CLASSIC CARS LOTUS EUROPA: When dinosaurs ruled the streets

`Dollybirds' loved the Lotus Europa, and, apparently, the men who drove them. Giles Chapman is lost for words

I'VE REWRITTEN this introduction time and again in vain attempts to describe the impact the Lotus Europa made in 1966. My index finger aches through pressing the delete key, because trying to be cute about it doesn't really work. The Europa was, quite simply, the car of the moment. It was groovy, it was hip, it wasn't for squares... it was... it was...

As you can probably tell, I wasn't there at the time. Or, at least, being a year old, not really. But you only have to list (and picture) a few of the Europa's fusty contemporaries - the Morris Minor, the Austin-Healey 3000, the Volkswagen Beetle, the Vauxhall Victor - to get the idea. It was a Sandie Shaw in a room-full of Alma Cogans. Even five years after the Europa was unveiled, it was still a crowd-stopper. I can do no better than quote Tony Dron, eminent racing driver and motoring pundit, writing in 1971 after having driven to work in one along London's Cromwell Road: "There is only one car that wakes them all up with a start, that pulls such obviously inviting stares one begins to feel conspicuous" he said of the sultry secretaries waiting in the bus queues en route. "I suspect that if you were foolish enough to open the passenger door in the daily traffic jam, you would immediately break the world record for the greatest number of dolly birds ever packed into a Lotus Europa."

Well, it was the early 1970s and Mr Dron, a tall, handsome man, was doing nothing more than, quite probably, saying it like it was. He was a racing driver and this was a racing car for the road.

At just 42in high, the ground-hugging Europa was but 2in taller than the Le Mans-winning Ford GT40, making it something of a motorised daybed to drive. At 0.29, its drag co-efficient made it the most aerodynamic production car in the world. Most people thought its appearance, like a delivery van compressed by a steamroller, was a bit way-out but suspected there must be a good scientific reason. And they were right: the Europa was the first GT road car with a mid-mounted engine, bringing this configuration - pioneered by Coopers and Lotuses in the late 1950s and early '60s - to men-about-town for the first time. In this respect, Lotus trumped even Lamborghini's Miura and De Tomaso's Mangusta.

Lotus founder Colin Chapman had long wanted to market a car like this, and he saw his opportunity in the unlikely shape of the Renault 16. This family hatchback featured a 1.5-litre transverse engine, a four-speed transmission and front-wheel drive in one tight package, and Chapman realised immediately it would be perfect at the other end of his Elan chassis, which was designed like a backbone, to give that authentic Formula 1 response.

A somewhat bemused Renault was happy to supply engines to this famous British genius (ironically, as President de Gaulle was just about to veto Britain's entry into the EC for the second time). In the spirit of the accord, Lotus christened the car the Lotus Europe, although quickly changed it to Europa for trademark registration reasons. It cost pounds 1,666.

There was only 78bhp on tap, so a top speed of just 95mph wasn't surprising. The clutch was extremely heavy, the ride pretty poor. But the handling was a revelation; the car held on to corners like nothing else, with light steering and a feeling of balance absent from all other sports cars of the day, partly down to rear suspension by lower wishbones and transverse top links, like contemporary racing cars.

Europa drivers in the late 1960s enjoyed the novel experience of half sitting, half relaxing-on-a-sun-lounger driving position. This made you almost almost an integral part of the car's structure, but the cockpit was a bit of a prison, as the side windows didn't open and rear vision - thanks to that bread van tail design - was appalling. A 1969 makeover to create the Europa S2 fixed some problems, with electric windows and various improvements to make being inside a Europa as enjoyable in traffic as it was powering through a swiftly-taken bend.

Any accusations of gutlessness were finally banished in 1971 with the advent of the Europa Twin-Cam. After five years, Chapman's boffins worked out a way to marry up Lotus's 1558cc twin-cam engine with the Renault drive-train. Power was upped to 105bhp for a top speed of 117mph, while a later `big-valve' edition made the Europa a 120mph car with its 126bhp of power.

In tandem with this under-bonnet boost Lotus tackled the car's appearance, achieving a more svelte look by simply cutting down the rear deck and adding alloy wheels. In this refreshed guise the Europa continued until 1975, by when 9,230 had been sold.

After that, the same basic chassis lived on under the sharp new lines of the Giugiaro-penned Esprit. It was a more grown-up machine, almost venturing into the supercar territory Italy had made its own, especially when equipped with a turbocharger. But that elusive, eye-popping, bird- pulling , bus queue-stunning image the Europa had briefly made its own was never quite recaptured.

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