I’ve seen some really good reports and photos on Exiges.com that have been useful in helping me build my car so I thought I would share the details of my project here. Yes, I know it’s an Elise not an Exige but the mods are pretty similar under the skin. I’ll post the project photos in the next few days.
Why take a nice shiny sophisticated Lotus Elise and turn it into a rally car? Well, I’ve been rallying for the last 15 years and during this time I’ve had a number of front wheel drive rally cars and driven them with success achieving a number of class podium positions on Tarmac rallies. My most recent car was an ex-works Ford Puma 1400 kit car, the wide track version. It was a fantastic car to drive but it required a lot of TLC and expense to maintain. All this money and time was taking the fun out of rallying. To rekindle some fun in the sport I decided I’d like to try competing in a rear wheel drive car. The natural choice is the iconic MkII escort however due to their age they typically fall into two categories, rusty nail or immaculate ï¿½30,000+ examples. Neither of these options appealed to me. My ultimate rally car would have to be the Lancia Stratos but even kit versions demand hefty prices beyond my budget.
Over the last few years I’ve had a couple of Elise road cars and also driven my brother in laws Exige. He’s very kindly let me loose in it on a few track days. This got me thinking that perhaps I could build myself a modern day Stratos in the form of an Elise. They have all the benefits of mid engine layout, double wishbone suspension, good power to weight ratioï¿½ a recipe for fun. My only reservation would be the robustness of the chassis. Then I spotted Dave Bellerby’s rallycross Exige in a magazine, stamping all over the competition. The decision was now made. It certainly wouldn’t be the first Lotus rally car anyway. The Elan 26R was a competitive machine in its day on road events and another local rally driver has also had great success recently in his highly modified Banks Europa.
At the time I started planning the project I had a really nice Azure blue Elise with a Moto-Build 140 engine. This seemed like a good base car however I couldn’t bring myself to start cutting holes in it as it was too nice. So I decided to sell that car and look out for a damage repairable or a high mileage car. While browsing Pistonheads I spotted the perfect car. It wasn’t what I originally had in mind. It was a 1996 Elise that had been used for sprinting and came with Corbeau seats, A frame roll cage, Lotus sport suspension and had been fitted with a Lotus 340R engine. I did my sums and this worked out better than starting with a base car, so I promptly bought it.
The most important chassis change for the car to be eligible for rallying was the roll cage. An A frame is acceptable for circuit use but rallying technical regulations require a full cage with front hoops and door bars. Researching this part of the project took a great deal of time. My first thought was to use the Safety Devices FIA Elise race cage. There were a couple of problems with this. Firstly the cage doesn’t have side impact door bars, these are mandatory for rallying. After a few letters to the MSA (UK motorsport governing body) they gave me dispensation to run without door bars since the car has very high sills anyway. With this resolved the second problem was trying to find one, since Safety Devices had reorganised their business they’d lost the jigs for making them. I also read Sean Bicknell’s project report about fitting the FIA cage to his race Exige, it looked pretty awkward so I decided to keep looking.
In the end I found that Custom Cages were now making a proper MSA certified weld in cage for the Elise that utilised the existing main roll hoop. It also had all the necessary door bars and larger diameter rear legs to comply with regulations. I asked my friend Mark, a rally preparation expert, to install the cage for me. He thought it would be an interesting project, he was right about that.
I bought the cage in kit form ready to weld in. The design of the cage was great but there were an unbelievable number of problems with its manufacture and delivery from Custom Cages. Tube lengths were wrong and new ones had to be sent out. Some tubes were missing. Only half of the ends were profiles (rounded for the mating of the joints) so Mark had to buy the tool to do that himself. The installation CD was for a Peugeot 205. Some tubes appeared to be the incorrect material (not T45). The mounting foot plates were incorrect and no nuts and bolts were supplied. In fairness to Custom Cages they corrected all the faults and refunded me for any mistakes. It’s a shame as they have a good product but they need to pay more attention to the detail, it cost me several more weeks of build time and money than necessary.
To fit the cage the rear clamshell has to be removed and the seats taken out. The committing part is then cutting out sections of fibreglass to give access to the main hoop, there’s no turning back from this stage. The area around the tops of the existing rear stays needs to be removed. The old small diameter rear stays are then cut off and new larger diameter ones welded in place, these have additional load spreading foot plates. The main forward hoops are welded to the original roll over hoop and bolted to the front of the Aluminium sill extrusion. A section of fibreglass is cut out at the front of the sill to drop the leg into position. To bolt it in place a small letterbox is cut through the alloy inner panel. The rear A frame locates inside the main roll hoop similar to where a bolt in cage would sit. To improve the fit the old seat belt anchor plates need to be removed as this is where the lower tubes meet the roll hoop. The door bars require some further fibreglass removal to mount them. A section is removed at the bottom of the B pillar to enable the bars to be fully welded in position, this is then shaped around the bar and bonded back in place. The door bars are designed to be recessed in the door panel to give more cockpit space. This is achieved by cutting out a section of fibreglass under the doors.
