A Reliable Headlight Mechanism for the Early Elan

By Dennis Stahl

After owning a 1970 Elan Series 4 for 28 years (18 of which the car was in storage), my wife Nancy and I decided to drag it out of the neglected comer and either bring it back to life and enjoy it, OR let it go to someone who would hopefully enjoy it as much as I did when I first drove an Elan in 1968. We chose to enjoy it. Not surprisingly, many systems on the car needed serious attention before bringing it safely back to life. I won’t go into them here, other than to say headlights were not near the top of the list. That is, until a few months later when they were needed.

Nancy and I were driving the Elan home from a local auto show one summer evening and perhaps we had stayed a little longer than we should have… we needed some headlights so other drivers could see us. We did indeed have headlights; we just didn’t have headlights that were up and visible.

We made it home, and I began investigating the vacuum piping and servo system. On initial assessment, things did not look too good. The vacuum servo likely had a slow leak. The torque tube mechanism was binding. That was the good news. The bad news was that all four of the plastic rod end bearings for the linkage were so brittle that they had either disintegrated already or did so as soon as I touched them. In addition, there were the two vacuum lines under the panel at the light switch vacuum valve. These also had some plastic right angle fittings. Guess what? Those had shattered also.

Further investigation was not necessary. I was aware that it may be the case that the vacuum reservoir (also known as the frame) on the Elan may leak. It didn’t take much time with my nose in several parts catalogs / websites to see where this was going. Servo $265, links $84 for a pair. I stopped at that point. About $350. Hmm… I didn’t want to think about the shatter-prone elbows on the vacuum lines. At the same time I also considered our intended use of the car. This was not a day-to-day commuter, but a sunny day fun driver. We weren’t at this point interested in a concours d’elegance restoration. Yes, Nancy and I may again be out at night in need of headlights, but that was not typical. We usually find our way home before dark. Was there an alternative that was safe, more modest in cost and did no irreversible damage to the car?

What I did next was to consult two experienced statesmen of our club who have owned, rebuilt, maintained, and competed many early Elans. Paul Quiniff and Bob Herzog have always given me good advice in all things Elan. Paul opened the engine compartment on his track car and showed me the perfect solution for my situation.

Paul had installed a pair of gas springs behind his headlight pods to completely replace the vacuum mechanism. These gas springs are much smaller versions of the ones used on minivan rear hatches. True to the Elan tradition and Lotus DNA folks, they do operate independently. Paul pointed my nose to a McMaster-Carr catalog, and we discussed the pros and cons of his installation. He said he might have chosen a spring with less force, and I
saw in the catalog that the springs could also be had with the ball and socket pivots at each end integral with the spring. (Paul had used separate brackets for attachment to the body, with more holes to drill).

After a few calculations we settled on McMaster-Carr’s catalog number 4138T521. They are described in the catalog as: Gas Spring with ball-joint end fitting, 15 lb. force, 7.4″ extended length, 2.36″ stroke. Paul had used 20 lb. force units, and we decided to try 15 lb. ones on mine. They did prove to be easier to operate and are strong enough to do the job. You must specify the force required when ordering, as McMaster-Carr apparently uses the same catalog number for 5 different strengths. I paid $31.82 for the pair. Some additional hardware is needed. The end fittings were supplied with 5/16-18 UNC thread. To mount the springs I used four 5/16 UNC locknuts and four 5/16 ID fender washers.

The actual installation isn’t too tricky. First, remove the hood (or bonnet) from the car; take it completely off. Next, disconnect all the vacuum operating linkage from the headlight pods, including the remains of the old rod end and ball stud, so it can move freely. I also removed the vacuum servo and spring. I left the torque tube in place. To be on the safe side, I won’t give exact dimensions or any drilling template for the installation. As we all know, Elan bodies vary Series 1 thru Series 4, as well as from car to car. As such, Paul’s car was sufficiently different in the nose area from my Series 4. Therefore, we didn’t just copy the mounting hole location as used on his car.

Locating the hole for the free end of the strut really requires two people, with one person working inside the engine compartment. With one end of the gas spring attached to the headlight pod, slightly compress the spring while the other person moves the pod full open to full close. While keeping the free end of the spring in contact with the fender well, you repeat this process as necessary, slightly moving the free end of the spring. The concept here is to arrive at the one unique point for the unattached end of the spring that in both up-pod and down-pod positions leaves the gas spring slightly compressed, maybe one-quarter of an inch, with about 2 inches of the rod exposed. Once you have arrived at that unique point, mark it. Do the same on the other side.

Next, grab a big honk’n drill and drill away. Whoa!!! Sorry, that was high-school shop class and wrong project. What you really want to do first is look at the front fender well area on the tire side. We don’t need a case of your drill bit finding the part of your Elan that keeps it on the pavement. With that in mind, working from inside the nose area, drill one hole through the fiberglass on each side of the fender well using the appropriate drill bit for your size hardware. Remove the stud from the spring end (note the little spring clip) for ease of installation. Then, with a fender washer on each side of the drilled hole, feed the ball stud through the all and secure with a locknut. Using the spring clip, reattach the ball stud to the gas spring. The same procedure is used for both sides of the car Now, with a slight force from the heel of the palm of your hand applied downward on the rear of the closed pod, you should be able to move the pod slightly open. Grasp the front of the pod with your other hand and lift it up. It should latch up. Pressing down slightly on the front of the pod should let you (using 2 hands) gently lower it to a closed and latched position. It is truly fail-safe. While I didn’t weigh the removed parts (servo with spring, rod ends), or the added parts (gas springs with hardware), I believe we may have inadvertently “added lightness”.

To summarize: This is an easy, reversible, modest cost method which provides the occasional Elan headlight user a simple system to keep the headlights up when the vacuum system is inoperable or unreliable.

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