Getting a new power train for a Europa

by: James Rice
439 Stambaugh Street,
Redwood City,
California, 97063
Tel: 650-463-0106 (w), 650-369-6442 (h)


  1. The back story
  2. Getting the old motor out
  3. Getting the new motor in
  4. Pictures of the motor on a bare chassis

The back story

So, you're crazy and you have a Lotus. Maybe you're really crazy and have two of them, and maybe you're certifiable, and your two Lotuses are the only cars you've ever owned. But what happens if you start to think that maybe twenty-five years is getting a little old for a drive train on your wet weather commute Lotus (the Europa with the roof, as opposed to the 7 with no roof or windscreen wipers)? What happens if your wife is sick and tired of having to drive you in to work on rainy days in her VW Golf if the Europa isn't running?

Sounds like time for a new drive-train to me, but what options are there, and how do you set about it? This is the story of how I came to put a new power-train into my '74 Europa (retitled to '73 because of California's SB42 smog law). It's a long tale with a bunch of details that may not interest you, but if you're thinking of doing a project like this, and have never tackled anything like this you might want to read on.

In my case the process started with a large number of phone calls and a bunch of Internet searching. The result of all of the talking and EMailing I did was that a fundamental truth about Lotuses and advice you get about Lotuses emerged: there's no shortage of speculation and opinion on all topics, but surprisingly little real knowledge based on real experience. As I saw it, my choices were as follows:

I was attracted to the third of these options, since I have never liked the idea of trying to fix a problem with a fix that's known to have problems before you start. I started to phone around asking people about different motor combinations that might go into a Europa. This was the point at which the speculation level on the part of the people with whom I talked reached its peak. I should hasten to add that everyone was very helpful, and I was super-grateful for all the time that people were prepared to spend on the phone with me, but a conversation would often go as follows:
Q: So, what motor do you think I should put in a Europa?

A: I think the FooBar 2.5l is really strong.

Q: So, have you tried it?

A: (pick one of the following):
Well, I've started, but I'm having a little trouble with the motor mounts. I think I've got a handle on it, and I expect that I'll get it fixed next winter some time.

No, I haven't actually tried it, but the motor's really strong.

No, but a friend of a friend told me that someone had done it, or had at least thought of doing it. It should work, shouldn't it?

No, I haven't actually tried it, but I know of a place that makes gearbox adaptor plates, and I'm thinking of putting in a BazCorp x93 box, which should be a big improvement. Of course, I'll have to do some chassis mods to accommodate the new transaxle.
Now, pretty well any of these options is OK if you're fearless about hacking on your car, and you don't actually need to get the car working before the rain starts in order to get to the office, and you have the space to have a dismantled car eating up your garage. I envy people who have the time and space to play with their cars, but I already knew that I didn't. What is more, although I have reasonable mechanical aptitude, I knew that the closest I had ever got to anything like this was rebuilding the motor on my 750 Honda some 17 years before. I wanted to buy into pretty much a complete package that had been shown to work. Even though I have a milling machine, I knew that I didn't have the facilities to manufacture significant new parts for the car. I have no welding gear, and effectively no experience in welding. I knew that if, for example, I were to take things apart and find that to fit the new motor in I'd need to make chassis modifications I'd be pretty well screwed.

One of the reasons why I wanted to make the change to my drive-train was that I knew that my gearbox was getting old, so I didn't want to put a new motor onto the old gearbox if I could avoid it, especially as the new motor was likely to be quite a bit more powerful than the old one. After a bunch more phoning around, it appeared that there is no shortage of gearboxes that you can put in theoretically. Opinions differed about whether to use a VW one rebuilt with racing bits, or a Porsche one. The trouble about these gearboxes is that there's no guarantee that the power takeoff will be well aligned with the rear wheels, and neither of these boxes will apparently work if they suffer transverse loads on the drive shafts. Since the standard Europa rear suspension is configured to use the drive shaft as a stressed member instead of having a top control arm, one would have to do some sort of significant rear suspension modification if either of these gearboxes were to be made to work. This would presumably not be too much of a problem if one were to buy a new chassis with rear double wishbones, but I had no plan to spend that much.

