The Lotus Elise is widely regarded as one of the best handling, most rewarding cars in existence. It combines reduced weight with enough horsepower and a rigid chassis to create a car that handles more like a go-kart than a regular passenger vehicle.
With this race-focused machine, tuning options are predictably abundant, allowing the chassis to be further exploited. However, we're always able to find somebody who got carried away and tackled a project of unfathomable proportions. And in this instance, that man is Ken McNeill.
As the proud owner of a '95 Porsche 911 Cabriolet, Ken enjoyed Sunday drives and occasional car shows. "I went to a show where the performance driving school from Brainerd International Raceway had a display. I discovered they were doing a Porsche Club track day but, since my car didn't have a roll-bar, I wasn't allowed on-track."
We've all been to track events, and spectating can be frustrating because it encourages the urge to participate. So Ken decided to use his marketing skills to film promotional videos for the Porsche Club at BIR. "Once they saw the videos, the school owner told me I could drive one of his spec racers on the track," he recalled. "I did a 25min session and the experience was phenomenal. I was hooked! Two weeks later, my Porsche was for sale."
And that's where our story begins. Ken found a '99 Lotus Elise Sport 190 on eBay and negotiated an even trade for his 911. "I started tracking the Lotus Elise in the summer of '09, and since I had a great relationship with the BIR guys, my track time was free! Now I'm a driving instructor, too. It's funny how things work out," he laughed. But Ken's fun would stop abruptly.
"I was flying down the straight at Road America when the stock Rover engine blew," he remembered. While potent, the British engine was expensive to repair and the availability of easy Honda swaps persuaded Ken to give his Lotus a new heart.
He purchased a Honda K24A2 2.4-liter four-cylinder motor from the '04 Acura TSX. It was known for high torque at relatively low revs, which was ideal for a track car since bearing wear and rod failure is directly proportional to RPM.
The stock motor produced a modest 200hp and 171 lb-ft, which was unremarkable but bear in mind the Elise only weighed about 1700 lb. "Power to weight is everything," Ken reminded us.
The motor wouldn't retain its factory specs; he wanted it to remain reliable but have more power. So he tore it down and sent the crank, block and head to Endyn Racing in Fort Worth, TX.
Ken wanted the satisfaction of assembling the new Lotus engine himself, without the worry of tolerances and clearances, so Endyn would pre-fit all the parts for him. The balanced rotating assembly, 12.5:1 Endyn Roller-Wave pistons and custom Crower Rods Maxi-Light billet rods sealed the deal.
The cylinder head was CNC-ported and given upgraded internals as well as stage 2 Endyn camshafts to finish it internally. While a bigger intake manifold and throttle body, larger injectors and custom headers would complete the overhaul.
The engine was prepared with meticulous attention to detail in Ken's garage, using only the best parts available. As a result, it's safe to say the K24 will probably never blow and yet, once nestled behind the seats, was dyno-tuned to 264whp.
Ken would also add a Honda six-speed manual trans and custom axles to ensure there was no weak link in the Lotus drivetrain.
With its extra power, McNeill wanted to increase its footprint from the factory 195/50 and 225/45 tire sizes. He decided to swap the dinky stock wheels to SSR SP1 three-piece, sized 17x8.5" front and a massive 18x11" rear. These would be fitted with more substantial 225/40 and 285/30 Hoosier tires, respectively. But adding an extra 2.5" of tire to each corner would be impossible without a widebody conversion. "As long as you're a smart, you can learn almost anything from the internet," Ken assured us. And with napkin sketches evolving in both style and detail, Ken settled on a look for his Elise GT. It would be wider, more aerodynamic and unlike any other Elise. "Everybody said I was crazy to cut-up and ruin the car, but somebody had to do it!" he laughed.
It would take Ken more than 1000 hours over 18 months to complete the custom fiberglass bodywork. During that time, he enlisted the services of Chris Randall at Hoffman's Motorsport, a UK-based Lotus race shop, who supplied custom-valved dampers and a matched set of springs specifically for his Elise GT.
He also took time to uprate the braking system, retaining the factory calipers but fitting drilled and slotted rotors on lightweight aluminum bells with Pagid RS-14 pads.
The last step was the interior. "The belts, seats and fire suppression systems I had were only good for about five years before needing to be replaced," he explained. "So I decided to redo the interior instead, creating more of a supercar cockpit, rather than the minimalistic Elise interior."
Finding seats to fit the little Lotus was extremely difficult but the FIA-homologated, carbon fiber/GRP B6F seat from Tillett Racing Seats in England were designed specifically for cars with narrow cockpits. So Ken purchased a pair and put his newfound fiberglass fabrication skills to use creating a new center console. It was wrapped in black suede, along with the seat cushions, dashboard, instrument binnacle, steering column and door cards.
"I've only driven the car on-track four or five times since it was completed, but it's incredible!" Ken proclaimed. "The level of grip is mind-blowing."
With its greater abilities, Ken admits he's apprehensive to find the limits. You can't exactly find replacement body panels for a custom-built Elise with over $100,000 invested...
"The project is almost completed but I'm now focusing on making the car street legal so I can drive it on weekends and visit car shows," he told us. "There's a chance I may fit a twin-screw Whipple supercharger as well, because 400hp would be awesome!"
1999 Lotus Elise Sport 190
Engine 2.4-liter Honda K24A2 four-cylinder 16v with 12.5:1 Endyn Roller-Wave pistons, Crower Rods Maxi-Light billet rods, CNC-ported cylinder head, black-nitride coated big valves, Eibach valve springs, Chromoly retainers, Endyn stage 2 cams, CNC-ported oil pump, Skunk2 Pro K Series intake manifold, Injector Dynamics 725cc injectors, Fluidampr harmonic balancer, custom header and exhaust
Drivetrain 2003 Honda Civic six-speed manual transmission, Exedy clutch, pressure place and 8 lb flywheel with ARP bolts, custom axles
Brakes stock calipers, 288mm drilled/slotted rotors on aluminum bells, Pagid RS-14 brake pads
Suspension custom-valved Hoffman's Motorsport coilovers
Wheels & Tires 17x8.5" f, 18x11" r SSR SP1 wheels, 225/40 R17 f, 285/30 R18 r Hoosier R6 tires
Exterior custom fiberglass widebody with chassis-mounted APR GTC-300 carbon fiber rear wing
Interior carbon fiber Tillett B6F race seats and mounts, Schroth six-point harnesses, Momo steering wheel and shift knob, custom center console, oil pressure and temp gauges, shift lights, Traqmate lap timer, fire extinguisher
Thanks Alan Gourlay, EliseShop, Full Blown Motorsports, SNS Automotive, Martyn Tinker, Jason Sieling