Lotus’s mid-engine racing cars achieved worldwide fame before Colin Chapman got around to a midships road car. Not that he hadn’t wanted to offer a car like the Lotus Europa, but until the mid-60s, he couldn’t find a suitable proprietary powertrain available in quantity. Besides, his facilities were already full building Elans. Then Renault introduced its first front-drive car, the 16 sedan, in 1965, and Chapman was intrigued -- enough to acquire a more spacious factory at the wartime U.S. Air Force bomber field at Hethel, near Norwich.
Chapman duly arranged to buy modified 16 drivetrains from Renault for a new mid-engine model to be designed and built by Lotus. As part of the deal, sales would be limited to the Continent for the first couple of years, reflecting Chapman’s desire to establish a presence in the recently formed European Common Market, another reason for the Renault mechanicals. Chapman diplomatically suggested the name “Europe,” which was soon changed to Europa, and the first roadgoing mid-engine Lotus was born.
What Chapman bought was the 16’s front-drive transaxle and a tuned, 78-horsepower version of its 1470-cc overhead-valve all-alloy four. Because the powertrain would sit “north-south” behind the cockpit and ahead of the back wheels in the rear-drive Europa, the final drive was modified and the engine turned back-to-front, with the inline gearbox trailing behind. Like other roadgoing Lotuses, a fiberglass body sat atop a steel backbone frame with all-independent coil-spring suspension.
Styling was neat if slightly strange. The low nose with exposed headlamps was no problem (rather like the Elite’s, in fact) but the rear quarters were funny, with broad, high sail panels aft of the doors that earned the Europa its “breadvan” nickname. A flat detachable engine cover lived between the sails, just below a slit-like rear window. Bodies and chassis were initially bonded together, which helped structural stiffness but complicated accident repairs.
Retrospectively called “Series 1,” the first Europas were delivered in early 1967 after a late-’66 launch, and were sold factory-built or in kit form like other roadgoing Lotuses. Lightweight construction again paid off in surprising performance with great fuel economy, while the midships layout meant little body roll, high grip, and the kind of handling the world had come to expect of Lotus -- all this plus the usual fine ride and a very attractive price.
But all was not bliss. Performance disappointed many, as did the cramped interior, fixed door windows, odd styling, and typically patchy Lotus workmanship. The Series 2 Europa, announced in 1968, answered some of these problems. Bodywork was bolted on rather than bonded to ease accident repairs, windows now moved electrically to reduce claustrophobia, the engine cover was newly hinged, and a bit more space was found for luggage (behind the engine) and around the pedals. For the U.S. market, the larger 1565-cc 16TS engine countered power-sapping emissions controls.
British Europa sales commenced in mid-1969, and Chapman hired a new project engineer named Mike Kimberley (Lotus’s chief executive at this writing) away from Jaguar. One of his first jobs was to develop an even less quirky, more powerful Europa.
The result appeared in October 1971 as the Series 3 Twin-Cam, with the 105-bhp Lotus-Ford dohc four as used in the front-engine Elan Sprint and Elan + 2S 130 -- and originally ruled out for the Europa! The Renault transaxle was retained. Styling was altered via cut-down rear quarters for improved driver vision, plus new cast-alloy road wheels. In this form, the Europa was good for up to 120 mph flat out (versus the previous 110).
Late 1972 brought the even better Europa Special, with the 126-bhp “Big-Valve” engine and a new 5-speed Renault transaxle, the latter optional at first but made standard in 1974. Top speed improved to 125 mph plus, and there were corresponding gains in standing-start acceleration.
But Lotus was working on a more grown-up middie, the chiseled Giugiaro-designed Esprit, revealed in 1975. Thus, the Europa passed into history much loved, if not overly mourned in light of its stunning successor.
At least U.S. enthusiasts got the best of the breed. Though imports were sporadic through late 1969, the Europa was officially certified for American sale after that, which means most examples on today’s market will be the desirable S3 and Special models.