Lotus Europa: An oddity keeps a carmaker afloat

The Lotus Europa was a tiny car that

The Lotus Europa was a tiny car that weighed in at just 1,350 pounds, or half the weight of a Mazda Miata. Despite this, early models were slower than molasses due to a 78-horsepower engine. (Credit: Lotus Cars)

To look at the Europa, it seems amazing that this awkwardly styled, junior-sized sports car wearing a Lotus badge and powered by a tepid Renault engine could have been so popular.

 

But its mid-engine design (between the passenger compartment and the rear wheels), spectacular driving characteristics and reasonable price made it a vital revenue producer that kept Lotus afloat and helped fuel the company's professional racing efforts.

Colin Chapman, visionary founder and chief engineer for Lotus Cars of England, was never one to follow convention and the wide range of sports cars he produced over the years reflected this fact. Although most of his creations were technically superior to anything else being built, they tended to be poorly assembled and usually required frequent and expensive maintenance to keep them roadworthy. Still, Chapman enjoyed near cult status among long-suffering, but fiercely loyal Lotus owners who put up with just about any inconvenience for the driving thrills that their none-too-trusty steeds delivered.

The Lotus boss had primarily focused on open-top roadsters in the 1950s and '60s, but undertook a completely different direction with the Europa, which was launched in 1966. Physically, it defied description and baffled fans and critics alike. Between the front bumper and the doors, it was pure sports car, but behind the seats, the design went off track, prompting some to refer to the Europa's slab sides and flat rear deck that extended out behind a narrow ribbon of rear window as possessing the appearance of a flattened bread van. The lack of decent luggage space or even roll-down windows also created public consternation.

The gossip never bothered Chapman. The car looked the way it did for a reason, and that was to conceal the French-built 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine and four-speed manual transaxle originally developed for the front-wheel-drive Renault 16. For the Europa's application, the entire powertrain was positioned lengthwise directly behind the seats and ahead of the rear axle. It developed a modest 78 horsepower and even though it had just 1,350 pounds to propel, the Europa lumbered to 60 at about the same pace as today's economy cars. However, it was enough to keep most buyers sufficiently entertained. The fact that the driver's backside practically scraped the ground helped create the illusion of speed.

In any event, the Europa's precise suspension and direct steering were really the Europa's strong points. In designing the car, Chapman stuck to his tried-and true one-piece backbone chassis used in previous Lotus models that helped keep the Europa's center of gravity attached to Mother Earth. However, the size and shape of the chassis also severely restricted cabin space. Tall and/or wide passengers had practically no hope of ever entering the car's claustrophobic confines.

The Europa's plastic shell was bonded (glued) to the chassis to further keep the weight down. Unfortunately, this approach made repairing damaged body panels a chore, so bolts were eventually substituted.

Initially, the arrangement with Renault gave the French automaker exclusive rights to sell the original Series I Europa in Europe. However, by 1969, Chapman was able to market his mid-engine marvel, by then upgraded to Series II status with a larger version of the Renault 16 engine, to the rest of the world, specifically the sports-car-hungry North American market.

The Europa S2 was available in Great Britain as an unassembled kit car (similar to the bare-bones-basic Lotus Super 7 roadster) to avoid the country's onerous purchase taxes. As a bow to convention and to satisfy the export market, the car featured power windows and other minor comfort improvements.

As for power, or rather, the lack of it, a fix came in 1971 in the form of a Ford-Cortina-based 1.6-liter twin-cam engine that originally produced 105 horsepower but was quickly updated to 126 ponies. Zero-to-60 mph times dropped by more than two seconds, weekend club racers rejoiced and the marque's purists were relieved that finally a "proper" Lotus engine and five-speed manual gearbox had found their way into the Europa's engine bay.

By the time the Europa was retired in 1974, more than 9,200 had been produced. That wasn't enough to worry mainstream manufacturers, but it was certainly a success story by Lotus standards. As one of the first mass-produced mid-engine sports cars, The Europa broke new engineering ground and its low price (around $4,600) kept it within range of a wider group of buyers.

The Lotus models that followed, even after Colin Chapman's death in 1982, were, and continue to be, geared to more upscale enthusiasts.

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