The Ordeal of the Camshafts

Last summer, you may recall, my check engine light came on when I was in Monterey. I spent a sleepless night in advance of my track day at Laguna Seca after reading horror stories about terminal misfire codes. When I got to the track I had a short discussion with Rob Dietsch, an expert on the Elise. I was able to run that day, with only minor difficulties presented by an open thermostat.

These cars have been known to have issues with the camshafts. The hardening sometimes fails, causing abnormal wear on the cams and resulting in serious problems. Rob said, “You should have your cams inspected every 30,000 miles. When’s the last time you did it?” Let’s just say I was overdue.

Months later, I finally got around to scheduling an appointment to have somebody do the cam inspection. I dropped the car off at High Mountain Classics on February 25. I won’t go into all the factors that led me to going there. I’ve toured the shop a few times over the years and seen a variety of interesting vehicles there, including eight figure Bugattis, a ’50’s era Formula 1 Ferrari, and other assorted museum pieces. The owner, Victor, is a Lotus aficionado and fellow Lotus Colorado member. Although the modern Elise isn’t exactly in their wheelhouse, I had no doubt they’d take good car of me.

In addition to the cam inspection, I’d have them replace the thermostat (which had given me no problems since that day at Laguna Seca), see if they could do anything with my failed left rear turn signal, and a couple of other minor, things.

They were quite busy with projects and it took a week or so before they got to my car. So it was approaching mid-March when Victor called. “You brought it in just in time. The hardening is beginning to fail.”

Notice the discoloration

We talked about whether I should consider upgrading the camshafts to performance parts. It didn’t take much research before I decided to stick to the stock Toyota camshafts. I briefly considered the Stage 2 camshafts from Monkeywrench Racing. Installing those would require replacing the valve springs and they recommend also upgrading to titanium retainers and replacing the valves as well. That’s quite a bit of extra expense, and the result would be a car that’s more fun on the track but less drivable on the street. I enjoy my track time but have no interest in making it harder to drive on the streets. It was an easy decision to stick with the stock parts.

So they picked up a camshaft from the local Toyota dealer and installed it. When they put it all back together, they idled the engine for about forty minutes then took it out for a test drive. Where it promptly died. We were on the phone for a while making sure it wasn’t something silly, like the alarm or the inertia switch. They got it back to the shop, took it apart, and went about diagnosing the problem.

… down the rabbit hole …

It quickly became obvious that something had gone seriously wrong. There were gouges in the cam journals. The head would have to be replaced. When the cams were machined, they left burrs inside. Some of these dislodged and tore through the motor. Victor took the part to the Toyota dealer. They inspected the brand new cams in dealer stock and they had the same issue. It looked like Toyota had a bad batch of cams and poor quality control.

Clam off, factory service manual open

Victor had no doubt that Toyota would reimburse him for the cost of rebuilding the top of my motor. They had him provide estimates from two other shops for the repair. Toyota sent a couple of engineers to Victor’s shop and inspected my car. They agreed that the damage was done by their bad cams. At one point it looked like the only obstruction in making us whole was that we couldn’t enter my Lotus VIN into their warranty software because it wasn’t a Toyota VIN.

Week after week went by with no progress. Finally they agreed to replace their bad parts with good ones but under no circumstances would they cover the cost of repairing the damage their bad part caused. In the end, the camshafts that were finally installed had same defect. Rather than wait for another (potentially bad) cam from Toyota, Victor’s machine shop cleaned them up.

Now things were a bit uncomfortable for Victor. His shop concentrates on old cars; they don’t do much with modern engines. Having his guys work on my car meant they couldn’t work on their bread and butter. And he had to carry the cost pending a trip to small claims court. He felt the best route was to subcontract the complicated repairs out to an expert. So he got a hold of Ryan Chapman, factory certified Lotus mechanic.

This turned into a potential scheduling problem for me as Ryan would do the work on the side. He did the work in Victor’s shop, lacking some of his specialized tools, working on weekends. I was getting pretty nervous about the calendar. See, I had already paid for a track day in Austin at Circuit of the Americas on June 11. It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a track day and it’s non-refundable.

Ryan came through like a champ and got it done on Saturday, June 3. I was ecstatic when Victor confirmed it would be ready for me to pick up at the end of the LoCo drive. Then I was crestfallen when he told me it couldn’t be ready before Tuesday. A sensor had failed and the fan wouldn’t turn on. He couldn’t get a replacement until Monday. But in the end, he got it working by disconnecting and cleaning it.

To recap, I took it in to have the thermostat replaced and the cams inspected. In the end, the final tally was a new thermostat, new cams, a brake flush, and new rear brake pads. The new cams came the hard way, with a complete rebuild, utilizing a new head and new cam caps, with the old valves, springs, retainers, and lifters. Everything cleaned up and flushed out. New fluids all around: oil (with upgraded filter), coolant, brake and clutch.

Victor will have his day in small claims court sometime in July. He showed me all the evidence he’s put together: the defective cam, with burrs, photos of the other defective cams, metal chips, and so on. I asked if I could have the cams as a souvenir after the case is over.

I had a nice chat with Ryan on Monday. He talked a bit about the data dump from my engine. I didn’t make notes, so I may have the numbers wrong. But he said my engine has been between 7,000 and 8,000 RPM for more than three hours. This is about three times longer than any other Elise he’s worked on. I’ve had a massive amount of wide open throttle as well. I’ve done somewhat less than double the typical miles he’s seen, so that’s a factor. But a bigger part is the thirty track days.

So now I’m trying to get everything ready for my trip to COTA with a pretty short lead time. My passenger headlight is out. My left rear turn signal has been out for years now. Ryan says he has a ballast I can put in that will likely fix the problem. And I haven’t been on the second cam yet. Victor recommended not wringing its neck in the first hundred miles. Ryan says I can, but that I shouldn’t run a steady RPM level on my way to Austin – modulate between fifth and sixth to vary my engine speed.

Oh, and the brakes squeal like mad. They’re fine except when braking at under 5 MPH. So it sounds like hell every time I come to a complete stop. I’m hoping this goes away soon. My previous set of pads only made that noise occasionally, and not nearly as loud.

Finally, it just so happened that Victor moved his shop from Greeley to Ft. Collins while my car was under his care. I had a box in the boot with some things I’d like to have with me on my trip, like a can of fix-a-flat, my front license plate, a tire gauge and some tools. And my volleyball knee pads. I wear them on track days so my left knee doesn’t get all bruised up. We went through his shop but didn’t see the box. I’m sure he’ll track it down, but I don’t expect I’ll have it before I leave.


Chad kindly picked up the ballast from Ryan and agreed to supervise my light bulb replacement. It took me an hour to do the job, because I’m software, not hardware. It’s the third time I’ve performed the operation and I’m still totally inept. But I needed to get it done because I’ll be violating Rule #2 by doing some night driving this weekend.

Unfortunately, the ballast was a no-go. It was as easy as Ryan said, took about two minutes but still no workie.

The car was in the shop for 100 days. Feels like forever.

The noise the brakes make is embarrassing.