Four years ago I bought a dead 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, sight-unseen. As soon as it rolled into my garage, I removed, tore down, and unseized the engine. I found that the cylinder block had been sleeved—something you don’t expect to see in a 20,000-mile car—preventing standard oversized pistons from being used. While trying to navigate a cost-effective path to a rebuild, I took the disassembled engine to The Lotus Engine God (TLEG), who recommended a whole bunch of stuff that would cost a lot of money, while refusing to quote me a price because he didn’t want to cut corners.
These unknown costs spooked me a bit, so I had him crack-check the major engine components, paid him for his time, pulled everything out of his shop, and brought the engine to a bread-and-butter machine shop a few miles from my home. The Machinist Who Was Not a Lotus Engine God (TMWWNALEG?) was down with the basic plan of ordering custom pistons to fit the honed cylinders. After I test-drove a friend’s Europa with bone-stock 113-horsepower Twin-Cam engine, I decided that stock was plenty powerful for me.
TMWWNALEG said in that case we could simply send one of the original pistons out to use as a template for duplication, he would do the machine work, and then give everything back to me for assembly to hold down the cost. I breathed a sigh of relief that the engine rebuild appeared to finally be on track.
In the meantime, the drivetrain-less Lotus was immobile in my garage. The rear lower control arms in a mid-engine Europa are attached to the transaxle, using the drivetrain as a “stressed member.” This sounds like an academic issue until you realize that, with the drivetrain removed, there’s nothing affixing the camber of the rear hubs, leaving them flapping in the breeze. Because of this, the car that had been rolled from a garage in Chicago into a car carrier, then rolled out and into my garage in suburban Boston, could no longer be rolled anywhere. Until I got the motor back and the drivetrain installed, it was a beached whale.
I literally couldn’t bail out of it and sell it as a “roller.” I’ve read that people attach specially-fabricated braces, or buy junked Pinto blocks to bolt up to the transaxle, to let the car roll while the drivetrain is out, but I didn’t think any of that would be necessary. I’d be in and out of this quickly. A surgical strike. Yep. Because that’s how I, um, roll. Right.
That was four years ago.
How the hell did that happen? How did I let that happen?
Well, for starters, never tell a machine shop you’re not in a rush. Yeah, I actually said that. Bad idea.
But it wasn’t their fault. It got stranded there by degrees. And the fault was mostly mine.
Initially, progress appeared good. TMWWNALEG honed the block about seven thousandths to get rid of the seize marks.
Custom pistons were ordered and fabricated (and, in the end, cost about the same as standard oversized pistons). When they arrived, TMWWNALEG carefully measured them, then honed the block a second time to receive them.
I ordered the necessary gasket and bearing sets. The valve job got done. The rods got re-bushed. I got the head back and reassembled it. Crack-checked and clean, it may be worth a good fraction of what I paid for the car.
I began researching other needs and making plans. After all, this was a car that had been sitting since 1979. It had many needs in addition to the seized engine. The car’s pedal bucket was frozen solid. I snagged a used working one on eBay. I collected information on sources for the cracked front windshield. I read up on deleting the troublesome power assist boosters and using an aluminum radiator. Although I was adamant that I wasn’t restoring the car, I tried to find the part numbers of the bushings I’d detached when I removed the rear trailing arms, as not replacing them with new ones would be foolish.
A crucial issue was the water pump. Mine was so seized that I had to smack it out with a slide hammer. Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engines (“twinks”) have a reputation for eating water pumps, both from inactivity as well as due to the belt being overtightened. When the twink engine is in the front-engine Lotus Elan, the water pump is accessible, but in the mid-engine Europa, it is right up against the firewall, and is very difficult to replace with the engine in the car. Both Dave Bean Engineering and Burton Power sell cartridge-style water pumps that make in-situ replacement possible, but by the time you purchase the updated front timing cover and other necessary parts, the price reaches about $800. I read up on the pros and cons of the different options.
