Get Low

For my sixteenth birthday my mother gave me a Matchbox car of a Lotus Europa.  Like any good mom, she had been asking me for weeks what I wanted for my birthday.  Like any good son expecting his driver’s license I wanted my favorite car: a Lotus Europa.  I got one.

Five years later, with a brand new job in corporate America, I began looking for a real Europa.  Every Sunday I’d look through the Chronicle’s car section of the classified ads.  Magazines like AutoWeek and Road & Track offered some possibilities too.  I found a 1970 S2 Europa within my meager budget of $3,500 in the Oakland Hills.  The car had some rough edges.  It had been slightly modified – not ideal for a classic car.  The wheel wells had been flared a little and the “bug-eye” turn signals on the nose had been removed and replaced with more streamlined lights.  Only other Lotus affectionados and I would notice.  I offered $3,000.

The Europa’s owner was in his late 20’s – and seemed to live the life of a musician in a struggling rock band.  He was living in a modest home for that area – way out of my price range.  Everything about the owner was disheveled: his appearance, the house, the garage and the car.  He pointed out that while the car had slotted mag wheels (popular hot-rod wheels of the ’70s,) he had the original wheels and hubcaps that went with the car.

After a few days of consideration – I decided it was the car for me and I called him back.  He didn’t answer.  I kept calling – and finally in desperation, I simply left the phone ringing from a nearby phone booth and drove over to knock on the door. (What was I thinking?)  I knocked loud enough to wake the fellow, passed out on the living room couch. I heard him get up, answer the phone and then slam it down angrily at the apparent prank call.  At least he was awake then to answer the door.  I gave him the $3,000 – and drove off with my new prize. I came back later for the stock wheels.

The Europa  needed two obvious improvements – body work touch-ups and new interior upholstery.  The Europa’s fiberglass body was easy to work on.  It used all the same materials as my fiberglass model airplanes.  I learned that auto paint stores would fill spray cans with custom mixed paint – which made it easy to apply a coat of matching white laquer to the body repairs.  The upholstery proved to be more challenging.  The seats and door panels were covered some fuzzy velour – a tad too “pimp-mobile” for my taste.  With such a limited budget, I took an automotive upholstery class at a local school offering it as an adult education course to make new door panels.  I learned to live with the seats.

The biggest challenge on the Europa was the gas tank – it leaked.  My friend Brian came to the rescue.  Brian was a professional welder – and worked at Siemens making parts for nuclear reactors used for cancer radiation treatments.  He made me a custom stainless steel tank.  The challenge was figuring out how to remove the old tank and install the new one.  The solution was to lift the car up about 30 inches using blocks of wood and hydraulic jacks so I could precariously remove the old tank through the bottom of the engine compartment.  It was a perfect illustration for a safety poster labeled: “Don’t do this.”

An S2 Europa stands 42 inches tall and is powered by a Renault R16 motor with about 80 horsepower.  Because it weights so little it’s still pretty fast – especially in the day when cars were choked by smog controls.  With a mid-engine design and low center of gravity – my Europa went around corners even faster than my ’67 Mustang with all its suspension modifications.  The only shortcoming was that with its steeply raked seats and lack of air-conditioning, it made me sleepy to drive it on warm summer days.

Lotus was the creation of Colin Chapman – who’s production and kit cars were offered for sale to support his company’s racing ambitions.  Chapman is reported to say that a perfect race car was built so lightweight that it would fall apart the moment it crossed the finished line.  My Europa never showed such signs of flimsy construction.  The tried and true French engine never failed to start and keep running, and no parts ever fell off enroute, even on the Nimitz freeway.  The racing heritage was apparent one day driving my girlfriend to work.  I was two lanes too far over to the left and coming up fast on our exit to the right.  The visibility out the tiny rear window was better than you might expect, and clear of traffic it was no problem for the Europa to whip over to the right lane and make the exit.  That maneuver didn’t do much for my love life.

While I wished I had been able to afford the more inspiring twin-cam John Player Special Europa, but I was proud of my little white car.  At only 42 inches tall, I was beginning to step up in the world of cars.


About jgs

As a California immigrant to "The South" - I have the benefit of at least two perspectives. Hopefully, through your input my perspective expands.
This entry was posted in 1970 Lotus S2, British Cars and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Get Low

  1. Matt Blackwood says:

    Great Europa Story! So what happened to it? I bought a twin cam about 4 years ago in San Francisco and my dad and I drove it back to Huntsville, AL. I drove it every now and again for a couple years before I dug myself into the restoration hole, which ended up being a rushed job to get it ready for my wedding about a year later. Unfortunately my brother in law and my dad had to push start us from the reception! A year and a half later and I’m trying to fix a lot of the things I had to rush to restore. I’m hoping to have it done for a track day at Road Atlanta Nov 18th. Mine like yours has the shaved nostril lights and in general wouldn’t make a purist very happy with some of the mods, but I love it and don’t ever plan on selling it.

    • jgs says:

      Matt – thank you for your kind comments. I’ve never seen another Europa with the “nostril light” mod mine had – and you had a twin cam. How interesting! Do you suppose that was a standard mod from the factory – or just something that caught on? I recall that the wheel wells on my Europa were slightly flared. It was my first fiberglass car – and I sure learned a lot with it. Are you familiar with Kampena Motors in California? It’s at Infineon (Sears Point) Raceway. The fellow who owns that shop is probably the best restoration guy around for old Lotus cars. He’s also knowledgeable about all the good engine swaps, if you’d like to go for performance and drivability over keeping your car an original. I’m into Italian motorcycles these days – Ducati and Moto Guzzi. But I have a real soft spot for all the old British Cars I used to own. I still cruise eBay for a car that would be too good to pass up. Good luck with yours – and I’d love to see photos and hear more about your car and restoration! Cheers – Joe

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