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Lotus Europa

MIDDLE CLASS Published: 12th May 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Lotus Europa
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Quirky ‘breadvan’ style mid-engined two-seater that some regard to be at least as good as Elan and cheaper to buy. Racer-like handling, civility is lacking for a GT but it’s a grossly underrated Lotus

Europa was Colin Chapman’s intended modern replacement for the phenomenal but agricultural Seven yet retained the simplicity and appetite for motorsport competition.

The basic idea had been hanging on the design offices wall as far back as 1963 and the end result was a mid-engined, two-seat enclosed sports car with a fibreglass body that tipped the scales at barely less than 700kg and was so low that it made Ford’s GT40 look like an MPV.

It was far more modern in concept than the Elan and some say even flimsier yet never caught the public’s imagination so well, even though it also starred in The Avengers. But the Europa didn’t have the class of the Elan – and even Tara King was no Emma Peel either.

Only the 1990’s Elise recaptured the spirit of the Europa and their popularity means that the 60’s original is a forgotten Lotus these days. But with Elan prices rocketing perhaps it’s time to have a good look at the Lotus ‘breadvan’.


1963 Initial thoughts turn to a new affordable bang-up-to date Lotus made for road and racing to replace the Seven and be notably cheaper than the Elan. This sidelined the expensive if excellent Twin Cam engine and thoughts initially turned to units which already came with their own transmissions, such as the Mini and the Imp.

Salvation came to Chapman while wandering about the Paris Motor Show where Renault was proudly showing its all-new 16 hatchback, powered by a 1470cc all-alloy four-cylinder. Renault was sweet-talked into a deal so specially tuned the engine for a sportier 78bhp.

1966 First Europa was called the S1 but UK enthusiasts couldn’t get hold of any because they were chiefly for export as the company was quite worried about harming Elan sales.

First cars were real oddities; they had no opening windows (but relied on a pressurised ventilation system), seats were also fixed, so you adjusted your driving position by moving the pedals, and the plastic body was bonded to an Elan-style chassis which gave it a completely smooth underside. In effect this was ‘ground effect’ thinking by Chapman a decade before he used it in F1 racing!

1968 Only around 650 S1s were built, because, for the UK market, the more conventional S2 was introduced, still with the same engine (although in America “Federal” versions boasted a larger 1565cc version of the Renault engine but, predictably, emissions regulations stifled it back to just 80bhp) and underpinnings. Now the windows (electrically) opened, the seats slid and the body could be removed from the typically Lotus rust and accident-prone chassis.

1971 Race versions always used Lotus-Ford power from the outset so it was a logical step to offer the Elan’s 105bhp unit in the road cars, phasing out the Renault-powered derivatives. 

1972 Just a year later, and the Europa Special came on stream boasting the same big valve head as found on the Elan Sprint to pump out 126bhp plus the availability of a five-speed gearbox. At £1960, Specials were hardly the cheap sports car Lotus intended yet this model outsold the lesser TCs by 2 to 1, with around 4500 finding homes globally.

You could always sport a Lotus version because stylists at last trimmed down the bulky buttresses that you either liked or loathed but it did mean better rearward visibility and removed the ‘bread-van’ stigma Europas suffered from.

Also out this year was the distinctive John Player Special version. Dressed in black with gold pin-striping, it rightly laid claim to the title of Sexiest Lotus Ever – before the Esprit (which used the Europa’s chassis albeit modified) took over in 1975.

The Europa never fulfilled its intention of a low cost road racer, costing much the same as an Elan, which was always the more popular car. Nevertheless, more than 9200 were churned out both factory-built or as a DIY project, 5000 odd being the more desirable TCs, 3103 being the Specials.


When we recently tested an earlier Elite, we said it’s nothing like an Elan. In many ways these comments apply to the Europa. Elans are a tight fit but in comparison the Europa is like putting on a wet suit, which is apt as entering a Europa is a bit like getting into a bath – and you can get just as wet. The Elise is worse mind but not by much although once behind the Europa’s wheel it’s fine and you certainly feel like you’re in a racer even going down to the shops.

Performance depends on what car you want. Even in its day, the Renault-powered models were never shatteringly fast; contemporary road tests clocked the car at around 110mph with 60 in a shade under 10 seconds.

Later twin-cam cars, took the 0-60mph down to a tad over seven seconds for the normal S2 or an astonishing 6.6 seconds for the Big Valve Special, yet achieving around 25-30mpg at the same time.

Lotus as you’d expect made the Europa handle, and some even admit they’re more nimble than an Elan, although compared to, say an Elise or an MR2 Toyota, actual cornering speeds seem lowly even if the earlier car enjoys similar precision – amazing given the 30 year generation gap.