Ironically, I got a lot of mileage out of the dead Lotus. That is, many folks know me as a vintage BMW guy who can talk for hours about the Kugelfischer mechanical injection system on a 1972 2002tii. But now, all of a sudden, I could spin yarns about the trials and tribulations of resurrecting not only something British, but something British and profoundly stupid. And to many people, that was suddenly quite interesting. I mean, this was my first Brit since the Triumph GT6+ I bought after graduating high school, proving I still hadn’t learned my lesson.
I wrote a series of updates on my Facebook page titled, “The Lotus Chronicles.” A friend began referring to the car as “The Lotush,” offering that I needed to imagine Sean Connery saying it in order to get it. (Go ahead and do it. You won’t be able to stop laughing.) The humor value alone was off the charts. I began to think that the most asinine automotive purchase I ever made was, in fact, the most savvy marketing move I’d ever made. Perhaps I could make a career out of having a dead Lotush.
But then the project ran into molasses. Despite the twink engine having a Lotus dual overhead cam head, it retains an internal camshaft in the block employed as a “jackshaft” to spin the distributor and the oil pump. After TMWWNALEG replaced the jackshaft bearings, he reported that the jackshaft was too tight. The root cause appeared to be that the shaft was slightly bent. He was able to straighten it, but still didn’t like the way it fit, and said he needed to scrape the bearings slightly. That was at least two years ago.
To make matter worse, not long after I brought the engine to the machine shop, the engineering job I’ve had since 1984 began to become unstable. In 2015, I left and became a full-time automotive writer, working for the company that published my first book. Just as things appeared to be stable again, a year ago that job abruptly ended. I found myself without full-time employment for the first time in my adult life.
Now, you have to understand that, even though I currently own 13 cars, I’m by no means a rich man (and, yes, I intentionally worded it that way to highlight the complete and utter indefensibility of that statement). If I was a collector with means, I wouldn’t have bought a $5,800 Lotus needing an engine. I would’ve instead followed the time-worn advice of buying the best example in the best possible condition. But the thing is, I like owning interestingly imperfect cars, fixing them myself, and maintaining them on a shoestring budget. The Lotus was the first car I bought after my first job scare, after I’d sold three cars (including my beloved Porsche 911SC) and knocked the car count down from 10 to seven. It then climbed as high as 13 before I needed to shed a few to keep the bank account in the black, and then it crept back up as interesting inexpensive vehicles kept falling in my lap.
The point is, even in the best of times, I can never give all these cars everything they need. And in the worst of times, throwing money at the dead Lotus (the dead Lotus!) seemed the absolute height of frivolity. So I can’t really blame TMWWNALEG or the machine shop. Most of the glacial pace can be laid right at my own feet. The only surprise is that they let me get away with it instead of calling me and telling me to get my Brit junk outta there.
While, economically, taking a wrench to the spending spigot on the Lotus made sense, leaving a motor apart for four years is a terrible idea. Even if it’s at your house, parts get lost, shiny exposed surfaces deteriorate, and your momentum dwindles to negative values. And if it’s at a machine shop, it’s worse. Businesses get sold. People die. One day you go back there to find the place torn down to build condos, you scream and sob about your jackshaft, your custom pistons, and your bores honed seven thousandths over, and they put you in a padded cell.
But if the engine was back-burnered at the machine shop, at least it was out of sight and out of mind. The rest of the car, however, sat in the corner of my garage, occupying precious space, a painful reminder of my failure, unable to even be rolled outside and into the backyard, as an abandoned project should be. In those long four years, the “bread van” back deck and roof of the Europa accumulated layer upon layer of garage junk. It was like watching one of those time-lapse animations of dinosaurs becoming fossilized.
The big picture was that the Lotus went from being a source of excitement to a source of humor to a source of embarrassment. People would ask, “So what’s new with the Lotus?” and I’d visibly wince.
Oddly enough, the fact that the Lotus was a beached whale may have actually saved it. Had it been a “roller,” it might have rolled out of the garage and sold on Craigslist to the first comer with cash, just another enthusiast in over his head in a car without a motor.
