It seemed so simple…pick up the Elan Plus 2 I had bought and drive her home. In March. From just north of New York City, aka the Big Apple, to Colorado Springs. What could possibly go wrong? Well as it turns out, several things. Some were disclosed by the seller, some not; some just a small irritation, some far more critical. Here’s what happened.
The seller had disclosed that there were several electrical things that weren’t working as the car had sat and many of the grounds probably had corroded. But, he assured me, the big stuff - headlights, turn signals, windows, tail and brake lights - that was all working. And he told me that the brakes had a long pedal travel but then stopped really well. I asked a friend with a Plus 2 who lived nearby to check the car out for me and he assured me that the seller’s disclosures were accurate. He said it was a solid driver level car. So I bought it figuring I would only drive during daylight, leave lots of room in front of me, and hope for the best. After all, it was only 1,800 miles from home.
I was picked up at the airport by the seller in the Plus 2 and after stuffing my gear in the back seat area, proceeded to put on my seat belt. That’s where I encountered Problem 1: The seat belt wouldn’t pull out of the retractor. Oh well, I was only going about five miles and then there would be no passenger until I got home and could address that. On the ride to the seller’s house, the car seemed eager and responsive and rode very well. I was hopeful.
After handling the sale paperwork I got my first drive in my new Plus 2. I was to back her out of the garage - between a car parked directly behind me in the drive and a huge tree right alongside the driveway. It was very dark, and I was unfamiliar with all the controls. I felt like a kid with a new license trying to drive a stick shift for the first time…too many revs, too much clutch slipping, turning too much one way then the other. It was not pretty. But, I did get her backed onto the street and waited to follow the seller to my motel for the night, another six miles away. He led as if I were completely inept or incapable, a perception he no doubt picked up by watching my reversing act, but by doing so he made it impossible to find the rhythm of the car and controls. Struggling along at a slow pace, one thing became apparent right away - Problem 2…the brakes were not at all right. The brakes indeed had a long pedal travel but then locked on with a vengeance. I was afraid of being rear ended in traffic. We made it to the motel and I parked the car until daylight to see what the issue might be. The Plus 2 waited.
When I awoke and went down to the car, I found about two inches of snow covering everything. Problem 3: The car would not start, cranking slowly and never catching. I decided to give it a rest and clean the snow. Of course I had no snow brush so I walked back to the front desk to get one and got it clean. Snow was still falling so I wanted to get going. I turned the key and it coughed once. I tried again and got two sputters, then a few tries later three and a hint of ignition. At long last, it fired and ran quite roughly. I warmed it until it finally smoothed a bit and backed out of the parking spot that faced a curb downhill. I should have known better! With all my old Lotus cars, I try to leave a way to bump start, just in case. Now I had to back uphill without killing it, then go 1,800 miles with snow falling, unfamiliar roads and grabbing brakes.
You already know I made it or I wouldn’t be writing this, so don’t worry and enjoy the story.
I was really concerned about the brakes so I drove to a shop in Pennsylvania where a friend works, where I hoped a wiser and well equipped person might assist. I suspected that the pedal travel took too long to build boost and then it came on all at once. They eliminated the vacuum brake boosters from the circuit, leaving the hydraulic part alone. I gave the car a try. Much better! While it took more leg pressure to actuate the brakes, it was very proportional; light pressure gave light braking while more pressure added braking in a very linear fashion. Problem 2 solved…at least temporarily. Then I headed off to a Lotus parts guy who had a silencer for my Elan that I could take back with me and save shipping. He gave me a proper Lotus shift knob to replace the crummy Nissan Sentra looking rubber thing that was on the car at pick up. Problem 4 solved. Things were definitely looking up. The next day we went to a Lotus event in a nearby town. I followed him over in his beautiful Lotus Cortina and noted I was doing a lot more steering than he seemed to be doing. Still I was able to keep up so I put that on the “watch” list. Someone pointed out that one of the fog lights was loose. I got three of our host’s valuable washers and tightened everything up and solved Problem 5. After a lovely visit on to my sister’s house I went.
Starting out the next morning, I found the left rear tire down on pressure so I aired it up, filled the gas tank and hit the PA Turnpike. Two things became clear quickly…the tires needed balancing and Pennsylvania, despite very high fuel taxes and usurious toll fees, ($26.75/175 miles. Yikes!) doesn’t spend nearly enough on its road maintenance. The rough road was part of the problem but the tires were also part. Since it was Sunday I soldiered on to Indianapolis where I spent the night, then presented myself at a national chain tire store Monday morning. When they opened, the guy in charge told me they would not balance my tires because the manufacturing code said that three were made in 2004 and the left rear, the soft one, was made in 1996. I am sure the seller never knew this but I was stuck with Problem 6, which I solved with a new set of tires. On my way about 9 AM, the delay was not too painful. The new tires were better, but not by as much as I had expected. Fighting a crosswind all morning I was worn by 10:30 so I stopped for a walkabout and a Coke. I went to back the Elan out of the parking space, pulled up on the shift lever to bypass the reverse lockout and the lever came right off in my hand! Welcome, Problem 7. I man solved it by prying up the console and putting the lever collar back on the bolt, but without the missing retaining nut. While I was now able to shift, I could not pull up on the lever. No reverse for the rest of the trip. Sigh.
Onward I pressed and as the weather worsened to heavy rain squalls, I was gatoring all over the road, tracking left then back to the right whenever a gust hit. After a while the rain diminished but the car kept ricocheting back and forth seemingly unwilling to track straight. Well the new tires clearly weren’t enough to fix the problem, so I began to think alignment as the answer to Problem 6 (continued). Or was this Problem 8? Passing through St. Louis, I took a likely exit where there were a number of car dealers, thinking that one might have an alignment bay, but first, lunch. Pulling into a fast food parking lot, I noticed a place adjacent called Auto World, a NAPA Auto Care center and tire dealer. I thought I’d check with them before getting food. It was then I met Barry who turned out to be my Guardian Angel, but at first he was just a guy at the tire shop. It turned out that Barry was the owner and had sent both his alignment guys to lunch, so he took on the job himself. Lucky for me! About a half hour later, upon my return from lunch Barry told me how wise I was to have stopped when I did. Upon inspecting the front end, he found the real problem 8…both the tie rod end jam nuts were loose and the right one was about three threads from coming apart! Who knows what would have happened if it had, but the wheels would not have been pointing the same way at 70 miles per hour.
Having no specifications to put into his sophisticated computer alignment machine for a 45 year old Lotus, Barry suggested using early Miata specs, a front engine rear wheel drive car about the same size and weight. After tightening all the front suspension and steering hardware,the alignment was corrected from its previous 1.25 degrees of total toe in, to a proper 0.25 degrees total toe in. With about five times as much toe in as it should have…no wonder it was gatoring! We also lowered the tire pressure. It turns out that the tire shop had put 32 pounds all around so the tires were too hard by half as the recommended pressure is 22 front, 26 rear. From that point on, all the way to my night’s destination near Manhattan, KS, aka the “Little Apple” I was finally at peace with the car and my purchase. From there to Colorado Springs was a simple cruise…as if I were in a regular modern car.
All this story does is remind me that the purchase of any old car is only the beginning of the adventure, regardless of how well cared for it seems, and that the old saw about LOTUS standing for Lots Of Trouble - Usually Serious, is simply wrong. It really stands for something much more romantic…Lots Of Torment, Usually Solvable. Thanks to fine folks who work on cars.