1964 was the year Colin Chapman set about creating the birth of one of the lowest slung coupes ever made - the Lotus Europa. With Lotus 7 production waning, Colin Chapman was looking for a car to replace the now legendary 7. To replace the it a similarly simple car was needed that could be serviced at non-specialist garages and to be relatively cheap to buy.
Chapman's desire was for a race inspired, lightweight, slippery coupe with a four cylinder engine. The racing theme provoked the mid-engined layout, a rare arrangement in cars of the era and extended to the cabin which benefited from a fixed seat and fixed windows. Steering and pedals adjusted for size.
The styling was the work of Ron Hickman, the director of Lotus Engineering. He'd sketched out a design a year earlier when Lotus were bidding for the Ford GT40 contract. With it's squat height, the aerodynamics would surely benefit, but even so the drag coefficient of 0.29 was incredible for its day.
The car was constructed using a backbone chassis (See here for good pictures) with the plastic body bonded on. Even the underside benefited from a plastic mould resulting in a particularly smooth belly.
Despite Chapman's desire to build the Europa, the project had been delayed whilst a suitable power plant was found. The Lotus Twin Cam unit was considered too expensive to engineer into the transverse, mid-engined position initially. It was at the Paris Motor Show that Chapman found his inspiration. Renault had just launched the front wheel drive Renault 16, using a 4 cylinder, 1470cc engine. Chapman realised that by swinging the engine through 90º and reversing the final drive he had the solution he needed. Using connections at Renault, Lotus secured a supply of 82bhp (standard was 52bhp) versions of the engine and the project went ahead.
The car was launched in Europe initiallly in December 1966. Lotus were keen not to jeopardise sales of the Elan in the UK and USA so continental Europe provided the first market. Five hundred cars went to France initially. With the cars selling well, the lucrative US market was then considered. One of the problems with selling the car in the US was the styling of the car meant that the headlamps were too low. The innovative solution to this was to invert the front wishbones when constructing the car. The car then met US regulations and owners could revert the installation at their leisure. Ultimately Federal Authorities caught onto this ruse and the styling of the front wings was eventually raised to accommodate the higher headlamps required.
The first version of the car - the S1 - is known as the better drivers car due to its solid construction. The second generation Europa - the S2 - was compromised in some respects although gained in other areas such as comfort. To appease insurance companies concerned about the cost of repair, Lotus switched to bolting the body to the chassis rather than bonding it. The smooth underside was lost too as that evolved into a multi-piece assembly. The interior gained moveable, reclining seats and electric windows. The dash assembly was also modified. The result was a car that was quieter, more luxurious and more upmarket car but it had lost some of the stiffness so enjoyed in the S1.
Power was adequate in the Europa but not stunning. The great handling and slippery shape contributed to its point to point ability but more power was desired. Although Renault succeeded in squeezing over 120bhp from the R16 engine, they weren't keen on supplying it to Lotus who would then compete more favourably with Renault Alpines. US spec cars used a 1565cc unit but stricter emissions controls actually reduced power on that to 80bhp.
Lotus engineer Mike Kimberly was however working on an engineering solution that would allow the Twin Cam engine to be used resulting in the Europa TC which appeared in 1972. This 1558cc unit was good for 105bhp with 126bhp squeezed out for the Europa Specials with a big valve version. Production ceased in 1974 after almost 9,000 cars had been made.
The cars enjoyed a healthy racing career too with John Miles driving to victory in his debut race at the 1966 Brands Hatch Boxing Day meeting. He was in a type 47, which was a modified and lightened Europa chassis and bodyshell, powered by a fuel injected Cosworth 1594cc Twin Cam engine driving through a Hewland FT 200 5 speed gearbox. More success was achieved internationally in 1967 and 1968 but by 1969 they were no longer competitive.
The ultimate Europa is a one off modified type 47 fitted with a V8 and 5 speed ZF 'box. This car is now in a private collection.