Lotus popularised the mid-engine sports car 50 years ago with the Europa. We look back at how it came into being and the exciting models that followed in its wake.
Lots of Trouble, Usually Serious. It’s a worn-out old acronym, that, if anything, applies more to Lotus as a business than its products. This revered marque for so long mirrored the fortunes and inclinations of its charismatic founder, Anthony Bruce Colin Chapman. He was forever breaking moulds and pushing envelopes which resulted in some the most fondly-remembered - if temperamental - road cars ever to scorch a B-road.
While not the first company to produce mid-engined road cars – René Bonnet, Deep Sanderson and de Tomaso got there first, it popularised the concept with the Europa and followed through with the Esprit, the Elise and, more recently, the Evora. All of which is remarkable as this calamity-prone marque has survived almost 70 years on borrowed time as custodians have come and gone.
For all its many virtues, the Europa continues to be underrated, yet few cars handled as well in period. It fully embraced Chapman’s mantra of ‘Simplify and then add lightness’, and set the template for the mid-engined sports car as we know it. Lotus was, after all, at the cutting edge of motor sport technology, picking up from where Cooper had left off in producing world-beating mid/rear-engined Grand Prix cars. With the Esprit, Chapman aimed to create a more aspirational image for Lotus, the model outliving its natural lifespan thanks to a series of successful facelifts and powerplant upgrades. The early ’90s, by contrast, saw the marque at a low ebb, but it brilliantly reinvented itself following the launch of the Elise in 1996. Variations on the theme continue to captivate, many as classic buys, while the Evora is a much –much – better car than it is perhaps given credit for. Join us as we celebrate a half-century of mid-engined masterpieces from a marque that has consistently punched above its (feather) weight.
Lotus Europa 1966-75
Chapman initially viewed the Europa as a replacement for the time-defying Seven. Lotus’ talismanic leader wanted a product that was easy to develop and cheap to make that would appeal to the all-important export markets. The result was his ‘Car for Europe’, the Type 46 Europa being launched in December 1966. Powered by a 1470cc Renault 16-sourced four-banger, ‘Project P5’ was actually born out of a stillborn racing car: imagine a Lotus-built GT40 and you would be close.
After Enzo Ferrari famously jilted Ford at the alter following an attempted buy-out in 1963. Henry Ford II vowed revenge. He contacted a variety of specialist firms to design a new sports-prototype to vanquish the red cars at Le Mans. Lotus tendered for the gig, with renderings by Ron Hickman being published in the specialist press in period. Ultimately, Lola landed the contract but Chapman wasn’t one to waste anything.
The Europa emerged as a something very different with the underrated John Frayling refining the styling. This new strain was remarkably aerodynamic, with an alleged CD figure of just 0.29cd. Inevitably, there were one or two issues, not least the double-curvature side windows which were fixed in period: cabin ventilation wasn’t its strong suit. Nevertheless, the Europa’s handling was widely praised. The S2 – or Type 54 – edition arrived in April 1968, with UK sales starting a year later. It featured a number of updates, with the raised headlights being perhaps the most obvious physical deviation (the body was also now detachable rather than bonded to the chassis). The cabin also featured a new dashboard layout and opening windows. Three years later, it made way for the Lotus twin-cam-engined ‘Type 74’, the rear bodywork being significantly altered so there was less of a ‘bread van’ look. Production ended in 1975, by which time around 9300 had been made of all kinds.
Lotus Esprit 1975-2004
Few cars have ever enjoyed such longevity as the Esprit. Entering production in Series 1 form in 1976 with the own-brand ‘907’ engine, the last car rolled off the production line in 2004 by which time it had morphed from a four-cylinder sports car into a V8 supercar. What tends to be forgotten, however, is that the Esprit was inspired by a one-off Italian showstopper: the Maserati Boomerang.
Chapman asked design legend Giorgetto Giugiaro to rework the design for a new, more aspirational breed of Lotus he was proposing. Making its public bow at the 1972 Turin Motor Show, ‘The Silver Lotus’ aped the Boomerang but was, if anything, a lot prettier. The donor Europa’s wheelbase was stretched by 11cm, the front and rear tracks being similarly augmented. Designed with aerodynamic considerations and US Federal safety regulations in mind, the real world simplicity and elegance of the original show car was a remarkable achievement.
