It’s a curious car, the Lotus Europa. When we’re asked to think of mid-engined pioneers, the usual Italian suspects are at the top of the list. It’s the same with significant cars from Lotus – Elan, Esprit and Elise will be up there. But who – honestly – would think of the original Europa?
And yet Colin Chapman’s vision of a mid-engined sports car for the masses is one of the most interesting cars ever to have emerged from Hethel. The engineering that made the Europa feasible was fiendishly clever – in effect, the Elan’s backbone chassis was turned round, and the front-wheel-drive power-pack from the Renault 16 was installed behind the driver’s head.
It was packaged in a sleek glassfibre body that stood at a mere 1067mm (42in) tall, and slipped through the air with the minimum of fuss to make the most of the original car’s modest 78bhp. Sadly, it wasn’t as cheap as Chapman would have liked, and that led to unfavourable performance comparisons with its similarly priced counterpart, the Elan Sprint.
But straight-line speed was never the Europa’s raison d’être; instead, it was all about F1-style handling. A well-driven Europa will reward the driver with effortless acceleration and roll-free cornering. Undoubtedly the later 105bhp Twin Cam is the car to have, but that’s not to downplay the honest charms of the Renault-powered cars. In short, they’re all gems. Just make sure you buy a good example.
Which one to buy?
Series 1 cars have all but disappeared, with many Renault-powered cars having had their engines replaced by twin-cams for many years. Realistically, S2s represent the entry point, and for usable cars. The more sought-after Twin Cam is a step higher in terms of budget, but is a much better car.
The Europa that still continues to attract the most interest – and therefore commands a healthy premium – is the Special, especially when in black and gold JPS-style paint livery. Be careful to make sure any JPS you’re looking at is original though. The only way to be sure is to cross-reference the chassis number either with the factory or Club Lotus.
Performance and specs
1972 Lotus Europa twin-cam special
Engine 1558cc four-cylinder, DOHC, twin Dellorto carburettors
Gearbox Four-speed manual
Power 126bhp @ 6000rpm
Torque 113lb ft @ 5500rpm
Fuel consumption 28.2mpg
Top speed 127mph
Dimensions and weight
• The number one priority for any Europa buyer is to buy a car with a sound chassis. The reason for that is simple: corrosion. An outwardly nice-looking glassfibre body can disguise all manner of rust in the backbone chassis, and the best option for peace of mind in the future is a new chassis.
• There are three desirable types to look for – Spyder Engineering, Banks Europa or a genuine Lotus one. For investment value, the Lotus item is the best one to have. It’s interesting to note that Spyder now sells a chassis to suit a modern Ford Zetec engine conversion, too.
• Places to check for corrosion are the fuel tanks, seatbelt mountings, front and rear chassis mounts, and the rear trailing links. And anywhere where the body is in contact with the chassis.
• Don’t under-estimate the importance of good paint, and doors that haven’t dropped. There is no way of properly repairing a glassfibre body without significant expenditure (often more than for a steel body), so watch out for stress cracks and crazing in the gel coat. Dropped doors are repairable thanks to the availability of new hinge pins from Banks, but it’s a difficult job to sort out.
• Suspension requires regular maintenance – oil at the front – but is not expensive to put right if there are issues. If there’s play, and the suspension has been rebuilt, it could be that it’s not been put together properly. All assemblies must be Loctite’d in place.
• Ride height, damper quality and steering alignment are absolutely essential for the best ride and handling. A rose-joint conversion is a positive bonus.
• The Lotus-Ford twin-cam is a well-known quantity and all parts are readily available, with extensive specialist support. Do listen for noisy cam chains and tired bottom ends, and watch for oil leaks.
• Parts are not so readily available for the Renault engine, but it’s a tough old unit, and most 1470s will have been replaced by 1565cc units. Cooling is critical, so check for signs of overheating and the condition of the radiator.
• Gearboxes can be weak and need regular care and attention. Be warned though, it will never feel like a modern ’box, even with everything aligned. Linkages take a tortuous route through the car, and sometimes adjustment can drastically improve change quality.
• Earlier S1s and S2s benefit from the fitment of the Twin Cam’s driveshaft set-up – again a bonus if it’s been done.
• Interiors are prone to damage from leaking windscreens, so look closely at the wood veneer dash and under the seats.
• Electrics can be fragile too, but that’s mainly down to poor earthing.
1966: Lotus Europa is launched, initially for sale in European markets only. Powered by the well-proven Renault 1470cc engine and clothed in a GRP body bonded to a steel chassis. The following year sees the arrival of the S1A and B, with removable windows and a wooden dashboard.
1968: S2 goes on sale, with the same 1470cc engine but also electric windows, new interior and dashboard, and a bolt-on body (which makes restoration easier). In UK from 1969.
1971: Europa Twin Cam hits the market, with the 105bhp, 1558cc Lotus-Ford engine. Re-designed body with better rearward visibility and new Renault gearbox introduced. Twin fuel tanks and brake servos are now part of the spec.
1972: Europa Special introduced. Big Valve cylinder head increases power to 126bhp, with a five-speed version of the new Renault gearbox fitted. A total of 3200 Specials are built.
1975: Production ceases after a total of 9230 Europas of all types have been made.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
Summary and prices
Being something of a forgotten hero in the Lotus back catalogue, the Europa’s values lag behind those of the Elan. Club Lotus chairman Alan Morgan cites a factor in pricing: the cost of restoration. ‘In the UK, the bottom line for an engine, chassis, interior and body restoration on a Europa is £10-15k, so it’s understandable why there are still a good number of projects around – and why the good cars out there still command such a premium.’
Series 2 cars are the most affordable Europas. As little as £3000 could get you a project, but as we’ve said above, unless the chassis is sound it’s going to be a very expensive rebuild. Better cars range from £6000-£12,000 although for something in top condition, be prepared to pay north of £15,000. A good Series 1 is potentially worth a fair premium due to its rarity, however if you intend on actually enjoying the car, there’s little reason to go for the earlier machine.
Obviously the early cars are the rarest, and you will have more luck finding a twin-cam. Projects can still be picked up from around £4500, but usable cars can go from £13,000-£20,000. Obviously the best examples, especially in Special JPS trim, sell for around £32,000.
The Europa rewards keen drivers with excellent handling and uncorrupted steering. Once fully sorted, it shouldn’t be any less reliable than any of its mid-engined opposition. The main advice is to buy the very best you can afford, keep on top of its maintenance… and enjoy.