The Lotus Europa is a marmite classic thanks to unusual styling and the shadow of its illustrious stablemates. But while it never sold in huge numbers, the Europa was one of Colin Chapman’s most ambitious designs - and is now a steal on the classic car market.
The Europa was originally conceived as a replacement for the hugely successful Lotus Seven. Chapman knew the utility of the mid-engined layout thanks to his mastery of the Grand Prix racing formula, and while Lamborghini had recently brought out the Miura, there was nothing similar available to Joe Bloggs. The Europa would combine the race-ready pedigree of the Seven with the usability of the Elan to create the everyman’s GT40. The bodywork would be made from fibreglass and the engine and transmission borrowed from the Renault 16. Sadly production costs escalated, sending the price tag into the stratosphere and alienating customers before they’d so much as thought about squeezing themselves behind the wheel. By the time production ended in 1975 the Europa was more expensive than the Elan it was supposed to undercut. Its reputation never recovered. The Europa Series 1 had a 78hp Renault engine and very little in the way of optional extras. The Europa might have looked like a GT but, much like the Ferraris and Jaguars of the 1950s, this was a road car designed for racing. In the launch spec this showed. The windows, for example, were fixed. Owners relied on a pressurised ventilation system instead - which, being Lotus, never worked. The body, meanwhile, was bonded to the chassis. Great for racing, bad for repairs. If you’re reading this in Britain you might be wondering why you’ve never seen a Series 1, but there’s a good reason for this. They were never sold here and were instead exported to the Continent. All this was fixed for the 1969 Series 2 model, which was sold in Blighty and came with electric windows and a body that was separated from the chassis. Nevertheless, the Europa packed a smaller punch than its low-slung body suggested. Lotus solved this by fitting it with its own 105bhp Twin-Cam engine in 1971, followed by a 126bhp Special a year later. These are easily spotted thanks to their ‘cut down’ rear buttresses.
Thankfully the body won’t rust because it’s made from fibreglass, but this throws up its own issues. The paint tends to micro-blister and craze with age, amounting in an expensive respray job. Shedding paint off a plastic body is a nightmare, so give the body a close inspection. The good news is if there are cracks or scratches the car won’t necessarily need a new body shell. You can replace the broken section relatively easily, but it might not be cheap. Don’t forget to inspect the chassis for signs of fatigue or corrosion. Most cars have opted for new galvanised versions, but if it has the original Y-shaped folded metal then you could face some corrosion-related headaches. Some owners replaced the chassis with a Spyder-produced space frame, although this does compromise the car’s originality somewhat.
Both the Renault and Lotus-Ford Twin Cam engines are tough and long-lived if they are looked after well. That being said, the Twin Cam does need rebuilding at the 50,000 mark, although some cars have been known to last as long as 80,000 before a rebuild. If you’re looking at a Twin Cam car, ask the owner if the water pump has been changed. You have to take the engine out to change it so it will save you a chunk of change if this has already been done. Overheating can also be an issue. Some owners think this is due to trapped air in the system caused by the radiator, which sits lower than the engine (in the driver’s side wheel arch), so you have to jack up the car when changing the coolant.
The transmission is pretty tough on the Europa because it is a homologated Renault unit. However the gear linkage can often work itself loose due to the sheer length between the cabin and the gearbox at the back of the engine. This results in a sloppy gear change action. The problem can be fixed for a price, but obviously it depends on budget.
The rear suspension is a problem spot to be aware of. The driveshaft going to the rear-wheels is connected to the gearbox, and many owners have found the shims (a thin packing strip) between the inboard drive yokes and the gearbox to either be poorly fitted or non-existent. This leads to issues with the differential bearings and the transmission oil seals, so jack the car up if you can and check for leaks and play in the rear wheels.
Do the usual checks to see if the lights are working properly and that the car turns over easily and quickly. Electric windows were fitted to post-S1 cars so make sure they’re still working.
There isn’t much that separates you from the engine once you’re in the cabin. Literally. A flimsy bit of fibreboard is the only partition, and if water creeps into the insulation behind the seat then it could be destructive. There isn’t much to look out for in the cabin because so little was fitted to it in period. Nevertheless ensure the seats are in good condition and make note of any missing trim.
First things first. Before you so much as think about a test drive you need to get in the thing. This isn’t something to be attempted in a skirt or with any dignity. It is low. Really low. If you do manage to contort yourself under the fibreglass limbo pole and behind the wheel then you’re in for a treat. The handling is arguably even better than an Elan thanks to the low centre of gravity, and the Europa’s lightness means it doesn’t hang around. This is still a quick car. Listen out for any knocks from the suspension or unusual whines from the engine and transmission, but there isn’t anything particular to be worried about - until it’s time to get out.
Europa values are temptingly low, especially when you consider its brilliant handling and historical significance as the first (relatively) attainable mid-engined sports car. It still feels ahead of its time and market values reflect this. The later Twin Cam cars are the most desirable, with examples going for anything from £25,000 to 35,000 for cars in mint condition. The earlier Renault-powered models start at around £5,000 for a project car and rise to £15,000-£20,000 for a showroom restoration.
The Europa itself is relatively cheap to run. Instead, the running costs start mounting up when you choose to update the car. For example, Lotus specialists can sell you new chassis frames for around £1200 and a new body for £1600. There are also numerous engine options that can change the car’s character somewhat. While V8 conversions have been done, the most popular engine changes are for Ford and Vauxhall 16-valve units.
The Europa certainly divides opinion. Some hanker after its quirky lines and visionary design while others thing it’s best left forgotten in the Lotus back catalogue. Regardless, this is one of the best handling cars that Chapman ever produced and with values on the floor there has never been a better time to buy a pivotal piece of British automotive history.
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