After all this work the chassis was nearly ready except for some finishing touches. The hard top still needed to be fitted. To do this robustly Mark manufactured some brackets along the front of the roll cage enabling the hard top to be securely fastened to the car. Finally the roll cage was given a coat of matt black paint. The whole package now looks very impressive.
As with a race car there needs to be an adequate means of dragging your car back out of the gravel trap. The standard front towing eye is sufficient along with an Eliseparts rear towing eye, this bolts onto the rear undertray chassis fixing. Both eyes are painted yellow to help identify where to tow the car from, rather than the rope going around your rear spoiler.
In addition to the roll cage there are other mandatory safety items required for rally competition. Some of these are common with circuit racing so it was easier to source these parts.
The car was already fitted with the Lotus sport Corbeau race seats for the driver and navigator. It’s a bit of a squeeze with two of these seats fitted as the shoulder wings overlap a little. The seats are mounted on aluminium sub frames. The driver’s seat is set low and touches the floor. This is great for weight distribution but I’m concerned about grounding out on a loose rock or kerb so I’m fitting an Alloy plate under there. Just ask Marcus Gronholm’s navigator about that. He was hospitalised after they ran over a piece of metal on the stage that stuck up through the floor of his Peugeot WRC and ripped his Kevlar seat and rear end, ouch.
The original safety harness had expired it’s FIA date so I purchased a pair of new Schroth race harnesses from MSAR. Some of the Lotus harnesses bolt directly to the seatbelt mounts on the seat frame. In my view this is ok for trackdays but there is always the risk that if the seat mounts break free during an accident then you will end up being thrown from the car whilst attached to the seat, a bit like an ejector seat. I feel it is better to install full 6 point race harnesses that are attached to the floor using eye bolts with spreader plates underneath the vehicle. I visited a Lotus on Track meeting to check out how people had secured their harnesses, there were a variety of methods, some of which I’m surprised that the scrutineers accepted. It is really important that the mounting positions and angles at which the harnesses are fitted are correct.
In the event of a crash you need an electrical cut out system that isolates the battery power. I chose the Cartek electronic system. It’s more expensive than a pull cable switch but it’s a very neat package and should work well. Mark mounted the circuit board in the battery compartment to minimise the length of the wires. It’s a tight squeeze to get the battery in and out past it but it is possible. There’s an internal trigger switch which is fitted to a carbon panel on the dash board where the radio used to go. On the outside there is a recessed switch panel on the driver’s side of the bonnet with a tidy oval hole cut out to access it.
For rallying you need both a hand held fire extinguisher and a plumbed in system. I chose a Lifeline electrical 2.25 litre Zero 2000 plumbed in system. This is mounted on an alloy plinth behind the driver’s seat. The switches are routed to the same locations as the electrical cut off unit both inside and outside the car. There are two nozzles routed to the engine bay, one aimed at the inlet and one at the exhaust. They are mounted to the inside of the rear clam. The 1.75 litre hand held extinguisher is located at the front of the navigators seat on the alloy cross member.
When I bought the car it had height adjustable Lotus Sports Suspension. I’ve used this before on my previous car and it’s a fantastic upgrade from the standard wallowing Elise setup. However for competition I decided I wanted further adjustability so I bought a set of Nitron dampers and springs. I don’t want to go too stiff on the springs as tarmac rally stages are rarely as smooth as circuits. The guys at Nitron seem really helpful and I’m sure I’ll be able to find a good balanced setup. While low ride heights are good for the track I need to keep things realistic for rallying to prevent the car grounding on undulating roads so I’m starting with a 115mm front and 125mm rear setup. A good fast road setup is really what I need. The S2 Exige seems a pretty good benchmark, I’m amazed at how well it can handle rough roads and keep in shape.
The car is also fitted with the Lotus Sport adjustable front anti roll bar. Again this is something I’m going to have to practice with to get the right setup. Currently it’s set very stiff (one hole from max).
Based on common advice about the failure of rear track control arms I’ve fitted uprated ones. I chose the Eliseparts kit that puts the outboard ends in double sheer using the alloy bracket. I fitted them while the clam was off which made the job a little easier. I expected it to be a pretty quick job but it took longer than it should have as the holes in the handed alloy bracket didn’t align very well with existing uprights and had to be carefully fettled.
