Classic cars: Series11 Lotus Europa
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Lotus Europa: A silly grin car
Philip Adamson’s 1971 Series II Lotus Europa was brought to New Zealand by a British man who restored it in the mid 1980s, and kept it until he died.
“I bought it from the deceased estate,” says Adamson who had been looking for years. “I don’t know numbers, but they come up for sale rarely.” That’s not surprising, when you discover only around 9300 were made.
The Europa has an impeccable pedigree. It was sketched by Ron Hickman in a bid to win a Ford contract for what became the GT40. That bid failed, but the car was then built by Lotus, using a steel backbone chassis first used in the Lotus Elan, with the body moulded as a single piece of fibreglass.
There are no rust issues with this car.
The first ones went on sale in France in early 1967, using a 1470cc four-cylinder in-line Renault engine modified to boost power to 61kW, and a four-speed transmission. The Europa was initially designed as a race car and was basic — fixed windows and fixed seats (though if you whipped out your tools you could adjust the pedals). That limited its sale, so the MkII got fancy, with a polished wooden dash, electric windows and adjustable seats.
Adamson’s brother had one in the early 1980s, “We shared it on the race track, just once. We got one qualifying session each, he got one race and crashed it against the wall at the top of the hill, coming onto the front straight at Pukekohe.” Adamson had wanted one since to add to the Lotus 7 already in his garage — “I’ll go to my grave in that.”
The Europa is what he calls a “silly grin” car, indeed, when he first got it it was such a novelty that as he and his wife, Vivienne, were heading off to bed one night she paused at the door to the garage and turned in. “I asked her where she was going: ‘Let’s just sit in it for a while,’ she said, so I poured us another wine, and we did!”
The Europa was the first mid-engine production car, he thinks — it beat the Ferrari Dino, which launched in 1968, and “the handling is incredible. It’s like driving a roller skate.”
He owns the car for Sunday drives, taking in tight, twisty back roads. “It hasn’t got much power, so you have all your fun at legal speeds.”
It may not be powerful, but it weighs only around 700kg and it definitely sounded fruity enough when he started it up, and looked the part as it emerged from the garage, long and low, very low.
You need to be fairly limber to get in and out. The driving position is almost supine. With the seat adjusted, I had to stop myself from trying to sit up, but you soon forget how far back you’re lying, though I didn’t drive it long enough to get used to the stepped pedals — they are very close together, but the accelerator and brake require a different knee bend, and grippy soles could make you miss the crucial step from one to the other as your shoes grip the rubber floor mat.
At open road speeds you’d never guess this is a four-speed car with a modest engine size. It feels and sounds relaxed in fourth gear, and rock solid , even at 130km/h, Philip says, having had the opportunity to try it.
The brakes are efficient, and the car corners tightly and confidently, though you do have to ensure you’re in the right gear. At least, I had to change well ahead as the gear-change feels a little less than rifle-bolt sharp. Adamson described it as like “a spoon in a bucket,” thanks to the solution Lotus found for this powertrain combo.
The Renault engine was designed for a front-drive format, and this is a rear-drive car, “So they had to move the linkage to the back, and it’s effectively one long rod, so up front it’s quite imprecise,” and there’s very little front-to-back movement of the lever, and a lot of side-to-side, which takes practice to get right.
Adamson had to do very little to the car when he bought it, and it’s all but standard, and original, though these are not the wheels it launched with — “These are after-market Minilites.”
You wouldn’t want to cruise far in a Europa, the engine takes up most of the space behind the driver, and the front boot has room for only a small bag, apart from the spare tyre, of course.
It has electric windows, but no radio, though “It has a pretty good heater — it is, after all, a British car.”
Frankly, you don’t need the luxuries. Given an empty bendy road issuing a challenge at legal speeds, this’d be heaven. As Adamson says, it is a silly-grin car.