Europa to Sicily

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A Step in the Right Direction

Oh my goodness! This has put the fun back into motoring. From the moment I slid into the reclining driving seat of the Lotus Europa I thought “this is going to be a riot”. 5,871 kilometres (approx. 3, 645 miles) and 14 days later, when I gave it back to Lotus I still thought it was a riot of fun, but I am jumping ahead. The Lotus Europa has been in production, for export only, for about two years now, but somehow I had never looked at it very closely as it seemed too remote with its “Export Only” label, but when I heard that it was to come on the home market as from this month, things took on a different complexion. Realising that the days of “vintage”–type cars like Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Maserati, Iso Rivolta and so on, are numbered, I was looking to the future and looking at cars with the engine mounted behind the cockpit and in front of the rear axle. Lamborghini Miura, de Tomaso Mangusta, Ford GT40, Ferrari Dino 206 are all very well, but most cost more money than is reasonable. The Lotus Europa was the right conception of car, but with its little Renault 16 engine seemed to be a toy car not really worth looking at. “Have you driven one?” said the Lotus man. Well I hadn’t, so straight away it was agreed that I should have one to go to the Targa Florio in Sicily, a round trip of nearly 4,000 miles, which is my idea of a road test. Looking at this tiny little fibreglass two-seater with its weeny little engine I thought “It’ll never get there, let alone back again.” Somehow Lotus seem to see eye-to-eye with me and we have an understanding that when I borrow a Lotus, if it breaks down I leave it and send them a telegram telling them where it is, and that’s their problem. They always laugh nervously and think I’m joking and their parting remark is usually “There is a box of odds and ends in the boot, and some wire and tape. You are a practical chap, you should be all right.” Oddly enough, I always have been all right.

At Lotus there is an incredible air of optimism and confidence, obviously generated by the Chairman himself, and this “Don’t flap, we’ll sort it out” attitude that Colin Chapman has always had, and which wins races and World Championships, has penetrated right though the factory. Consequently, when I heard that the Europa I was supposed to be borrowing was away on a caravan rally, actually towing a caravan, I began to service the E-type Jaguar. When it returned from the rally, having finished fourth, I believe, they said “Um, er, well, we ought to look at it before you set off” and as I was nearly ready to go they decided they had better find me another Europa. For a while I kept getting messages like “we are running it in”, or “we are fitting an extra pump” and “the S.U. pumps are a bit weak, we are fitting Bendix pumps”. These messages were followed by mutterings like “When does he want it?” and “how long will it be away” and “it should be all right, but a Europa hasn’t been that far from home”. My absolute zero hour was 7 a.m. on a Monday morning and for a couple of days there had been a nasty hush. On Sunday evening the phone rang and the man from Lotus said “What time are you going to bed?” When I suggested about 11 p.m., he said “Right, I’ll be with you at 10.30 p.m.” And he was, with a white left-hand drive Europa all filled up and ready to go, so I stopped servicing my Jaguar! “Here are the keys, have fun” he said as he got into a taxi and disappeared into the night. That was when I slid into the driving seat and thought “This is going to be a riot”.

