Curbside Classic: 1974 Lotus Europa Special – The Sports Hearse Strikes Again

Much of Tokyo is composed of tightly-packed residential areas, with tiny two-story houses and very narrow streets. No wonder kei cars and electric bikes are so popular here. This can make CC hunting a difficult hobby, as many of the better finds are hidden from view in thee little nooks and crannies. But every so often, they get driven on a bigger street – such as the one I live on. So I have been catching a few there. Like this Lotus.

A few months ago, I found another Europa – a bright yellow S2 – in one of the aforementioned nooks (or was it a cranny?). This John Player Special-themed car, which I saw a few times on my street, eluded me for a little while, but I eventually discovered its resting place, literally a two blocks away from the yellow car. Both of these, incidentally, are about a five-minute walk away from the green Excel I caught back in March.

This was the Europa I wanted to feature on CC. Nothing against the other one, but it’s not in a very user friendly place. And yellow is such a terrible colour, whereas the black and gold pinstripe of this later car is F1-tastic. Cherry on the top: the Europa sat next to a distant relative. Lotuses like to congregate, it seems. Or there’s one fanatic in the vicinity who owns all of these.

If you’re not familiar with these, count me as one of your number. I’ve had to do a little homework on this one. Europas are not only pretty rare – 9230 units made, a third of which were Specials – but also pretty old now. Lotuses are not known to age gracefully, but at least their plastic body cannot rust, so they can keep the illusion going for longer than most. A quick refresher on the history of the beast might be in order, as it’s been five years since one of these has been featured on CC.

One of the first Lotus Europa brochures, 1967


Lotus founder Colin Chapman wanted to find a new drivetrain for his first mid-engined civilian car, which Lotus had been working on since 1963. He was specifically looking for something other than Ford, to broaden his marque’s horizons. Somewhat unexpectedly, his attention was caught by the not-exactly-sporting Renault 16, launched in early 1965. The Renault’s all-new 1.5 litre OHV engine, all-aluminium with cast iron wet liners – nice and light – was mated to a 4-speed transaxle just in front of it, driving the front wheels. Chapman just turned the R16’s drivetrain 180 degrees, coaxed a few extra hp from the 4-cyl. and launched the Lotus Europa in December 1966. It wasn’t just Lotus cars that were quick – the company itself was driven at breakneck speed.

1967 Lotus Europa “S1” – note the much higher flying buttresses, push-button doors and Lancia taillamps


Early cars were known to be downright Spartan. You couldn’t lower the windows or move your seat. Series 1A / 1B cars introduced luxuries such as electric windows and interior door trim, as well as the obligatory wood on the dash. All Series 1 cars were exported, as the Renault engine made them impossibly expensive in the UK, due to import duties. US sales were also impossible initially due to the car’s headlamps being below minimum height requirements. This was addressed by mounting the front suspension upside down ( ! ) to get the cars through customs; owners were then urged to undo this stratagem as soon as possible, lest the car’s handling be ruined.

In early 1968, Series 2 cars introduced external door handles and US market cars got a bigger (1.6 litre) Renault engine. UK sales finally started timidly in 1969, with some cars being sold in kit form to keep the price low. The most significant change in the Europa’s production run was the 1971 Twin Cam, which used a Lotus-Ford 1557cc engine that originally produced 105hp. This was upped to 126hp (113hp in the US) with the Europa Special in 1972, soon mated to a new 5-speed gearbox courtesy of the Renault 12 Gordini.

The black and gold JPS trim was supposed to be applied to a limited run of Europa Specials, in celebration of Lotus winning the 1972 Formula 1 championship. The colour scheme proved so popular – and the F1 success so durable – that the JPS trim option became a permanent fixture of the Europa Special until the end of production in 1975.

It’s difficult to imagine the impact the Europa must have had when it came out. There were very few mid-engined sports cars back then – I’d say the Europa was probably the fifth one, chronologically, if we leave out the ATS 2500 as unfortunately too rare. The Renault-powered René Bonnet Djet (top left, later renamed Matra Jet) pioneered the layout for street use in 1962, followed in 1963 by the Ford-powered De Tomaso Vallelunga (bottom right). The Lamborghini Miura was officially unveiled at the 1966 Geneva show (bottom left), about ten months before the Lotus, but didn’t really hit the streets until 1967. The Miura, along with the Mini-engined 1966-69 Unipower GT (top right), had a transverse-mounted engine, while the Bonnet, the De Tomaso and the Lotus had a longitudinal layout.

