The seductive trap of the Lotus Europa, Part 2

Last week, I described buying a dead 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special sight-unseen in Chicago four years ago for $5,800 and having it shipped to my home in suburban Boston. It had 20,000 miles on it, but hadn’t run since 1979, and the engine had reportedly seized from sitting. Car-purchase-wise, I’d never done anything remotely this risky before.

After I bought the Lotus, my friend Paul Wegweiser said to me, “If, after you buy a car like that, you don’t crack a beer and sit in the garage and just look at it, you bought the wrong car.” In deference to Paul, I had my wife Maire Anne shoot the following photo.

Rob Siegel Lotus
Rob Siegel
Admiring my new purchase

Then my former editor at Bentley Publishers, Janet Barnes, saw the photo and said, “Rob, it’s a Lotus. Clearly you could be seated in the Lotus position.” So, for Janet:

Admiring my new purchase from the appropriate position
Rob Siegel
Admiring my new purchase from the appropriate position

When you have a car with a damaged engine, there are basically three choices: Rebuild the existing engine, swap it for a running one, or retrofit an updated engine. I am, first and foremost, a practical and thrifty guy, so the quickest and easiest thing to do would be to find a running Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine, or “twink” as they’re often called, and simply drop it in. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that, unlike the BMW 2002s I’m used to, you simply don’t find running TC engines for short money. Worldwide, they made only about 55,000 of the twink motors, a fact that I perhaps should’ve learned before I jumped into the pit with a dead Lotus needing a motor. That reduced the choices to rebuilding the seized engine or retrofitting some other newer motor.

Now, for a time, I was into Volkswagen Vanagons and was obsessed by the idea of swapping a 230-horsepower Subaru SVX motor into one. This and other Subaru engine swaps are common; this is a very well-trodden path and there are companies who will sell you the engine mounts, exhaust pipes, wiring harness, cooling hoses, and everything else you need to do the adaptation.

I learned that folks do swap Ford Zetec engines into Europas (it has the same bolt pattern as the TC engine, so it bolts right up to the Renault transaxle), but when I looked into it, there didn’t seem to be a source for parts, like there was for the Vanagon-Subaru swap. Instead, I found the websites of five guys who each described how they had done their own. I saw a few posts from people who’d swapped in the Toyota engines that are in later Lotuses (as was done in an episode of Overhaulin’), but this also involves quite a bit of one-off engineering. So, although a running Zetec engine can be had for a few hundred bucks, you pay for it in adaptation and time. Of course, there’s also the question of whether you’re hurting the value of the car by pulling it away from its original configuration.

From all this, it appeared that the quickest, most cost-effective path to resurrecting the car would be to rebuild the original engine—if the engine was indeed rebuildable. It all hinged, or at least seemed to, on whether the seized engine could be un-seized.

The Europa came with a factory manual. I purchased a well-regarded aftermarket Twin Cam engine bible as well. I have to say that, despite the fact that pulling the drivetrain out of the Europa turned it into a beached whale due to the transaxle’s acting as a “stressed member” (as I described last week), the actual work was quite enjoyable. Despite the car’s diminutive stature, there is plenty of room in the engine compartment. I could easily straddle the engine and plant both feet on the floor.

Rob Siegel lotus engine
Rob Siegel in the lotus engine bay

So, out came the engine and transaxle. I separated the two, and found the traditional evidence of long-term inactivity.

A mouse next in the bell housing.
Rob Siegel
A mouse next in the bell housing.

I then began to tear down the engine. Off came the head, which looked reassuringly clean.

Rob Siegel lotus engine
Rob Siegel

It was immediately clear which piston was seized, as #1 was a stew of rust and Marvel Mystery Oil. Clearly the previous owner had, at some point, tried to un-stick it.

Stuck #1 piston sitting in a pool of Marvel Mystery oil
Rob Siegel
Stuck #1 piston sitting in a pool of Marvel Mystery oil

To free the #1 piston, I needed to be able to wail on it with a small sledge, a wood block, and reckless abandon. Before doing that, I dropped the oil pan and pulled the other pistons and the crankshaft. Like the head, the underside of the engine looked very good.

Rob Siegel engine
Rob Siegel

By beating the #1 piston down, then back up, over and over, I freed it and got it out. Obviously, the #1 cylinder wall was badly scored from the encounter, but I didn’t see anything else big and bad (no rods through the side of the block, for example) that made me think the motor couldn’t be rebuilt. I was beginning to feel lucky.

