After unleashing my Lotus Europa in the wild, I just can’t get enough
Not quite two years ago, in one of the stories I wrote in my ongoing series about my 1974 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special, I referred to “the Europa in the wild,” a twin-cam car just like mine that I happened to see on I-81 while I was driving my ’72 BMW 2002tii to an event in Asheville, North Carolina. Well, “just like mine” except that mine had been sitting dead in my garage ever since I’d bought it four years prior, and this one was running and out on the open road looking impossibly low and angular, and the driver was smiling and giving me the thumbs-up like he was livin’ the dream. Seeing that spurred me to do the heavy lifting required to restart my long-stalled Lotus project.
A Hagerty reader recognized the Europa driver as a friend of his. He contacted the guy’s wife, who contacted me, who put me in touch with him. The fellow’s name is Russell Baden Musta. We became Facebook friends, then met in person last winter when he happened to be in the Boston area on business. Russell alerted me that this year’s annual Lotus Owners Gathering (LOG) was scheduled for August in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, a scant 50 miles out the Mass Pike from me. At the time, I was deep in the reassembly of the Lotus’ engine and having all sorts of problems, and I thought the odds of the car being reassembled, much less running—and much less well-enough sorted to make that kind of a trip in August—were approximately zero. But over the next months, Russell gently reminded me about LOG, so it remained on my radar.
But as you know, over the winter and spring I got the Europa’s engine back together, the drivetrain in the car, and the car running. By early summer, I was moving it up and down the driveway, then furtively and illegally around the block. At the end of July, I finally got the car registered using “The Vermont Loophole.” Suddenly, with the Lotus legal, I was able to sail farther from shore, and a lot of important sorting out happened in a short period of time.
First, I heard some scraping from my new brakes and found that one of the newly-rebuilt Centric calipers I’d bought had a stuck piston. It took several more purchases and returns of calipers, but eventually I had brakes that reliably and safely stopped the car at speeds greater than 15 mph.
Then, the car overheated and dumped coolant while idling in my garage. I realized that I was foolish to re-use the original radiator and electric fan, even though the fan spun and the radiator appeared corrosion-free. I bought and installed a well-priced Chinese-made aluminum radiator and electric fan package, assuming that would solve the problem.
However, I was surprised to find that, in hot weather the car still ran three-quarters of the way up the temperature gauge. Some folks on the Lotus forums said that this was not unheard of and could be handled by installing an overflow bottle, from which the coolant would be sucked back in as the engine cooled. Others offered that the cooling system was likely not fully bled of air. I probably bled it 10 more times using the procedure in the factory manual, then zip-tied a big plastic soda bottle in place and stuck a plastic hose through a hole I drilled in its cap.
With a question mark still dangling over the cooling system, I began cautiously taking the car on real drives. The first was to the gas station, the car’s first fill-up from the motherlode instead of sips from a five-gallon can in my driveway. I immediately learned that the Europa generates far more attention than any other car I’ve ever owned, gathering stares from kids on bikes, young mothers pushing strollers, and, of course, car people.
With each outing, I ventured a little farther from home. I took it on a drive on some of the twisty roads in the leafy suburbs west of Boston. The phrase “go-cart-like” is overused in the sports car world, but with the Europa’s mid-engine 1600-pound configuration, the roof a scant 42 inches off the ground, and my butt practically scraping the pavement, that’s literally what it felt like, with steering so direct that moving the wheel two inches would put you in a ditch.
Compared with my vintage BMWs, the Europa was weird. It was uncomfortable. It was loud. It was creaky and rattle-y. It was deeply idiosyncratic. I couldn’t get enough of it. After I would come home and put it in the garage, I’d just want to pull it out and drive it again. And again. It was as addictive as young love. On one day, I drove it five times. None of this made any sense. It was like the person who’s clearly “not your type” but you can’t stop thinking about. I had no way to know this was going to happen. I might have gone through this six-year-long resurrection only to drive the car and go “meh.” Instead, total infatuation.
