce more power, and in later years Lotus turbocharged it and stroked it to 2.2L, but the joke is: if you look in the dictionary under "hand grenade"... there's a picture of the Lotus Turbo 2.2 engine.

Richard Norman's 1974 Lotus Elite Engine Conversion
Richard's Completed Lotus Elite V8 Conversion

Just as I was trying to sell my Lotus, Road&Track magazine had a feature article of a Canadian who had a Buick 215 all aluminum V8 professionally built (by Toddco engineering of Trans Am fame in the 60's and 70's) for his '76 Lotus Elite. The article reported much improved performance (around 200hp) without disturbing the legendary handling. It looked like the perfect solution. Since I wasn't able to sell my car, I decided to do the same! Besides, I have always loved the Lotus cars.

I also thought the Buick 215 would be an excellent choice for the Lotus because it's actually about 15 lbs lighter than the original all aluminum 2.0 liter 4 cylinder twin cam engine! The Lotus engine's characteristics were so bad that the car is really undesirable to many, including me. It makes for a car that few people really want to own. With such a lightweight engine for the transplant, I wouldn't add any weight to the front end and ruin one of the best handling cars of all time, a car that started with a 50/50 weight distribution. Lotus road cars have always been noted best for the way their cars turn in and go around corners and in this respect the Elite is one of the best road cars Lotus ever made.

Phil Baker Bored and Stroked Richard's Buick 215 to 298 cubic inches.
Phil Baker Bored and Stroked Richard's Buick "215" to 298 cubic inches.

Just as my project was starting, an article came out in Hot Rod Magazine about a guy named Phil Baker who specialized in this engine and happen to live just north of me in the Seattle area. Phil had figured out how to make more power by boring and stroking and had taken Buick 215's out to their maximum displacement of 305 cid to make this little light weight jewel scream. I decided to have mine taken almost to the extreme, to 298 cid. Being slightly smaller than the 305cid, the 298 leaves a little more meat on the engine's cast iron cylinder liners.

This is a very custom built engine with only the block and front engine cover being used from the original 215 engine. Every other engine part was borrowed from another engine, modified, custom fabricated or is a high performance aftermarket part. Phil Baker has built many different displacements using standard off the shelf parts to make them more affordable than using custom ones. Experimenting with many different parts and displacements to find out what works best, he has developed much expertise with this engine and he had a stock pile of engines and related parts. He has built many for racing as well as street.

When I met Phil, he was building a big block Keith Black hemi for the street in his Dodge Challenger! Having friends like Mr. Black lets you know a little of what kind of engine builder he is. He is a real gearhead and knows his stuff.

I used the aluminum block of a '61 Buick 215cid, but with Buick's larger 1964 300cid aluminum heads fitted with Manley (38mm) 1.496" (up from 1.313") exhaust and TRW 1.723" intake (up from 1.625") valves. Chrysler 360 valve springs were used. Using the 300's crankshaft increases the stroke from 2.8 (71.1mm) to 3.4 inches (86.4mm). This makes a very noticeable increase in torque. The crank was magnafluxed to check for cracks before any machining commenced.

The engine has cast iron liners which were removed to be able to bore out the block to accept larger Ohio 231 sleeves increasing the standard 215 bore from 3.5 (88.9mm) to 3.736 inches (94.8mm). This allows the use of standard-bore TRW forged-aluminum pistons from a Chevy 305cid with 10.25:1 compression ratio. After a little massaging on the block for clearance, a Small Block Chevy (327cid, '67 or earlier, two inch journal) connecting rod was used. This increases torque because the pistons dwell at the top of the cylinder longer, allowing more time for combustion, which increases pressure on the piston. The stroke-to-rod ratio (1.67:1) is very close to optimum. The "Childs and Albert" forged steel H-beam connecting rods were shot-peened and chrome-moly tubular pushrods were fitted with standard Buick 300 rocker arms.

The engine was carefully externally balanced and blueprinted with some head porting to clean them up a bit. I had the tolerances machined closer to the minus side as that is what you want in an all aluminum engine as things tend to grow more when warmed up. I used all high end quality parts throughout the engine like moly rings on the pistons and tool steel wrist pins and ARP high strength rod bolts.

A Cloyes (Buick V6) pre-stretched double row, true roller timing chain was used. Cloyes claims up to a 10hp gain with this timing chain which also increases durability by using high quality billet steel heat-treated sprockets with 3 keyways for more precise timing adjustments.

