4 July 2012

Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious

Two Days, 960 Miles, A 1978 Lotus Esprit S2 and Plenty of Anxiety

 

He wanted me to wear a powder blue polyester leisure suit. When I refused, he suggested I wear a tux and channel Roger Moore as 007. I declined again. Dangerous stuff refusing your boss. But I was safe from retribution; I’d agreed to deliver his 33-year-old Lotus almost 1,000 miles, and if that isn’t a kiss up the hierarchy ladder, nothing is.

The adventure began when Classic Motorsports’ Andy Reid told Rob Sass about a low-mileage Lotus Esprit for sale near my home. It showed 27,000 miles, wore mostly original paint and was remarkably unmolested in all its 1970s wedge-shaped glory. Seeing it, I lost all sense and offered to drive it from eastern Pennsylvania to St. Louis. Soon I found myself selecting tools, ordering spares (including a fire extinguisher from Griot’s Garage) and raising credit card limits.

Sticks and stones can break my bones
Growing up, I heard that Ford stood for “Found On Road Dead” or “Fix Or Repair Daily” and everybody knew that FIAT stood for “Fix It Again Tony.” Lotus fared worse, tarred with “Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious,” which was often true.

When Sass pulled the trigger, we agreed that driving 960 miles in a car known for brilliant engineering and legendary unreliability would be the perfect opportunity for a story. Would this fragile car last the distance?

When I arrived at Possum Hollow Motorsports in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the engine cover was off due to a slipped timing belt and a damaged radiator overflow tank that was still being welded. Shop owner Bill Boys didn’t know whether the running problems had been resolved with rebuilt carbs and a new timing belt or if the trip could even launch.

All systems go?
Boys and mechanic Gary Visher explained the starting procedures, and I fired up the Esprit and headed out with videographer Jon Ryan. He balked when I vetoed plugging his camera into the Lotus cigarette lighter, lest we tempt fate. At the closest Sunoco station I uncapped both tank fillers. Immediately, a young man with a big Kawasaki told me I had parked on the wrong side of the pump. He blushed when I explained the twin tanks. After a quick video and photo shoot on some of the amazing roads in Pennsylvania’s Berks County, it was time to pack for an early start.

Westward ho
At 6:30 a.m. I was out checking the oil and water. Next it was time to wake the neighbors, but when I turned the key the only sounds were my salty ravings. The second attempt worked and the twin-cam four sprang to life.

As photographer Jay Texter and I slammed the doors, we were showered by particles of headliner, which continued with every bump. Had I smeared my bald pate with honey, the gray dust would have given me a hairpiece of sorts. Heading west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we settled in at 3,000 rpm, which equated to 65.5 mph, although it read closer to 70. Surprisingly we attracted little attention from other drivers or from troopers, especially considering the temporary Missouri tags.

Before long the phone rang — hands free — and it was new Lotus owner Sass. He was like an expectant father: Gas mileage? Public response? How did it feel? With no water to boil for the baby, I asked him to find us a lunch stop and lodging.

When we first stopped for fuel the starter played coy again, but finally came through. Then, after a photo stop under some gritty bridges in Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania — where Rob had directed us for lunch — I thought the starter had expired for good. The oil pressure at idle also worried me.

We had a great lunch and a photo shoot at the local cigar shop, where we were welcomed like great adventurers, and I called Esprit oracle Tony Krncevic, who recommended thumping the starter with a hammer.

Back on the road, I was keeping a close eye on the oil pressure, which — as the day warmed — dropped below 20 at idle. By late afternoon we were nearing Columbus, Ohio. Driving alone, I found the car moving around on me thanks to the drafts of passing trucks, sensitive steering and incorrect rear tires. As I stopped, a camera appeared in my face: “What’s the matter; why is the car wandering?” Dyspeptically, I suggested that the videographer shut it down.

Non starter
With the starter still a problem, I called ace British car wrench Tucker Madawick in Bloomington, Indiana. He called back and said there wasn’t a starter within 200 miles but offered to attempt a field repair. Fearing being marooned with an eviscerated starter, I felt it better to bump start the car. Decision made, I felt better and let Texter drive, but not before 70ish Dave Cobbs — who admitted to being most at home on a bar stool — admired the Lotus, but said the Marcasite interior fabric “looks like casket lining.” When Sass called and asked how it was going, I replied, “Good. I haven’t shoved the camera up the videographer yet.” I forgot a mini-cam was running.

Next I confirmed with the picturesque Springs Motel in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Sass had booked rooms. The clerk asked if I was “calling from a washing machine.” After a quick stop I took the wheel again in a light rain. Just as we were getting ready to push, the starter kicked in.

After a great dinner at the Sunrise Café in Yellow Springs, we called it a night. In the morning, I checked the oil and coolant and used the gentle slope of the drive to bypass the starter. In the cool, damp weather, the oil pressure was great, and we headed for downtown Richmond, Indiana. The car attracted minimal interest, though three creepers I wouldn’t let near my daughter thought it was a “Lambo.” Continuing west on Route 40 we stopped for gas and attracted another crowd — of three. For breakfast we were directed to Lumpy’s in nearby Cambridge City, where two elderly ladies watched us park. The welcome was warm as it turned out the owners of the restaurant were Hagerty clients.

Pressing on, the rain intensified, the winds increased and the temperature plummeted. Stopping in a rest area, the Lotus also lured in a Hagerty client who had just bought a DeLorean. Back on the highway we found a grain elevator in Casey, Illinois. As hail mixed with rain, a man generously allowed us to shoot on his property. Under glowering skies, our Rodgers and Hammersteinian vision of America’s heartland gave way to a more post-apocalyptic version. We worked quickly as Texter’s fingers threatened to freeze to the camera.

Meet me in St. Louis
Back in the Lotus, Texter shivered as the anemic fan struggled to clear the windshield, much less thaw his digits. With strong oil pressure and a clean Lotus just a memory, we were a scant 137 miles from target and could see the sky brightening in the west. At our final gas stop in Vandalia, Illinois, a man who didn’t know what the Lotus was just had to sit in it. While there, videographer Ryan set a rendezvous point with
expectant father Sass, but first, the Arch.

Although Sass was wary of us risking stricken East St. Louis, Ryan insisted it would be safe. We soon found ourselves driving past the Casino Queen, through a small water hazard and up a track paved with gravel the size of railroad ballast. The wind was howling, but the sky was blue and the sun was shining with the famous Gateway Arch in the background. We had made it 960 miles through rain, hail and high winds.

Leaving the photo op we hit heavy traffic, but the oil  pressure was strong even standing still. To our dismay, Sass beat us to the meeting point, so I had to hang back while the photographers set up. He was impressed, but still insisted I kiss the Missouri tarmac. Because I hadn’t been forced to wear a leisure suit, I was happy to comply.

As for new owner Sass, he’s delighted with his now 28,000-mile Lotus. But he sold the car short by dubbing the story “Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious.” For even suggesting the title, he deserves a lengthy time-out. Instead, he ended up with a great original paint, original-interior Lotus Esprit that starts if you persevere and runs like a bear.

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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine

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