We all know someone who constantly trawls Craigslist, bringatrailer.com or Hemmings, even when the garage…
With the Lotus up and running, it’s time to add up the cost
Over the past two years, I’ve penned a number of pieces about the 1974 Lotus Europa Twin-Cam Special I bought in a self-indulgent moment in June 2013. The car, which had been in storage since 1979 and had a seized-from-sitting motor, is up and running again, is safe enough to be driven further than around the block, and is about to be registered. I thought this would be a good time to take a step back and add up the costs, if for no other reason than to quantify exactly how foolish the whole endeavor has been. As I’ve long said, if I can’t be a shining example, at least I can be a horrible warning.
Since I neither restore cars nor write big checks to someone else to do so, my goal with the Lotus was to leave the patina on the body intact and concentrate on mechanically reviving the gossamer-like fiberglass-bodied car as cost effectively as possible. My mantra was that if a component could be reused, I would reuse it. I make no apologies for being relentlessly tight-fisted; I could never afford my seven vintage BMWs and the Lotus without being so. Nonetheless, as this accounting exercise shows, once the meter starts running, it’s impossible to shut it off and still achieve the goal of a running, driving-legal car.
For cars that I keep over the long haul, I don’t even try to add up the costs, but for cars that I suspect are only sojourning for a bit with me as their automotive foster parent, I’ll generally keep a spreadsheet. However, it’s less a profit-and-loss issue and more something I can use to try to calibrate my own behavior by seeing how badly I’ve misjudged things. I certainly didn’t buy the Lotus to flip it. It was a straight-out passion purchase; it’s a car I’ve been attracted to since I was in the 8th grade and worked for a guy who owned one.
My resurrection of the Lotus had a unique rhythm to it. I bought it and immediately yanked the seized engine, but when I found out how expensive it would be to have it rebuilt, the project ran into molasses. For most of the last six years, the car sat on jack stands in my garage, and the motor was marooned in a machine shop, largely due to my reluctance to spend the money to complete it. The spending tap got turned back on in December 2018, when a long-out-of-stock cartridge-style water pump became available. For this reason, the majority of the expenses were incurred in the last seven months, and thus were fairly easy to track.
It’s a given that almost every automotive project is more expensive than you’d planned. When I tally up expenses, I find it helpful to divide them into purchase and registration costs, costs due to a single large issue (such as an engine rebuild), general sort-out expenses, non-essential items, and future projected costs. By dividing things up this way, I find that I at least stand a chance of learning something from it instead of simply recoiling in horror from the final number.
Purchase and registration costs
These are the front-end costs to purchase the car, ship it to my house, and square things with the state of Massachusetts. So, in theory, if I bought a car that needed nothing, these would be the only costs. On paper, it sounds and looks pretty good. When I bought this original, largely unmolested, 24,000-mile car six years ago for $6500, I thought that I would certainly have one of the lowest-mileage Europas in the country. I didn’t know that there are any number of Europas with this kind of mileage, because, well, it’s a Lotus—Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious, and all that. Enclosed point-to-point air-ride shipping from Chicago to Boston seemed appropriate for the long-dead fragile fiberglass-bodied car, and the $1220 cost from Intercity Lines seemed reasonable. As I wrote last week in a story about title issues, Massachusetts assesses sales tax not on what you actually paid, but on the basis of the low NADA value, which for a ’74 Europa is $8650, so I didn’t get soaked too badly.
Initially, I didn’t include insurance costs with this tally, since, with Hagerty, the annual addition of a low- to mid-value car to my multi-car policy isn’t much. However, I did insure the car when I purchased it in case something happened to it during shipping, and that was six years ago, so it added up. Even though it wasn’t running, I kept it insured so I’d be covered if a tree or a meteor hit the garage. I never imagined that the car would sit in my garage, insured but immobile and taking up precious space, for six years. I’ll admit that, during my darker moments, I thought, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and a meteor will come through the window, take out the Lotus, and spare the garage.”