Watch it in the wet as the light-nosed Europa tends to understeer too readily and braking requires a delicate touch (like the Elise) and there’s a nervous feel about the car, worse if the geometry is mal-adjusted, much like a racer! Purists believe the S1s are the best because that bonded body gave them greater stiffness, but best of luck finding one – and living with one!

There’s a fair amount of luggage space fore and aft of the cockpit for touring and the ride is very Elan-like in terms of its compliance. But pack some earplugs because Europas – even the plush Specials – are noisy, harsh beasts and cruder than an Elan. However, thanks to the Europa’s transmission design, you don’t suffer from the annoying driveshaft ‘wind up’ and those infamous subsequent kangarooing antics.

The press went a bundle on the car, which back in ‘66 was pretty radical, although it never reached Elan hiatus, due in part to the styling you took to or didn’t.

A less than Ford-perfect gearchange, thanks to the mid-engined layout, and lousy visibility were always further bugbears throughout the car’s life.

But few criticised the car’s racer-like handling and poise. “The best bloomin’ GT to ever come out of Britian – the British can’t have for themselves”, said Aussie Sports Car World.

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” and American Road and Track called it “the closest a person could ever come to riding in a slot racing car”.

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.

After suffering gear linkage failure and noting that the feeble handbrake wouldn’t pass an MoT test (45 years ago!) the weekly concluded: “If Lotus hadn’t produced such an exceptionally good sports car in the Elan, by which we must judge the Europa, we would have less cause to criticise.”

In JPS livery with its big valve head the same weekly emphasised how the car’s concept had shifted from a relatively affordable road racer to a plush £2700 GT that far from being cheaper than an Elan was actually some £500 dearer, although Motor concluded that it offered a super car driver experience equal to cars costing twice as much.

Hot Car concurred, addling that, “with a host of features that such beasties as the TR6, MGBs and GT6s – and even Elans can’t compete with, the Europa puts itself out in a class of its own. Unless of course you are going to look for the same sort of thing, only with a Lambo or Dino badge on it…”


Europa prices trail Elans but are more valuable than Esprits. Most desired are the JPS models where £25,000 plus can be asked if truly exceptional, otherwise it’s half this and this includes the rare S1, if for no other reason that it is eligible for HSCC races. You can still buy a good S2 for comfortably under ten grand. This, says leading Lotus light Pat Thomas of Kelverdeon Lotus, is because the vast majority of cars aren’t especially good; rear suspensions are usually badly aligned, for example, while the gearchange is always bad. Thomas, given the choice, would opt for an Elan (obviously!) or an S1 Esprit instead, because at least the latter is strongly appreciating making restorations worthwhile.


Why not make yours a ‘Q-roupa’?

Mid-engined, with a spacious engine bay, a wide variety of different engines can be fitted with some ingenuity, including V8s – in fact, a special and hugely impressive Rover V8-powered car by engineering firm GKN was made soon after launch – hammering out 300bhp! More popular and saner fits come from Vauxhall and Ford (Zetec) 16-valve units.

The Renault engine was quite tunable in its day and period Gordini/Alpine/Else tuning parts, while rare, can see as much as 150bhp extracted while for the Lotus twin cam 160-180bhp is easy to reach and reliable enough for road use. A fairly common ploy these days concerning Renault-engined cars is to simply fit the 1565cc engine from later 16s;  it’s peppier plus parts are much easier to obtain.

Front suspension is Elan, which in other words is Triumph Spitfire. The rear set up is well sorted (if the geometry is correct) and only needs uprated springs and dampers (the latter wear out very quickly, we’re told) along with harder bushes and wider modern tyres, although the Specials are pretty well shod already and some feel ultra grippy rubber places undue strain on the chassis.

First things first, and that’s have any car properly set up by an expert which will make a world of difference, such as Cambs based Spyder cars, best known for its spaceframe replacement chassis.

The company says there’s new interest in Europas; “We have found interest in Europas is growing in the last couple of years; we have five cars currently under restoration in our workshop” and it offers a very comprehensive range of parts and services for all models for standard and uprated purposes. Spaceframe chassis, Renault Espace five-speed transmissions, rear disc conversions, double wishbone rear suspension, which dramatically improves the rear suspension geometry, and Ford Zetec engine conversions are available (see advert in this issue).

What To Look For


• Because Europas play second fiddle to the Elan, many are bodged and hardly worth restoring. There’s plenty around still though, especially in Europe where the car was destined.

• Is it original – and does it matter? Some owners, particularly during the 1990s, swapped the rusty chassis for a Spyder-made spaceframe alternative.