As I got more comfortable with the idea that the car wasn’t about to die or self-destruct around the next curve, driving it the hundred miles round trip to the Lotus Owners Gathering suddenly no longer felt like a fantasy. After all, if a car runs, at some point you just put it on the highway, aim it where you want to go, and let it keep running, right? So the logical next step was to try it on the highway.
It did not go well. The Lotus had been a clown car full of fun on local twisty roads, but as I hit I-95 and crossed 50 mph, the wheels shook so badly that it felt like the little car was about to fly apart. I took it home, jacked up all four corners, and spun the wheels. The original Cosmic alloy wheels were remarkably straight, but the el-cheap Achilles tires I’d bought showed a fair amount of out-of-round.
A friend of mine works at a shop where they road-force balance wheels and tires when customers’ cars have unexplained vibration issues. The balancing machine independently measures the roundness of the wheel and the springiness of the tire, then recommends an orientation where the tire and wheel are in best balance. The mechanic then removes the tire, rotates it on the rim by the prescribed amount, re-mounts it, and balances it conventionally. You pay extra for road-force balancing—$211 for all four wheels on the Lotus—but the results were dramatic. Although there were still some remaining vibration issues, they were manageable; I could now drive the car at highway traffic speeds without feeling that a wheel was about to escape.
I knocked a few more items off the punch list. Owing to the Europa’s mid-engine configuration, the shift linkage is notoriously sloppy. I replaced the missing bushings at the base of the shift lever, and that tightened things up substantially. I was, for the first time, able to put the car into fifth gear.
The car’s Smiths mechanical oil pressure gauge never worked. The exact model seems to be unique to the Europa, but I found a similar working one on eBay for short money and installed it. Similarly, the Europa’s Smiths tachometer that reads up to eight grand was dead and could not be found on eBay, but the standard MG units that go to seven grand are plentiful and interchangeable.
Next, I was stunned to find that the car did not have a cigarette lighter socket in which to plug a phone charger. Hey, Lotus’ racing sponsor was John Player; you’d expect a bloody cigarette lighter. So I installed a socket and USB port ($11 on Amazon) into the side of the glovebox where they’re not plainly visible. Unfortunately, that angle made it so I couldn’t plug my cigarette lighter voltmeter in and see it while driving, so I bought a $12 digital voltmeter, wired it in, and stuck it temporarily to the dashboard to monitor battery charging. I learned that, at times, the alternator would put out nearly 15 volts, enough to boil the battery, requiring me to turn on the blower fan to knock the voltage down.
With these simple repairs and modifications, the Lotus suddenly crossed a threshold to where it felt like a real car, as opposed to a flatbed event waiting to happen. I began to jump in it and run errands, like going to Trader Joe’s for cereal (a big part of the joy of owning any enthusiast car, at least in my book). Pleasure drives began to extend to up to 30 miles. With the Lotus Owners Gathering only a week away and 250 miles on the resurrected car, I committed to go to LOG by registering and sending in the check. My friend Russell was thrilled.
A few days later, in hot weather, I was caught in minor traffic and the Europa disgorged more coolant than the canister could hold. Clearly something still wasn’t fully right with the cooling system. This rattled me regarding the imminent trip to LOG, but I figured that I’d be fine with the car in motion on the highway, and even if it began running hot, I could simply shut it off; 50 miles is an easy and inexpensive towing distance.
Because LOG was nearby, I packed light, just some basic tools, coolant, and oil. The concours portion of the event was at Thompson Motor Speedway in Connecticut, but I opted to head for the event hotel in Sturbridge, as this would allow me to walk the parking lot, then caravan down to Thompson with other Lotii.
On the drive out I-90, I initially drove slowly, watched the temperature like a hawk, and hugged the right lane so I could pull over if necessary, but the morning weather was cool, the car was fine, and I eventually relaxed. I arrived at the event hotel without incident, practically giddy that the Lotus and I had achieved this milestone. I marveled at the parking lot full of Elans, Europas, Sevens, later cars like Elises and Exiges, and an uber-rare MK9.