A number of years ago, I had a Triumph TR8 (Rover version of 215) whose timing chain jumped 40 degrees while just starting the car because it had stretched so much. If you are rebuilding a Buick 215 or Rover V8 engine, the Cloyes is a great timing chain to use.

Such a glove-like fit that the oil pan must be removed for engine installation.
Such a glove-like fit that the oil pan must be removed for engine installation.
(Note: strong steel side beams tie into hidden rollover structure.)

Phil Baker custom fabricated a lightweight forged-aluminum flywheel with a steel insert and aircraft-quality fasteners.

A Crane "Hi-Intensity" hydraulic cam, grind number "HI-216/2852-29-12" was matched to this engine giving 0.456" lift with 216 degrees duration on the intake valves and 0.480" lift with 228 degrees duration on the exhaust, measuring duration @ 0.050" lift. Lobe overlap is 115 degrees for the exhaust and 109 degrees for the intake. The hydraulic lifters are designed to make this cam variable as the lifters bleed off some oil for a reduction in lift at low rpm (increases torque) but then it makes full lift on the valves at higher rpm for more power.

He increased the diameter of the oil passage ways in the block and put in a larger oil pickup and pickup tube. This engine likes lots of oil. A high flow oil pump (not high pressure) and a larger high flow water pump were employed as well.

Carter 600cfm four-barrel carburetor, topped with a 14x2 K&N Filter.
Carter 600cfm four-barrel carburetor, topped with a 14x2 K&N Filter.

I mounted the engine as low and as close to the firewall as possible. Over 90 percent of the engine now sits behind the front axle. This just happened to locate the transmission shifter in the exact place it needed to be.

An Offenhauser 5165 single port four barrel intake especially made for the 215 was port matched to the heads.

I used a Carter AFB four barrel 600cfm carburetor, which has slightly smaller primaries than secondaries, and a throttle cable by Lokar. The smaller primaries give better mileage cruising but the larger secondaries offer good performance when you put your foot in it. Before I installed the new rebuilt engine, I temporarily installed a spare block and heads with the new transmission to fabricate the motor and transmission mounts and have a set of custom built Tri-Y headers and exhaust system fit to the Lotus. This header design is fabricated with 1-5/8" ID tubing. This is the optimum size for this engine, any bigger and you lose torque, according to Phil. Four exhaust pipes dump into two and then into one on each side. The length of the sections when they are two is fairly long (about 20 inches) and this is what helps to makes a broader torque curve especially at low rpm. It seems to be a great design for the street, where torque is king. This increases the cylinder scavenging effect and improves engine breathing by utilizing the exhaust velocity of one cylinder to help the exhaust velocity of another. This helps pull in cleaner air on the intake as well because more of the exhaust gases has been removed. One advantage the Tri-Y has is the "step tube" effect. On each cylinder bank, the four primary tubes collect into two secondary tubes that are usually two sizes bigger in diameter. The two secondary tubes then collect into a single outlet, which is usually two sizes bigger again. This increase in tube volume slows the velocity of the gases, increasing the scavenging. The headers were "Jet Hot" metallic ceramic coated to reduce engine bay temperatures and to protect the headers from rusting. This coating dresses up the headers making them look great and frees up about 10hp on this engine as it keeps the exhaust gases hot to also help scavenge them. Stainless steel 2 inch dual exhaust pipes were used from the headers back with stainless steel Super Trapp tunable mufflers. The mufflers can be adjusted for noise, hp and torque. Using less end cap diffusers makes it quieter with more back pressure for more torque or you can add them which makes it louder and adds more top end horsepower. They also affect lean and richness in the carburetor.

A 14" by 2" K&N air filter was used. It flows more air and traps more dirt by using a reusable stainless steel mesh with surgical cotton gauze. A 1.5 inch drop base air cleaner helps clear the low hood profile of the Lotus.

Stainless steel braided hoses and AN aircraft fittings were used throughout the engine compartment, including the radiator hoses. Offenhauser polished aluminum valve covers also really dress up the engine bay.

What about the charging system? A chrome 100 amp one-wire alternator with an internal regulator was low-mounted onto the engine.

1974 Buick HEI distributor works with a Jacobs Pro-Street Energy Pak and Ultra Coil.
1974 Buick HEI distributor works with a Jacobs "Pro-Street Energy Pak" and "Ultra Coil".

Phil found a way to adapt a '74 Buick HEI to the motor. By using the Offenhauser intake, and grinding off the left front intake bolt some, the HEI can be used. The HEI has a bigger diameter distributor cap which has less cross spark scatter than a smaller diameter to help prevent misfires.

