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Lotus Europa At 40

Published: 19th Mar 2015 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Europa At 40
Lotus Europa At 40
Lotus Europa At 40
Lotus Europa At 40
Lotus Europa At 40
Lotus Europa At 40
Lotus Europa At 40
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Forty years ago, Lotus killed off the Europa. Drawing from Lotus’ Formula 1 experience, it never enjoyed the success it richly deserved yet it outsold the Elan

What do they say about allowing facts to spoil a good story. Bar room talk has it that the Europa was a sales flop for Lotus and yet if you look past those sales figures a quite different picture emerges.

Admittedly, the Elan did outsell the Europa by a fair number; just over 11,000 to 9320 Europas of all types. However, you have to factor in extenuating circumstances. The Elan enjoyed a slightly longer production run while the Europa was initially only sold abroad until 1969. And don’t forget there were more choices of Elans, including the Plus2 which accounted for 25 percent of sales. Remove this 2+2 from the equation and the comfortably outsold the Elan. Not bad for a sales flop!


The Europa was designed to bridge the gap between the Spartan Seven and the exotic Elan but it never worked out that way. The Europa Special with its JPS livery, big valve head for 126bhp and plush cabin only highlighted how the concept had shifted from a relatively affordable road racer to a plush £2700 GT that, far from being cheaper than an Elan, was actually now £500 dearer. That said compared to a Ferrari or Lamborghini, which were barely faster, the Lotus was also a bargain.

Today, after decades in the doldrums, Europa prices still trail Elans but are more valuable than Esprits. Reliability was never the car’s strong point, the most common failure being the notorious gear linkages, which left many owners stranded; it’s a £1000 fix these days. And leaks. As one journalist once quipped, slipping behind the wheel of an Europa is like getting into a bath – and you get just as wet…

For the price of a good Europa you can buy an Elise or Exige, the latter which is pretty similar in concept and, naturally the better driver as you’d expect. But the classic car lover may think the ‘bread van’ looking Europa remains the best thing since sliced bread.


The Europa remained on sale a year after the Elan was killed off before making way for the Esprit late in 1975 as Lotus decide to ditch kit car image and move upmarket. Here’s some of that year’s highlights

One of the low points was the kidnapping and murder of teenage heiress Lesley Whittle in January by Donald Neilson. Her body was found in March down a drain. Neilson (Black Panther) was arrested for five other murders.

Music hits that year included January by Pilot, I’m not in love (10cc), Mama Mia (Abba), Best of my love (Eagles), Lovin’ you (Minnie Riperton), Love will keep us together (Captain and Tennile), Fame (David Bowie), That’s the way I like it (K.C. and The Sunshine band) and Island Girl by Elton John.

In sport, West Ham beat Fulham 2-0, ironically the losing team captained by Bobby Moore. Niki Lauda won his first F1 crown but motor racing lost a true great when Graham Hill was killed in a plane along with his racing team.

Mrs T defeated Conservative leader Edward Heath to become the party’s first female leader at a time when the miners (who brought down the Heath government) were awarded a 35 per cent pay rise by Labour, while later that year, two-thirds of the electorate voted to stay in the EEC. Motor bike maker Norton Villiers closes as the UK suffers a ‘double dip’ recession.

Vauxhall launched the Chevette in the spring and the Cavalier that autumn, both being essentially German Opels and so signalling Luton losing its independence. British Leyland, now under Government control introduces the wedge-shaped 18-22 saloon early in the year yet soon rationalised the three make range, rebranding them simply as Princesses. Another in trouble, Chrysler sells the new Alpine in the UK.


After the massive success of providing an Elan for Diana Rigg to drive in The Avengers (worth a huge £5m in publicity back then, it’s claimed), Lotus wasted no time to give her replacement (Canadian Linda Thorson) a new S2 Europa (PPW 999F) now it was available in the UK, replacing her first steed, an AC428 convertible. But Tara King was sadly no Emma Peel and it never quite grabbed the viewing public like that leather-clad lass and her Elan.



Europa became Colin Chapman’s intended replacement for the rustic old Seven after initially being seen as something to take on Ferrari at Le Mans. After the Ford-instigated idea was shelved, it evolved into a technically advanced yet cost effective mid-engined, two-seater enclosed sports car tipping the scales at barely less than 700kg (still appreciably more than an Elan however) that could be used with success on both the road and race track.

And while the Europa didn’t work out that way either, it helped forge a relationship with Renault that, off and on, has lasted half a century and still going strong in Formula One. The Europa came about when Colin Chapman was intrigued by an artist’s impression of a low slung, mid-engined racing sports car, not unlike the Ford GT40, hanging up in the company’s design office. “I’ll make that one day” he is reported to have said to Elan stylist Ron Hickman and some three years later he did just that.

