It may be difficult to imagine in this day of NASCAR's Car of Tomorrow, the NHRA's tube-frame hot rods, and Formula 1's thick rule book, but racing activities once closely steered the products of many auto manufacturers. The first mid-engine racing car was the 1923 Benz Tropfenwagen, but it took decades for the layout to really catch on. By the mid-1960s, though, mid-engine cars dominated Formula 1 and Indianapolis-style racing. Not surprising to observers at the time, Lotus was one of the very first automakers to translate the concept from racetrack to production.
Colin Chapman's small British concern began building its Europa in 1966. Despite its mid-engine layout, the car shared many parts with the company's front-engine Elan, which debuted in 1962. As such, the Europa was built atop a rectangular steel backbone chassis with a four-wheel independent suspension and was clothed in a fiberglass body.
Unlike the fairly conventional-looking Elan, though, the Europa was like nothing seen before. About seven inches lower than a Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray yet sporting broad vertical sail panels behind the passenger compartment, the Europa resembled a panel truck that had been stepped on after it rear-ended a platypus. The strange body was very aerodynamic -- with a drag coefficient of 0.29 -- and directed air to the mid-mounted engine through the rear wheel wells. The powertrain, a 1470-cc four-cylinder and its transaxle, came from the petite Renault R16 but was tweaked for more power and rotated 180 degrees to drive the rear wheels.
To leverage the Renault connection, the first 500 Europas were delivered to French dealers; first-series Europas were sold only on the Continent (hence the car's name). Teething issues such as fixed door glass and nonadjustable seats-not to mention chassis and body panels that were bonded together, thus making crash damage nearly irreparable and future restoration work arduous-made the car hard to live with, but fortunately those peculiarities had been rectified by the time the second-series Europa reached the United States in 1969. American versions had a larger 1565-cc engine (pulled straight from the U.S.-market R16, with no tuning changes so it would easily pass federal emissions standards). The four-banger's 87 hp might not sound like much, but in the 1350-pound Europa, it was hardly peanuts. Indeed, period American road tests reported that the Europa clocked nearly identical 0-to-60-mph (a hair less than 10 seconds) and quarter-mile (about 17 seconds) times as the 110-hp, 1600-pound Elan.