Motoring Memories: Lotus Europa, 1966 1975 motoring memories classic cars
1970 Lotus Europa. Click image to enlarge

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Article and photo by Bill Vance

Englishman Colin Chapman was a gifted and innovative engineer. He built his Lotus cars to be the essence of efficiency in both space and materials. His philosophy was to reduce components to the minimum, and then if possible give them multiple purposes.

After successfully building and racing cars based on such mundane machinery as the Austin Seven, Chapman launched his modest Lotus Engineering Co. in 1952 to build tiny kit cars. It became Lotus Cars Ltd. in 1959, by which time Chapman had progressed to competition cars that were challenging the world’s best. His mid-engined racers became formidable competitors in Formula 1 and American open wheel racing.

Lotuses would carry their drivers to Formula 1 titles in 1963, ’65, ’68, ’70, ’72 and ’78. Jim Clark won the 1965 Indianapolis 500 in a Lotus-Ford, after finishing second in 1963. It finalized the Indy mid-engine revolution and put the last nail in the coffin of the traditional front-engined Indy roadster.

But while mounting the engine between the rear axle and the driver had become the racing norm, Chapman’s road-going Lotus Sevens, Elites and Elans stayed with front engines. That changed with the introduction of the Europa in 1966.

When Renault introduced its front-wheel drive 1965 16 model, Chapman saw the possibility of applying its engine and driveline to a mid-engined car. He envisioned reversing the longitudinal engine and placing it and the transaxle in the rear. A deal was struck with Renault for powertrains, and Lotus began creating its mid-engined Europa road car.

For the Europa, Chapman followed the Elan’s form with a fibreglass body that was bonded, later bolted, to a steel backbone frame. It was forked at the rear with the engine mounted between the two legs. Suspension was independent all around, with A-arms and coil springs in front. At the rear were lower A-arms, upper lateral links and upper and lower trailing arms with coil springs. The rack-and-pinion steering came from Triumph.

The Renault 1.5-litre, 58-horsepower, overhead valve, aluminum inline four was tuned by Renault to produce 78 horsepower for the Europa. The radiator was mounted in the front of the car ahead of a small luggage compartment, and there was a rear luggage compartment behind the engine. Power went to the rear wheels though a four-speed manual transmission.

The fibreglass, two passenger coupe body stood only 1,080 mm (42.5 in.) high, which gave a very sleek profile but made entry and exit awkward. Once inside, accommodation was snug with driver and passenger wedged between the high central frame member and the doors. The sharply tapered hood, grilleless front end and headlights set in “scoops” made the Europa clean, stylish and aerodynamically efficient.

The rear “flying buttresses” that extended from the roof along the tops of the fenders earned it its “bread van” nickname. These and a narrow window severely reduced rear visibility. The buttresses would be lowered in 1972.

When Lotus unveiled the Europa late in 1966 it was intended for Continental Europe, its French driveline and Europa name earning it entry into the recently formed Common Market. By 1969 it was made available in Britain and in the early 1970s Europas were officially imported to North America.

Road & Track (5/’70) tested a privately owned Europa S2 with the 1.5-litre engine with a reported 82 horsepower. The 662-kg (1,460 lb) coupe accelerated to 96 km/h in 11.2 seconds, which they noted was slower than other coupes such as the Datsun 240Z, Opel GT and Volvo 1800E. Top speed was 175 km/h (109 mph).

The testers found the steering with its quick 2-1/2 turns lock-to-lock to be crisp and the cornering and braking excellent. They disliked the lack of rear visibility and the disconcerting feeling that other drivers couldn’t see the extremely low Europa. The cabin was also cramped and unsuitable for tall drivers.

To improve the moderate performance, Lotus installed the larger Renault 16TS’s 1,565-cc four for 1970, but the real boost came for 1972 with the Lotus-Ford 1.6-litre double overhead cam four Lotus Special. Road & Track (11/’73) tested it, now with five-speeds and 113 horsepower, and recorded a much more spirited zero to 96 in 9.6 seconds and top speed of 188 km/h (117 mph).

The Lotus Europa was discontinued in 1975, replaced by the mid-engined Esprit with styling by famed Italian designer Giugiaro. This wedge-shaped coupe was faster and more expensive than the Europa, marking Lotus’s move to more upmarket cars.

Over its lifetime, approximately 9,200 Europas were produced. Its passing was not highly disappointing, in view of its shapely successor, but it could be credited with being a reasonably practical mid-engined car.