To give you some idea of the suggestions I received, one chap, who seemed very knowledgeable and helpful, suggested I use the 2 litre Mitsubishi Eclipse motor, since it's cheap, strong and easy to get. He suggested this because he was in the midst of putting in an RX7 motor and was having hell's own delight getting it in. He was clearly having to do a whole lot of chassis modification and didn't sound like he'd be done any time soon. I phoned around and found that such a motor was easy to get for about $2k complete with all of the ancillaries and the turbo. Of course, I'd need to get a gearbox adaptor plate (about $400) and a gearbox.

One option for the gearbox would be the NG3, which is the newer and much uprated and improved version of the Renault box that is already in the car. It's the gearbox used on the Fuego. Unfortunately, gearbox adaptors for this combination are not off-the-shelf items and one would have to have one made specially. It also turns out that NG3 boxes are difficult to get on the West Coast, though they're apparently easy on the east coast. Of course, if I got all of these bits (let's say I dropped another $1k on the gearbox), I'd still have a big cardboard box full of bits, with no obvious way to fit the motor in, let alone how to fabricate an exhaust that would fit. Remember that there's a reason why the alternator on a Europa is mounted on the back of the motor - there isn't any room to put it at the front. This means that anything you do with any other motor will result in the need to move all of the ancillaries, and spend a lot of time on bracketry.

I also looked into the Peugot/Renault/Volvo PRV V6 motor. This was appealing since it would mate easily with the NG3 gearbox. I actually found someone whose friend genuinely had done this, but he said that it was a total nightmare and would never do it again in a million years. Back to the drawing board.

Ok, so by now I was pretty scared. I could see lots of ways of spending a lot of money, but no obvious way to buy something that was guaranteed to work. I needed something that could be done in a couple of weeks of work some time over the summer, not something that would be an open-ended project to keep me out of my wife's hair over the weekends for the next decade. Time for more phone calls.

The only consistent signal I got from everyone I talked to was that there was an outfit back in Britain called Banks Service Station (a.k.a. Europa Engineering) that was really supposed to know about this stuff. Interestingly, I had only heard bad to lukewarm things about Spydersport, who proved to be sufficiently incompetent that they were unable to send me an up-to-date catalogue. I heard rumours that they're pretty much out of the Lotus business these days, and do things on a one-off basis (note: I have no personal knowledge of the truth of this rumour).

So, .... I stayed up late one night and called these Banks people up and talked to Richard Winter the head honcho there. "No problem," he said. "We do that sort of thing all the time." I pressed him on the issue of what to do about the transverse loading on the rear suspension. "No problem. Although we could sell you a space-frame chassis we have a great rear suspension kit called the `twinlink,' which replaces the existing chassis crossbeam and completely supports the rear suspension - much stiffer than the original and with better geometry."

This was beginning to sound good. I already knew that I didn't want to put buggily designed stuff back into the car, and whatever we may think of Colin Chapman, spending a few extra pounds (of either money or weight) to make something that would actually last for 25 years and/or be maintainable was never one of his skills or goals.

"So," I said. "I've heard all sorts of rumours about how hard it is to get a modern motor to fit into a Europa. Surely someone must have figured out how to do it by now."

"Well, it is pretty tight in there, but we do a lot of it. We'd recommend going with the 2 Litre 16 valve Vauxhall XE motor. We've done about sixty of them. You can see a bunch of pictures of this sort of thing on our web site."

Wow, I thought. I knew I didn't want to be the first guy to do any part of this project. Having done sixty of them sounded like more than enough to have debugged the tricky parts like the motor mounts and the exhaust. I didn't want to be the ten thousandth person doing this, since big businesses tend not to take too much notice of one's special needs, but sixty sounded good. Of course, the bad part was that this was a motor that has never been sold in the US, but at least it's a GM motor and parts should be available for it for many years to come. I didn't see that it would be much worse to get parts shipped from the UK than from Dave Bean in the US.

What followed were what seemed like a million phone calls during which Richard and I scoped out the project and kicked the tyres on the different ways that I could proceed. Amazingly, he was always very helpful and never seemed to resent the time I was taking asking what to him must have been really stupid questions. It's nice not to be made to feel like an idiot, even if you are being one.

I made it clear that I wanted to buy pretty much a slot-in working package, and he gave me a breakdown of the different options that I could take. For example, the old 365 gearbox is pretty much expected to explode at about 150BHP, but the new motor will push out 180-200 trivially (a lot more if you're going to get ostentatious). If you're going to put in an NG3 gearbox, then you need a new shift linkage - at least if you had the 365 gearbox, since the shifter comes out of the side of the NG3, but out of the back of the 365 box. The list went on like this. For example, if you get one of these motors then you can put your old Webers on it, but you can also get digital fuel injection which is much nicer. As an intermediate step you can get an engine management computer that has enough ports on it to drive both the ignition and the fuel injection and then just run with the old Webers thereby leaving room for an upgrade to fuel injection at a later date.

