When we last left poor Zelda, the 1999 Z3 2.3i I’d owned for six years—she was the center of “The Cult of Zelda,” my wife’s and my female friends who loved borrowing the car for stress-busting drives—then sold to my close friend and neighbor Kim, Kim’s son had suffered a brain fart and crashed Zelda onto a median strip surrounded by a sharp curb at about twenty mph, setting off the air bag, pushing the right front wheel up under the wheel well, splintering the air dam, taking out low-hanging a/c components like the condenser, electric fan, and compressor bracket, and denting all four wheels. The insurance company would’ve clearly totaled the car, but the idea of its being parted out broke Kim’s heart—and my own.
The car was towed to Kim’s house, which is three right turns from mine. On close examination, I saw that the curb strike had miraculously spared all the sheet metal other than trivially folding up the lower corner of the right fender, where the wheel was mashed against it. With the steering wheel centered, the left wheel appeared to aim straight, but the right wheel was toed comically far off to the right; clearly the right lower control arm was badly bent.
I’m not a body guy, but I saw no obvious subframe or unibody damage. I pressed two Bavaria steel wheels with ancient dry-rotted tires on them into temporary service, mounting them on the back of the car where they cleared the calipers, and put the two intact Z3 wheels on the front so that I could better grok the car’s stance and alignment.
Even with labor notwithstanding, the cost of just the new parts needed to fix the curb-strike damage was clearly enough to total the car. Plus, even before the accident, Zelda had developed a bad need for a clutch, with the throwout bearing making a cacophony of noises. from chainsaw-like to rumbling and screeching. So Kim had three choices: just let the insurance company haul poor Zelda off for whatever settlement and points on her son’s driving record awaited them, sell the car as-is, or take advantage of my soft spot for damaged and/or broken things.
We had a short conversation in which I explained that I thought I could limp the car back to my house—we could call AAA, but where’s the fun in that?—put it up on my mid-rise lift, and replace the right lower control arm—maybe even with a cheap used one—which would probably make it so the car could be easily driven. This bought Kim a few options: The car could then—in theory—be easily moved back and forth between her house and mine rather than monopolizing garage or driveway space at either, and while driving it, I could see what else it needed. And if she decided to sell it, a running, driving car is always worth more than a dead, immobile one.
In a weak moment, Kim offered to simply give me the car. I declined, as that didn’t seem fair. We left the exact question of ownership and remuneration unresolved in the way that friends who completely trust each other know that they can.
Clearly I didn’t need to replace the Z3’s four bent wheels immediately (I could’ve limped the car the 500 feet back to my house on the dry-rotted Bavaria rear tires), but when a Craigslist search unearthed a set of four Z3 wheels and fresh Yokohama rubber 40 miles from my house for $150, I dropped everything, drove down in the E39 with the fold-down back seat, and snagged them. I drove them directly over to Kim’s and mounted three of them on the car, leaving one of Zelda’s original bent wheels in the mashed-in right front location, since I didn’t want to risk damaging a like-new front tire on one of the new wheels. However, when I moved the car ten feet back and forth in the driveway, I found that there was so much scraping under the right front fender when turning that I was concerned that the tire might catch the lower fender corner and tear up the sheet metal.
I went home and rummaged around to see if I had a smaller wheel that would fit over the Z3’s front caliper. I found a donut spare I’d bought for my Z3 M coupe to throw under the car’s rear hatch if I took a road trip in it; somehow the thing had wound up in my back yard, and sun and weather had apparently damaged the tire: There was now a crack in the sidewall through which air escaped. Initially I thought that this ruled it out, but then I realized that it was perfect: with the donut tire flat, it was now both narrower and had a smaller diameter, and with the tire already no good, I didn’t care if I destroyed it while driving on it.
I ran it over to Kim’s and mounted it, and verified that it made Zelda mobile.
Then I waited for sunset.
While there was nothing technically illegal about limping the crashed-but-partially-resurrected car with one flat tire and two front wheels pointing in different directions back to my house (it was still registered and insured), these things are sometimes best done under cover of darkness. Driving at one mile an hour, with the flashers on, the flat donut spare going whubbawhubbawhubba, and the bad throwout bearing occasionally howling like a tortured demon, I eked out the three right turns back to my house. I then pulled the Lotus Europa and my friend Mike’s ’73 tii that I’m selling for him on Bring a Trailer out of the garage, backed Zelda in, put her on the lift, and did another inspection of the front end. The right lower control arm was obviously twisted, and its sway-bar attachment link and bracket were bent, but the left side looked okay to me.