Now we must get our sense of values right. I am not talking about an exotic rich man’s toy that costs anywhere between £6,000 and £10,000, the Europa is something that you and I and the chap over there can buy for £1,666, all on and ready to go. For that money you do not expect real leather upholstery, matching veneer woodwork, cocktail cabinets and pile carpets, nor do you expect a 12-cylinder engine with lot of camshafts, and the sort of exhaust noise that makes you turn round with excitement. The Europa is a simple, unpretentious sporty car laid out in the conception that will become normal during the nineteen-seventies. In this sort of car we are only interested in reaching the ultimate in performance, control, handling, cornering, and safety at high speed (or low speed) and racing has proved beyond all doubt that this means a central engine position, a low centre of gravity, low overall height and minimum overhand back and front. The Europa is built around a backbone chassis frame that divides into two arms at the rear, the engine and gearbox being mounted in this fork. Driver and passenger sit on each side of the backbone and a compact fibreglass coupé body covers everything. Needless to say in this day and age, suspension all round is independent, there are disc brakes on the front wheels, but drum brakes on the rear wheels. When you mention suspension you mean Lotus, for the two are synonymous, and the Europa lives up to the Chapman standards. The power unit is basically the R16 four-cylinder 1,470 c.c. parallel valve push-rod unit and four-speed gearbox turned through 180-degrees so that the gearbox is behind the engine in Grand Prix style. The engine has been specially prepared by Renault for Lotus, to give the sort of power output and performance that the latest TS version of the R16 engine has. It gives 82 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. There is no question of the Europa being anything more than a two-seater, but in spite of its small size the cockpit is comfortable, in fact, that driving position is the most comfortable that I have experienced. You recline in what is in effect an armchair, for on one side is the padded centre backbone of the chassis, and on the other the door pocket and armrest. The seat back extends upwards into a headrest which is really practical because of the reclining position; there is absolutely no need whatsoever for seat belts, harnesses, braces or what have you, for once the door is shut, it is like being in a single-seater, and just as controllable. There is luggage accommodation under the front lid and under the rear lid, both compartments able to take a full-size suitcase, while, if you are short in the leg and have the seat forwards you can stuff all sorts of things behind the seat. With the lid shut the front luggage compartment is sealed and forms a reservoir for fresh air that enters through a ducted fan. Outlets in the cockpit let driver and passenger have as much cold air as they wish, and cockpit air escapes through slits above the rear window, into the low pressure area on the tail. Ahead of the front luggage compartment in the noise is the spare wheel, lying flat and low, and to the right is the small but thick water radiator, the pipes running along the backbone of the chassis, as does the gearlever linkage from the rear of the car.

At last summer seemed to have come to Europe, and the Air Ferries were no longer fog-bound, so I was soon bowling along my favourite French routes, heading for Italy. Being a great believer in Lotus suspension, it goes without saying that 80-m.p.h. cruising on by-ways was no problem, and the way the little Renault engine hummed round at anything up to 6,000 r.p.m. without any fuss was most impressive. The complete lack of road noise form the tyres, or the sound of any suspension movement was praiseworthy and in the category of the old “Auntie” Rovers. I found I could bound along undulating and cambered French roads with complete abandon, and on a number of occasions my abandon was so complete that I arrived into corners going much too fast for mental comfort and yet the Europa whistled round the corners with no excitement at all. After four years of really high speed motoring in a Jaguar, but with “vintage” cornering, the Europa was a revelation and I kept finishing a corner without any panic whatsoever and saying to myself “This is ridiculous, it should have tied itself in knots”. My usual complaint about small buzzy motorcars is that they are tiring to drive, but with the buzz behind me I was only conscious of the Renault engine by what the tachometer was indicating, and most of the time this seemed to be an effortless 5,500 r.p.m. (about 94 m.p.h.). In the Elan +2 which I tried recently I found an non-stop 400 miles across France quite enough, but in the Europa on the same sort of going 500 miles was no strain at all, and I only stopped because I was getting hungry!

The following day I found another 500 miles no problem, and this included stopping in Modena for a couple of hours and picking up a friend and his luggage for the rest of the journey. Again we only stopped because it was time to eat and we had reached a point where we wanted to call on friends. A lot of this day had been on autostrada and I had felt that the Europa might prove tiresome on such roads, but it hummed along at 100 m.p.h. without any strain. There was little more to come at the speed, but it was not flat out and certainly showed no signs of stress. At one point we got a bit involved with an Alfa Romeo Giulia and the Europa sat at 6,000 r.p.m. in top for a very long while. This was 103 m.p.h. (corrected), and 6,100 r.p.m. was absolute top whack, which did not seem enough, and was certainly not what the man said it would do. On the third day a 1.6-litre Lancia Fulvia Sport showed that it was nothing like enough, for at our 6,100 r.p.m. in top he disappeared into the distance. Covering 500 miles in a day seemed a reasonable trip to us, as time was on our side and neither of us are keen on getting up early, not do we enjoy motoring in the dark. This third day took us through the mountains south of Salerno, heading for Calabria and here the Europa really came into its own on handling and cornering; unfortunately there were no Alfas or Lancias around, but even so we had a memorable mountain dice. Lying back in the driving seat that steering is finger-tip stuff and you flick the car through corners as fast as you like. One big drawback came to light, and that was the gearbox. This Europa had been assembled hurriedly which may have explained the very stiff gearchange, but the gap between third and top could not be explained. It was just too wide, with a rev. drop of 2,000 r.p.m. However, the willing little engine made up to some extent, for you could leave it in second or third between corners and just let it rev.-its-head-off, without any signs of anguish.