I joined several online Lotus Europa forums, and asked about rebuild services in the Boston area. One local fellow with a TC Special just like mine responded and gave me the contact information for a twink engine expert who had rebuilt his engine and had a shop about 40 miles from me.

After making phone contact with The Lotus Engine God, I loaded the disassembled engine into the back of the Suburban and drove out to meet the deity. I arrived at a low industrial building with no sign on it. When I knocked and went inside, I saw shelves of Lotus engine parts. Among them were several Weber heads, which I immediately coveted.

The Lotus Engine God, a gentle talkative man about 70 years old, and I hit it off immediately. We unloaded the engine parts onto his workbench. He looked at the block. The first words out of his mouth were those you do not want to hear TLEG say.

“Uh-oh.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“How many miles did you say were on this engine?”

“20,000.”

“Well,” he said, “Could be, I guess, but someone’s already been in here. This block has been sleeved. It didn’t originally have sleeves in it from the factory, but it does now. Something bad must’ve happened.” He pointed out the thin sleeves that lined the cylinder walls. So much for my unmolested low-mileage car.

“The problem is,” he said, “these sleeves are sixty thousandths. The first standard oversize piston is twenty thousandths over, and you can’t bore a sixty thousandths sleeve twenty thousands. There’s not enough sleeve left.”

“Can we re-sleeve the block?” I asked.

“Well,” TLEG said, “that would be expensive.”

“Can we just get another block? I thought only the head on these TC engines is exotic. Aren’t these simply Formula Ford 1.6-liter blocks? I see them on eBay, new, for $1,300.”

“Well,” TLEG explained, “it’s a bit more complicated than that.” He proceeded to describe subtle differences between the “Kent” blocks and the Lotus blocks, as well as differences between those that were reproduced in the 1990s and those being reproduced today.

Then I found a used block on eBay for a couple of hundred dollars. I paraded it past TLEG. His response: “That’s a 2737 block. They came to the U.S. in 1600 Pintos as a non-uprated X-flow block. I’ve seen them in two configurations, early (like this block) and late (like an uprated block). One of the differences between the two is the type of main cap fitted. The caps on uprated motors are much more robust. The early caps failed often enough that Ford was compelled to redesign them. That’s probably why this block is still around. No one wanted to spend the money to put the uprated caps on it. Now, not all the early caps failed, but it’s universally accepted that they need replacement if you’re going to build any kind of a performance engine. Additionally, 2737 cylinder walls may not be thick enough for a twin-cam bore size.”

Crap. This made me hesitant to buy any new or used block for fear that I’d wind up with the wrong one.

“What do you recommend I do?”

“Well,” TLEG said (he said “well” a lot), “we could try honing out the cylinders just enough to get rid of the seize marks. Maybe that’s six or seven thousandths, not twenty. Then you could get custom pistons made for whatever the honed-out size winds up being. Of course, if you’re going to do that, you could bump up the power considerably at the same time. You’d really be kind of crazy not to. Your car is a smogged U.S.-spec Special with 113 horsepower. You could update everything to European sprint specifications, combine it with a Weber head, and get 140.”

Boy, I liked the sound of that, but he then rattled off a litany of crankshaft, camshaft, rod, and deck height issues that clearly required his expertise. Like the block, it wasn’t something I could just click on and buy on eBay without developing a substantial depth of understanding that I didn’t currently have.

“What would all that cost me?”

“Well…”

It depended on so many factors that TLEG said he couldn’t quote me a price. But we did agree that everything needed to be hot-tanked; the block, head, crank, and rods needed to be crack-checked and Magnafluxed; and the valve train components needed to be closely inspected to determine which could be re-used. So I left the disassembled engine there.

Around this time, the fellow I’d met on the Europa forum, and who had an engine TLEG had rebuilt, invited me over. His was a stock rebuild of a U.S.-spec Special just like mine, so I was quite interested in how it performed. I arrived to find several acres of land, horses, an well-designed house, and a killer garage housing the Europa, the prettiest Triumph TR250 I’d ever seen, a BMW M6, and a few other toys. I also learned that his wife had recently passed away and that he was raising two teen-aged daughters alone. So the toys meant little. But he was thrilled for the company. After we chatted, we spent an hour bombing down the back roads of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, me in his Europa, and him in my BMW Z3 M Coupe. It was heaven for both of us. And in the little 1,600-pound car, the stock 113-hp engine felt plenty quick to me.

