Managing the slippery slope of automotive repair

Lotus engine bay

I am nearing the sixth anniversary of the purchase of my 1974 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special. It still isn’t running. I wouldn’t recommend this project pace to anyone, but as I’m nearing the home stretch of finally getting the now-rebuilt engine back in the car, there are some lessons I can impart.

Anyone who does automotive repair is well acquainted with the dynamic of the “slippery slope”—also called “mission creep” or the illness “while-you’re-in-there-itis”—in which there’s not a clearly defined finish line for the completion of a job. In the marine world, this is sometimes referred to as “shipwright’s disease,” the concept of which is so applicable to the automotive world that the following description has been reprinted on many vintage car forums: “Sailor owns boat. Boat has burned out light in galley. Sailor decides to change bulb. Sailor notices socket is corroded, decides to change socket. Sailor notices wiring frayed while trying to change socket. Sailor decides to change wiring. Sailor notices galley ceiling slats are rotted while changing the wire. Sailor decides galley ceiling slats need changing. This goes on and on and on and on, and pretty soon, Sailor is undertaking a major renovation of his boat because of a burned-out lightbulb.”

I can hear many of you laughing through the miles of Internet tubing, because we all know how true this is. You change a distributor cap and notice that the coil wire is frayed. Before you know it, you’re embarking on a cosmetic restoration of the engine compartment. Or you go to adjust the handbrake, one thing leads to another, and you’ve dropped the rear subframe and are getting quotes for sandblasting and powder coating.

Note that if you’re “restoring” a car, there really is no slippery slope. Instead, there’s simply a black hole, infinitely deep, with a clear event horizon. Restoration, by its very name and nature, implies that you’re going to give the car everything it needs to restore it to its original condition. It’s when you’re trying to apply some modicum of economic sanity that you encounter the slippery slope.

My main advice is this: Know what the project goal is and try to stick to it. And know thyself. Understand what you can tolerate. In general, I’m very good at avoiding the slippery slope. I’m not a guy who restores cars. I don’t pull them completely apart and zinc-plate washers or re-tape wiring harnesses (not that there’s anything wrong with that if you do). Instead, I get a lot of pleasure out of performing “rolling rejuvenations.” This has an economic benefit, as full-on restoration makes no monetary sense on most of the cars I’m interested in, but the bigger part is that I know that I just don’t have the attention span for multi-year projects. They just drain all the passion right out of you. I want the payoff quicker. Better to have something you can drive to remind yourself of why you’re doing it. I advise people of this all the time.

Wait… the guy with a dead Lotus that he’s never driven and that has been parked in his garage for six years says, “I just don’t have the attention span for multi-year projects” and “Better to have something you can drive?” That’s either funny, tragic, or both. But hear me out.

As I described in an earlier piece, I waded into my Lotus-related hell by degrees. I had no idea that well-priced used running Lotus Twin-Cam motors basically don’t exist. I also had no idea that the rear suspension design involves the use of the drivetrain as a “stressed member,” where the rear lower control arms are attached to the bottom of the transaxle. Thus, once you remove the drivetrain, the car can’t sit on the rear wheels because there’s no longer anything affixing the camber. So, without the drivetrain in it, the car became a beached whale in my garage. This was maddening, as I couldn’t roll the car in and out when I needed the space. It also meant that there was no easy way to bail out and sell the car as a “roller” without a drivetrain in it. In an odd way, though, that may have saved the car, as selling it would’ve required far more than simply throwing up my hands and posting an ad on Craigslist.

The race-derived “stressed member” design with the lower control arms attached to the transaxle is cool, but without the drivetrain installed, the car becomes immobile.
Rob Siegel
The race-derived “stressed member” design with the lower control arms attached to the transaxle is cool, but without the drivetrain installed, the car becomes immobile.

Initially, there was but one goal in the Lotus project: Figure out how to rebuild the engine in as cost-contained a fashion as possible. That meant farming out the machine work, assembling it myself, soliciting parts quotes from the two domestic Lotus vendors, and splitting the orders up to get the best possible prices. I kept my eyes open for some of the ancillary items I needed (for example, I knew that all three pedals in the pedal bucket were seized, so when I saw a good used pedal bucket on eBay, I snagged it), but as the project ran into years and my employment situation became unstable, I shut off spending. I wondered whether, at some point, I might need to jury-rig up something to hold the rear wheels so the car could be rolled and sold.

This has been sitting on the shelf for almost six years.
Rob Siegel
This has been sitting on the shelf for almost six years.

When I finally got the block back from the machine shop about a year ago, I opened the spending spigot, but I was still metering out the cash with a teaspoon, comparison-shopping for every part I needed to buy, and being laser-focused on only the motor. Still hedging my bets, I was adamant that I was not going to spend a dime on the rest of the car until the drivetrain was back in. I thought that if I reached the point where I could present the reassembled car as “rolls, has freshly-rebuilt not yet started engine,” that would be both a major milestone and a practical bail-out position.

Then, as told in a recent story, during engine reassembly, I got wrapped around the axle for months in the odd quirks of the Lotus-Ford Twin-Cam engine and the aftermarket removable cartridge-style water pump. I’m not by nature a “do it once, do it right” kind of guy, but that kind of discipline was clearly required to see the engine through to completion.