It’s early days for the cars overall suspension geometry. I need some more experience driving it to develop a setup. Currently the front is set to zero for toe while the rear has a little toe in. I’m expecting this to be quite a tame setup with a some understeer. I like my front wheel drive cars quite twitchy so I can turn them in to tight corners sharply and get the rear loose, this is useful for rally stages. Right now I’ve got plenty to concentrate on with learning the unfamiliar discipline of rear wheel drive.
I’ve always been impressed with the standard brake setup on the Elise S1, providing good pads are used. On this car the standard front AP callipers clamp oversize diameter AP disks mounted on alloy bells. The rear disks are standard diameter but drilled and grooved. Pagid RS-14 pads are fitted all round, they squeal a lot but give good feel. All the hoses are Goodridge stainless steel. Compared to other Elise’s I’ve driven this car has a firm pedal feel and great initial bite. In the future I may have to fit a front / rear brake proportioning lever, however with the larger front disks I don’t expect the rears to be such a problem with early locking up.
The car had previously been fitted with a Turbo Technics K series engine that apparently suffered reliability problems. As a result the last owner was looking for an alternative power plant. One of his friends was installing a Honda Type R engine to his Lotus 340R to give it a power hike. This meant there was a low mileage K-series VHPD engine available, which was transplanted to my car. The VHPD engine is normally about 177 BHP but this version is fitted with an Emerald ECU, vernier pulleys and a cat bypass pipe giving it about 190 BHP. It also came with the carbon airbox upgrade.
While working on the car I found that it has a front oil cooler fitted which is a bonus. It’s not currently plumbed in on this engine but hopefully that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge as the pipe work is already there.
Thankfully, when the 340R engine was fitted so was its existing close ratio gearbox and drive shafts. I would have been concerned about the durability of those parts if they had been carried over from the previous Turbo engine. The gear ratios are pretty good for a production box. Quaife do a good selection of alternative gear kits but I’ll see how we go with the standard unit. I had plenty of expense with the Ricardo dog box in my Puma, I had to strip it after most events to replace the dog rings. The ultimate upgrade would be the Quaife sequential box with electronic shift but I don’t have the budget for that this year. Also the national tarmac rally regulations are talking about clamping down on the electronic shifts for club events to keep a grip of costs.
It’s not uncommon for club rally stages to include sections of loose gravel or dirty tarmac so an urgent upgrade will have to be a limited slip differential. I will probably go for a plate type rather than the torque biasing as they offer a sharper response. They can usually give you sufficient drive to get you out of a stage with a broken drive shaft as well.
Wheels & Tyres
To keep costs under control I’m using standard 5 spoke series 1 Elise wheels. I did have a mint set of Victory alloys, they would have been great but they were far too valuable to kerb. The other technicality is that the car won’t fit on the trailer with the wider Victories on the rear. I’ve told my Nova driving mate to buy a bigger Brian James trailer, how thoughtless of him to go for the narrow version.
Currently I’m trying a set of Toyo 888 tyres. I used them at Angelsey and found them pretty impressive in the dry, they seem to have equal performance to the Yokohama A048R’s which I’ve always had before. I now want to find a really good wet tyre. The consideration with rallying is that you don’t get any warm up laps and tyre warmers are not allowed so you need a tyre that can perform straight away from cold. So for the wet I need a very soft compound. The hot (or cold actually) favourite at the minute looks like a set of Dunlop CR311 rally tyres in X19 or X22 soft compounds, they have a legal slick tread pattern that can be cut for intermediate or full wet patterns. If anyone has any good recommendations for a good performing wet race tyre then I would welcome any suggestions. There are no specific championship controls for rallying so I have a wide choice of tyres.
On the stage
Last week I took the car for its official MSA rally log book. The scrutineer vetted the car thoroughly and was happy to sign off its competition log book, a critical step of the project. There are a few minor suggestions he made that I will be implementing soon.
Hopefully the first event will be the Promenade Rally at New Brighton on Saturday September 8th. I just need to finish off some of the setup and get the wet tyres just in case. Unfortunately I haven’t got time to test the car before the event so I’ll be learning as I go. I’d rather do that than miss out on one of my favourite events. Previously on this event I finished 3rd in the 1400cc class and 41st overall. This year I’m up against the 2000cc cars so there will be plenty of tough experienced competition in Escorts and mid engined Darrien’s (who usually win outright). I’m sure the car will be fast, it’s whether the driver can keep pace with it.
My navigator is equally excited about our debut event in the new car. He was gutted when I sold the Puma. Earlier this year when I bought a 1300cc Peugeot 106 Group N car he was on the verge of mutiny. Now it looks like his faith is restored. Let’s see what he says on the following Sunday after the event.