My mid-engine, headache-inducing Lotus Europa is back on the front burner
Ah, winter in New England. When it can either hover in the low 40s for a month and you’re able to drive your cool cars, or the snow can literally swallow both you and your daily driver. In these challenging climes—and when you’re a “scatter hoarder” like me, with cars garaged in several places—you need to decide which car goes where before the snow falls, and give thought to what your winter project is going to be.
Yes, things can occur that upend the planning, obviously. As I wrote a few weeks ago, pouncing on cars for sale is essentially a crime of opportunity. If the universe dangles something irresistibly tasty in front of you, you’re going to buy it—space and project pecking order be damned. But in general it’s necessary to get needy cars where you can work on them, and sorted cars where they can safely ride out the winter while you can still open the garage doors.
As you may have seen from my previous articles, I had a very active BMW-centric summer and fall. In June I bought back Bertha, the 1975 BMW 2002 that my wife and I drove off in after our wedding 34 years ago, and nursed it back to health. Then in September I bought a 1987 E28 535i sight unseen in Tampa and it turned out be much rougher than I expected (it had a broken rocker arm). I spent the fall sorting it out. But with both cars up and running and squirreled away for the winter, it was time to think about what my winter project car would be.
I thought I’d try to break out of my BMW-specific rut and venture into something different. For quite some time I’ve been looking for an early V-8 Rambler Classic or Ambassador, either a 1963, with the one-year-only wedge grille that looks like an electric razor, or a ’65 or ’66 with the stacked headlights. I owned a ’63 Classic after I sold my Triumph GT6 (the worst car I ever owned)—before I became a serial acquirer of BMW 2002s. They’re lovely cars with cool vintage American dashboards and cost about a third of what they would if they said “Impala” on them. But I’ve been looking for a two-tone, fully-loaded car with the A/C that has those beautiful, round swiveling billiard-ball-sized vents, and haven’t found one yet.
Then, a week ago my fancy was tickled by a ’66 Corvair Monza that showed up on Craigslist. It was freshly painted a non-original shade of pea-soup green with matching painted steel wheels and had non-original bucket seats in it, and I just loved the look and feel of it. For the $5500 asking price, I started to have thoughts that just weren’t right. But my inquiries about it weren’t answered, and a day later, the CL ad was taken down.
Of course, the idea of my turning my eye toward something non-Bavarian just so I’d have an outside-the-box winter project was ludicrous, because I’ve had a dead 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special (TCS) sitting in the back of my garage for five and a half years.
As I repeated in a number of articles, I bought the 20,000-mile Europa in 2013 knowing full well that it had a seized engine, but when I tore the engine down, I didn’t expect to find that it had sleeves in the cylinders. The sleeves were too thin to bore out and receive oversized pistons, so there was a lot of uncertainty about how to cost-contain the engine rebuild. Eventually I found a machine shop who was willing to hone the sleeves just enough to remove the seize marks, and helped me order custom pistons to fit the honed cylinders, but this all took years to resolve. In the interim, the car literally got buried in my garage.
In my last story about the project (10 months ago), I had both the head and block reassembled, but I was waiting on a water pump assembly to mate them together and reinstall the drivetrain. And if you are thinking “Wait… an engine rebuild was back-burnered because of a water pump?” Let me explain.
The 1.6-liter Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine was in the front-engine Lotus Elan, the Lotus/Caterham Seven, the Ford-Lotus Cortina Mk2, the Ford Escort Twin-Cam, and the mid-engine Lotus Europa Twin-Cam. The total engine production is quoted as either 34,000 or 55,000, depending on which website you read, but in either case, it’s not a common motor. And, unlike most other water-cooled engines, it doesn’t have a removable water pump that bolts onto a flange on the timing cover. Instead, the water pump is integral to the cover itself. To fix a leaky water pump or replace a bad bearing, the timing cover needs to come off the engine, the impeller has to be removed from the back side of the cover, and the bearing and seal have to be pressed out.
It gets worse. Because the timing cover is squeezed between the head and the oil pan, the head needs to be removed in order to pull the cover and change the water pump. The Lotus forums have posts from folks describing how to pull the cover without removing the head, but there’s a strong caveat that, if you do that, it’s difficult to get the cover to seal correctly when you reinstall it.
