Published in New Zealand Classic Car Issue No. 194

Words: Tim Nevinson

Photos: Jared Clark

Lotus founder Colin Chapman was renowned for thinking ahead of his time — sometimes he was so far ahead nobody could even see his horizon. At other times he was looking so far ahead he could not see the obvious right under his nose.

Ron Hickman, an ex-Ford designer with the unloved Ford 315 Classic to his name, had styled the Lotus Elan for Chapman, and was responsible for illustrating Chapman’s bid for the Ford GT contract which eventually went to Eric Broadley, at Lola. However, the low drag concept illustration that Hickman did for Ford set Chapman thinking about a road car.

When Chapman conceived the need for the Lotus Europa in the mid ’60s, it was as a replacement for the Lotus Seven. He had seen and been partly responsible for the success of mid-engined cars in motor racing, and believed that sports cars would naturally go the same way.

Chapman had no confidence that his simple, front-engined, tubular-framed parts bin special, the Lotus Seven, would keep his company afloat. Accordingly, he set about scheming a new, low cost replacement, like the Seven had been in the ’50s it would be a parts bin special which followed the then current racing trends.

Chapman had just famously introduced the monocoque construction to Formula One — it was clear he hadn’t given up on the idea that a fibreglass body could be a stress bearing member of the chassis. As well, he had clearly not got over the lack of success Lotus had experienced with the glass-fibre monocoque Lotus Elite, or fully appreciated the elegant and simple solution to the Elite’s production woes provided by the Lotus Elan design.

The Elite never had a chassis, it’s glass-fibre monocoque, while strong and light, had proved difficult to manufacture and repair. The solution introduced with the Elan was a fabricated steel backbone chassis with the glass-fibre body bolted through isolators onto the chassis. It worked very well, but Chapman decided his new mid-engined car would be a half way house — an Elan-type backbone with the glass-fibre body bonded directly to it, giving the car the immediate responses of a monocoque car.

Seven Successor

The Lotus Seven had been a success throughout Europe, and it was in Europe that Chapman foresaw the need to update the Lotus image. A much publicised distrust of the French, after a few too many run-ins with parochial Le Mans organisers, did not prevent him from spotting an engineering solution they could provide for him, and the head of a tiny English kit car manufacturer brokered a deal with the bastion of French institutions, the government-sponsored Regie Renault. Even Chapman could not foresee that Ayrton Senna would one day win a Grand Prix in a Lotus-Renault, and that Regie’s engines would go on to win many F1 world championships.

At the time that Chapman was fishing overseas for solutions, The English Channel prevented most Englishmen from any acceptance that the French could make sports cars — or engines. Alpines would not win the Monte Carlo Rally until 1971, and even then it would be a long time before French marques gained any acceptance in the British sportsman’s hierarchy.

In England, French cars were floppy, roomy, comfortable and idiosyncratic — the antithesis of the average British sports car — so their engines didn’t even rate consideration. Whilst racing cars had used Citroën and VW gearboxes without serious modification, they were generally not matched to the torque, revs and vibration of a high performance engine. Neither company made an engine that Chapman could consider for his mid-engined car.

Chapman, apparently at the French Motor Show, saw at the announcement of the Renault 16 that it had an all-alloy engine linked in line with a transaxle. Exactly what he had been looking for. At the height and speed Chapman was flying he could only see a small resistance to the idea of a French engine, and planned to start marketing his brainchild in Europe first to give it a chance to catch on. He had no idea just how much resistance there would be. His customers had not flown all over the world as he had, and British was still best.

Another thing Chapman completely overlooked was the continuing potential of the Lotus Seven. One Lotus dealer, Graham Nearn of Caterham Cars, felt the potential was still there, so he bought the rights to manufacture the Lotus Seven. Even Nearn could not have expected to still be building Sevens 40 years later.

French Connection

Galloping on with his project, Chapman persuaded Renault to supply the engine and four-speed transmission from the Renault 16 — slightly tuned and with the crown wheel reversed — along with its 12-month guarantee. A major feat for a small English sports car maker.