When I first saw a Europa, and the unusual tail-treatment I thought you just forgot about rearward vision, but I was so wrong. The view out of the back in the mirror is incredible, for the rear window is right behind your head, is vertical and the full width of the car, so the mirror gives you a panoramic view behind, and beautifully clear, for there is no sloping glass to distort the view through the mountains, some of the views across valleys that I saw in the mirror were remarkable. The blind spots across the corners behind the doors only present a problem when you are parking in a confined space. If somebody puts a bicycle by the kerb as you are reversing into a space, that’s too bad for the bicycle. The Europa is a car for motoring, not for parking, and when you are motoring the rear vision is superb.

On our fourth day we slipped into the Europa cockpit and decided that it was far more comfortable than being in bed, and somehow felt absolutely right for spending a pleasant day. We had only gone about 50 miles and were running round after looking at a new road when round the corner came a red Europa on Austrian number-plates. With much light flashing and horn-blowing we stopped and it was like Stanley and Livingstone. By now we were really sold on the Europa and to meet another one at the foot of Calabria was too much. The red one was called a Europe, as I had been bought in a teutonic country and someone like N.S.U. already have a patent on the name Europa. Our Austrian friend was a truly happy Lotus owner, even though his starter switch was playing up and his wife was having to push-start him. he too was on his way to Sicily and the Targa Florio, so naturally we ran in convoy, and the two cars together caused much speculation among the Sicilians the most popular remark as “Is it Team Lotus going to the Targa Florio?” Over lunch we compared notes and cars, and his cruised all day at 6,000 r.p.m. with a maximum of 6,700 r.p.m., and the tick-over sounded beautiful, whereas mine would only pull 6,100 r.p.m. and the tick-over sounded horrible. The day before, he had left northern Austria at 5.30 a.m. and covered 950 miles in the day without feeling tired! He and his wife were tough, for their previous car had been an M.G.-B and they had toured in Greece and Israel in it, so the Europa was a revelation of ease and comfort.

The Europa Renault engine gathers its air through a large efficient filter, having drawn it in through the opening at the back of the tail, and engine room heat exhausts through openings on the rear lid, which is a low-pressure area, judging by the dirt and dust that collects on it. Our Austrian owner found that the filter element got clogged up very easily and needed renewing far more frequently that was reasonable. He suggested that this might be the cause of my lack of r.p.m., and later when I got a new element form a Renault agent, this proved to be the answer. Straight away I got 6,500 r.p.m. in top (112 m.p.h.) and, with a little encouragement, like an Alfa or Lancia, it would have climbed to 6,700 r.p.m. as expected. It screamed up to 7,500 r.p.m. in 3rd, which made the gap between 3rd and top less tiresome. An adjustment of the float level in the double-choke Solex carburettor made a vast difference to the tick-over and the fuel consumption, for at one point it had been down to 21 m.p.g. when I got everything right it did 35 m.p.g., so that with its two 7-gallon tanks it had a range of nearly 500 miles, which is my idea of desirable. The twin tanks are fitted one on each side of the engine compartment, tucked away in the corners, and a small switch in the cockpit selects the right-hand one or the left-hand one. The Austrian owner was very envious of this as he had the standard single tank layout.

