Lakeside Engineering

Run by Enthusiasts for Enthusiasts

Tel: 01932 340003



This page is dedicated to our sadly missed friend Art Markus, but hopefully with a bit of cajoling we can get him to add to his previous input.


Don't forget that Art's great book is still available, we understand that signed copies are still available at about £650 which does include a flight to New Zealand.

Elise Weaknesses


As we have seen, by far the majority of Lakeside’s customers drive Elise's. Because we see so many of them, we have got to know the Elise inside out, and so over time we have seen most of the problems that are likely to arise. In reality, and despite the gossip you may have seen on the web and elsewhere, they are few and relatively minor. The only slightly worrying exception is the Rover K-series cylinder head gasket: not just because the head gasket is prone to failure, but because those failures are apparently quite random. To date we have been unable to identify any pattern to these head gasket failures. They do not seem to be related to age, mileage, or pattern of use; whether the car is subjected primarily to short journeys, high-speed motorway use, track days or what have you? There is just no rhyme or reason to it.


Two things are worthy of note however. One is that replacement head gaskets are delivered with metal locating dowels in place of the plastic dowels fitted in production. The second thing is that we have yet to see a head gasket failure on an engine with metal dowels. Now you may think those two facts were connected in some way, but we couldn’t possibly comment!


Because this is a known problem, which has been much discussed among the Elise-driving community, we have probably seen as many suspected as actual failures, as worried owners bring their cars to us suspecting a problem at the merest flutter of the temperature gauge, or the slightest puff of smoke from the exhaust.  We have even been asked to change a head gasket as a precaution against failure, although on the basis that ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!’; we were able to dissuade the owner from such a drastic and unnecessary course of action on that occasion.


It doesn’t help of course that the two temperature sender units, which respectively supply information to the Stack display and the MEMS electronic control unit (ecu), are notoriously unreliable. A failed sender unit is a common cause of poor running as the ecu becomes confused by an erratic signal, and it is not uncommon for the temperature reading on the Stack unit to give false readings. Usually, simply replacing the sender unit is sufficient to effect a cure. It is not an easy job because of restricted access, but if you are tackling it yourself do remember not to over-tighten the new unit, as they are easily damaged internally (a trap for young players, as the damage is not readily discernible) by over zealous tightening.


Another phenomenon (no… not the Vauxhall Vectra!) that concerns Elise owners, is fluctuations in the coolant level visible inside the header tank. Many owners, anxious to maintain the coolant level at the MAX mark, find themselves continually topping up the coolant level, as the engine repeatedly ejects the excess. Instead, to allay anxiety and avoid diluting the anti-freeze content every time you top up, it may be preferable to allow the engine find its own level. You will usually find that the engine has a ‘natural’ coolant level and once it finds this level it will not drop any further. This may be on or even slightly below the MIN mark.


Obviously you need to take care when establishing the ‘natural’ coolant level in case the repeated coolant loss does indicate a genuine problem in the cooling system. However this is most unlikely. If you decide to let the cooling system finds its natural level you should monitor the coolant level every few days (or perhaps more frequently depending on mileage) initially, until you are satisfied that it has settled. You may then consider marking your own MIN mark with a felt-tipped pen or similar.


In the circumstances we can scarcely blame owners for being wary. A sudden and unexpected head gasket failure is no fun, especially if it leaves you stranded far from home. And although in the grand scheme of things replacing a head gasket is not a catastrophic expense, it is still not cheap especially when it has not been planned and budgeted for, even assuming that any resultant overheating is noticed quickly and the engine is switched off before further damage is done.


It should be noted however that head gasket failure, despite the hype, is still relatively rare. Our advice to Elise owners worried about head gasket failure therefore is to not worry unduly; keep a wary eye on the temperature gauge by all means; monitor the coolant level on a regular basis; and fix it only if it fails. But don’t whatever you do allow fear of head gasket failure to impede your enjoyment of your vehicle; from driving long distances; taking the car abroad; or taking it on track if you wish.