Phil Baker carefully matched all the engine parts to work in harmony with each other. He also re-curved the distributor to match the new engine components for optimum power. (This engine likes 36 degrees of total timing.)

I used the best ignition I could find at the time, a Jacobs "Pro Street Energy Pak" and "Ultra Coil". This is a computer controlled electronic ignition. This is a really trick ignition and definitely one of the best you can use without going to a distributor-less, multi-coiled unit. It uses what Dr. Christopher Jacobs calls a "variable magnetic principle" ignition coil (replacing the coil in the HEI distributor cap). This patented and unique ignition uses the spark plugs as resistors measuring the load or need and adjusts the spark for intensity and duration in each cylinder on each and every stroke for maximum efficiency. The spark characteristics are always changing just like the fuel requirements according to demand but few ignitions alter the spark. If the spark is too hot or weak, then the gas mixture can sometimes not light off wasting that cylinders power. This ignition eliminates all related problems including hesitations, bogs, misfires and hot and cold starting related to weak ignitions. It makes more power and eliminates misfires completely by re-firing the plug if the mixture doesn't fire the first time. This noticeably increases gas mileage too. At times, some new car ignitions misfire as much as 12 percent of the time according to Dr. Jacobs, washing gas past the rings and into the oil and producing absolutely no power in that cylinder while thinning the oil and increasing wear on the cylinder walls, piston rings and engine bearings.

With this ignition, he claims around a 30 hp increase for a high performance engine of this size (300cid) and has done road tests on a number of cars to prove his point over stock OEM ignitions. I also used Jacobs's high performance 8.5mm plug wires.

Because of this ignition, you can increase the plug gap for a larger (bigger is better) spark kernel and also sometimes advance the timing as the gas ignites and burns faster which also increases power and mileage. I also changed out the stock ignition module for a high energy one. The module sits on the inside top of the distributor. It's from Summit racing. They say it's so powerful it will light up a small city!

According to Dr. Jacobs, the HEI is one of the best distributors out there so these improvements make for a very good smooth running engine with maximum power and mileage.

Jacobs puts out a manual called "Optimizing your Ignition". It's full of all kinds of tricks to improve performance. Very useful! This ignition also improves cold starting with a big 300 percent increase in energy to the plugs. The computer makes 33 decisions for every 1.5 degree rotation of the engine or about 8,000 decisions per revolution. At 6500 rpm redline, this is almost 1 million a second, which is more than adequate to get the job done.

Two Important Upgrades: Euro-Spec bumper and Electric Headlamp Tilt Mechanisms
Two Important Upgrades: Euro-Spec bumper and Electric Headlamp Tilt Mechanisms.
(Note: Richard fitted Euro-spec bumpers front and rear, and a later "Series 2" Elite air dam.)

More power makes more heat and a need to get rid of it, so I increased the cooling system capacity with a custom four gallon, 4 row radiator and twin 14 inch electric fans with an override fan switch on the dash. I also increased air flow to the radiator by cutting the body out behind the new European style front bumper and installing a series two Elite front air dam. This more than doubles the airflow to the radiator and then dumps 80 percent of the hot air into the atmosphere through a vent on top of the hood before it reaches the engine bay.

Lotus used a spring to lift the headlight pods open and a vacuum system to keep them closed. They would only stay closed for about 12 hours after the engine was turned off. To prevent them from opening, I discarded the whole Lotus headlamp-lift system and replaced it with Triumph TR8 electric units.

Taking off the Elite's original air conditioning system saved 135 lbs all by itself. I may find a lighter unit later. I took weight off any place I could. Less weight is the same as more power and was Colin Chapman's philosophy in all his cars, both racing and road.

I am using an "Optima" battery. It is a gel-cell which is lighter than a conventional battery with more cold cranking power and should also last longer. It also is totally sealed so there is no possibility of acid leaks or spills. It doesn't emit fumes, which is important because it located inside the trunk. I also fitted a heavier gauge battery cable for less voltage-drop to the starter.

I used a Holley electric fuel pump with a large Mallory fuel filter (both re-located outside the trunk and away from the battery). The Elite was originally fitted with plastic fuel line, so I replaced it with braided stainless steel hose from the fuel pump (below the trunk) to a fuel pressure regulator with gauge on the firewall close to the carburetor. I used "AN" aircraft-style fittings. (Many Lotuses have burned up because of ruptured plastic fuel lines.)