Being a Lotus, the Europa also had a backbone chassis, an all-independent “Chapman strut” suspension and a GRP body. To keep costs down, quite a lot of the mechanicals (brakes, steering, front suspension, etc.) came from the Triumph parts bin. Thrown in for free were lousy electrics, slapdash fit and finish, somewhat insufficient rear drum brakes, ventilation that captured more exhaust fumes than fresh air and, for the twin cam engines, oil leaks. On the plus side, all contemporary reports point to an extremely well-balanced car with quick steering, superb handling and, in the twin cam cars, outstanding performance. Fuel economy was also a strong point – not something often associated with sports cars.

Looks are another matter. The Europa certainly wasn’t unanimously hailed as an esthetic masterpiece, unlike its stablemate the Elan. The bizarre rear end did shock, and it still has the power to do so today. Everything up to the door, though very low (the Europa’s maximum height is 108 cm / 42 in.), looks very nice and very ‘60s, from the chrome-circled round headlamps to the steeply raked windscreen. The shape of the windows is kind of odd, but other than that, nothing prepares the eye for the second half of the car.

In profile, the Europa’s extremely high rear end gives it a peculiar van-like look, though this was even more pronounced on earlier cars. Coupled with the classy JPS trim, this odd shape has allowed some critics to dub the Europa as “the world’s fastest (or sleekest) hearse.” Looking at other mid-engined cars from the era, it seems Lotus were quite deliberate in making this design – even accounting for the car’s extreme flatness. The rear bubble-window solution, as applied by René Bonnet and De Tomaso, had several disadvantages, such as higher weight and expense, but at least it looked better and provided good visibility.

The R16 engine was rather tall, but that could have been remedied by canting it, as many front-engined cars were already doing. So the rear end need not have been quite so high, but since it was, Lotus designer Ron Hickman devised these high-set flying buttresses to improve the car’s aerodynamics. Wind tunnel tests mandated the addition of an integrated rear spoiler, which had the downside of further restricting rear visibility. The Twin Cam / Special cars saw a marked lowering of the flying buttresses, improving things visibility-wise – but the shape still looked very odd.

Period tests were very laudatory about the Europa’s road manners, comparing it to a Formula 1. They also emphasized that, being a true sports car, there is virtually no space for any luggage. There is a small rear trunk, but its situation behind the engine and atop the transaxle and muffler makes for a miniature sauna. No cheese in there unless you like fondue.

The front trunk, given that it already houses the spare wheel and such, is both shallow and oddly shaped, so it’s of little practical use. He who travels by Europa will necessarily be traveling light. Especially if there’s someone in the passenger seat. There’s always the glove box, which in later cars was thoughtfully deprived of a lid. That lightness obsession again, no doubt.

The owner of this particular car has seen it fit to add two small fans to bolster the Lotus’s less than satisfactory factory ventilation system. It does get very hot and humid in Tokyo, so I can’t say I blame him. Air conditioning was never an option, as far as I know – even on US market cars, which this particular one seems to be (all-red taillights are the giveaway), but there are rumours of owners who managed to install an aftermarket A/C. No mean feat, given the lack of spare room in the front trunk. I was disappointed with the quality and angle of this interior pic, but as I knew where this car lived, I had a second bite at the apple.

That vertical gunslit rear window may be one of the least driver-friendly features in this car, but it’s certainly quite a CC-friendly one. Great view of the dash from there. Alas, it’s a bit of an anticlimax. The wood looks very cheap and plasticky, more ‘70s Simca than ‘60s Jag. Nor does the interior design have anything of a Maserati’s flair and it’s certainly nothing Benz-like in terms of quality.

But that’s exactly what a Lotus is not. It’s not a solid German Autobahn cruiser, it’s not a stylish Italian GT and it is certainly not a 4-cyl. Jaguar. Lotuses have their fans because of their unique blend of lightness, handling and efficiency. Flimsiness and esthetic quirks are not a deal-breaker if they can be offset by pure driving pleasure. And the knowledge that you’re in the fastest hearse ever made.


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Curbside Classic: 1972 Lotus Europa S3 Twin Cam – Magnificence in Miniature, by Roger Carr