The first crack in the ice came when I was driving to “The Vintage,” a classic BMW event held annually in Asheville, North Carolina, the weekend before Memorial Day. I was caravanning down with two friends, three guys in BMW 2002tiis, living the dream. Somewhere during the bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-81, my phone rang, and one of my friends—just a few cars ahead of me—said the last thing I expected to hear: “Hey Rob, there’s a red Lotus Europa about a hundred yards ahead.”
I leaned as far out as I could in the direction of the bend in the traffic, and sure enough, there it was, a Twin Cam Special just like mine. At about two-thirds the height of any other car, it was difficult to miss, even at a hundred yards. When the traffic began to flow, I booted the 2002tii up to nearly 90 mph to catch up with it.
When I finally caught it, it was breathtaking. It looked so wicked and low and angular and gossamer-like. I thought, what are the odds? A Europa in the wild, such a light little bit of a thing, looking like it probably could change lanes by darting beneath tractor trailers.
And the guy driving it was into it; he was ripping along just like I was in the tii. I thought, you know, I’m going to punch the first person who calls the car a “bread van” without ever actually seeing one in its natural habitat.
That evening, I arrived at The Vintage, and my friends showed me videos they’d shot of Europas on their drive down before I’d met up with them. It turned out there was a Lotus event somewhere on the Eastern seaboard the same weekend. So, OK, they weren’t quite as “in the wild” as I thought. But I totally took it as an omen anyway.
However, when I got home, that “omen” didn’t translate into forward motion, as I had other projects in the garage that were well underway.
Then, a few weeks ago, something surprising happened. I recently began writing a column for Hagerty magazine. As part of the process, Hagerty sent a photographer to my house. They said they wanted to, uh, shoot me in my garage. I offered that they might not know what they were getting into, explaining that the three horsemen of entropy, randomness, and disorder had visited my garage and left saying, “Dude, this is a bit much, even for us.” What had started out like this:
Had turned into this:
I thought that, being a card-carrying professional automotive journalist and all, the least I could do was clean the crap off the Lotus.
So I did. I found the top and bottom of a rear bench seat from a BMW 2002, three car covers, a sweatshirt from a driver’s school I attended in 1992, the owner’s manual from a Kurzweil keyboard I bought 30 years ago, four steering wheels, three cans of Freon, assorted hoses, belts, nuts, and bolts from other things I’ve been working on, and a good deal more. It all came down.
Suddenly, the Lotus’ patina-laden fiberglass lay exposed in my garage. The car looked so small, fragile, needy, and shabby. Then when I looked at the windshield, I saw, unmistakably, raccoon footprints. Worse, I found that the little buggers had walked through an open oil change pan I had laying around, and had tracked it all over the car.
I felt terrible. I felt ashamed. I knew what I had to do.
I drove the two miles to the machine shop and spoke with TMWWNALEG. I told him, hey, no harm, no foul on the four years the block has been sitting there—my bad. But let’s front-burner it. He pulled out the project folder. We confirmed that the block had been honed to receive the new pistons, the rods had been reconditioned, and he had stalled over the issue of the jackshaft bearings. I told him that I wanted this to be the winter I reassembled the engine.
When I got home that afternoon, I went back into the garage. The sun was streaming in through the window, catching the naked Lotus in a beam of light. Hark, the herald angels sing. Talk about omens. I got yer omen right here, pal.
I went online and ponied up for one of the removable water pump kits. Next, I went to the vanity plate page of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles web site, punched in “LOTUSH,” and found that it was neither taken nor rejected outright due to salacious connotation. I thought a moment, smiled, and submitted the application, though I don’t believe it will actually pass scrutiny. Hope I’m wrong.
It’ll be a while before the pot on the front burner heats up. I still need to finish retrofitting air conditioning in my Euro ’79 BMW 635CSi. But I have skin in the game again. I’m committed. I’m back on track. Mark my words: This shall be the winter of The Lotush.
And with it, I shall develop a new Lotush Position: Me actually sitting inside a running car. And this time, nothing—nothing—will distract me. I am, once again, a man smitten. Lolita, it’s all you.
Hey, you know what’s really cool? A TVR 2500M. I can’t get into trouble with one of those, right?
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 Mechanic™ Guide 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.