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.