Don’t under estimate the engine, either. Whilst it didn’t produce the ultimate power of the Lotus twin-cam, the 1470cc Renault was lusty, smooth and comparatively light (91kg). Best of all it was made and developed to fit the transaxle, thus removing many potential gremlins. By the time production started, Renault had developed a special unit for Lotus with higher compression, bigger valves, a higher lift camshaft and a twin choke Solex carburettor. The Renault 16’s 39kW engine produced 61kW in Lotus trim.

Chapman put Derek Sleath in charge of project P5, and rather than design first, a prototype was built and tested before being drawn up. It took just 18 months to go from this first study to prototype production, with a low drag (0.29) body adapted from Hickman’s concept by John Frayling.

The body shape was at best unusual. The Europa was described as looking like a van at the time, and it was not universally approved. The first production cars, known internally as Lotus Type 46, had fixed seats, but movable pedals, fixed curved side windows with interior ventilation pressurised by a fan, and a plenum chamber which doubled as the front luggage compartment. It had a single windscreen wiper over a steeply raked screen that was made especially for Lotus.

As with the Elan, Triumph components were used at the front, with Lotus fabricated wishbones taking the loads to a tee-section at the front end of the backbone chassis. Disc brakes were used at the front, drums at the rear, which was suspended by a Chapman strut, single lower wishbone and long longitudinal arms to the front of the V where the backbone chassis opened out to accommodate the powertrain behind the cockpit.

The whole car weighed just 686kg, had a top speed of 177kph and sprinted from 0-96.5kph in 10 seconds. Lotus was due to move from Cheshunt, near London, to Hethel in rural Norfolk, and the 500 Type 46 Europas were the first new cars to be made in Norfolk. These first 500 cars were going to be sold only in France. Lotus would be amongst the first to make a road-going mid-engined coupe, with only Matra and Lamborghini beating it to it.

Changing The Formula

The Lotus type 46, or Series 1 Europa, was not an overwhelming success, which led to a number of fairly major design changes. Series 2 was Lotus design number 54, introduced in April 1968. These took the Europa away from the skinny, basic Lotus Seven replacement concept, something that it had not successfully achieved anyway. The fixed, curved side windows gave way to fixed quarter lights and less elegant, ‘squared off’ electrically operated windows.

Lotus switched to bolt fasteners, as used in the Elan, instead of resin bonding to attach the body to the backbone. Fully adjustable seats, a new interior, a polished wooden fascia and conventional external door handles were used, while the indicator lights now appeared like frog’s eyes over the bumper.

In all, 3615 S2s were produced, amongst them the two featured here. Lotus delivered cars to the American market, where the headlights were too low to pass Federal regulations. Initially, Lotus bolted the wishbones upside down to raise the lights to the required height, and owners reverted to the original ride height once the car was sold. However, this ruse was not going to remain undetected for long, and the newer cars (Type 65 onwards) had subtly raised headlights. The difference can be judged on the two cars we have here, the red car being to the older, low light specification.

Mid Life Crisis

Still the Europa wasn’t a great seller, despite being highly praised for its dynamics by the press. It was not until 1971, when the Type 74 Europa Twin Cam announced that the Europa really had its legs — with a 78kW (105hp) 1558cc Lotus/Ford twin-cam engine, and a new Renault four-speed gearbox (Type 352). Apart from the engine, Lotus finally caved in to styling criticisms and sliced away the original Europa’s rear sail-fins. This made the car look lighter and improved rear visibility. Mike Kimberley, then a new engineer from Jaguar who eventually became the Lotus chief, was chief engineer of the Twin Cam project. Some 1580 cars were shipped as Europa Twin Cams before a 94kW (126hp) Big Valve version of the engine with a new Renault five-speed (Type 365) gearbox option was offered as the Europa Special.

The Special weighed 740kg, had a top speed of 198kph, and dispatched the benchmark 0-96.5kph sprint in seven seconds. Some 3130 Europa Specials were manufactured and, to honour JPS Team Lotus 1972 and 1973 F1 Constructor’s Championships, John Player Special commemorative production cars had the evocative black with gold pinstripe colour scheme. In Total 9300 Europas were produced. Unlike many manufacturers, producing cars that got worse as they went on, the last was arguably the best Europa.