• Look for general decay, and try as many as you can to get a feel for the car as they do vary enormously. Check that the insulation behind the seat hasn’t rotted. This bit of fibreboard is all there is between you and the engine, and if water has crept in there, the material can dissolve to make a real mess.


• Check the chassis. The original Y-shaped folded sheet-metal will either have corroded or fatigued, so if it isn’t a new galvanised version (thankfully most are), you’ll be shelling out pronto.

• Fibreglass body won’t rust of course, but paintwork will craze or microblister and it’s a long and expensive job to rid the body of the old paint and the gel coat which gives a smooth covering over the fibreglass.

• On the other hand, cracks or scrapes don’t mean you need a whole new body and you can still buy different sections of the body to repair it from Lotus or specialist parts suppliers.

• Famous specialist Richard Winter at Europa Engineering (aka Banks Service Station) in Lancashire sells new chassis frames for around £1200 while a new body retails at some £1700. Spyder Engineering markets non original spaceframe chassis.


• Lotus twin-cam is a toughie, but it does need rebuilding. Some say every 50,000 miles, others reckon they’ll do 70,000-80,000 before needing specialist attention. The linered Renault engine is also long lived if a bit rattly. It’s easy to overhaul although only lower compression type pistons are now available, it is claimed.

• Prices? Expect to fully revive a Lotus unit – which we’re told is easier and better to overhaul than ever before – for around £4-5000 and half this for the French unit. Remember too that the TC’s twin Weber carbs can cost £500 plus to fully overhaul.

• Typical Lotus foibles are worn timing chain (check the adjuster – is it fully screwed in?) failing water pumps (which means an engine out,  head off job to replace) excessive oil leaks (and usage) and anything less than 40psi oil pressure. Original blocks now rare.


• Expensive too; one solution is to use a standard Ford 1600 block taken out to 1760cc and it’s fine, providing more torque into the bargain, if not original.

• Overheating can be a problem on the Europa, due to airlocks (trapped air) in the system. This is down to the radiator, which sits in the driver’s side wheel arch, being lower than the engine, meaning you have to jack up the front of the car when changing the coolant to avoid the problem.

• Lack of parts with the Renault engine means that the unit is more likely to be replaced by the later 1565cc Renault 16 unit where parts supply is easier although even now it’s getting hard.

• Scope for other engines such as Ford Zetec units – has any transplants been properly carried out?


• The rear suspension is the biggest problem area. The difficulty is that drive-shafts to the rear wheels are connected to the aft-mounted gearbox, and needs correct shimming between the inboard drive yokes and the gearbox.

• However, specialists talk about badly fitted or non-existent shims damaging the differential bearings and the gearbox oil seals, so check for play in the rear wheels while jacked up and look for leaks (although most have a small leak).

• It’s well worth having a good Lotus specialist sort this out as it will improve the handling and stability. The radius arms are of box section design – and so rot for England.

• The front suspension is a Triumph-based double-wishbone layout (which must be oiled, not greased) and so parts from a Triumph specialist will do the job – a lot cheaper than Lotus items.

• Rear brakes can be a hassle, especially the handbrake which is so bad it has to be adjusted up until it binds to work at all! A rear disc conversion can solve the problem and give superior braking too for a reasonable £500 or so.

• If you buy a non UK car, S1, usually, has it still a quirky twin servo brake set up along with a split system? As parts are difficult and not many know about the design it’s best to convert to the UK spec.

Three Of A Kind

A more modern Europa but with reliability? Shark-nosed Mk1s are the best driving but rot like mad; Ferrari-styled Mk2 is best all rounder but not so satisfying to drive. T-roof models in most demand while Grey imports can boast turbo power. MR2s are still strong value for money but they rust badl
Big brother to the broadly similar Fiat X1/9 was the delightful Montecarlo from Lancia.using Beta running gear with the sole 118bhp 2-litre engine mounted mid-ships. Lively rather than fast but very entertaining to drive. Original cars were slated for dangerous brakes, cured on relaunched models.
Introduced during the Europa’s heyday odd-looking VW-Porsche 914 was similar in concept and forerunner to Porsche’s Boxster! Simple WV hardware, reliable but low on speed (Porsche-powered versions are available) and the vast majority are left-hand drive. A hit or miss for you?


Like Marmite, you either love or hate the Europa! The design is more thoroughbred than the orthodox (if you can call a Lotus that) Elan and dare we say more special?  In this respect it’s not unlike the Elise or Exige. What’s the best classic? You best try them before deciding whether an Europa is the best thing since sliced bread. Or not.

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