When a long-dead project comes to life, patience still pays off
I’ve been trying to resurrect my 40-year-dead 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special for years, and since the project finally started to intensify, I’ve written about it a lot. I appreciate you hanging in there with me. Maybe together we can see this thing through to the end.
Last week, I talked about the unpredictability (putting it mildly) of the Lucas electricals. And was pleasantly surprised by how much of it worked.
Early last month I pressure-tested the engine and described how, when pressurizing with nitrogen, it leaked between the layers of the head gasket. However, once I filled the engine with coolant, it no longer leaked when pressurized. With that success, I installed a new clutch, mated the engine to the transaxle, and attached the carbs, starter, and other ancillary components.
I’ve been absolutely ruthless about cost-containing the project, with the mantra, “If it can be re-used, re-use it.” However, the paint on the valve cover was badly flaking. Figuring that it’ll be the thing I see every time I open the hood, I made a snap decision and for $170 had the valve cover hot-tanked, glass-beaded, and powder-coated. It was totally the right choice.
I was about to install the drivetrain when I realized that, with it still out, there’d never be a better time to replace the obviously worn-out trailing arm bushings and the impossible-to-reach rear rubber brake lines. Although I try to eschew mission creep and slippery slope issues, this was one of those times where I clearly would’ve been an idiot to ignore them.
With the bushings done, I installed the assembled drivetrain by sliding it on a lift table under the rear of the jacked-up car, as the idea of a drivetrain dangling from an engine hoist and crashing into the fragile fiberglass body was too stress-inducing to consider. I could write an entire article just about this installation. Suffice to say, it was a lot more challenging putting it back in than it was pulling it out six years ago.
I did the things you do to a long-dead car with a freshly-installed drivetrain. I cleaned the gas tanks and installed new fuel lines and a new filter. I flushed a bucket of rusty snotty-looking coolant out of the long, metal pipes that run under the car (the Europa is a mid-engine vehicle, remember?). I pulled the big primitive radiator and its fan, flushed it out, looked inside, didn’t see anything alarming, found that the fan still worked, and reinstalled them both. I replaced every coolant hose. I reinstalled the original exhaust. I reconnected the shift linkage. I replaced the seized pedal assembly with a working one I’d had sitting on the shelf for nearly six years and connected the clutch and accelerator cables, as well as the brake master cylinder. The brake pedal went to the floor, but that was no surprise, and we’ll get to that. As often happens in projects of this sort, after a pace that seemed glacial, I made a lot of progress in a few evenings.
Next, I checked for oil pressure. This is an engine with an externally-mounted oil pump driven off a “jackshaft” (the Ford block’s left-over in-block camshaft). Unfortunately, after cranking the starter for as long as I was comfortable doing, the old-school mechanical oil pressure gauge registered nothing. I went to the side of the block, took the fitting off the thin tube that runs to the gauge, and cranked the engine again. Nothing came out. I primed it by squirting oil into it with a Wizard-of-Oz-style oil can. Still nothing. I unscrewed the oil filter. Cranking the engine should cause oil to pour out the center screw-on fitting. Nothing. I began to wonder if the oil pump was bad. If it was, fortunately it was externally mounted.
I searched the Lotus forums, and it turns out that priming the oil pump on these Ford block engines, if they’ve been recently rebuilt or have been sitting for months, is a known problem. Fortunately, the solution is simple: Take the cover off the oil pump, pack the gears with Vaseline to help them draw a vacuum to pull in the oil, and put it back together. I did, and after about five seconds of cranking, I could hear the note of the engine change as pressure built up in the pump. The needle on the gauge sprang to the right. Whew!
Next, I tackled the infamous “stressed member” rear suspension. This is Lotus’ race-car-inspired design where there’s no rear subframe, and instead the rear lower control arms are affixed to the bottom of the transaxle, making it so that, while the drivetrain was out, the car was a beached whale in my garage. I shimmed and pinned the rear half-axle shafts, re-bushed the lower trailing arms, reinstalled the rear shocks and springs, and before I knew it, for the first time in six years, the car was capable of being lowered to the ground. I did not lower it, though, because I wanted it elevated so that, on first start, I could carefully check for coolant and oil leaks.
Ah. The first start. As someone who posted on my Facebook page said, only those of us who have checked ring gaps, smeared engine components in assembly paste, compressed rings, dropped pistons into bores, torqued bearing caps down, checked the squished Plastigauge, retorqued the caps, torqued the head down, and checked and rechecked the valve adjustment can truly know the anticipation that comes from not knowing whether your precious motor will knock and grenade itself into a smoking Wile E. Coyote cartoon or instead burble and spit and cough its way to life like a child being born should.
I checked for the presence of spark by pulling the center wire out of the distributor and holding it close to a ground while I cranked the engine. Initially I had no spark, but that turned out to be due to me mis-wiring the coil. With that fixed, spark, check.
Then I checked for fuel. That was easy, as 1) the fuel pump has a domed clear glass top that makes it look remarkably like Robby the Robot in the giant Forbidden Planet poster hanging in my garage, and 2) the Stromberg carburetors have a bottom-mounted cup you can pop off to verify the presence of fuel in the float bowls.