For grins, I just called Hagerty. My annual cost of the policy on the Europa is $132. Like I said, not much. But over six years, it adds up, and if I’m going to look the beast in the face, I might as well see it snarling and with drool coming out of its mouth.
|Title and registration||$75|
Engine rebuild costs
When I bought the Europa, the main issue was dealing with the seized engine. The huge takeaway lesson here was that my vintage BMW-centric existence in no way prepared me for this weird mid-engine Brit bit. If I buy a 1970s-era BMW in need of an engine, I know the spread of options: $300 buys an unseized engine in unknown condition; $800 buys an engine where you can look the seller in the eye and have him or her tell you that they pulled it out of a parts car and heard it run; $2500 buys a low-mileage recent rebuild; and $4000 is the approximate cost of a rebuild if you do some of the assembly yourself. I didn’t have a clue that such a small number of Lotus Ford Twin-Cam engines were built (about 34,000), that used running twin-cam engines are rare as hen’s teeth, and that you certainly don’t find them for BMW 2002 engine money. When, after buying the car, I looked on eBay and saw a rebuilt twin-cam engine for $8900, I gasped. Then I learned that, if the rebuild has provenance, that’s actually a pretty good price.
I removed and tore down the engine, unseized the stuck piston, and took the disassembled engine to the gentleman I referred to as The Lotus Engine God (or “TLEG,” as I called him). I then met a fellow who’d had TLEG rebuild his motor, and learned that it cost him twelve grand. My cost-conscious self thought, “I don’t want to even pay a third of that.” (I knew that I would, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to). I had TLEG clean and crack-check the block, head, crank, and rods, then pulled the engine out of his shop and took it to the more conventional machine shop that does my BMW engine work. Considering that the machine shop bill included $600 for a custom set of pistons, and that I spent over a thousand bucks on a custom cartridge-style water pump kit and related parts and machining work, the $5910 total is the best I could’ve hoped for. Here’s the breakdown:
|Main machine shop bill||$3165|
|Dave Bean water pump||$907|
|TLEG cleaning checking||$800|
|Main order engine parts||$552|
|Chain and tensioners||$158|
|TLEG cutting cover||$100|
|Twin-Cam rebuild book||$34|
|Threaded plug McMaster||$33|
|Gaskets and bolts||$22|
|More threaded plugs||$20|
|Threaded plug eBay||$11|
|Oil pump o-rings||$4|
General sort-out costs
The next set of expenses are comprised of nearly everything else I bought that wasn’t directly related to the engine rebuild. This came to about $2500, which isn’t bad when you consider that you expect a car that hasn’t run for 40 years to need absolutely everything.
Certain parts on the Europa are also used on other cars. The front brakes, for example, are the same as a Triumph Spitfire, so rotors and rebuilt calipers were readily available on Rockauto for a very reasonable cost. However, although the clutch pressure plate supposedly cross-references to a number of cars, cross-referencing and availability are two different things, and confusion over which clutch disc was correct for a U.S.-spec five-speed forced me to order a clutch kit from a Lotus specialty parts house rather than playing roulette with something that, if I was wrong, would require a terrifying amount of labor to set right. The clutch throw-out bearing is an NLA Ford part, and some of the reproductions simply don’t fit on the carrier. Trying to save 40 bucks, I bought one on Amazon, and then had to return it and pony up $93 for a properly vetted one.
Nothing appeared wrong with the car’s original radiator and fan until I idled the car in the garage while tuning the carbs and the engine overheated, blowing coolant out from under the cap. Suddenly, “re-use unless you can’t” seemed like the absolute height of stupidity, and I threw $289 at eBay for a new Chinese-sourced aluminum radiator and fan.
Although the roughly $2500 in sort-out parts was less than I expected, calling it a complete list is folly, as the car still hasn’t been driven much further than around the block.
|Radiator and fan||$289|
|Powder-coated valve cover||$130|
|Rebuilt front calipers||$102|
|Used pedal assembly||$93|
|Clutch release bearing||$93|
|Mount and balance tires||$80|
|Radius arm bushings||$74|
|Rear flexible hoses and belt||$56|
|Oil and belt||$49|
|Ball joints and tie rod||$49|
|Hose clamps and shims||$48|
|Electric fuel pump and hose||$44|
|Belts, filters, plugs||$40|
|Glass bead valve cover||$40|
|Msc. airbox parts||$40|
|More brake cleaner||$24|
|Front flexible brake hoses||$23|
|Lower control arm bushings||$20|
|Bleeder adaptor kit||$20|
|Brake cleaner, fasteners||$16|
|Brake lines and fittings||$15|
|More brake lines||$15|
|Points and condenser||$14|
|Fuel pump glass dome||$14|
|Trunnion rebuild kit||$10|
The nearly $1100 in expenses related to the aftermarket cartridge-style water pump (already listed under “engine rebuild”) were not strictly essential, but I was flat-out spooked by the idea that a newly-rebuilt stock integral water pump could soon leak from sitting and necessitate removal of the engine and pulling off the head and oil sump. The cost was high and the installation issues were very challenging, but it’s done. Would I do it again? That’s not a fair question, because I’m not sure I’d do any of this again.
