The Lotus Takes a Step Back to Go Forward

Rob Siegel

A few weeks ago, I wrote about bringing my ’74 Lotus Europa Twin Cam special back from warehouse storage. The drive home was a bit of an adventure, as the car’s fuel filter kept clogging up and strangling the gas flow into the Strombergs. This required a parking lot intervention to disconnect the filter and blow it out, which was accompanied by the quintessential gas-in-the-armpit experience that distinguishes us true wrenches from the rest of you posers.

I needed to bring the Lotus home because, in addition to missing it during its September-to-May warehouse sojourn while I sorted out a registration issue (a story I keep teasing you with but I promise I will tell it), I wanted to try to set the car’s suspension right.

Europas are very low cars, only 42 inches high at the roof, and their snowplow-low nose ran them into trouble with U.S. headlight height regulations. For this reason, unlike earlier S1 and S2 Europas, the Federal-spec Twin Cam cars have a nose that’s raised a bit. It’s not jacked up that much, maybe an inch and a half or two, but the rest of the car is so low that it’s noticeable. People joke that it makes the Twin Cam look like a boat on plane.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam front three quarter
My ’74 Europa TCS shortly after I got it running. The angle of the photo accentuates it, but you can see what I mean about the nose.Rob Siegel

When I bought the Europa in 2013, it had been sitting for 30 years. It was very original, but it needed everything, including an engine rebuild. Figuring out how to do that in a cost-effective manner took me six years. Job loss and career change put a cap on my spending, so the car in no way got “restored.” When I finally finished rebuilding the engine and installed it in the spring of 2019, I did the minimum necessary to get the car running and driving. In other words, new brakes, yes, new suspension, no, body-off repaint and powder-coated frame, hell no. So although I was thrilled to finally be driving the Europa, experiencing the car’s legendary handling was deferred, as the shocks were at that point 45 years old and barely functional.

In the car’s second round of work that winter, I wanted to address both the old tired suspension as well as the raised nose. The Europa’s suspension uses double wishbones in the front with coil-overs on both the front and rear. It’s a 1600-pound vehicle, so the springs are tiny—2.25 inches in diameter in the front, and 1.9 inches in the back. The trick thing to do is buy adjustable Spax shocks—that’s “adjustable” in both ride height as well as firmness—and shorter, stiffer springs. However, doing so would’ve set me back over twelve hundred bucks, and I couldn’t justify spending that.

So I did what I often do—I tried to find a less expensive path. It was easy to look up the free lengths and spring rates of both the stock springs and the commonly-used lowering springs on Europa user forums. The stock front springs have 14-inch free length with a 100-pound spring rate. The consensus on front lowering springs for street use was 10-inch 125-pound. I found some for just $85 for the pair brand new. I kept the rear springs stock. Then I found an old set of used adjustable Spax shocks with the springs still on them on eBay, something someone had likely installed on their Europa S2 in the 1980s. The seller knew nothing about their history, but they were cheap; I think I paid $200 plus shipping. I negotiated with the seller that, as long as the shocks weren’t seized or blown, and the firmness adjustment worked, I’d be happy. They weren’t, they did, and I was.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam springs
Ooooh! New 35-year-old adjustable shocks with springs on them I don’t want!Rob Siegel

Since the used shocks came with springs on them that were likely off a Europa S2 (which aren’t the same as the ones on a Twin Cam), the first thing I had to do was get them off. I discovered that none of the four spring compressors I owned would work—the springs were either too narrow in diameter or the coils too close together, or both. I bought and returned an ATV spring compressor on Amazon that wouldn’t fit, then read on the Europa forum that people make their own using either hooks and turnbuckles or plates and threaded rods. I know, it seems impossibly hokey from the photos, but I asked a friend who works at one of the vintage Lotus parts houses in this country, and he says that this is how they do it. The parts for lowering the nose all went in, along with a general steering rebuild (new ball joints and trunions) between December 2019 and spring of 2020.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam spring compressing
I know this looks dangerous as hell—and if you’re uncomfortable with it, DON’T DO IT—but the hardware is heavy duty, these are small springs, they were never aimed at my face, and the Vise Grips aren’t holding anything. They’re only there to prevent the hooks from sliding down the incline of the springs and causing them to compress unevenly.Rob Siegel
Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam new shock spring side by side
The original Europa S2 spring on the Spax shock (right), and the shorter stiffer spring (left).Rob Siegel
Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam new shock spring install
The front coil-overs being installed between the wishbones.Rob Siegel