There is nothing more satisfying that running fast in company with someone in an identical car, for you know that he can do everything you can do and you know that he is enjoying it as much as you are. As we twisted and turned along the Sicilian coast road I was thoroughly convinced that the Europa has put the fun back in motoring and when we stopped at a level crossing our Austrian friend was grinning with delight, and I knew why. At one point I finished a series of 50-60 m.p.h. swerves with a great flourish only to come face to face with a large blue bus! With two inches of clearance on my side between the Europa and the bus I aimed the Lotus through the gap between the bus and the rock sea-wall, and even with the brakes on it never wavered (thank goodness). It went through the gap like a dart and we said “Whew! In anything else there would have been a nasty noise of rending fibreglass”. In such a situation I always aim to avoid the moving object, especially if it is moving my way. My passenger did not know this and was impressed at how close I had got to the rock-face. I explained that it was luck, my judgement was involved with getting as close to the bus as I could without actually touching it, and the other side of the car had to look after itself. “Anyway, the gap looked wide enough” I said. “It had to be” he replied “there was nowhere else to go”.

Our 250-mile Europa dice ended up at Cefalu, the headquarters of the Targa Florio, and that story was told last month. The return trip to Modena, and up through Switzerland and German to Belgium and home was uneventful, apart from the pressure of the Bendix fuel pumps bending the nasty little float lever in the carburettor, so that everything got hopelessly rich again, but it was not a long job to put this right. On the autostrada from Naples to Rome the heavens opened and the rain came down so heavily that visibility was down to 40 or 50 m.p.h. We were quite prepared for the cockpit to become waterlogged, but, hand-on-heart, I can truthfully say that not a drop of water came in, nor did the engine falter, or even show signs of faltering under the deluge. In 1969 I should hope these things would not happen, but to listen to some of the anti-Lotus talk bandied about by people who have never owned one or only borrowed a tatty one from some dodgy secondhand car dealer, you would expect awful things to happen. Due to the last minute rush to get this car ready for my trip some things got overlooked, and one was the tracking of the front wheels and their balancing. The excessive toe-in was completely unnoticeable until the front tyres were suddenly bald, and that only became apparent when the car started aquaplaning at 40 m.p.h.! The out of balance caused a bit of vibration at around 75-80 m.p.h., but it was a simple matter to drive through this.

When I finally give the Europa back to the London Louts agents with a request that they let the chaps in Norfolk know it was back safe and sound, I left a note saying “I’ve used this one up, can I have another one?” It is not often that I am reluctant to return a road-test car, but this was definitely one of the occasions. I feel that the Europa is at the threshold of a new era of motoring; the conception of the car is absolutely right and it is easy to visualise a car like this with another 50 b.h.p., a close-ratio 5-speed gearbox, or better still a new form of automatic infinitely-variable transmission, with a constant-speed power unit. As an interim a nice compact, lightweight all-alloy V8 engine would pack nicely into the tail, but what I would really like would be a twin-rotor N.S.U. Wankel engine in the back. Since the Europa was first introduced, early in 1967, it has undergone continual development, and this work is continuing all the time. Already some of the minor points that I criticised to the Lotus engineers are changed and from the rather primitive first Europa, that is was a bit of a “racer” it is now a very smooth and comfortable little car, with nice cockpit trim, the best seats that I know, electric windows, excellent ventilation, a character and charm that grows on you very rapidly and above all else, it is fun. To listen to some people you would think we were not supposed to have fun with our motoring. Lotus have never believed that, to them motoring is fun, and the Europa personifies this attitude. In spite of what the salesman will say, I think the Elan is now obsolete, the Europa is the big step forward in the right direction.—D. S. J

Footnote—Keen readers and Lotus enthusiasts may detect a change of mind over some of my comments, compared with those on the Elan or Elan +2. The Europa has normal healthy headlamps that flash instantaneously and can suffer no mechanical faults and there is no comment. When reclining in a single-seater driving position there is no question of using a window winder even on the driver’s side, let alone the passenger’s, so electric operation is a must. For the courteous it would be nice to have remote control of the opening of the passenger door from the driving seat.