As you might have guessed by now, we are great fans of the Elise. Arguably the greatest car Lotus has ever made, it is capable of superb, giant-killing performance, and yet in the overall scheme of things it is not expensive to run. Owning an Elise is within the scope of the ordinary wage earner, which is not usually the case with a supercar. Nevertheless, we occasionally hear owners lamenting their car’s high running costs (most commonly when they have just been presented with a substantial bill!). We think perhaps these people need a gentle reminder of what the Elise is about.


The fact that the Elise is relatively low-powered may, we believe, tend to obscure people’s judgement somewhat. Even though it has ‘only’ 118bhp, it is still capable of accelerating from 0-60mph in under six seconds, with a top speed well in excess of 120mph. That is superb performance in anyone’s book. At the same time, it is capable of phenomenal fuel economy (40+mpg) when driven gently. By comparison with a Ferrari, Porsche or TVR, or even dare we suggest, an Esprit, the Elise is positively cheap to run. But it’s not cheap in comparison with your average economy hatchback or family car. And it’s not reasonable to expect it to be.


All high performance cars have commensurately higher running costs than their more mundane brethren. Just because the Elise, on paper at least, does not boast a great deal of power, there is still a price to be paid for the performance it delivers, as there is with any other high performance vehicle.


If you habitually go out and enjoy that performance to the full, either with a lot of high speed road driving or on track days, you will subject the car to considerable wear and tear. For example, worn suspension ball joints are often detected at service, and are a frequent cause of MOT failure. For a small, lightweight sports car, the Elise has remarkably large wheels and tyres; inevitably, they are relatively heavy, and the tyres generate a lot of grip (in the dry at least!). Because of the strain they are subjected to therefore, the suspension ball joints tend to wear relatively quickly (of course it doesn’t help that the ball joints Lotus have specified - bless ‘em - are not of the highest quality!).

Another factor to consider is tyre wear. Bearing in mind the car’s weight and the size of those wheels and tyres, the Elise wears tyres remarkably quickly, especially rears which tend to wear out much more quickly than fronts, in a ratio of maybe 2:1. We have seen some drivers wear out a set off rears in 8-10,000 miles. The front tyres, for some reason which is not immediately apparent, wear most heavily on the inside shoulder, which is not always obvious on a cursory inspection. When assessing tyre wear therefore, make sure you take a good look at the inside shoulders; the bulk of the tread may still look okay when in fact the inside shoulder is dangerously worn.


Why the Elise wears out tyres so rapidly is, frankly, a bit of a mystery. In theory, the combination of low vehicle weight, wide track, wide tyres and relatively low power should ensure that the tyres last forever… almost! One can only assume that because the Elise’s handling and roadholding are so good, the car encourages you to go faster than you think you are; in effect, you are always going relatively quickly even when you think you’re just pottering along. Certainly it is noticeable that driving an Elise can make you somewhat impatient with other road-users, as it makes everything else on the roads appear sluggish. Other cars are forever ‘getting in your way’, as you can’t drive very fast for very long, it seems, before something appears in your path blocking your progress. You can catch yourself ranting at other road-users to ‘get a move on’; when in fact they may be driving quite normally. Whatever, the car encourages you to drive briskly, and this may be what contributes to accelerated tyre wear.


A curious corollary to this is the Elise’s poor road holding on a wet road. As winter approaches, and you have to contend with puddles, standing water, mud on the road, wet leaves etc, the Elise needs to be treated with respect. In particular, you need to be rather circumspect with the throttle if trouble is to be avoided. The problem is that with its wide track, low centre of gravity and large tyre footprint, the Elise does not put much pressure on the tyre contact patch. That means that it is very prone to aquaplaning on standing water.

Having now seen a number of cars involved in major accidents, we can only pay tribute to the strength of the basic Elise body/chassis unit. Remarkable

Some of us old-timers grew up with old MGs, Capris and so on, and therefore have some experience of rear-wheel drive. But many of the youngsters who now own Elises have grown up with front-wheel drive, and have known nothing else. That can lead them in to bad habits.

There’s an old saying that goes: ‘Speed costs money: how fast do you want to go?’ Well… how fast do you want to go?

Link to Art's thoughts on oil surge and baffled sumps