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.
As with any Lotus, however, straight-line speed is an afterthought when you’re tearing around a corner with a giant grin on your face, as we did in Pete Bartusek’s 1973 Europa Twin Cam Special pictured here. The Twin Cam replaced the series-two Europa in 1971 and lived on until 1975, when it was replaced by the mid-engine Esprit. Although the Renault-powered Europa offered decent performance, Lotus had a Ford-derived 1558-cc dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder in its Elan Sprint that was ripe for a transplant. The task of inserting the twin-cam engine into the Europa was led by engineer Mike Kimberley, who had just joined Lotus following sixteen years with Jaguar and went on to become Lotus CEO after Chapman’s death in 1982.
The twin-cam engine gave the Europa an additional 18 hp and 37 lb-ft of torque, significantly improving acceleration and top speed despite an increase in curb weight. Besides the new engine, the Twin Cam also featured cut-down sail panels (to improve rearward visibility), aluminum “spider” wheels, better seats,
5.5 extra gallons of fuel capacity (up from a meager seven-gallon tank), and a wider footwell with repositioned pedals.
From behind the wheel of the Twin Cam Special — a two-tone edition with a higher-compression, higher-revving engine rated at 126 hp — it’s hard to comprehend how compromised the driving position would have been in earlier Europas, since my legs are pointed toward the center of the car and my size nines are jammed together in the footwell like the boots of a soldier standing at attention. (Bartusek keeps compact, narrow shoes in the Lotus at all times.) Fortunately, legroom is abundant and the cabin unexpectedly wide, although even someone as short as Tom Cruise might have trouble wearing a helmet in a Europa.
That’s a shame, because this would be a glorious vehicle to ply around a tight racetrack. The car’s wonderful balance and light but incredibly crisp steering easily overshadow the somewhat underwhelming thrust of the engine, which is quick to rev and sounds meaningfully throaty. A close-ratio four-speed gearbox with short throws, a tight feel, and a lovely wooden shift knob helps make the engine feel extra responsive. Wood trim on the dash reminds you of the car’s Britishness without going overboard. Porsche 911-like fenders create a pleasant driving perspective as you scan the road ahead, and over-the-shoulder glances reveal more of your surroundings than you’d expect through that tiny back window. The car rides firmly but is surprisingly comfortable — once you’ve managed to carefully thread your body into a seat, of course. In many ways, Bartusek’s Europa doesn’t feel like an old car, but that’s likely as much due to its excellent restoration as to Lotus’s original design.
Bartusek picked up the car — as it could only be loosely referred to at the time — when he was a high-schooler in 1990. His purchase included a powertrain, a fiberglass body (in a field), a chassis, and thirty-some boxes of parts. He and his dad, Joe, a meticulous retired Chrysler tire engineer, had run out of steam on a ’57 Alfa Romeo Giulietta project. Pete had never driven a Europa before, but he fell in love with its styling. “When I first saw one,” he says, “I just thought it looked so unique.”
His first job was at what is now metro Detroit’s only Lotus dealer, Auto Europe, where he sifted through their attic sorting random parts from several Lotus models. Many of the Europa parts he unearthed ended up going home with him. “At the end of every two weeks, I owed them money,” Bartusek remembers.
Most Europa owners today are comfortable modifying their cars to improve things that gave original owners headaches back in the day, such as the complicated braking and cooling systems. For better or worse, the Bartuseks went out of their way to keep this car as stock as possible, which is especially impressive because they completed the lion’s share of the restoration by the late ’90s with almost no help from the Internet-ironic since Pete is now an IT guy by trade.
Times certainly change. But cars like this Lotus are timeless, drivable testaments to what once was.
ENGINE: 1.6L DOHC I-4, 105-126 hp,
TRANSMISSIONS: 4- or 5-speed manual
SUSPENSION, FRONT: Control arms, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR: Semitrailing arms, coil springs
BRAKES F/R: Discs/drums
WEIGHT: 1600 lb
YEARS PRODUCED: 1971-1975
5552, including more than 3000 Specials
$6000-$20,000 Specials carry a premium of about ten percent; black-and-gold John Player Special editions add another ten percent.
It may look crazy, but it’s a blast to drive and fairly inexpensive to buy. Maintenance and repairs can get pricey and complicated, but many Europas have already been modified to be more usable and reliable. Ingress and egress is challenging but worth it, very similar to getting into a modern Lotus Exige. Front and rear cargo compartments improve practicality — slightly. Plus, thirteen-inch wheels never looked so big as on this forty-three-inch-high toy.