Lotus has a history as the most innovative of all the small British car builders, with a slew of innovations and “outside the box” thinking going back to the 1950s. The company also has a long record of innovation in design and the use of materials, and of course in chassis and suspension design and tuning, much of which is completed for others and is kept private. Even now, Lotus’s consultancy business is probably more important than its car building, at least to the accountants. The man behind Lotus was, of course, Colin Chapman, perhaps the most innovative race and sports car builder of the last half of the twentieth century.
The Europa was not the first mid-engined sports car, or even the first compact, affordable one – compared with the contemporary Lamborghini Miura at least – the Matra Djet probably takes that prize, but it carried on the Lotus tradition of innovation. Not least of these was using a Renault engine rather than a more likely expected British engine. For this was a car of its time, designed for Europe, and named accordingly.
Lotus was one of the first and leading proponents of the mid engine layout for Grand Prix and Indianapolis format racing cars, and won the 1965 Indy 500 with Jim Clark (one of the greatest racing drivers ever, without a doubt) driving a Lotus 38, with a Ford engine. This was the first rear engined car to win the Indy 500, although rear engine is a slightly misleading term, as the engine and transmission were ahead of the rear axle, rather than behind it, VW and Porsche style. Mid engine is perhaps a better term.
The Europa came to the market in 1966, using a styling concept rejected by Ford for the GT40. It may not have been beautiful, but it was certainly striking, and very different to any other compact or affordable sports car of its time.
It is worth checking how small this car is. Length was 130 inches, width 64 inches and the height a mere 42 inches. You can see from the photographs how the driver’s eye line is almost directly in line with the bumper of the Accord ahead of, and that’s the reason I’ve left the mail box on many of the pictures. The roof of this car is pretty much at the height of a kitchen work top. It weighed in at around 1500lbs.
There is a back story to the Europa. From 1957 onwards, Lotus had been building progressively more sophisticated sports cars, starting with the primitive Lotus 7 (The number is a type number, not a horsepower rating, and the road cars and racing cars shared the same series of numbers.) The Lotus 7 may look like something from the 1930s, but underneath that most basic aluminium bodywork was a double wishbone front suspension and steel space frame construction. Lightness was its key, and still is, as the car is still in production nearly 60 years later, as the Caterham 7.
Lotus’s next car the Lotus Elite, which was the first Lotus built around a glassfibre (we would now say composite) monocoque with a steel subframe carrying the front suspension and engine. It was powered by a 1216 cc version of the Coventry Climax FWE all-aluminum four, developing between 75 and 105 hp. The “Feather Weight” engine was originally developed by CC as a small portable fire pump engine. Its light weight and good power attracted the interest of Colin Chapman, among others, and enjoyed a distinguished racing career.
Later came the Elan, with styling aped by Mazda for the MX-5 Miata. The Elan was powered by the 1557 cc Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine, which used the block of the popular (and cheap) Ford 105E engine, with a DOHC head developed by Harry Mundy and further refined by Harry Weslake. It produced about 100 hp, and would also be used in the Ford Cortina-Lotus/Cortina Twin Cam.
Lotus faced two issues in achieving the volume Chapman aspired to with these cars. They were simple but labour intensive to build, and the unusual and expensive engines hampered overseas sales. Many cars were sold in kit form in the UK, getting round some of the labour issues and saving the owner/builder a sizeable amount of tax as well.
Chapman (1928 – 1982) wanted also to produce a mid-engined car for the road, to build on the Indy racing and Grand Prix success, and key to this was having a suitable engine and transmission available. The one Chapman selected was from the 1965 Renault 16, and this was used with a steel back bone chassis and composite body construction, to create the Europa, officially known as the Type 46.
The name Europa works in various ways – it starts with E, as all Lotus names did and still do (though no one seems to know why, or indeed where the name Lotus came from), it suggested, in the UK at least, a modern, outward looking image and linked the car to its intended major market – continental Europe. The Europa was announced and sales began in 1967. Early sales were exclusively in continental Europe, to establish a presence in the Common Market. Sales in the UK began in 1969.
The engine in the Series 1 cars was a 1470cc pushrod 4 cylinder from the Renault 16 making 78 hp, complete with the Renault gearbox, although with the crown wheel inverted on its pinion to make the sure the car had four forward gears and just one reverse, rather than the other way round. Still, 9.3 seconds to 60 mph and 120 mph was claimed, and measured by some of the UK Press cars.
The first cars were truly spartan; the interior was cramped to say the least, the windows were one piece removable panels, the seats fixed and the pedals adjustable only with tools, one windscreen wiper and the ventilation pretty well non-existent. Chapman was a great advocate of low weight and simplicity (he is quoted, maybe anecdotally, as saying, as a design philosophy “Simplify and add lightness”), and this showed in the level of comforts allowed into any early Lotus.
The Series 1 cars had a rear buttress or sail panel that rose almost to the full height (if you can use that word about the Europa) of the roof, limiting rear visibility even more, and giving almost the appearance of a very low van. Chapman justified this on aerodynamic grounds and indeed the early cars had drag co-efficient of 0.29, in 1966.
Like any Lotus from the 7 to the current Elise, Exige and Evora, the Europa was a real driver’s car, with a focus on handling and roadholding that enabled full benefit to be taken of the low weight and consequent power to weight ratio.
Later cars addressed some these issues. The 1968 series 2 had electric windows, adjustable seats and even a wooden dash. One key difference for the Series 2 was that the chassis was now bolted, rather bonded, to the monocoque, making repair easier. The car went to the US in 1969, with many changes to meet US regulations, including a larger 1565 cc Renault engine rated at 88hp.
In 1971, Lotus fitted the car with the 1.6 litre Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine, With the Lotus changes, the engine, still with 2 valves per cylinder, was now up to 105 bhp, compared with around 78 bhp in the first Renault engined cars. US units were closer to 105 bhp, though. Performance was now around 6.5 seconds to 60 mph and 125 mph. The rear styling was revised to give greater—but not great—visibility, as seen on this example posted in the CC Cohortby LeSabretooth Tiger. Is that the shallowest rear window ever?
There were many variations on the Europa, with differences in trim, power and appearance. Perhaps best remembered are the John Player Team Lotus black with gold pinstriping, matching the early 1970s Grand Prix cars and my personal favourite, red over white two tone Gold Leaf Lotus versions. Not for any preference for the cigarettes, but the colours so suit any Lotus of that era.
The feature yellow car is a Twin Cam, seen in California earlier this month by Passin’Gas and placed on the CC Cohort. This car is a rare sight now, so thanks for posting it. Around 10,000 Europas were built between 1966 and 1975 and there are perhaps only a hundred or so in remaining in the UK.
Colin Chapman floated Lotus as a public company in 1958 and in the 1970s Lotus started dong consultancy work, including (in)famously for John DeLorean. Chapman died, suddenly, in 1982, but personally I’m sure he would have approved of the current Lotus cars. After all, everyone like brilliant sports cars and “Simplify and add lightness” has a real appeal to those of us with engineering backgrounds.