I parked next to several other Europas, chatted with their owners about cooling system issues, and met up with my friend Russell. The cars then formed up for the drive to Connecticut.
If you’ve never caravanned with other cars of your ilk, you’re missing one of the great automotive joys of life. Being part of a group like this, seeing the shapes and colors of similar cars stretching out in front and behind you like a living snake of passion, makes a lot of the pain and expense of reaching this point worthwhile. The drive south to Thompson Motor Speedway was farther and twistier than I expected, which only meant that the bliss kept on coming. It was glorious.
Unfortunately, when we reached Thompson, there was a long backup to get into the event. The air temperature had warmed up, there was a lot of direct sunlight on the car, and the lack of airflow through the radiator caused the temp gauge to climb. I noticed it too late, and despite switching the engine off except when moving several feet at a time, the temperature pegged, the engine overheated, and the coolant overflowed the catch bottle, surrounding my car in an embarrassing green puddle. I was very concerned for the engine’s health, but I toughed it out and got the car down onto the event field.
But once I was there, I relaxed. Although it was easily the rattiest Lotus there, many folks recognized the car from these Hagerty stories and were thrilled to see it. I repeatedly told the tale of how the car had been off the road for 40 years and that this was its maiden road trip. Although 40 years was a long layup, I met several owners whose cars had 20- and 30-year slumbers. There’s something about these cars that inspires owners to bring them back from the brink, even if the passion needs to simmer on low.
The sweep of cars at the speedway was dramatic. My little Europa and I felt like the bee girl in that Blind Melon video from the 1990s, ecstatic to have found our people.
Although I’m sure I’d get sucked in by an Elise if I drove one, my heart really belongs to vintage cars and their beautiful primitive forms, and few things are as lovely as the dashboard of a Type 14 Lotus Elite.
Europa and Elan enthusiasts freely offered me cooling system advice. We collectively verified that my fan was turning on, that it was wired to push air, even that the blades on the fan were mounted correctly. One fellow noted that the airflow through the radiator was anemic, that air was bouncing off the radiator and blowing backwards, and he offered that perhaps the Chinese-made fan that came with the radiator—although wired and oriented correctly—simply wasn’t up to the task. I resolved to order a proper Spal-brand fan, which is what I should’ve done in the first place. Live and learn.
Stepping back for a moment, as the value of cars increases, much of the chatter at events often turns away from the cars and concentrates instead on the money. Hey, it is what it is, and there’s no sense crying over it. But with this backdrop, I have to say that I was thrilled that the vintage Lotus folks with whom I spoke were focused on the cars. I didn’t overhear a single conversation about new highs on Bring a Trailer. And that was a beautiful thing. My conversations were about engines, cooling systems, air conditioning, and how to more easily find fifth gear. The folks with whom I spoke were a scrappy, passionate bunch. My kind of people.
At the end of the day, I said goodbye to Russell and thanked him for gently twisting my arm and getting me to attend.
On the drive home, once it was apparent that the overheating episode hadn’t caused any damage, I abandoned all worry and pretense of restraint and became the guy in the left lane with the Cheshire cat grin driving the ratty fragile little fiberglass-bodied car and passing nearly everybody. As I got a honking wave from an admirer, I realized what should’ve been obvious to me at the start of the day: My car was now the Europa in the wild.
I wrote a couple of stories back in July and August about adding up the costs of the Europa and got a surprising amount of flak for being so relentlessly analytical and left-brained about the project’s mounting cost. As I arrived home and pulled the car into the garage, having just put 150 miles on it when the biggest daily total before that had been perhaps 30, I didn’t need to ask myself the question of whether it had been worth it. Instead, I asked myself when I’d next drive the car.
The answer to that was obvious: As soon as possible. Young love cannot be denied.
Rob Siegel has been writing the column The Hack Mechanic™ for BMW CCA Roundel magazine for 33 years and is the author of five automotive books, including Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning. All of his books are available on Amazon. You can also order personally inscribed copies here. Siegel’s new book, Resurrecting Bertha: Buying Back the Car My Wife and I Drove Off From Our Wedding, will be released later this year.