Before I left, I asked the gentleman how much he’d paid TLEG for his engine rebuild.

“Well,” he said, “it’s a little embarrassing; I didn’t really know when to say no.”

“I understand,” I said. “It’s always a slippery slope. But I’m trying to get some handle on the cost.”

“Well,” he said, “it also included rebuilding the carbs. And dyno work.”

“I’ll try to factor that out.”

“Well…”

Part of me wanted to laugh at how the gentleman had apparently absorbed both TLEG’s habit of starting sentences with “well” and his reticence for naming numbers. And part of me wanted to grab him, shake him, and yell, ‘Damn it, man, what did you have to pay to get the twink motor rebuilt?’ Finally, he spilled the beans.

“Twelve grand.”

I reeled. “Crikey! I don’t want to pay a quarter of that. I mean, I’m sure I will, but I don’t want to.”

I had several more conversations with TLEG, emphasizing my need for cost containment, but he would not quote a price. He said, with obvious pride, “I build vintage race engines that you can beat the shit out of all day long for 30,000 miles,” and explained that, in his opinion, working to a cost ceiling was a poor way to build a high-quality engine because it encourages you to cut corners. As he talked, I began to realize that, however much I enjoyed sitting at his feet and absorbing his knowledge, I was in the wrong place. I was never going to vintage-race the Lotus. I just wanted to drive it around on Sundays. If I got it to the point where it simply ran without my losing my shirt getting it there, I’d be happy.

I began asking around for other machine shops. A friend recommended a shop just a few miles from my house that does work on a whole variety of European machinery. One of the machinists there had reportedly worked on Lotus engines. I spoke with him, and while he wasn’t a Lotus engine god, I didn’t really need one. I explained TLEG’s proposed path of honing the sleeves to remove the score marks, then ordering custom pistons to fit them. He said he could do that. “If you don’t want to make any modifications,” he said, “we can just send one of the original pistons to a fabrication shop and tell them the diameter we want them to make it.” I also explained that I just wanted the machine work done; I would assemble the motor. He gave me a labor estimate of two to three grand. This seemed good.

I went back to TLEG one last time, brought him a bottle of scotch, and settled up the bill for the inspection work. He handed me a list of handwritten notes that said things like “valve guides are nearing the end of their wear spec.” I loaded the disassembled twink motor back into the Suburban, and drove it straight to the other machine shop.

The Machinist Who Was Not a Lotus God (TMWWNALG?) came out, and we went to the back of the ’Burban. “Before we haul everything inside,” he said, “let me just root around in here for a moment.” He test-fit a valve into a guide and wiggled it. “Now you said the Lotus engine guy said these guides were worn out?”

I thought for a moment. “No. He said that the guides were nearing the end of their wear specification.”

“Are you building a race engine or a street engine?”

“Street.”

“I’d reuse these guides and valves in a minute.”

I smiled. “You and I are going to get along just fine,” I said. I wanted to hug him.

That was four years ago. Sigh.

I’ll close this installment with another laugh line that masks the tragedy. Certain cars, fairly or unfairly, have had their names used as acronyms for the true underlying character of the car. You know, Fiat stands for “Fix it again, Tony,” that sort of thing. In buying a 20,000-mile Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, I thought that surely I would own one of the lowest-mileage examples in the country, or at least one well to the left of the bulge in the bell curve. It’s not that I cared about the low mileage, but it was one of the things that made me think the whole package of dead car a thousand miles from home for $5,800 was worth it. It turns out that there’s no shortage of 20k Europas because many of these cars had something big and bad happen, maybe a water pump that let go, resulting in the engine overheating badly, and then were parked for decades.

What I didn’t know is that Lotus stands for “Lots of trouble, usually serious.”

And so, having shown you the Lotus position, I need to show you the Advanced Lotus Position.

The Advanced Lotus Position
Rob Siegel
The Advanced Lotus Position

Next week: Trouble in the new machine shop paradise.

***

Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel Magazine for 30 years. His new book, Ran When Parked: How I Road-Tripped a Decade-Dead BMW 2002tii a Thousand Miles Back Home, and How You Can, Too, is available here on Amazon. In addition, he is the author of Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic and The Hack MechanicGuide to European Automotive Electrical Systems. Both are available from Bentley Publishers and Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.