The perfect recipe?
The Lotus Europa is not only visually special. Its history is just as special. As hardly any other brand is surrounded by so many myths and legends as Lotus, the creation of the flat mid-engined sports car is also the source of countless anecdotes, the truth of which is difficult to verify. But they all have one thing in common: they are romantic and fit wonderfully into Chapman’s image.
It is certain that Chapman wanted to produce another model after the success of the Elan. It should have the same agility, the same driving dynamic finesse, but be much more affordable. This presented him with two problems. Firstly, developing a new chassis was time-consuming and expensive, and secondly, a competitive and lightweight engine was equally costly. The resourceful engineer was therefore hardly saddened when he lost Ford’s tender to design a mid-engine prototype for Le Mans that was capable of winning, because precisely this chassis, conceived by Ron Hickman, had finally been fully developed and Chapman had had the passage in the contract that he could use the concept for his own purposes in the event of defeat.
So now he had already laid the foundations for the Lotus Europa. But what would drive it? They had the best relations with Ford through their Formula 1 connection, but a suitable light-alloy engine was not in their portfolio. Chapman found what he was looking for at Renault. The French had just developed a new engine for the Renault 16, the Cléon Type A, a robust and simple four-cylinder unit made entirely of lightweight aluminium. With its 78 bhp from 1,470 cubes, it was no sports engine, but due to the planned numbers of Renault 16 units, it was one thing above all: cheap. Better still, according to legend, Chapman got hold of 300 engines and gearboxes that Renault had left over from testing and wanted to scrap. He is said to have paid only for the transport to the new factory in Hethel and the number of the first series of the Lotus Europa, 296 units, is now self-explanatory.
The type called S1, i.e. the original version before the variants S1A and S1B, is in its less than 300 pieces, however, even more special than the rest of the Lotus Europa. They correspond most closely to the ideal of a Chapman racer. Everything has been optimised for maximum driving dynamics, comfort and practicality would take a back seat. For example, the S1 Europas had plastic bodywork bonded to the frame for maximum rigidity. The windows did not open, the dashboard was made of sheet aluminium, there were no door panels, not even adjustable seats. No problem for Chapman, by the way, the seating position had been developed to suit his body mass. The result was a sports car weighing only 612 kilograms, based on the thoroughbred layout of a Le Mans prototype, but still affordable.
However, the extremely puristic design stood in the way of success. Comfort improvements were already made with the S1A and S1B, the windows could be opened, a wooden dashboard was used and the ventilation was adapted. With the series 2, on the advice of various insurance companies, the bonding of the body to the chassis was abandoned, as even relatively minor damage had proved irreparable up to then. From then on, the fibreglass body was bolted to the steel frame chassis. In later models, the Renault engine gave way to the well-known Ford Kent Twin Cam from the Lotus Elan with 105 hp and the Twin Cam “Big Valve” in the Special models with 126 hp. And even though these late models gained some weight, the Europa remained a paragon of dynamism. Above all, it was the perfect driving fun recipe with only a few ingredients.