A remote "System 1" race-developed anti-aeration oil filter that has over 138 square inches of stainless steel pleated mesh for a life time of use was installed. Any metal or foreign material that is floating around your engine (30 microns or more) is trapped and easy to check for just by cleaning the re-useable filter element. They claim it is the most technologically advanced filtration product available with more surface area for higher flow and superior filtration than other oil filters. The cast ribbed aluminum case strengthens the housing as well as cools the oil almost as much as the radiator cools the engine coolant according to the manufacture. AN #8 fittings with large stainless steel braided lines for good flow were used. No more throwing away oil saturated used oil filters!

The oil pan was modified to hold 7 quarts of oil, for a total system capacity of about 8.5 quarts.

I believe in using synthetic lubricants for all the drivetrain. In the engine they provide more power, better gas mileage, better protection, and longer life. Engines pollute less with synthetic lube. I used "Royal Purple" for the engine, partly because it sticks better to bearing surfaces after engine shut down. I used synthetic "RedLine" gear lube in the transmission and rear end. A friend who races modified sprint cars (750+ hp small blocks) used to have to rebuild his rear ends every year, but now with synthetic RedLine in his rear axle he hasn't had a break down or worn out gears in a few years of racing.

Tremec 3550 5-speed heavy duty transmission.
Tremec 3550 5-speed heavy duty transmission.

A Tremec 3550 5-speed (now "TKO") heavy duty, high performance transmission and a 10" clutch were used in place of the Elite's weaker original 5-speed. (The Lotus 5-speed was taken from a "Maxi", a smaller model exclusive to the European market.) The Tremec 5-speed is the same transmission that Ford used in the Mustang Cobra and also used in a few other high performance cars. The Mustang had a supercharged 281cid (4.6L) V8 with 390hp and 390lbs/ft of torque. To mate the transmission to the engine block, I used a Rover "automatic" bell housing by having a thin 3/8" aluminum plate sandwiched between the two so the internal clutch dimensions worked with the Tremec.

I am now replacing the rear end, with its inboard rear drum brakes. They are problematic and leak rear end fluid on to the brake shoes after only a few thousand miles. Using inboard brakes is a great racing-derived design to reduce the un-sprung weight that the rear suspension has to deal with, making the car faster at handling the undulations in the road and also facilitating use of lighter springs. This makes for a softer ride while still giving excellent handling. Most Lotus cars have a good deal of wheel travel (up and down) and a relatively soft and good ride while minimizing body roll for maximum handling - the best of both worlds! With coil springs at all four corners, all independently hung, adds to the Lotus touch for awesome handling.

The original rear end ratio of 3.7:1 with the Tremec 3.27 first gear makes the overall ratio about 12.2:1 which would be great for drag-racing but it's too low for the increase in power so I am trying to figure out what would be the ideal ratio. I have found a rear-end that is both lightweight, strong and is a quick change rear-end which means you can change the ratio easily and quickly without taken the unit out of the car.

The engine was built to be a torque pig - which is what you want for the street! With the proper gearing, I expect it to run 12 second quarter miles with 0-60 in about 4 seconds and a sub 10 second 0-100mph. Top speed should be somewhere around 190mph.

Because the increase in power from stock, I strengthened the trailing rear suspension arms with some square tubing welded on each side. A new custom drive shaft with stronger u-joints was also needed. The rear end half shafts will also have larger and stronger u-joints and bigger wheel bearings on the outside hubs next to the wheels.

In 1974 Road&Track didn't road test any car with a shorter stopping distance than the Elite, so I am really looking forward to a very fun driver. With all of the modifications I have made, the car has lost well over 100 lbs. Nonetheless, I have decided to upgrade the brakes a little with larger diameter, vented, slotted and cross drilled rotors all around and an adjustable proportioning valve. I am going to Wilwood 12.8" rotors in front and 11" in the rear. This should be more than adequate for the weight of the car.

So now, when the rear axle gets installed and new larger brakes, The Lotus Elite will go, stop and look like it should have from the factory.

Lotus Elite is very slippery, with a drag coefficient of only 0.30.
The Lotus Elite is very slippery, with a drag coefficient of only 0.30.

As is true for most Lotuses, the Elite is very slippery with a drag coefficient of 0.30. My Elite is lighter and has a better power-to-weight ratio than any road car Lotus ever produced, including the mid-engine Esprits, the new Elise, and the Exige. The new super-charged inter-cooled Lotus Exige 265E does 0-60 in 3.88 seconds and 0-100 in 9.2 seconds. It has 264hp but only 184lbs/ft of torque. That makes for some very quick company.