After many phone calls both to Richard and to other people to make sure that this guy was for real (he seemed too helpful and reasonable to be real, but he really was exactly as advertised), I ended up deciding what to do. I'd get the Vauxhall motor (rebuilt), a rebuilt NG3 gearbox with the adaptor plate to marry it to the motor, fuel injection and all the necessary bits to make it work, exhaust, motor mounts, shift linkage and all those bits. In short I wanted a complete power-train that would just slot in. I also opted for the twinlink rear suspension. I couldn't afford a new chassis, but this seemed like a good thing to do. If I ever wanted a new chassis in the future the cost of the then-rejected twinlink would be very small, and it was claimed that the improvement was significant. What is more, having gone through problems with drive-train bits crapping out on me in the past, it was abundantly clear that the cost of the twinlink was very cheap insurance compared to the cost of the most trivial rear corner rebuild. In retrospect, even if I were not to be changing motors on a Europa, I'd go right ahead and put in a twinlink by way of preventative maintenance. At the same time I also opted for new springs and dampers all round - my rear dampers were shot, and I wanted consistent ride height, and I also opted for uprated front brakes - vented discs and new calipers. I didn't want to end up with a much faster car and no way to stop it.

Thus, the project grew, as these things often do, from what had originally been nagging fears about the long-term reliability of the gearbox to a complete power-train replacement. Of course, the big problem about getting something like this is the timescale on which I wanted to do the work. Even if these guys have debugged the installation of the motor, it would do me no good if I were to ship over the motor and get half way through installing it only to find that I needed a different alternator mounting bracket, or that the computer hadn't been programmed. Any problem like this would add one to two weeks to the time that the whole escapade would take. Not a problem if it's a project car, but not acceptable if you mean to commute in it soon.

Richard Winter and I discussed this issue and he suggested that the thing to do was for him to build the whole thing on a spare chassis he had, and when everything was together take all of the bits off that chassis and put them straight on the palette. Thus, I should end up with all of the bits I needed. This all seemed like a good idea to me, entirely consistent with my desire to get a working proposition rather than a lifetime project. After all, time is money for me too, to some extent. Any time I spend going to the hardware shop to get a missing bolt is time not spent either working on the car or earning the money to pay for the motor. Eventually, we agreed on terms, I got a deposit to him, and he started work. Everything went very smoothly just on the basis of these phone calls and occasional bits of EMail.

I already knew that this was going to be a fairly major undertaking, and, being a one-off, I knew there would be no instruction manual to go with it. Richard said that everything would be pretty straightforward, and that I should call him every day for instructions for the next day's work. He also said he'd take a bunch of pictures of everything when it was in place on the chassis so I'd have a good idea of where everything should fit. This greatly increased my confidence, and indeed a few days before everything shipped out I received in my EMail a bunch of pictures hot from his digital camera. As it happened, during the whole process, other than for the original Lotus wiring diagram, which was a work of speculative fiction, I only once looked in the official manual for a hint of what to do, and it was completely useless, so the pictures were a life-saver.

There was then a very frustrating pause while things got bogged down in customs in San Francisco. It took one day to get the motor to the US and then a week to make it the last fifteen miles. A friend of mine, Eric, who owns a Jag. shop just down the road from where I live offered me the corner of his shop in which I could do the work. This proved to me a major boon. Never having done this sort of thing before I was really not prepared for how much space a car (even a "little" Europa) takes up when you need to get to all sides of it to work on it, you have both a new and an old motor sitting around on the floor, and need room to trundle the hoist around. I would have had to do the work out on my gravel driveway to have had enough room, and might not have discovered that I needed that much room before the car was incapacitated up on jack stands. I have a well equipped garage, and although it turned out that I only used two of Eric's tools that I didn't already have, it was also good to be able to work in his shop because I knew that I'd need about five minutes of welding work done at a point where the car is not mobile. I was able to get a welder to trundle his MIG machine over from next door to do the work. This would have been a lot harder to do at home.

See here for details of how this project actually happened.