Most British sports cars have compelling looks that attract one like a moth to a flame. A few, however, have styling that needs to be lived with for a while in order to be appreciated. The Lotus Europa falls into that smaller second category, at least in my opinion.
I remember the first time I saw a Europa. With its low front end and straight-back, high-sided rear fenders, I thought it was some sort of a sports pickup truck. It was only later that I came to understand the reasons why it looks like it does: it was simply the product of a company that liked to be different.
Getting a handle on the sports car
Lotus Engineering Co. was founded in 1952 by British engineer Colin Chapman. Prior to forming his company, Chapman had built several competition cars that were based on Austin and Ford components. They performed well because Chapman focused on lightweight construction in order to make best use of the available power of the low-cost engines. Chapman initially built cars for his racing team, but eventually began producing competition cars for sale to others.
In 1957, Lotus unveiled the prototype of its first production road car, the Elite coupe, with production starting in 1958. The Elite introduced a novel fiberglass uni-body construction in which the body was bonded to the chassis for light weight with excellent rigidity. Nearly 1000 Elites were produced. In 1962 came the Lotus Elan roadster, which is the car that Mazda later took as its influence for the first-generation Miata sports car. The similarity in appearance is unmistakable; Mazda really should have to pay a royalty to Lotus for borrowing its styling.
The Elan was a relatively big hit for Lotus despite a price tag of nearly $4200. Its combination of exclusivity and performance — one magazine clocked it 0-60 mph in 8 seconds with a top speed of nearing 120 mph — coupled with its great looks, made it the choice of many automotive connoisseurs.
Chapman, though, was never one to rest on his laurels. Always in search of the car with perfect handling, he felt that a mid-engine design might be the best approach. What the market really needed, he believed, was a low-priced mid-engine sports car. He resolved to develop such a car.
Enter the Lotus Europa
It debuted in late 1966 as a 1967 model. Dubbed the Lotus Europa, it was a small and very low two-passenger coupe with a four-cylinder 1470cc engine taken from the Renault 16. With an alloy block and head, it was a low-weight and inexpensive engine and produced a healthy 78 hp with its two-barrel carburetor. While that may not sound like much today, things were different back then and besides, the car only weighed a mere 1350 lbs. so performance was extraordinary for such a small engine. Acceleration was 0-60 mph in under 10 seconds and a top speed north of 100 mph — all this from 89.7 cubic inches!
The transaxle was a four-speed unit also taken from the Renault 16, but turned around and placed in the middle of the Europa’s chassis. Steering was rack and pinion, while brakes were front disc and rear drum.
In any event, the Europa wasn’t about raw speed; handling was its claim to fame and in this regard it was outstanding. With a light, stiff chassis and mid-engine placement, the Europa was a handling man’s dream come true. With a rectangular steel backbone chassis and a short 92-inch wheelbase, it was small and agile. The body was fiberglass for low weight and was bonded to the chassis for extra strength. Overall length was a trim 157 inc.; height was a mere 42.5 inches.
Styling was a mix; indeed it almost seemed like two entirely different vehicles had somehow been joined together. The low-set front end was very attractive, but the rear quarter panels were high and slab-sided with a top edge that rose well above the “trunk” line, making them look almost like vertical fins. In profile — to my young eyes, anyway — it looked a bit truck-like and a trifle clumsy. But the mid-engine placement made it difficult to come up with an attractive shape within a short body length. Over the years, my tastes have matured and I’ve come to like the Europa’s looks, though I still feel they could have been rendered a bit more elegantly.
Interior room was tight, and trim was more functional than luxurious; Chapman was building a performance car and couldn’t tolerate a lot of extraneous fluff.
All of this was initially priced at just $3795, which was a good $700 more than an MGB-GT that year. However, the MGB was a conventional front-engine/rear-drive car and couldn’t hope to keep up with a Europa on a twisty road. The Europa’s price tag was also some $810 less than the Lotus Elan coupe, so it could serve as an entry-level car for Lotus enthusiasts. With its low production and mid-engine design, the Europa really was like a supercar for ordinary people. Fiat would later try the same approach with its X1/9.
By 1969, the Europa Series 2 had debuted with notable changes. The fiberglass body was now bolted to the chassis rather than bonded, greatly reducing repair costs. Luggage space was expanded, and a new 87-hp 1565cc Renault four-cylinder engine was introduced. The Europa’s price increased to $4295, still a relative bargain, but making it a bit more difficult for younger buyers to afford.
The final Europa series introduced was the Series 3 produced from 1971-1972. These are also called the Europa Twin Cam models, because they were equipped with the Lotus Elan’s 95-cubic-inch (1558cc) 105-hp twin-cam four built by Lotus. The new Twin Cam could acceleration to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds, and some testers reported even faster times. The carry-over Series 2 cars remained in production in order to offer a lower-priced alternative to the costlier Twin Cam, as well as the other new model that was introduced, the 126-hp Europa Twin Cam Special. The Twin Cam Specials could top 125 mph and acceleration from 0-60 mph could be accomplished in under seven seconds. Naturally, these are the most coveted Europas by far.
In all, more than 9000 Europas were produced and at any time, there are usually a good number offered for sale. This is essentially a hand-built British car, so you want to try to buy the best car you can afford. Prices right now seem to start around $25,000 and head north from there. Take your time and choose wisely. And be prepared to enjoy a really fun car.
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