The Europa lays claim to being the worlds first everyday
useable mid-engined car. Starting life in 1966
, it used
a Renault 16
1470cc motor, modified from its original
front wheel drive configuration to suit the Europa's rear
wheel drive setup.
Lotus announced "only slightly more than a year after the start of the production run, the 500th Europa has left the assembly line of the Norwich factory." That was little comfort to sports car fans in England, however, who not only were unable to purchase, but were even denied the opportunity to see the Europa, the entire production having been scheduled for export to the Continent.
With the conception of the Europa, Colin Chapman decided to go all out in providing foreign fans of the Lotus marque with a two-seater GT car offering high performance at a relatively low initial cost. At the same time he managed to combine handling and road-holding to competition standards with a most un-sports-car-like docility under everyday traffic conditions.
The superb handling virtues of the Europa were achieved by placing the engine in a mid-chassis position, and by applying competition practice to the design of the car's suspension. The performance factor was attended to mainly by keeping the weight of the car as low as possible, and by enveloping its internals with a body shape of extremely good aerodynamic properties.
This provided a standard of performance which was surprisingly high in view of the fact that it was propelled by what could honestly be described only as a very slightly tuned, almost "cooking" engine.
As is well known, the complete engine-cum-transmission unit of the Europa was supplied by the Regie Renault of France. Compared with the basic tune used to power the front-wheel-drive Renault 16 saloon, the light-alloy pushhrod, four-cylinder unit of 1,470 c.c. capacity, in its Lotus application, had undergone no more drastic alterations than changes in valve sizes and valve lift, camshaft timing, and an increase in compression ratio from 8.6 to 10.25-to-1.
With a twin-choke, progressively opening carrburettor instead of the conventional single-choke instrument, maximum power output had risen from 55 bhp (net) at 5,000 rpm to 78 bhp (net) at 6,000 rpm, while maximum torque suffered only slightly, having been lowered from 78 Ib.ft. at 2,800 rpm to 76 Ib.ft. at a much more sporty 4,000 rpm.
The internal ratios in the four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox remained unchanged from those of the original Renault 16. Because of the position of the transmission in the car however, a new final drive set had to be made up in order to reverse the direction of rotation, and the opportunity was taken to provide a higher final drive ratio of 3.56 to 1. On its 155-13in. radial-ply tires, the Europa was geared for a top gear speed of 17.6 mph per 1,000 rpm.
As might be expected, the 78 bhp power output of the engine gave the low-drag, 1350 lb car a maximum speed of 120 mph, together with the ability to accelerate from a standstill with an eagerness comparable with that of, to name only one of its better-known Continental competitors in the same engine-size class, the much more expensive Alfa Romeo Giulia GTA.
In most European countries at the time, Common Market or EFTA membership disregarded, motorists could choose at the price point of the Lotus Europa, between several well-appointed sporting saloons of well-known makes offering very similar performance. It was quite true that the decision to buy the strictly two-seater Europa instead calls for certain sacrifices in terms of comfort, and of what was commonly described as "touring" qualities of a car. These included a narrow cockpit with no more room than was essential for a driver and their passenger, while the only luggage-carrying volume was two small and hard-to-get-at compartments in the nose of the car and behind the engine.
On top of that, the ultra-low seating position required a youthful litheness any time you wanted to get into or out of the car, which meant that many motorists put the Europa into the "toy" cateegory. This, however, must on no account be misunderstood as a derogatory assessment of the Lotus, for without doubt there was no other car on the market that compared to it in terms of those rather specialized qualiities the Europa has been designed for.
A driver not used to handling competition cars would need time to acclimatize to the Europa. The low, semi-reclining seating position offered a splendid view out to the front and to the sides, with only slight blind spots on the rear quarters, together with a surprising amount of visibility dead astern - the interior mirror being only inches away from the letterbox size, rear window. The high-geared steering let the car dart to and fro on even the smallest involuntary movement of the tiny steering wheel. The various noises generated within the resonance-prone glassfibre body gave the impression that the engine was mounted, not a few inches behind the backs of the seats, but right inside the cockpit instead!
The low polar moment of inertia of the mid-engine configuration however, and the very sophisticated - from a design point of view - layout of the all-independent suspension resulted in handling qualities of a level unknown to drivers of mere everyday cars. In situations where, in a conventional car even of very high roadholding capabilities, a driver would be "right on the ragged edge", the Europa would still stick to the road as if it was running on the proverbial rails. In fact, even on deserted European roads there was scarcely ever an opporrtunity even to approach the limits of adhesion. It was only on a closed track that competent drivers were able to investigate the behaviour of the car on the limit.
On its correct tire pressures - 18 p.s.i. front and 28 p.s.i. rear, plus an extra 2 p.s.i. in the rear for hard driving - the Europa would show a very light understeer which became slightly more pronounced with increased application of power to the rear wheels. At the limit it could be either the front or the rear wheels that would start to lose adhesion first, according to the radius of the particular bend one tried to round at the maximum possible speed, and dependent upon the amount of extra power the engine could provide at that moment.
Body lean was practically nil, and whereas a good driver may be accusstomed to inducing consciously a drifting movement when going round a bend fast in a conventional car, the Lotus in contrast would set up controllable drifts almost on its own, without any help from its pilot. Even after having been taken right over the limit and brought into a deliberate spin, a manoeuvre asking for considerable deetermination, the Lotus would still remain suffiiciently under the control of the driver for them to choose, provided there was enough space availlable, when to straighten up again and in what direction to be facing.
Back on the open road after having got to know the car so intimately under track conditions, the driver of the Europa would be able to travel extremely fast, and sometimes amaze other road users by going faster than they would ever dare to do, and to do all this in utmost safety, with the certain knowledge that the Lotus would still have considerable in reserve should any unexpected situation sudddenly arise.
The fact that the Europa's high performance was achieved with relatively little engine power became apparent only on mountain roads, when the effect of the gradient adds itself to the mere tractive resistance of the car. Under these circumstances, too, one would prefer to have closer spacing of the ratios in the gearbox. On the other hand, particularly at more restrictted speeds, both the gearing and the tractability of the engine enabled you to drive the Europa just as smoothly and quietly as any normal touring saloon.
A side effect of the combination of low drag and low weight was the very good petrol econoomy. The gearchange, albeit a little notchy, was quick and sure. The brakes were well up to the performance of the car, and they did not fade even after prolonged hard use. As to the more detailed appointments, the position of the pedals and the steering wheel could be altered to suit drivers of different size only by some rather complicated work with spanners, the seats themselves being rigidly fixed.
Heating and through-flow ventilation of the cockpit were very efficient, the car having originally been designed with fixed window panels. A later modification, brought in after numerous customers' requests, consisted of window panels that could be lifted out bodily, after release of a couple of spring clips, and stored in the hollowed-out doors. This opening and clossing of the windows was an extremely clumsy process. In their mounted position, the windows tended to slowly move out of their profiled rubber sealing strips. Electrically actuated winding windows were a feature of the new model Europa SE introduced in 1969.
But Lotus remained unhappy with the modified designs performance and rather cramped interior. In 1971 the much improved 'Twin Cam' engine was used, developing 105bhp and that was followed in 1972 by the 'Special', the Europa being fitted with a 'big valve' version of the engine able to produce 126bhp and the option of a 5 speed gearbox.
The internal design changes were also reflected in the body work, with the 1971 and onwards vehicles having a cut down back and alloy wheels. During its reign the Lotus Europa proved to be highly attractive among the younger generation of drivers in several European countries. Today the Europa is regarded as a true compliment to its designers and builders alike, and remains a highly sought classic.