By this time, however, the Lotus marque was being pushed up market. The replacement for the Europa was the Esprit, a bigger car altogether. It wasn’t until Lotus went back to its roots with the very basic Elise that it would truly hit the sales spot again. The Elise and its derivatives have probably been the most successful Lotii ever when it comes to sales. The original Elise was a modern version of what Chapman originally intended for the Europa — a modernised Lotus Seven with a mid engine.

Comparing Europas

We are not aware of any original ‘bonded’ Lotus Europas in New Zealand. They were left hand drive for Europe only, and thin on the ground. There are some S2s, however, and we have Robin Stevenson’s 1969 Lotus Type 54 and Michael Keenan’s 1971 Type 65. Both were called Europa S2, the major difference being the height of the headlights.

Both cars have bolted bodies and moveable side windows, plus conventional door handles together with ‘frogeye’ indicators above the bumper which are the main way of differentiating them from original S1s. Whilst they are not easy to get into, the lack of any chassis structure in the sills makes the task easier than getting into the new Lotus. The cabin is tiny on the Europa, but Robin’s sunroof makes his car light and airy inside.

What strikes you most is the delicacy of the old Europa.Typically, for a Lotus of the period, the trim probably only fitted until it left the show room, and whilst an attempt has been made at making the car feel luxurious inside, with electric windows and a wooden dashboard, the quality of fit and finish is demonstrably less than skin deep. The seating position is laid well back, but nonetheless very comfortable with a perfectly placed headrest, and your arms rest naturally on the padded transmission tunnel and into a padded well made in the door. This sets the scene, as the Europa is handled with the fingertips, not with armfuls of lock.

The road holding and handling drew the very highest praise at the time the car was current, and it feels as close to a ’60s single-seater as it is possible to be with a roof over your head. The classic Europa is like a ballet dancer on the road, supple and extremely athletic, but with very little apparent effort. The road holding is of the very highest order, yet unlike modern cars with wide tyres, the messages all come through almost telepathically, allowing the driver great confidence in what’s happening at the tyre contact patch. It’s not about ultimate grip, but being able to safely explore the region before it disappears.

You can really enjoy the old Europa at road legal speeds on switchback roads. The key to driving an S2 Europa is carrying speed, made all the more necessary by the car’s engine and gearbox. It makes all the right noises but the gear ratios are spread well apart, and mastering the gear change is an acquired art. There isn’t much torque to help you through this issue, so the grip and delicacy of the steering are of prime importance.

The later Europa Twin Cam had more torque and power to improve this experience, but the gear change never got much better, so it was important to be sure you had the right cog before you tried cornering in extremes.

The 21st Century Europa S has all the answers in this respect — an excellent gear change and more than adequate torque, together with the legendary Lotus telepathic driver-to-tyre experience. Few modern cars get near to this, and none are as useable everyday as the new Europa S.

In effect, the new Lotus really carries on where the Europa Special left off.

The new car’s 149kW turbocharged engine has genuine racing heritage, being the basis of Formula Vauxhall-Lotus, the formula which brought up Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen amongst others. Importantly, it produces 263Nm at 4200rpm, giving the new car longer, more relaxed legs than any Elise. The Europa S uses Elise technology but it is bigger, more practical, and takes the modern Lotus upmarket to a point where it provides a car that a couple can enjoy, rather than just the driver, and it has a much less frenetic but still powerful engine. It fills a gap left by the Opel Speedster or Vauxhall VX220 Turbo, which were basically Lotuses by another name.

The Europa S is nowhere near as refined as a Porsche or BMW sports car, but then those two are nowhere near to giving as much pure driving pleasure as the Lotus. The Europa bridges the gap between an Elise and a Porsche Boxster, erring much closer to the Elise, as it still has a cabin that is not greatly different to the base car, and an engine that has the muscles but not the ultimate refinement.

Early Europas had a cabin which at least tried to give the owner the nod that he had bought something expensive. I reckon Lotus needs to take heed of this today, and perhaps also supply a light, silky V6 which would help persuade swinging voters out of their Porsche or BMW Z4.

Knowing the Elise and Exige as we do, and relating them to the new Europa S, confuses the issue slightly, as it seems on the surface to be quite close to them in concept. Take them out of the equation and the new car is very much a continuation of the Europa theme. In the flesh it is a very attractive-looking proper sports coupe in its own right — a more than worthy successor to the classic Europa.