Collectible Classic: 1971-75 Lotus Europa Twin Cam

A. J. Mueller

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.

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The only way to avoid disaster is to not get to the handling limit -- or the instant the rear starts its movement, countersteer slightly and bury your throttle foot and pray. One way to minimize the rear jacking' would be to add droop limiters, which might raise the upper cornering speed. We will share Mr. Yagami's letter with Coterie Press (the publisher of The Lotus Book S3, which was a crucial reference in writing this story), the folks at Lotus Cars USA, and Pete Bartusek, the owner of the lovely 1973 Europa Twin Cam that we drove.Sincerely,Rusty Blackwell(author)
After this story was published in our September 2010 issue, we received a letter from reader Richard Yagami of Connecticut, owner of multiple Lotus Europas, who took issue with a few parts of the article. He asked that we "end some of the myths that have been perpetuated by the media about some Lotus models.The following are Mr. Yagami's specific critical comments:--The first is the myth that the first 500 Europas were sold only on the Continent. The enclosed bill of sale shows that my first Europa was number 194 [purchased in Connecticut in October 1967 for $3945], and yes, it has fixed windows and fixed seats. In addition, the pedal assembly can be moved fore and aft. Composite bodies can be repaired very simply by cutting out a damaged section and bonding in a new section. It's a lot simpler than repairing a steel unibody car.(continued)
--When I sit in my Lotus 47 (the racing version of the Europa), I have about five inches above my head, so headroom depends on whether one is long-waisted or short-waisted, not on overall height. [I, the author of the story, am a slender five-foot-six, so the lesson here is that potential buyers should try any Lotus to make sure it fits him or her, since the cars can be tight in certain dimensions--Ed.]--The other myth concerns the handling of Europas. The rear suspension, though it is independent, is so close to a swing-axle configuration that caution should be exercised. The cornering limit is pretty high, but if the limit is reached, the outside rear wheel can tuck under and the whole car can jack up with catastrophic results. Many street Europas have been lost because ordinary drivers have lifted their throttle foot when the rear started coming around. [A very bad idea in any car--Ed.] (continued)

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