There were a few things I didn’t count on. One was that lowering the nose required shortening the sway bar links. Unlike most cars where the middle of the sway bars bolt to the frame and the ends are attached to the lower control arms with links, the ends of the Europa’s sway bars attach directly to the bottoms of the shocks, and the links hang down from the upper wishbone’s attachment point. It’s weird. One of these links was already broken, so I cut them both, threaded them with a die, and installed an adjustable turnbuckle that bolted onto a clamp meant for attaching phones and cameras to cycle handlebars. It worked fine.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam suspension parts comparison
Original and my low-budget shortened adjustable front sway bar link.Rob Siegel

The resulting car looked great with the lowered nose, but from the get-go, I didn’t like the effect the springs and shocks had on the car’s ride. No matter how I adjusted the shocks on the soft-firm spectrum, it seemed that the car, particularly the nose, would bottom out on anything other than glass-smooth pavement.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam side profile
Damn this looked good. But felt bad.Rob Siegel

Over the next few years, I discovered other undesirable side effects of my modifications. Lowering any vintage car with non-camber-correcting suspension by simply installing shorter springs will usually increase negative camber (push the bottoms of the wheels outward), and just looking at the Lotus’ front wheels, I could see that that had happened in spades. Adjustable front wishbones are available for the Europa, but they’re not cheap, and adjustment requires popping the ball joint out of its taper and screwing its other attachment point in or out. Again, I cheaped out by simply elongating the bolt holes at the outer ends of the wishbones. I’m not the first one to have done this. It’s as old a trick as cutting coils.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam control arms
Yes, I broke out the hole stretcher.Rob Siegel

The next booge-on-top-of-kluge was that, while driving at highway speeds, I became obsessed with the fact that the car’s lane-changing seemed to occur as two steps, with the nose moving first, then followed by the tail. I posed the question to the Europa forum, and the consensus was to have a professional alignment done. I didn’t want to do that, because, you know, I’m cheap and all, but also because the rear toe-in is adjusted by placing shims (washers, really) between the rear trailing arms and the frame. In other words, it’s not something your all-makes-all-models $125 alignment shop is going to do. It needs to be done by a Lotus specialty shop, or by you at home followed by repeated trips to the alignment shop to see if you got it right. As I’ve written about, I’ve been doing my own alignments for years, and was convinced that I’d gotten the rear toe-in close enough that it couldn’t be the cause. I blamed the problem on mismatched springs. That is, I’d replaced the front springs with shorter stiffer ones, but was still running on the original rear springs. So I bought rear lowering springs of the same length and stiffness specs that are used in the pricey lowering packages. As happened with the front wheels, they had the effect of cambering the bottoms of the rear wheels out, so down that rabbit hole I went and built adjustable rear links, dialing in the camber with both an analog bubble level and a digital inclinometer.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam suspension rods
The original rear link and the components to build an adjustable one.Rob Siegel

The total effect of all of this was, in retrospect, predictable—I’d taken a car that was fairly comfortable to drive, and turned it into an oxcart that could barely clear a pack of cigarettes. I read more on the Europa forum, and came to the conclusion that, because the eBay-purchased used adjustable Spax shocks were off a Europa S2 with stock springs, they were never meant to be used with lowering springs. When I bought them, I simply didn’t understand that there was a distinction between adjustable damping, which they had, and adjustable perch height, which they didn’t. Using shorter springs on shocks that weren’t meant for them was likely what was making things bottom out. I wanted to return the car to the way that it was, but the original shocks were so soft as to be indistinguishable from being blown, so I’d thrown them away.

Then it occurred to me: I didn’t have the original shocks, but I did have the original springs. I could install them on the used Spax adjustable shocks that were currently on the car. There was nothing obviously wrong with those. That would put the car back to its original height. And once that was done, I could undo all the questionable camber changes, as they’d no longer be necessary.

Put another way, I felt like an idiot having made the car less comfortable and less drivable with my budget-conscious suspension mods, so given the choice between feeling like even more of an idiot spending probably close to two grand for a vetted adjustable suspension and wishbone package to do it right, or feeling like even more of an idiot taking the time and effort to return it to close to the way it was before I started to futz with it, when the whole situation and both ways out of it made me feel like more of an idiot anyway, I opted for the zero-cost path. Hey, if you’re going to feel like more of an idiot, at least it should cost you nothing, right?

