No more procrastinating: Rescuing my Lotus from the back burner

Back in November, I wrote a series of articles about the seductive trap of the Lotus Europa.

I shared my odd tale of being attracted to the Europa’s impossibly low and angular stance, buying a 1974 Twin-Cam Special sight-unseen that hadn’t moved since ’79, shipping it from Chicago to Boston, pulling the drivetrain, tearing down the engine, unsticking the seized piston, taking the disassembled pieces to a Lotus engine specialist, finding that the engine had been sleeved, learning that sleeves can’t be bored to receive standard-sized oversized pistons, being horrified to find out that this specialist charged a guy I know $12,000 for his rebuild and related work, yanking the engine out of his shop before the costs mounted, and taking it to a more conventional machine shop a few miles from my house which estimated that, if we reused certain parts and I performed the reassembly myself, the costs might be a third of the other shop’s heart-stopping estimate.

Yes, that was one sentence.

My 1974 Lotus Europa TCS nearly five years ago before I began ripping the drivetrain out.
Rob Siegel
My 1974 Lotus Europa TCS nearly five years ago before I began ripping the drivetrain out.

That was nearly five years ago. To say that the project was pushed to the back burner is a misnomer. It wasn’t even in a house with a stove, let alone on the back burner.

In fairness, the fault for the inaction was mostly mine, and there had been some progress. The head got done quite a while back. The mangled cylinder sleeves were honed to get rid of the score marks, a custom set of pistons were ordered to fit them, the pistons were received and carefully measured, and the block received a final honing to accommodate the pistons. But it all ran aground on the “jackshaft.” Despite the Lotus engine having a twin-cam head, it retains an internal camshaft to spin the oil pump and distributor. When the machinist fit the jackshaft in the block, it was too tight in the bearings. The problem seemed to be that the jackshaft itself was very slightly bent, and the part apparently is not the same as a standard Ford 1600 camshaft. I was in the midst of a job change, and the last thing I wanted to do was throw money at the dead Lotus, so I allowed the whole project to sit. The machine shop didn’t bug me about it, and I didn’t bug them.

Years went by, and projects came and went, as years and projects do. I wasn’t spending any money on the dead Lotus, as was my goal, but leaving a motor at a machine shop for four and a half years is a terrible idea. You conserve money, but at the cost of increased risk. Parts get lost. People die. Businesses close. One day you drive by and find that the building has been torn down and condos are being built and your engine is in a landfill somewhere. At least that was my fear.

Then, as I described in November, when I was somewhere on I-81, driving my 1972 BMW 2002tii to a vintage event in Asheville, North Carolina, I came upon a red Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special being driven by a guy just like me, an enthusiast in his beloved car on his way to an event. I took it as an omen. (And, in a wonderful bit of synergy, a friend of the owner recognized him in the photo in the story I wrote about it. The owner and I are now Facebook friends.)

When I returned from my event, I vowed that this would be the winter of the Lotus motor. I drove to the machine shop and had a conversation with the machinist about re-starting the project. I left feeling good, like I had put this strange passionate little part of my universe back on the stove. If it wasn’t on the front burner, at least it was on simmer.

Shortly after talking with the machine shop guys, I attended another car event, and found myself having dinner with two professionals with far more experience than I have (one has a cable show, the other owns a nationwide chain of transmission shops). I described the sad tale of my Lotus engine, beginning with yanking and disassembling the seized motor, covering the almost five years of little movement, and ending with my recent visit to the machine shop. I concluded by saying, in a very upbeat tone, “So, I think it’s going to be OK.”

One of them said, “Why would you think that?” I was so taken aback by the aplomb with which this line was dropped that food nearly fell out of my mouth.

The other echoed the first’s skepticism. “Did you see your Lotus engine?”

“Well… no.”

“Then why would you think that it’s going to be OK?”

Damn, I thought, that’s dark. But, hey, they’re pros. I’m just an out-of-control enthusiast. They know things. I thought of the opening of android Roy Batty’s famous soliloquy at the end of Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”

Initially, I was concerned that perhaps they were right, as months went by without a peep from the machine shop. But then, a few weeks ago, I got a call telling me that my Lotus engine was ready—or, I should say, the machined lower-end components were. It took me a while to clear space in the garage, but in between the Nor’Easters that have pounded New England this winter, I managed to get down to the machine shop and pick everything up.

The build-your-own-Lotus-Twin-Cam engine kit.
Rob Siegel
The build-your-own-Lotus-Twin-Cam engine kit.
Hard to believe that this little Ford 1600 block caused so much trouble.
Rob Siegel
Hard to believe that this little Ford 1600 block caused so much trouble.

So, after almost five years, the major engine components are back in the garage with the Lotus from which they were pried. I have both the factory manual and Miles Wilkins’ Lotus Twin Cam Engine book. I’ll triangulate between the two of them and all the advice on web forums and slowly begin the reassembly process. There are still dozens of parts that need to be ordered. I’m still waiting on the Dave Bean cartridge-style water pump and front timing cover, which are on backorder. Plus, I have several other large irons in the fire, both automotive and unrelated.

I imagine that it’ll probably be four months before the engine is assembled, possibly another three before it and the transaxle are back in the car, and probably an additional six before I’ve performed even a cursory sort-out of the car’s fuel, cooling, braking, suspension, electrical, exhaust, and other systems.

But hey, it’s front-burnered. And I’m slowly turning up the heat.

***

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.