The fiberglass boxes that make up the Elite's body are filled with foam, which makes the car very stiff, light and tight which is one reason why it handles so well. Lotus cars have always been at the head of the class in design innovations.

Custom body and paintwork - including shaved marker lights and radio antenna.
Custom body and paintwork - including shaved marker lights and radio antenna.

I spent over 400 hours on the fiberglass bodywork taking the old paint off down to the gel-coat and fixing all the small imperfections and stress cracks. Then the entire body was glazed and hand-blocked down to give a smooth, straight body before the primer/epoxy sealer coats and final top coats of PPG acrylic urethane "Cardinal Red" (1990 Ford Truck) and clear coat went on. The extra attention to detail here helped greatly improved the straightness and smoothness of the finished paint job. After drying, the paint was color-sanded flat very carefully and polished. I also shaved the side reflector lights at each outside corner of the car and took off the antenna which looks a lot cleaner and better. The chrome outside mirror was also painted body color. This paint job would have been around $10,000. This was a lot of work but I think it was worth it.

My car originally came with Lotus's optional 14 inch aluminum alloy factory wheels and 60 series tires (modern and low profile for 1974) but I changed to 16 inch American Racing custom aluminum alloy wheels with Dunlop Sp Sport 8000 45 series Z-rated tires (205/45/16 front and 225/45/16 rear). The rear tires are slightly larger (225mm) than original (205mm) to better handle the increase in power.

The new trimmer (and lighter) European bumpers and front air dam greatly improved the looks replacing the old federal big black rubber bumpers which did nothing but make the car ugly, heavier and about 6 inches longer.

I sand blasted and straightened all of the ugly polished aluminum window moldings and painted them body color along with the bumpers. This makes it look much better and more modern.

Custom Connoly gray leather upholstery.
Custom Connoly gray leather upholstery.

I installed new custom Connolly gray leather hides with beautiful burled Carpathian Elm wood that I sprayed with 10 to 15 coats of PPG's clear urethane, sanding between coats. Lotus later started using this same elm in their mid-engine Esprits. They also went to electric lifts for the headlights and a V8 engine. Go figure!

The Lotus does so many things right, but falls short in other areas so I have modified its weak areas for a better car which is a lot more reliable and more enjoyable to own. How many people don't buy British cars because of the reliability factor, especially Lotuses? This car was weak in its electrics (Lucas), engine, transmission, rear brake design and got a very poor grade in the fit-and-finish department.

Burled Carpathian Elm dashboard inserts.
Finishing Touches: burled Carpathian Elm dashboard inserts.

I figure, I have around $20,000 in the car in parts including the price I paid for the car. There is a lot of performance in this sports GT car and it takes a whole lot more money to find a new car today that comes close even at more than double that amount.

It has been a challenge to build and work on and has taken a long time (too many interruptions) but should be a gas to drive which I hope to do again by late spring or early summer of 2007.

The engine weights about 300 lbs with the parts I have used. That is one lightweight, high performance engine, and perfect for sports cars! The car weights a little over 2200 lbs with around 300 hp / 360 ft lbs torque. This puts the power to weight at around 7 lbs/hp and a lot of torque throughout the rev range so there is plenty of punch when ever you want or need it. With the V8, I have greatly improved the power, reliability and fun, making the Lotus much more desirable car for some real fun in the driving department. That is the main reason we buy sports cars in the first place. By dressing up both outside and inside also makes the car look so much better and makes the car so much more enjoyable. It has been a fun but challenging project.

I've been told that the mid-engined Esprit was the car Mr. Chapman drove to look good in, but the Elite was what he drove if he wanted to go have fun. This car is a blast to drive as you can take corners faster than you ever thought possible. It is so sure footed. It is difficult to get up enough nerve to actually find the limit of adhesion in a corner but if you start to loose it or drift, all you have to do is let off the throttle and it comes right back to you. The car is very forgiving if you go too far overboard. You can actually steer the car with the throttle. Now, my Elite will have power to match its handling, with improved looks to boot!

1974 Lotus Elite - Before the Engine Swap
1974 Lotus Elite - Before the Engine Swap

1974 Lotus Elite - After the Transformation
1974 Lotus Elite - After the Transformation

Richard Norman with his V8 Elite
Richard Norman

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