Colin Chapman was one of the first to embrace the mid-engine design concept with huge success in racing and knew it was the way to go for road use, too. Economical as ever, he simply used an Elan- like chassis to accept an engine mounted midships and relied upon parts from a variety of sources; bumpers were nothing more exotic than Ford Cortina and Anglia items but it did progress later to share E-type S2 rear light clusters, for example.

The Lotus genuis had more difficulty with the powertrain though. Adapting a front-engine configuration along with its transmission is never easy and the choice is narrow. The A-Series found in the Mini and 1100 saloon was an obvious option as the transmission was integral. However, that resulted in package that was too high for a low slung sports car – as were BMC prices! The rear-engined Hillman Imp was the other obvious pick, more so as Chapman knew the Coventry Climax engine well having used it in the Elite.

But Chapman knew it was also a costly unit that would price the Europa on par with the Elan (ditto the reason why he didn’t use the Lotus-Ford Twin Cam, initially anyway), plus the standard Imp unit was only 875cc and as a result too slow.


Chapman struck lucky when salvation came to him while wandering about the Paris Motor Show. Renault was proudly showing its all-new 16 hatchback, powered by a 1470cc all-alloy four-cylinder engine with front-wheel drive. It was the ideal solution and in no time Renault was sweet-talked into a deal as only Chapman could do, even further tuning the engine for a sportier 78bhp at the same time.

Launched late in 1966 the first cars were real oddities. True to their obvious competition roots, they had no opening windows but relied on a clever ‘pressurised ventilation system’ instead, using a chamber in the front luggage compartment to take in fresh air. In practice, apart from risk of being gassed by lofty dirty diesel lorries, filling the space with luggage stopped it working full stop. The sports seats were fixed, meaning you adjusted the driving position by moving the pedals. The Europa was certainly a car you couldn’t easily share.


On the other hand the Europa was years ahead of its time. The controversial plastic body was bonded to the chassis which gave it a completely smooth underside. In effect this was ‘ground effect’ thinking by Chapman a decade before he revolutionised Grand Prix racing with a similar principle.

By the time Lotus started to market the car in the UK, for 1969, a revised S2 was introduced featuring a more conventional way to fix the body to the chassis and conventional ventilation via electric windows. In other words, it had already moved away from being a relatively inexpensive road and track car to becoming an upmarket GT.

The Europa wasn’t completely alien to British car enthusiasts as it was first seen on Boxing Day 1966 at Brands Hatch where, as the Lotus 47, it scored an easy 1-2 victory. The winner John Miles (who went on to race the sensational Lotus 72 and, after racing, helped develop the Elan M100, Elise and today’s Astons) described the car as one of his favourite all time racers. They used Lotus-Ford power from the outset so it was a logical step to offer the Elan’s 105bhp unit in the road cars too, phasing out the Renault-powered derivatives in 1971.

The Lotus-powered version was easily identified over the earlier Renault one because Hethel stylists finally trimmed down the bulky buttresses that are mandatory on mid-engined designs. However, Lotus went truly overboard on the Europa which is why those slab sides gained the famous ‘bread van’ stigma and made rear view vision appalling to put it mildly.

The 47 racer was even more outlandish because special air boxes (dubbed snorkels) were fitted on top to aid the fuel injection system and when Lotus fitted a pair of them (one was simply a fake) it really wound up the opposition!


That’s what the distinctive John Player Special version was called at the time. Dressed in black with gold pin-striping, it rightly laid claim to that title before the Esprit (which used the Europa’s chassis) took over in 1975.

Affordable (well sort of) mid engined machines weren’t around when the Europa was launched and the Lotus became the closest thing to a real racer on the road. It was a sensation – in the right hands. Lotus made the Europa handle naturally, and some admit that they’re more nimble than an Elan, although compared to, say a Toyota MR2 or even an MGF, cornering speeds are lowly but that’s more due to tyre sizes. In the wet the light-nosed Lotus understeers too readily and braking requires a delicate touch rather like today’s Elise.

In its test in 1969 Motor said the Europa could be cornered faster than an Elan (“the sensation of cornering is deceptively absent”) although its overall verdict was less than impressive. However, the legendary Denis Jenkinson of Motor Sport (who partnered Moss on that famous 1955 Mille Miglia), reckoned: “I think the Elan is now obsolete, the Europa is a big step forward in the right direction” while American Road and Track called it “the closest a person could ever come to riding in a slot racing car”.

It may sound like heresy but there are those who believe that the Europa is more a driver’s car than the Elan, although Lotus specialists say that the majority of them which remain are now out of sorts and handle nothing like they famously used to.

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