Sleeping Beauty Nº13: Lotus Europa

When Colin Chapman moved his Lotus company from cramped premises just north of London to a big new factory in the wide-open spaces of deepest East Anglia, the remarkable Europa was one of his most important big new projects.

Announced at the end of 1966, the Europa was the world’s first mass-produced mid-engined car. It was designed and put into production in six months flat. The Lotus backbone chassis theme was retained but adapted to accept the Renault four-cylinder T16 engine and gearbox.

The aerodynamics were way ahead of mainstream auto industry thinking, the flow of air through the radiator, heating and ventilation systems an integral part of the wind-cheating shape. So pure was the thinking that even the windows could not be opened in early models. The Cd was just 0.29, an unbelievably good figure in those days. The first Europas had only 78bhp to push them along but the low drag and light weight made them reasonably quick.

For the whole of the first year, the 36 French Lotus dealers were given exclusive rights to sell Europas, all of which were then left-hand drive. British buyers had to wait until early summer in 1969 for a right-hand drive Europa. That model was in Series 2 form with most of the early bugs sorted out. The Renault engine was giving 82bhp by then. Enthusiasts were in awe of the handling and roadholding but thought the car cramped, spartan and underpowered.

All that was put right during 1971 when the Europa was given a complete redesign under Mike Kimberley, who had just been recruited from Jaguar. This was no facelift. Everything was changed: apart from getting the Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engine, the chassis was more rigid, the suspension geometry changed, reliability was radically improved and it was restyled inside and out. Kimberley, a tall man, also ensured that at last the Europa cockpit could accommodate taller drivers.

The sleeping beauty is the last of the line, the Europa Special of late 1972 which had a five-speed gearbox and the 126bhp Big Valve version of the Twin Cam engine. Most collectable of all would be one of the John Player Special commemorative models, painted black and finished with very smart gold coach lines. Still a real lightweight car at just 740kg, the engine was a delight and the Europa Special felt like the nearest thing yet to a road-legal race car.

Fancy some mid-engined, East Anglian action? Have a look in the Classic Driver car database to see what's available.

Text: Classic Driver
Photo: Lotus

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