I returned Mike’s tii to the safety of the garage, left the Lotus in the driveway, and went inside to do some parts searching.
Captivated by the idea that I could probably make the car drivable by simply replacing the right lower control arm, I looked at parts. I hadn’t replaced one of these sickle-shaped control arms in decades, and was reminded of the fact that they have “lollypop” bushings and brackets on the ends. The bushing has to be pressed into the lollypop-shaped bracket, then the assembled unit has to be pulled onto the end of the control arm. I have a hydraulic press, but I’d need to fabricate some jigging to make it all work.
But the I found that for thirty bucks I could buy a used right lower control arm with the bushing and bracket already on it on eBay. The idea of buying it, just slapping it on without having to pull or press any bushings, and making the car drivable, even if it was only to get it back and forth to Kim’s and see what else it needed, was irresistible.
It was now Sunday night. I wanted to get the parts on order ASAP so that I’d be sure to have them by the weekend. The auction for the $30 control-arm-bushing-bracket had a surprisingly long delivery time; I messaged the seller asking if he could get it in the mail in the morning. He replied that he was out of town until Tuesday, so I didn’t have to make a decision then and there. I figured that in the morning, I’d yank out the bent lower control arm and see what else I found.
That night, rain and high winds swept through Boston. It was the Lotus’ first exposure to weather since it had been put into its 34-year storage in 1979. I felt like an idiot, because if I had simply waited a day, I could have avoided it. But it was a reminder that whatever I was going to do to Zelda in my garage, it had to be quick and effective, like “meatball surgery” on Mash.
In the morning I attacked the control arm. The access to the 22-mm nut at the top of the ball joint with the long tapered shank that goes through the subframe is poor; you can’t get a ratchet socket on it, it can only be loosened with an end wrench, a sixteenth of a turn at a time. I have a pretty good assortment of pullers and separators, and the tie rod came off without damage, but the only way I found to separate the control arm’s ball joints from the subframe and the steering knuckle was to beat on a pickle fork with a hammer. It wasn’t too bad, though, and in about an hour, the mangled right control arm was lying prostrate on the cement.
However, while removing the control arm, at one point I had to turn the steering wheel all the way to the left to gain access to a nut, and when I did that, I felt a restriction. It turned out to be due to the left tire hitting the inside of its wheel well, which meant that the left lower control arm was bent as well. Looking at it closely, although it wasn’t obviously pretzeled like the right one, I could now see that it was bent into the vertical plane. And really, with the nose of the car having hit a curb at 20 mph and bounced up onto a median strip, the only surprise would’ve been if it wasn’t bent.
The calculus suddenly changed. After all, it’s one thing to throw away $30 on a used buy-it-install-it-see-what-else-is-wrong part, but I’d already found what else was wrong without needing to drive it, and I couldn’t find a left-side control-arm/bushing/bracket as cheaply.
However, the Z3 shares its front end with the E36, so there are any number of choices for vendors and parts. OEM Lemforder LCAs are about $90 a side; FCP Euro has the front-end refresh kit (control arms, bushings, tie rods, sway-bar links) for about $295 taxed and shipped, but by the time I added Febi brackets with bushings pressed in, I was up to around $350, which, together with the $150 I’d spent on wheels and tires, started to feel like real money on a car that might still have other damage, and which wasn’t even mine—it was owned by a friend who was trusting my judgment.
So all the way back down the price slide I went.
Now, eBay prices for a pair of unbranded Chinese-made control arms are as low as $60, maybe another $30 for bushings already pressed into lollypop brackets. That felt wrong, too. I found a junkyard in Nebraska selling right and left control arms, bushings, and brackets on eBay for $80 or best offer, shipped—but the description said that they needed ball joints, and the photos showed the boots as torn. Having just beaten a control arm out of Zelda with a hammer and a pickle fork and sliced up the boots, I messaged the seller asking if the ball joints themselves were fine, and the only issue was that the boots were ripped, and if so, offering him $40 for the pair. But really, it was silly; it only made sense if Kim and I were dumping the car, and I was relieved when he didn’t respond.
In the end, I bought new Lemforder control arms, sway-bar links, and Febi bushings and brackets from FCP for $254, figuring that if it turned out I needed tie rods, that was a separate repair that didn’t require removing the control arms or bushings anyway (it was probably wishful thinking to believe that after the curb strike, I could replace the control arms but leave the original tie rods in and get away without an alignment—but hey, a hack can dream). Since FCP is just down in Connecticut, they’re almost as quick on shipping to me in Newton (Boston) as Bavarian Autosport used to be, so I expected the parts midweek.