As I saw light at the end of the tunnel, I began obsessing over the next steps on the punch list. All the ancillary components need to go on the engine. This was perfect, as the intake and exhaust manifolds, carbs, starter, distributor, fuel pump, and alternator could all follow my prescription for automotive project sanity and be installed in bite-sized chunks of one per evening. Several friends noted that I was reinstalling the original U.S.-spec Zenith-Stromberg carburetors with their emission controls (secondary throttle plates and crossover pipes) intact. I said that I looked forward to a time when converting the carbs to a non-Federal configuration was the biggest thing on my punch list. Eyes on the prize. Completion before functionality, and functionality before performance. See what I mean about being good at avoiding the slippery slope?

I reached the point where it was time for the clutch to be installed and discovered that I was missing one of the three tiny clutch locating pins. I couldn’t move forward without it, so I called a vendor and made the smallest parts order I’d ever placed—one clutch pin. Six bucks plus another four for shipping. I was thrilled the vendor had it in stock, and, frankly, shocked that it was the only part I’d misplaced.

The smallest auto parts order I’d ever placed.
Rob Siegel
The smallest auto parts order I’d ever placed.

But once the drivetrain was in the car, the cooling and fuel systems had to be reconnected, and I found myself approaching the slippery slope I’d avoided for nearly six years. This wasn’t the motor—this was the rest of the car. And as I wrote just last week, old gas tanks are usually full of rust and gum, and old cooling systems are usually corroded. Simply hooking up fuel and coolant would be foolish to the point of negligence.

If the philosophy in restoration is “replace everything,” my philosophy in resurrection is, “If something can be reused, reuse it, but don’t be an idiot.” The twin gas tanks were, miraculously, almost rust-free, with just a thin layer of varnish at the bottom. I decided it was sufficient to pour some fresh gas in, let it sit overnight to soften up the varnish, zip-tie a Scotch-Brite pad to the end of a rod, use it to reach down into the tank and clean it, and rinse it out. It worked perfectly. For the coolant tank, I knocked the worst rust scale off by shaking screws around inside it, then coated the inside with a rust-encapsulating product.

My gas tank cleaning tool.
Rob Siegel
My gas tank cleaning tool.

The radiator was a tougher call. I removed it from the nose of the car to flush it and check it for corrosion. Despite the car’s light weight, the radiator was surprisingly heavy, with a primitive-looking electric fan that looked like it was once used to propel Winston Churchill across the English Channel. Part of me hoped that the radiator would be badly corroded and the fan dead so I could replace them with a shiny light modern aluminum radiator and a low-profile fan, but I stayed true to my philosophy (they could be reused, therefore I reused them) and saved the $320. And if I’m wrong, there’s little penalty in revisiting the subject later.

I reused this moose of a radiator and fan.
Rob Siegel
I reused this moose of a radiator and fan.

However, the accessibility of the coolant hoses and the necks of the long coolant pipes that run under the mid-engine car would be much worse with the drivetrain in place, so I cleaned the corrosion off the necks of the pipes and replaced the difficult-to-access hoses that plumb the heater box.

It was while I was sitting on the garage floor dealing with these coolant hoses that I felt the pull of The Slope. Staring right at me were the bushings for the car’s rear trailing arms. They were clearly deteriorated and puffy. It’d never be easier than right now to change them. A quick call to a Lotus parts vendor, and new ones were on their way.

Well, YOU’D replace them, right?
Rob Siegel
Well, YOU’D replace them, right?

While waiting for the new bushings, I began removing the old ones. When I disconnected the first bushing, the front of the trailing arm dropped down, but not far enough to remove the long bolt through the bushing. I looked to see what was holding the end up and saw that inside a narrow channel between the steel frame and the fiberglass body was 40-year-old rubber brake line. The trailing arms must be disconnected to access these. There’s “slippery slope,” and there’s “if you don’t also do this while you’re in there, you’re an idiot.”

That’s the rubber brake line at the very end of the channel.
Rob Siegel
That’s the rubber brake line at the very end of the channel.

So, after another phone call, flexible brake hoses were on the way. I cut off the old rubber brake hoses. This let the ends of the trailing arms drop all the way down, which fully exposed the brake hose ends on the arms and gave me access to reach up to get wrenches on the hose ends high up inside the channel.

 I’m not sure how you’d reach up here without first disconnecting the trailing arm.
Rob Siegel
I’m not sure how you’d reach up here without first disconnecting the trailing arm.

After I replaced the trailing arm bushings and flexible hoses, I inspected the lower control arms that had been sitting in a box for nearly six years. Their bushings were deteriorated to the point of being gooey. Although these can go in after the drivetrain is installed, I put a set of bushings on order, as the idea of crossing off all the rear suspension bushings was irresistible.

Having done the other rear bushings, obviously I’m not reinstalling these.
Rob Siegel
Having done the other rear bushings, obviously I’m not reinstalling these.

By the end of that week, I had logged five separate Lotus parts orders to the same vendor, one per day. It was the total antithesis of the “combine orders to save on shipping” that I was used to, but it seemed to fit my blinders-on task-oriented work style.

It did, however, made me think. For the nearly six years the Lotus has been sitting, much of it waiting for me to resolve the engine situation, I could’ve been working on the car—brakes, suspension, wiring, cracked windshield, on and on. But that would’ve meant spending, and my goal was to avoid that. Then the philosophy changed to “dig out from under this project without losing any more money than necessary.”

Now I can smell the finish line, at least in terms of getting the car drivable. I’m genuinely excited and getting a lot done, but the spending spigot is wide open. Sometimes there’s no getting around it: the fastest way to move projects forward is to throw money at them.

Gotta run. I’ve got a drivetrain—and a pedal bucket—to install.

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Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 30 years. His most recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicGuide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available on Amazon (as are his previous books). You can also order personally inscribed copies here.