1968 – Europe’s Limited Lotus

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Lotus Europe Series 1-2The enigma of a Europa with a model mystery to solve, a history of questions and finally stardom on the games scene…

Colin Chapman’s motive for a mid-engine sports car for Europe relied somewhat on circumstances coming together in a timely fashion. Getting the stars to align required a deal to be struck with Renault, whilst the new Lotus factory in Norwich would be primed for full production of the new Europa in 1966. Lotus EuropeConceived mid-1964 and codenamed P5 (originally was to be called Elfin) the ‘Lotus for Europe’ would bear the name ‘Europe’ on certain parts of the continent, namely Germany where VW owned the rights to ‘Europa’. Unable to secure any influence on Ford’s GT40 project, Chapman set out to produce an affordable, light weight, GT car (road version named Lotus 46), the challenge in place involving the French benefitted the project in several ways. Firstly, the UK wouldn’t become part of the Common Market for a further decade therefore import duties could be minimalised by asking Renault to supply engines and gearbox units. Chapman noted their new all alloy 1470cc unit fitted into the successful front wheel drive Renault 16 with its transmission in front of the engine. By rotating the package, it would suit his mid-engine rear wheel drive application perfectly and Renault engineers increased compression by upgrading the camshaft and fuelling with a larger Solex 35 DIDSA carburettor. The gearbox (integral with the final drive) ratios were adjusted to Lotus requirements and with the pinion reversed this avoided 4 reverse gears and one forward. Quoted as 78bhp by Lotus, the French delivered the engine/gearbox units complete and ready to install.

Lotus Europe interiorThe minimalistic ‘Y’ shaped 16-gauge sheet steel chassis was bonded to the Series 1 body; ideal for those who appreciated the increased rigidity but not so pleasing for the insurance companies who found the repair costs on the Europa way above the norm. Lotus were able to keep tooling costs to a minimum by using alternate parts, the front bumper was from the Ford Anglia whilst the rear was taken from the front of the humble Cortina. Triumph front suspension from the Herald/Spitfire and brake discs and hubs via the GT6/Vitesse and whilst you couldn’t purchase a Europa in the UK, when they were finally available the estimated cost of £1000 promised 115mph, mainly due to an impressive drag of 0.29. One idea that saved costs was the absence of opening windows; by using sealed curved door glass Lotus developed a thermostatically controlled air flow through the cabin to keep occupants at their ideal temperature. This worked very well whilst the Series 1 was on the move but when stuck in traffic on a hot day it became unbearable; the idea was dropped for the Series 2. The Lotus 47, the Europa for the race track arrived at Brands Hatch for an unlimited capacity sports car race on Boxing Day 1966. The ‘47’ would have a Lotus-Ford twin cam power plant mated to a Hewland gearbox, cost around £3k and the pair that lined up on the grid in Kent would finish first and second. Straight out of the box and against much more powerful opposition the Type 47 had set new markers and would compete world-wide with great success over the next decade and beyond. Of the first 500 cars (one years’ worth of production) the majority would be sold exclusively via Lotus dealers into the French market.

Europa - Take 2
Lotus Europe engineThe first Series 2 from Lotus (Type 54) was recorded as leaving Norfolk in May 1968, the model was still unavailable for the home market and even Australia received its RHD versions long before British dealers saw their first demonstrators. The first RHD for the UK was kept in-house via Lotus Developments in July 1968 whilst the first UK registered car Series 2 wasn’t recorded until December. Changes from the earlier model included the chassis and body which were a more conventional nut and bolt marriage, gone was the bonded method. Electric windows were standard plus redesigned door handles and interior cards with adjustable seats and improved dash.

The front indicators were moved above the bumper line becoming part of the front panel. Fuel range improved via connected twin tanks and greater sound proofing gave the GT even more Grand Touring potential at 35mpg; finally, the British buyer was able to join the waiting list for just £1667.00 including £392.00 purchase tax. By 1972 the (Type 74) Twin Cam Europa became the street option, as well as the track, where it had been dominant. The Lotus-Ford 1558cc offered 105bhp but the Renault gearbox was retained and with an increase in performance came the obvious price rise at £2099 inc tax. The final incarnation of the Europa came in the form of the ‘Special’. The Lotus-Ford twin-cam engine had a ‘big valve’ version offering 126bhp but was not fitted until the guys in Norfolk were satisfied they had a gearbox to cope with the power increase. A suitable unit became available as fitted to the Renault 12 Gordini and initially the Europa Special was clothed in the black and gold JPS colours; a nod towards the F1 car success in 1972. Instead of the models decline production received a surprising boost with sales increasing; the Europa continued into 1975 with the majority of nearly 5,000 produced enjoying the ‘Special’ extra power and pinstripe.

The Mystery Car
1968 Lotus EuropeRob Aylott was looking to purchase a Europa in 1989 and found one example for sale mid-restoration. The seller may have run out of funds or enthusiasm or indeed both but the car was with a company in Bedfordshire requiring completion. Pre resto images confirm this Lotus had received a purple exterior during its lifetime although the rear wheel wells and subsequent repairs revealed its original L07 Lotus Yellow. A deal was agreed and the restoration proceeded without deviation from the specification the car arrived in. Delve deeper into this Lotus 54 or Series 2 model and it soon becomes apparent that this particular chassis 54/0923 has a tale to tell but getting all the answers has proved troublesome and fascinating. Registered 20th September 1968 with its steering wheel on the right throws up the first of many conundrums; the first UK registered Series 2 for UK retail sale didn’t occur until December 68. With details confirmed from Lotus UK, Rob received a timeline of specific chassis during the period when the new Series 2 cars began leaving Norfolk, the first 54/0645 in April 1968 was for overseas sale. The first UK RHD chassis (54/0751) was recorded as belonging to Lotus Developments, whilst Robs car was almost certainly assembled at the end of August or even early September.

