Book Review: The Lotus Chronicles

Title: The Lotus Chronicles

Author: Rob Siegel

Publication Date: September, 2020

ISBN: 9780998950730

Pages: 510 with illustrations

Available via Amazon: Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic

The Lotus Chronicles isn’t your average DIY shop manual. First of all, there’s a lot of cursing in it, but if you’re familiar with making a British car run again, after it’s sat dormant for many, many years, you should also be familiar with foul language. Secondly, it’s 500 pages long. That may seem like a lot, but this is essentially a collection of Facebook updates over seven years, chronicling every single moment with this car -- a 1974 Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special -- from Rob’s purchase to its first few miles under its own power.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I actually have a cameo in this book, and I used some foul language of my own. I’ve followed Rob for years, from his Hack Mechanic column in the BMW Club of America magazine Roundel, to the publication of his first book for Robert Bentley Publishers, to his eventual self-publication of a series of books on everything from BMW resurrection to diagnosing and servicing issues with vintage automotive air conditioning.

Rob’s a great writer and a loyal friend. He’s dropped everything on a Sunday to come by and help me diagnose starting issues with my own cars, and he’s spent long hours on the phone easing me through the process of deciding to part with a vintage car that I had high hopes for.

What makes Rob’s writing unique is that he’s at once highly technical, and admittedly in over his head most of the time. He’s never going to try and convince you he’s got all the answers. He’s on a journey like you may be with your old crap. Rob’s not one of those guys that has a garage that looks like an operating room. He has a garage just like mine, packed to the rafters with stuff, featuring dim light, tools scattered around everywhere, and not enough room to move around. Yet, through nothing more than perseverance, time spent understanding how things work, and absolutely no ego about asking for help, he’s managed to not only get a lot of cars that others would’ve given up on running again, but to actually put some serious miles on them.

That was for sure the deal with this Lotus. I’ve always been a fan of the Europa, but they’re an acquired taste for most people. This Twin Cam in particular is a challenge because it had a seized engine. That’s bad enough in most cars, but in a Europa, the engine is a stressed member of the chassis. The rear suspension wishbone attaches to the transaxle. That means that taking the engine out renders the car immoble, even rolling around in the garage.

It’s not really an issue when you need to find an engine for a Camaro. You call up Summit Racing and they drop ship a brand new 350 on a pallet tomorrow. A Lotus Twin Cam, though? And the highly specific Twin Cam required to work in the Europa? Forget it. Rob eventually was put in touch with someone he calls “The Lotus Engine God,” and got a first-hand lesson in what it’s like dealing with specialists: Just to get an estimate on machining for the stuck engine took five months.

Getting the actual work done? To quote Rob: “Never tell a machine shop that you’re not in a hurry.” Here’s why: ”In the previous post, on March 13, 2014, I went into the machine shop and saw the newly delivered custom pistons. It would be -- spoiler alert -- four years before I would pick up the machined block. In the meantime, the car would sit in my garage and get covered with crap.”

From 2014 to 2018, this car essentially sat untouched. The fact that today -- almost as we speak -- that car is roaming around the suburbs of Boston is something of a miracle. Lesser people (read: ME) have bailed out on cars easier to put back together for a lot less money, in a lot less time. It’s that perseverance thing that Rob has going for him, and it’s something we could all learn about from this book.

In his note to me along with the copy of the book he writes “There are hundreds of pages of pain and suffering as I assembled and pressure-tested the engine. You can bungie-jump in and out of them and come in at the milestone on Page 247.” Don’t though. I read every single one of these posts as they happened, and each one of them inspired me in some way to keep going with some dumb project I was working on. That’s the effect that Rob’s writing has had on a lot of people, regardless of the car he’s working on.

The most frightening chapter for anyone interested in setting an old car right is “Adding Up The Costs.” If you’re an old car person, this is just something you never do. You might think about the price you paid for a car, and the price you got when you sold it, but you never, never do the math of what it actually cost you to fix it, and this is why. Rob got a running Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special at the end of the project, but to get there cost him $20,000 including the $8,000 or so he spent on the car. And twelve grand is really getting off light, because he supplied most of the labor and the knowledge.

Anyone else would be trying to slip a $40,000 bill past a loved one.

His trials and tribulations with just the WATER PUMP, a cartridge style contraption manufactured by ONE company on the planet that may or may not go out of business at some point in the near future, is the kind of heartbreak and triumph you usually hear when Mary Carillo is profiling an Olympic skier that fell down a mountain at 78 miles an hour and returned to the sport just last week.

That’s this book: alternating tales of insane frustration and profound relief, punctuated by a lot of F-bombs. If that’s your kind of thing, then you found a book to keep you motivated as we head into the winter months when projects like this take on life-affirming importance.

The Lotus Chronicles book cover
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