However, by the time the production-ready Esprit (the original tag being ‘Kiwi’) was ushered in at the October 1975 Paris Motor Show, some design purity had been lost along the way. It was a looker – and still is – but, as is so often the case, the show car to showroom transition had its casualties: the low-pressure injection moulding technique resulted in a prominent waistline where the two body halves were joined together. The steep rake of the windscreen was also reduced somewhat, but it still looked fresh. The engine in-house-made four-banger, meanwhile, was bored out from 2- to 2.2-litres in 1980.
The original car Esprit subsequently gained several stablemates, not least the Turbo edition from 1981-on with its Giugiaro-penned bodykit which served to heighten the wedge look. The Peter Stevens restyle for 1987 breathed new life into the Esprit, while Julian Thomson successfully gave it a nip and tuck for the 1993 revamp. The insertion of the Lotus-made, twin-turbo V8 three years later ensured that the Esprit went out on a high. We are still awaiting its replacement.
Lotus Elise 1996-present
The arrival of the Elise in 1996 saw Lotus come back from the dead. And how. The original 1.8-litre Rover K-Series-powered sports car saw the marque return to its core values. It was a great success, spawning countless spin-offs. The origins of the species, however, are rooted in something decidedly non-sporting. Scroll back to the early ’90s and Lotus was approached by Land Rover, which was keen to experiment with aluminium extrusions. It commissioned Lotus to build some body assemblies that would then be rigorously tested. These were completed, only for BMW to acquire Land Rover and nix the project.
Shortly before the termination, however, the decision was made to build a limited edition, ultra-light-weight sports car using this method of construction in an effort to help the firm have more of an understanding of the processes and methodology. The initial plan was to create a modern-day Seven with no doors or roof. Romano Artioli of Bugatti Industries then acquired the firm in August 1993 and the project morphed into something slightly less hard-care. Various designers were approached to tender for the styling gig, Tom Tjaarda and Trevor Fiore among them, but in-house artiste Julian Thomson design was ultimately chosen.
The restyled Series II Elise entered production in 2001, with the closely related Opel Speedster/Vauxhall VX220 being built on the same production line within a new facility in Hethel. The K-series had been continuously uprated during the Elise’s lifetime, but was ultimately replaced with a Toyota unit, primarily due to Lotus returning to the USA where the Rover unit didn’t meet homologation/emission requirements. The facelifted Series III version was first seen in 2010 and it continues to enthrall keen drivers. Given that Lotus originally expected to sell 900 Elises – at most, the model’s longevity is a testament to the brilliant of the concept and execution.
Lotus Evora 2008-present
Named after a Portuguese town, the Evora was the first genuinely new car from the Hethel marque since the mid ’90s. Launched at the 2008 British International Motor Show, and powered by a 3.5-litre, 24-valve Toyota V6, the business plan called for around 2000 cars to be made each year. Speaking in 2009, the company’s then CEO Mike Kimberley said: ‘The Evora is the biggest milestone Lotus has achieved since the Elise was born 13 years ago. It is part of our five-year strategic plan, which includes the introduction of new cars and technologies to many more markets around the world. Looking to the future, we will continue to research, develop and produce lighter, more efficient vehicles.’
This proved massively optimistic, as events rather overtook Lotus shortly thereafter, not least during the chequered spell under Kimberley’s replacement, Dany Bahar. Nevertheless, the Evora had – and continues to have – a lot going for it. According to the PR bumf at its launch: ‘…its sleek and athletic form uses fluid forms and crisp surfaces to communicate velocity, agility and sophistication.’ Dig beneath the flannel and the original Russell Carr-penned outline was masterfully realised, with the minimal rear overhang and a cab-forward ’screen lending it a purposeful attitude. It was far from a stark road-racer, too, the emphasis being as much on civility as it was on pulling lateral Gs. For starters, the Evora was the only 2+2 in the range, although a pure two-seater – or ‘Plus Zero’ – model was also available for £1500 less. The rear end, by the way, was designed in part around the need to accommodate two bags of golf clubs…
The line-up was also augmented by the arrival of the supercharged S edition, along with the 414 Hybrid and the ultra-rapid Evora 400 (the ‘400’ bit denoting the quoted horsepower figure). The Evora shows little sign of being pensioned off any time soon, but it remains underrated. That seems to be a common theme with this grouping.