While I waited for the parts to arrive, I yanked out Zelda’s left control arm, and did a few odds and ends. The jarring from the curb impact had broken blades off of the mechanical cooling fan; I found that I had a spare one under the back porch from an E39 cooling-system replacement on that black wagon that I used to own. When I removed the fan and pulled up the shroud, however, I found that the shroud was cracked. I glued it with two-part epoxy, then reinstalled it and the fan. While I was poking around in the engine compartment, I also found that the impact had knocked the intake boot off the throttle body; I reinstalled it, glad that I’d found it before a drivability issue had me scratching my head.
The big box from FCP arrived on Wednesday evening. I verified that the parts were correct, carefully labeled left and right parts with a Sharpie, and staged things for the morning.
Although the bushings were already pressed into their lollypop brackets, the assembled units still needed to be pressed onto the end of the control arms. There’s a threaded tool you can buy, but it ain’t cheap, and videos show many folks instead using a combination of diluted dish soap, heating the bushing up in boiling water to soften it, elbow grease, a rubber mallet, and a right-size socket. I got ’em on that way, but it wasn’t easy, and if I had to do it again, I’d probably cobble something together with plates and threaded rods to pull the bushings on.
Before I installed the new arms in the car, I couldn’t resist doing the forensics and holding them up against their damaged doppelgangers. I hope I’ll get a little sympathy for not having initially noticed that the left arm was bent.
On Thursday, I installed everything. The only hitch was that for some reason the new Nylock nuts I bought for the tie rod ends wouldn’t tighten. Usually an impact wrench will do its impact thing and twist the Nylock onto the threads, overcoming the fact that the tapered rod causes the ball at the other end to turn in its socket, but for some reason, this time it didn’t work, even though the nuts seemed to have the correct threads. Just to get things together, I installed non-Nylock nuts with lock washers instead.
By Thursday night, it was all back together, but if Zelda’s 500-foot drive from Kim’s last week was best done under cover of darkness, I felt that the car’s post-resurrection test drive was best done with ample light and warmth in case something went wrong. So on Friday morning the revived Zelda stepped gingerly off the lift and crept hesitantly out of the garage and into the driveway.
Other than the intermittent throwout bearing noise, all seemed well, so I dropped the top for the occasion and motored gently around the block in first gear. I experienced no problems, so a snappier second-gear circle was next. Still good, so we went out onto main roads for a drive at 40 mph.
And… I think I got it right. The car runs and drives just fine. It’s tracking normally, it’s not pulling, and the front struts feel like they’re working. I’m not detecting anything that feels like automotive post-traumatic stress. I don’t think it even needs an alignment.
So: I not only spared Zelda from being parted out, and not only made her drivable, I think I pretty much fixed her. Oh, it’s not done; she still needs an airbag, the air dam should be replaced or at least glued back together, the right fender liner needs replacing, multiple a/c components must be found and installed, and a variety of broken or sheared electrical connectors have to be reattached. And that’s not to mention the non-impact issue of the car needing a clutch. But still, this was a very productive short period of Hack Mechanic foster parenthood. At the end of the test drive, I didn’t even drive the car home; I returned her to Kim’s driveway, and put the Lotus back in my garage.
Of course, right now, only I know where I put the key.
As of this writing, the ultimate fate of Zelda, ownership-wise, remains unclear. Kim would sell it to me for a song, but if I buy it back, I’m faced with the garage-space pressures that caused me to sell it in the first place. Plus, I’m finding it challenging coming up with a price I’d pay knowing that the car badly needs a clutch. I’d almost rather have Kim take the responsibility for garaging it over the winter, then dealing with the question in the spring.
Last week, I said that as a mechanic and a writer, I’m bewitched by the idea that, in certain situations, I have the power to change the ending of a story. I did that here with Zelda. If the car can stay in my orbit and continue to bring joy to the Cult of Zelda—of which I am totally a member—I will have made my corner of the universe a better place.—Rob Siegel
Rob’s latest book, The Lotus Chronicles: One man’s sordid tale of passion and madness resurrecting a 40-year-dead Lotus Europa Twin Cam Special, is now available here on Amazon. Signed copies of this and his other books can be ordered directly from Rob here.