So, as soon as the Lotus came home from the Monson warehouse, I had at it.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam on lift in garage
Up you go.Rob Siegel

The rear shocks and springs came out first, as they’re just held on by through-bolts at the top and bottom. I unearthed my cobbled-together spring compressor from the back of the garage. Off the short springs came, on the original springs went. The bottom attachment bolt for the shocks goes through the adjustable rear links, so off those came, replaced by their original fixed grandfathers.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Suspension
I can’t say that I was excited about doing this again, but it still worked perfectly.Rob Siegel

The front was quite a bit more involved, as the coil-overs sit between the halves of both the upper and lower wishbones, and the upper attachment point is held in place by a long bolt that has to be knocked backwards and through an access hole in the fiberglass body of the car (really). I did have a nice surprise, though, which was that the coil spacing of the aftermarket front lowering springs was wide enough that I could use a conventional plate-style spring compressor as long as I secured the assembly with a ratchet strap to keep the little spring from popping out of the plates.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Suspension
This was quicker and easier than using the turnbuckles on the rear springs.Rob Siegel

While I was doing this, I noticed something new. Another reason the front lowering springs being removed fit in my standard compressor was that they’re wound with the spiral going upward in the counter-clockwise direction. I realized that every spring I’ve ever installed is wound that way… except the stock ones on the Lotus, which are wound in the opposite direction. This matters because if you look on any standard plate-style compressor, you’ll see that the plates are shaped to accept that orientation, with the right edge of the plate tipped higher than the left edge. It wouldn’t have made a difference with regard to removing and installing the original springs—the coil spacing is still so small that no plate-style compressor will fit between them—but it was another item to add to my “weird things about the Lotus” list.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Suspension
Standard-wound non-original lowering spring (top), and reverse-wound original Lotus spring (bottom). Mind blown.Rob Siegel

Then I had a surprise with the sway bar links. That is, when I shortened them and made them adjustable, I didn’t design them (if you call what I did “design”) to go back to the way they were, so I now I needed to lengthen them. I cobbled something together with cut-off pieces of a shelving bracket.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam suspension links
Functional, but problematic. The story of my life, really.Rob Siegel

But it’s all back together.

Hack Mechanic Lotus Europa Twin Cam side profile
Lolita, back to showing a lot more ankle above her socks.Rob Siegel

And?

Initially, there was thunking and clunking, but it traced back to my kludge solution for extending the sway bar links. Once I temporarily removed those, the Europa’s ride was much better. Although I’d rather that the nose was still hunkered down, the car is no longer bone-jarring to drive. Undoing my budget suspension modifications was the right thing to do, and it cost me nothing but time. Sometimes you really do need to take a step back in order to go forward.

But if anyone makes a boat-on-plane joke, I’m going to find their boat and steal their drain plugs.

***

Rob’s latest book, The Best Of The Hack Mechanic™: 35 years of hacks, kluges, and assorted automotive mayhem is available on Amazon here. His other seven books are available here on Amazon, or you can order personally-inscribed copies from Rob’s website, www.robsiegel.com.

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Comments

    You shouldn’t have felt “like an idiot” over all those things, Rob – you should have just felt like what you are…a hack mechanic.
    B-T-W, I love the ’60s Gasser look of the Lotus! 😜

    If “Love Is Blind”, then surely, you are its Herald.

    True; I lusted mightily after a John Player Special Europa, even anticipating winning a contest for it.
    Of course, Fortune said otherwise, (or did she?)

    Understand, that I fully-well know the obsession concerning very unique cars.
    Luckily, I’ve never fallen, although coming close a few times, and narrowly avoiding the precipice by choosing cars of slightly more common extraction.

    Rob; it’s time you divested yourself of this deathtrap/moneypit/fixation — you could even make some profit now.

    To drive a car which can be totaled on a public road by a skateboarder is sheer folly…
    Yet also known as Love.

    Chasing your tail over a few bucks and looks ridiculous wrong no matter what some things better left rather stock this is how people learn what’s best is
    what NOT to do

    Rob, the only thing you did not use in this episode was duck tape and bailing wire. But the thing left unsaid, is the car safe to drive with the described barn yard repair?