With a fire extinguisher at the ready, I gave the engine its first “will it start?” crank. There was no sound of the ignition catching. When this happens on a newly-installed motor, and you’ve verified spark and fuel, the go-to thing to check is timing. Sure enough, I’d somehow installed the distributor 180 degrees out when the engine was still on the stand. I corrected that, cranked the starter with a remote start switch, and the engine immediately sounded like it wanted to start. Each near-ignition burst was accompanied by a blast of birdseed out the tailpipe, presumably deposited there by rodents during the six years that the car’s exhaust sat under my back porch. However, as soon as I let go of the start switch, it died. I played with the choke, but the same thing kept happening. It was so repeatable that I was convinced the ignition coil was getting power while cranking but not while running. However, when I checked with a multimeter, it showed that I was wrong. I couldn’t figure it out, so I slept on it. Note that in the video, I’m pumping the throttle, not realizing that Strombergs don’t have traditional diaphragm accelerator pumps like the Webers I’m used to.
In the morning, I saw that someone commented on my Facebook page that Strombergs like to be cracked open a bit when started. I wedged the throttle stop open a bit with a screwdriver, hit the remote start switch, and the Lotus engine immediately jumped to life for the first time since 1979. It was amazing.
In my book Ran When Parked, I describe in detail the steps necessary to revive a long-dormant car. While that first engine start is as heart-racing as a first kiss from a new love, it is just the beginning of the hard work. Whether the engine had been sitting or was recently rebuilt, it is going to smoke like a chimney, both out the tailpipe as it burns off oil or assembly paste and from the outside surfaces of the engine and exhaust as they heat up to temperature. You need to run it in stages, with a fire extinguisher handy and all the windows in the garage open, stopping frequently to check for coolant and oil leaks. As you can see here, the Lotus put on quite a smoke show, but I saw just one drop of coolant weeping from my new cartridge-style water pump. Then, with a chugging sound, it suddenly blew coolant out from under the reservoir cap. I let it cool, refilled it, tightened all the clamps, carefully bled it of air, and it appeared to be all right. After several runnings, most of the smoke had dissipated except for an odd persistent white belch at startup.
The next step was to try moving the car a few feet. You can learn a lot moving a car a few feet. In my case, I learned that the Europa’s cable-actuated clutch has a window of about one inch in which it grabs. The car was about two feet from the back wall of the garage, and two feet from a row of shelves and boxes behind it, and despite an attempted brake bleeding, still had a brake pedal that went to the floor. I told myself that, if the clutch grabbed and the car suddenly jerked, I could pull the handbrake (which did work), or pop the shift lever into neutral, or shut the engine off. But when the clutch grabbed in reverse, I of course did none of those things and instead did what anyone would do reflexively, which was to stomp on the brake pedal, which did nothing. I backed into the row of boxes behind the car. Fortunately, it did no damage, but I resolved to both clear some space and deal with the braking before attempting to move the car again.
As I said in a story I wrote about bleeding brakes, I rely on my Motive power bleeder to get the job done. I ran several more quarts of brake fluid through the Lotus, but the pedal did not firm up. This is a car that has two remote booster servos in the engine compartment, essentially acting like master/slaves between the master cylinder and the wheels. Earlier Europas don’t have the boosters—only the Twin-Cam cars do—so they can be deleted, though it’s recommended that, if you do, you replace the master cylinder with one of smaller diameter. The question was whether the master or boosters (or both) were bad.
There are two ways to tell. The first is to bench-bleed the master. The second is to bypass the boosters, bleed the system, and see what happens. I opted for the latter. I went to a nearby Autozone, bought a couple of unions and one-foot lengths of brake line with bubble flares and 3/8-24 fittings, bypassed the boosters, and bled the system again. To my delight, the pedal came up hard, and when I started the car, stood on the brake pedal, and carefully let out the clutch, the brakes worked well enough to stall the engine. On a car that sat for 40 years, it’s still likely that I’ll need to replace every component in the braking system, but this was enough to safely move the car. What’s more, when I pulled the booster’s vacuum pipe off the intake manifold, I found that the pipe was full of brake fluid. This meant that the boosters definitely were leaking, and that was the source of the white smoke I was seeing at startup.
With the brakes functional and the boxes cleared out of the way, it was time. I very carefully backed the car out of the garage and into the driveway. This was huge. It was the first time the car had been driven under its own power since 1979 and the first time it had seen sun since I bought it and rolled it into the garage in 2013. (The video can be seen here.) I stood there, looking at the impossibly low Lotus sitting outside by the azalea in my driveway like a real car, and grinned like an idiot. Then I grabbed a hose and gave it a quick bath, then wiped the dust off the dash and seats. Suddenly, the shabby interior looked like this:
Folks fixate on the rear roofline of the Europa, derisively calling it a bread van. I’ll admit that the side view makes it look like the demon offspring of an El Camino and a GT40. But look at it from the front. You cannot tell me that this is not a massively cool car.
This was a long hard slog. For six years I’ve been saying that I just wanted to reach the point where I could move the damned Lotus in and out of the garage. I’ve now reached that point. After I pulled the Lotus back in, I said to my wife, Maire Anne, “I’m not sure what to do with the rest of my life.”
I kid. I know exactly what to do next: Real brakes, and then a real drive.
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 Mechanic™ Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available on Amazon (as are his previous books). You can also order personally inscribed copies here.