With the Series 2 altered from the previous model, the first thing that confuses is the ‘Europe’ registration and badge, strange for a RHD car. The chassis is bolted to the body as all of the later cars were but it features the early door handles; although the interior cards are of the later version and it has electric windows. The front indicators are in the same position as the S1 whilst the rear light cluster is certainly S2 and inside the cabin the dash is S2 but the seats are non-adjustable as per the earlier car. Lotus archives show no appearance of an invoice for this chassis which either suggests it has been mislaid or more likely the car was for company use as self-invoicing wasn’t practiced at the factory. This would explain the unusual specification, as the chassis could well have been a pre-production test bed for the improvements seen in the Series 2 car, including the twin 7-gallon fuel tanks it has fitted. There was some specification ‘oddities’ produced during the changeover period from Series 1 to Series 2, this may also explain some of the differences but not all. Without doubt this chassis is certainly a unique Lotus Europe with an interesting provenance. It’s unlikely there are many earlier versions taxed and tested on the UKs roads, this mix of Type 46 and 54 maybe the nearest one can get to driving a Series 1 in 2016. The story continues because without knowing it, you may well have sat behind the wheel of this very car.

Digital Driver
In 2010 Sony contacted the Lotus factory, who in turn sent a request to the owner’s club, the requirement a Series 1 Europa for Gran Turismo 6, the premium car racing video game. A tall order indeed but the Japanese are known for their love of Lotus machines and more so a passion for the Europa model. Rob received the request and sent the details for his ‘Europe’ and quickly received contact from the data capture team requesting his attendance at the Top Gear Studio and test track at Dunsfold. The new game was to feature the Festival of Speed 1.16 hill climb at Goodwood which gamers could attack in Rob’s yellow Lotus. On site the Sony engineers explained they wanted to build a complete software model of the car which ranged from recordings of various engine revs to the sound of the horn and indicators.

The radio installed in the ‘Europe’ is an original unit and replicated exactly with the game, even the sound of the windows opening was copied into a digital format. Then followed a photo session which contrary to Rob’s expectations took far longer than expected with thousands of images taken of every part, from every angle with alternate lighting to cater for shadows; the underside was photographed for the reflection on a wet surface. The car was then laser scanned using something akin to an MRI scanner that allowed the team to use the digital model in sections; once complete Sony promised to forward a copy on release. They duly kept their word and Rob received his copy at Christmas along with a Play Station console, none of which could help Rob find his Lotus. As a specialist car it had to be earnt and collecting the credits for that would involve a younger person, or better still a grandson. In no time Rob’s yellow ‘Europe’ was reaching the Goodwood summit in 67.3 seconds, impressive for a 1968 GT car with just 1470cc compared to Nick Heidfeld’s real time F1 racer record of 41.6. The footage of this ‘Gold’ timed run can be found via the net www.youtu.be/Po04B6vUsHs where Rob’s car slides through the corners and clips hay bales in its digital format, on route to the top of Goodwood Hill.

Getting in and getting going
1968 Lotus Europe Series 1-2Squeezing six foot three of overweight middle aged male inside the Europe is interesting, similar to observing your grandparents playing the ‘Twister’ game; Rob though had the knack which made my efforts look clumsy. It’s a strange sensation when the rear bumper of any car shares the same line as the base of the windows and your view out is mainly of peoples knees; ideal for 60s fashion I am sure. Both Barry Gibb and George Best managed to climb in and out of their Europa’s and neither were vertically challenged, so there must be a knack and I ain’t got it. Getting in normally results in leaving one limb or another still outside attached to the pavement whereas getting out often results in knee-to-ground contact with feet still in car! Bothered? Not a jot! once secure inside, the seats hug you like your nan would after the Xmas sherry and the position is racy, almost horizontal.

Leg room is ample but pedals are close together and restricts chaps wearing high heels or in-period platforms. The Europe certainly feels like a proper sports-race car; all the controls fall to hand, including the stubby gear stick. Top tip, avoid taking anything other than yourself inside; Lotus provided additional storage both behind the engine and alongside the spare up front, the door pockets will accommodate a pair of ‘Speedos’ at most. Frontal vision is superb, as the nose drops away an uninterrupted view of the road gives confidence picking the apex. Rear view is non-existent and without the mirrors there are few options when reversing other than wait for your passenger to fall out and guide you backwards. Europa performance figures impressed in their day but even in modern fast moving traffic the Renault engine copes well without being thrashed; which is to be avoided with it position just behind your left ear. The clutch on this particular car is firm but not heavy and the brake pedal takes little pressure to bring the weightless wonder to a halt. Handling is as one would expect from the marque, assured and precise, whilst the feedback boosts driver confidence with the option to brake later or push through that corner a little faster. A driver’s car that turns heads in 2016 just as it wowed the hippies 50 years ago, when this Europe was not only 60s ‘cool’ but definitely ‘righteous’ and always ‘out of sight’.

1968 Lotus Europe Series 1-2 Specification

  • Engine: Renault 1470cc. OHV. Compression 10.25:1. 78bhp@6500rpm
  • Gearbox: Four speed all synchromesh
  • Suspension: Fr Independent coil springs, double wishbone, telescopic dampers Rr Independent radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers
  • Steering: Rack and pinion
  • Brakes: Fr Disc / Rr Drum / Girling hydraulic
  • Length: 13ft 1in / Width: 5ft 5in
  • Ground clearance: 5.5in / Height: 3ft 7in