    Robert, just wondering if you were not worried about lowering the suspension and bottoming out and flexing the fiberglass body and busting up your new windscreen that you installed a few chapters ago?

    One thing you may want to consider is that your bottoming-out condition with the lower springs was due to coil bind. That lowered spring may have the right free height and spring rate, but it has a LOT of coils. It doesn’t take too much mental math to estimate that you might have six inches of travel before those coils start touching each other, and 2 to 3 of them are probably taken up by the weight of the car sitting at ride height

    If you ever have the stomach for going down the rabbit hole of lowering the nose again, I would look into springs with the right free height and spring rate, but that use fewer coils to get the job done. Something to think about

    TG, appreciate the suggestion, but if you look at the photos, you’ll see that the shorter springs DID have much wider coil-winding separation. I don’t think that coil bind was the issue.

    Maybe the angle, but man those front sway bar links look like they hang low on what is already a very low ground clearance car (I am confidently assuming). Do you have trouble with/have to avoid speed bumps or any kind of pitched driveway?

    It happens. I’ve done it twice. The scary thing is that you know it’s going to happen but can’t react quickly enough to not have it happen!

    I used to drive a Lotus Europa in 1972 It was Lagoon blue I used to work at Lotus Cars in Wymondham where it was made as a kit car

    I lusted over the Europa for a year before I got one. A 1970 , with the low front end. The most fun car that I’ve ever had. After a year fixing it every other week, I traded it in for a new 240Z . A great car that you had to put a front spoiler on to drive it over 70 miles per hour. Then you could go up to 132 before the doors would suck out and cause big wind problems. I sold it for another lotus Europa.

    It’s really a tragedy that the Europa’s have so many problems, I’ve owned 4 of them (two 1972’s, a ‘73, and a ‘74 JPS which I still own) and when they’re set up correctly and fastidiously maintained, there is nothing else that compares to the driving experience. The handling is telepathic, the performance (especially with the JPS) is thrilling, and it’s just such a gorgeous little car. Anytime I get gas or park the car I always get people who have lots of questions or compliments about the car, and because I live in the US few people know what it is, they usually assume it’s a VW based kit car.
    I have friends who have muscle cars who insult the Europa….until I take them for a high speed ride on one of the many deserted back roads we have here in western Massachusetts. Keeping my ‘74 Europa JPS in top shape is actually something I enjoy because I can almost all the work myself, and the stays garaged unless it’s a nice day with no rain or snow. Keeping these cars dry is vital.

    After years of lowering or raising vehicles the proper way and always having adverse effects, I lowered my w126 Mercedes in the cheapest way possible:

    I cut some coils off the factory springs, since they’re linear and the size/length of 1 ton van springs. Paired with a new set of OE spec Bilstein dampers, the ride is shockingly compliant.

    Despite the front and rear tires being tucked up inside the wheel wells, the suspension has never once bottomed out on even the roughest of roads. Now my biggest concern is clearance of the cast aluminum oil pan.

    You violated Scott’s first rule, learned as a teenage boy: Any part of the factory engineering that you modify to make it look cooler will negatively impact the operation of the car.
    There is a corollary to this rule: “Everything on a car is the way it is for a reason. Unless you understand what that reason is, DON’T TOUCH IT!”
    Back in the day, much of the automotive press was involved in ridiculing the car makers, for producing stuff that any driveway hot rodder could, in an afternoon, make better. It has taken a good 60 years to figure out the wrongness of this thinking.
    There is even a SECOND corollary which goes “If it could be done better, faster or cheaper, the factory would have done it that way. Since they didn’t, it’s likely they knew something you don’t.”
    The above rules are ALWAYS in play, when the car in question is German or Japanese; largely in play for American cars, and likely to apply to British ones. I except the Brits, because there are reasons, other than function that they do some things on some cars the way they do. Like an oversupply of inferior old technology that they need to use somewhere. Or that the bolt goes the way it does, trapping it in the car because the guy who taught the worker the job 50 years earlier had done it that way. And the list goes on. Still, even the Brits get most things right most of the time. I still won’t ride on British airplanes, though.

    One thing I always tell people who want to modify cars is a whole office building of engineers designed that thing, and do you really think you are going to outdesign them?

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