The $40 to glass-bead and $130 to powder-coat the valve cover was frivolous and very uncharacteristic of me, but I smile whenever I look at it.
Earlier I said that if the goal is to get a car running, driving, and legal, after a certain point it just needs what it needs, and it becomes difficult to shut off the spigot of spending, no matter how creative you are or how hard you try to hack or adapt or reuse. The car’s cracked windshield is a perfect example of this. It will need to be replaced for the car to pass inspection. Even if I can find a good used one, the cost of the sealing and trim pieces is even higher than the cost of the glass. I’ve installed traditional rubber-gasketed windshields, but this one is bonded in place. It needs a pro.
The Lotus will also need a four-wheel alignment, which involves inserting washers between the frame and the rear trailing arms, so there’s shop labor over and above the standard alignment charge. So, at a minimum, we’re talking about:
I probably should add the front and rear Spax shocks the car is almost certain to need. Federal-spec Europas like mine sit too high in the front due to DOT headlight height requirements, and an adjustable spring perch is needed to get it so that it doesn’t look like a boat on plane. Plus, there are holes in the muffler, the rear brakes still need to be done, and the idea that I’ll get out of this without replacing the master cylinder is a fantasy. That’s probably another $1500 in those last three sentences. I’d add these to the above list, but it just gets too depressing. Perhaps I should call the list “Immediate Projected Costs.”
And the total is… $20K?! What?
If you add it up—and Lord knows I’d rather not, at least not without some Xanax and a bucket within ready reach—it comes to $18,999. Add in finishing the brakes and replacing the exhaust and the shocks, and we’re past $20K. This isn’t sticker shock; this is trauma. The only car I’ve ever put 20 grand into is my 1973 BMW 3.0CSi, and that’s having owned it for 33 years and given it an outer body restoration, a new drivetrain, interior, fuel injection, and air conditioning.
In a world where running project Europa Twin-Cam Specials sell for $8000–$12,000 and sorted drivers go for $15,000, it’s difficult for me to look at these numbers and claim with a straight face that it was worth it, even considering that I love cars with stories and patina. Twenty grand is a ton of money to me. There are any number of cars I’d spend that on before electing to drop it on a Europa TCS. And with the distressed appearance of mine, I could get it flawlessly sorted and its value likely still wouldn’t top 12 grand. Plus, well, let’s just say it: It’s brown. I like brown cars, but I’m not blind to that color’s negative effect on value.
So why do we do things like this? And I say “we” because I am hardly alone. It’s a combination of factors. Sometimes we simply don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. Sometimes it’s the frog-in-the-pot analogy, not realizing the water is getting hotter and hotter until it’s too late and you’re cooked. Both of those dynamics were definitely in play with the Lotus. I advise other people that they need to be unflinchingly honest about what a car needs and what it’s worth once it gets it. Only then can you judge whether you should buy a car, and for what price. I completely ignored my own advice with the Lotus, and it shows.
The traditional wisdom is that there’s nothing cheaper than someone else’s money, that restoration is for suckers, that it’s always best to buy a car someone else has restored, resurrected, revived, call it whatever you will. For many reasons, I routinely reject that wisdom. I’m a bottom feeder who generally enjoys buying highly challenged cars with good stories, paying little for them, and nursing them back to health. The fact that I also write about this process makes it almost seem like a rational endeavor. But even if I didn’t regard it as grist for the journalistic mill, my middle-class roots make me sympathetic to the approach that paying little, adding your own sweat equity, and spreading the amount over a period of years is a de-facto way of financing a project that you’d never be able to afford otherwise.
But still… 20 grand? For this Europa? Like, ouch.
So, while I don’t walk around moping that I’m “underwater” in the car, there are limits, and the Lotus is clearly exceeding them. Hopefully, in my next piece, I’ll write, “Now that the car is registered, and I’m rippin’ up entrance ramps in it, I bloody love it, quirks and all; it’s worth every penny I’ve spent, and all is forgiven.” But I doubt it.
Still, it looks pretty cool sitting there in the driveway, right?
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.