But wait. There’s additional special pain if the Twin-Cam is in a Europa. Pulling the timing cover off to change the water pump with the engine in the car is possible with front-engine cars like the Elan, but in the mid-engine Europa, the cover is just behind the small of the drivers back, and you can’t get at it with the engine in the car. Thus, to replace the water pump in a Europa Twin-Cam, you need to pull the engine. Combine this with the fact that the water pump was a known trouble-spot on the Twin Cam due to both the bearing failing from over-tightening the alternator belt and the seal drying out from lack of use and then leaking, and you can see why Lotus developed the reputation for standing for “Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious.”
To combat these problems, several Lotus parts houses sell a kit with a machined timing cover that has a hole in the middle to receive a removable cartridge-style water pump that can be easily changed with the engine in the car. Dave Bean Lotus in California and Burton Power in England have their own versions. Neither of them are cheap. But if you own a Europa and want to be able to replace the pump without having to yank the engine, it’s what you need.
Now, on a Europa, due to lack of clearance at the front of the engine, the alternator is actually on the back, driven by its own belt, so it doesn’t share the “tight alternator belt kills the water pump bearing” problem of the front-engine cars. However, since my car (even after I get it running) will likely sit for long periods, plus the fact that my engine is still out of the car and not fully assembled, I wanted to go with the cartridge-style pump. And yes, people do install electric water pumps, but I believe you need the old pump to be leak-free to do that, and the odds of my ancient, corroded assembly being leak-free are approximately zero.
The pump kit from Burton Power seemed to have more takers on the Lotus forums than the Bean pump, so I found it and prepared to pony up. But then I read the description carefully, and saw “not for Europa models.” I emailed Burton to confirm and received a response explaining that, on front-engine cars, the Twin-Cam’s water passage enters on the side of the timing cover, but on the Europa the frame rail is in the way, so the Europa’s Twin-Cam engine has a different timing cover, with the water passage at a right angle to the cover. Burton used to carry both, but there wasn’t much demand for the Europa version, so it stopped making them.
Undaunted, I called Dave Bean Engineering and spoke with Ken Gray. He said that, yes, they do sell a cartridge-style water pump system that can be used with the Europa, but they were out of stock and were having another batch made by a machine shop. “Call back in a month,” he said.
That first inquiry to Bean was a year ago. For a while I dutifully checked in every month, and Ken would report progress, but no inventory. When, this past spring, I reached the point of having the Lotus’ block fully reassembled, the lack of a water pump became what was keeping me from mating the block and head together. I spoke with Bill McCurdy at Williams Racing, the fellow who I described in an earlier piece as The Lotus Engine God (TLEG), and asked how big of a deal the water pump was.
“Well,” he began (he prefaced many nuanced explanations this way), “the issue is less about the original pump versus the cartridge-style pump. It’s more about the fact that everything, including the inner timing cover, has to be water-tight, so whichever pump you use, you need to assemble the front of the motor very carefully and pressure-test the seals before you drop the motor into the car.”
In June I made my last call to Ken at Bean, and nothing had changed. Yes, he said, the pump kits were still in process. Yes, he said, I see that we have your name on the list. No, he said, you don’t need to keep calling; we’ll contact you when they’re in. In the name of forward progress on the motor, I nearly gave up and ordered a conventional pump.
But then, other automotive projects cut ahead of the Lotus in the queue. As I said, I bought back Bertha. Her resurrection occupied the summer. And just as I’d dragged Bertha into the land of well-sorted cars, I bought the worse-than-expected BMW E28 and spent all fall dealing with its foibles.
And so, facing The Winter Project Question, and finding my garage Rambler-less and Corvair-less but Lotus-laden, I re-engaged the Lotus and knew exactly what my next step needed to be. I called Dave Bean Engineering for the first time since the summer. Ken answered the phone. I asked him about the cartridge pump kit for the Europa, and was stunned by the response: “Yup, we’ve had those in stock for a few months.”
After the shock wore off, I laughed out loud. I introduced myself and explained the history of my phone calls. Ken said, “Rob, I remember. I am so sorry. I don’t know how you fell off the list.”
“Well,” I said, “at least you didn’t say, ‘We had those in stock but now they’re sold out.’”
So my bank account is nine hundred bucks lighter, but at long last a cartridge-style Europa water pump kit is on its way. And there’s pleasure in knowing that my winter project will be the long-ignored Lotus. This Twin-Cam engine will be assembled, and I will get it and the transaxle back in the car.
As long as a two-tone ’63 Ambassador with 327 four-barrel and factory air doesn’t materialize. The Lotus is, after all, a very light car, and could very easily be shoved aside.
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.