Slice of Lime Flat-out in the Cosworth-engined, wedge-shaped Lotus GS Europa. In the mid-Seventies William Towns penned a sharp new body for the Lotus Europa S2 so it could burst into a wedgey new era of automotive design. We take the prototype for a piquant post-restoration drive. Words Ivan Ostroff. Photography Alex Tapley.
Slice of Lime
Before the Esprit, William Towns created the GS Europa for Lotus. We drive it
Today, most classic car enthusiasts would squirm at the idea of rebodying a Series 2 Lotus Europa Twin Cam with later wedge-shaped coachwork. Nevertheless in 1974, just eight years after the launch of the car, that was precisely what was being proposed with the Lotus GS Europa offered by GS Cars of Bristol. In February of that year, The Motor suggested the body design was ‘perhaps what the Europa should have been at the outset’, endowed with appropriately livelier performance.
Painted in a Miura-esque Lime Green the car looks perfect for its period. The rigid-looking flying buttresses gives the car an air of strength. Unable to resist, I lift the rear engine cover to check out the Ford Cosworth BDA twin cam longitudinally mounted behind the rear bulkhead, attached to a five-speed Renault gearbox and transaxle.
‘The BDA yowling just behind my head immerses me in the intoxicating experience’
I drove a twin cam-powered Lotus GS Europa a few years ago and I wasn’t overly impressed; I found it underpowered for its weight and ungainly in its looks. But this GS Europa is rather special – it’s the prototype that was displayed on the Daily Telegraph stand at the 1975 Motor Show, built on a donor 1972 Europa Twin Cam. Its bodywork has slightly less overhang than later examples, but more crucially it’s equipped with extra grunt from the 170bhp BDA engine that more than overcomes its bespoke glassfibre panelwork ballast.
Opening the driver’s door I note that the chrome handle and its keylock are countersunk deep into the outer doorskin; a legacy from the original doorskins that lie beneath the William Towns-designed GS panels. Sliding into the driving seat I’m very reclined but comfortable. As I grip the leather-rimmed, drilled aluminium spoked steering wheel, all instruments are clearly visible and the high-set wooden gearknob is close by. I don’t need to read the CABC legend in the centre of the wheel to know I’m in a Lotus.
With a twist of the key, the BDA fires eagerly. Selecting reverse is easy; the rear view, while still not brilliant, is far better than in a standard Europa. Once out of the parking point I select first gear, minding the advice of owner Martin Ricketts – because of the idiosyncrasies of the linkage, the lever must be in the centre of the gate to select first and second, and not over to the left as I would expect. This takes a fair amount of manual cognitive override. Starting off in a straight line it’s all too easy to get the rear wheels spinning despite their 13in width, and they keep on spinning well into second gear. I can hear the roar of air being sucked into the twin side-draft Webers and the exhaust barking a rounded, throaty ‘bloaaarr’ as the tachometer needle swings through 5000rpm and I grab third. Being so close to the ground, the sensation of speed is heightened; accelerating up through the five-speed gearbox with that BDA yowling just behind my head fully immerses me in the intoxicating experience.
I can definitely feel the added weight of the GS’s glassfibre overcoat; the car just doesn’t have the agility of a standard Twin Cam. However, ride comfort is much better than in the early Europas I’ve experienced. Cornering grip is astonishing; when it does finally let go the front tends to wash wide, corrected with a slight lift then, once front wheels regain grip, a prod of the throttle to push the tail into a beautifully neutral slide. The monocoque is rigid and the car feels perfectly balanced thanks to the mid-engine layout, while the adjustable Spax suspension inspires confidence at high cornering speeds. Brakes are standard Europa front discs/ rear drums, but deal with the extra weight without any drama. The GS Europa story began in 1974 when Michael Rawlings and William Towns were hatching a road-car project over a beer. Both men were of the opinion that the Europa’s ageing design required updating and improving, particularly in terms of rear visibility. Remembers Rawlings, ‘I said, “If you style it, I’ll build it and get us a Europa to work on.” William took out a cigarette packet and began doodling, and in place of the original rounded Europa profile he sketched an idea with the wedge profile that he was so fond of. By the end of the evening we’d conceived the GS Europa.’
At the time, Towns was involved in building a glassfibre body for the Jaguar E-type SIII-based Guyson E12, whereby he retained much of the standard steel body and attached glassfibre panels of his own design. Towns had encountered problems mating the panels to the Jaguar’s steel body, but Rawlings was quick to point out that this wouldn’t be a problem because the Europa was glassfibre to start with, so Towns’ concept made good sense.
The budget for the project was £3000, borrowed from the bank. Recalls Rawlings, ‘Most of that was used up by the design process, construction of the master and making of the moulds. That left nothing for the purchase of a base Europa, but I kept my word and after consultation with Roger Fowler, chairman of Bristol-based Lotus dealer GS Cars, he agreed for us to use one of their Europas and thereafter market the project through his company.’
After the car was collected in November 1974, all four wings were removed and a clay skin built up over the car. ‘One of our main aims was to find a vision-improving resolution for the rear end that didn’t require the addition of glass. We took the decision to use the original Europa doors and windows because they represented a major cost in man hours. This also meant that we could retain the door handles and locks. The Europa’s organic curves were aggresively squared off for a lower and wider appearance, with a doorstop frontal profile to increase downforce. We tried three designs in clay with most of the original glassfibre coachwork cut away – leaving just the passenger compartment, doors and windscreens in situ – before agreeing on a final shape.’
Towns realised that they could lower the rear deck by six inches because of the low height of the engine, and removed the rear edges of the cockpit so that rear three-quarter visibility would be improved considerably. However, after cutting the body about and applying a considerable amount of modelling clay, the profile was looking more like a high speed pick-up truck. Towns’ solution was to fit the Maserati Merak-style flying buttresses.
With the shape now evolved, moulds were produced for a front bumper, front wings, and a front centre panel together with a bonnet, two pop-up headlamps, two door moulds and sill moulds. Recalls Rawlings, ‘We got on well from the off and the project went fairly smoothly. I remember that we had a devil of a job getting the headlamps to work efficiently, but we did it.
For the rear, moulds were made for the two wings, rear bumper, engine cover and one each of the non-load-bearing buttresses. ‘These panels were attached by bonding with glassfibre where possible, and by countersunk self-tapping screws and pop-rivets where we had concerns about achieving a decent bond. We introduced a squared-off front splitter, increasing the frontal area by 25% to aid handling and increase the airflow to the radiator intake.’ The first prototype was finished in July and after extensive testing it proved snag-free. Rear vision had been noticeably improved and handling in crosswinds was far better because of the increased dowforce. At this point the car was taken to Lotus to ask Colin Chapman to allow the use of Lotus badging. The striking styling proved highly subjective everywhere it went, but the standard of finish and workmanship was certainly of a very high order and Chapman appreciated what Towns and Rawlings had achieved, so was happy to give his consent.
Around this time, the Daily Telegraph asked Lotus for a new Esprit for its styling stand at the Motor Show. Chapman wanted to oblige but he only had two complete cars at that time, one for the Paris Salon and the other for Lotus’s own stand, so he suggested the GS Europa as an alternative, pointing out the similarity of the GS’s angular wedge-like design to that of the Esprit. Chapman then called GS Cars and asked if it would be able to exhibit the car at Earls Court in October. The GS Europa team was delighted about the prospect, but it was already August and the development car was not show-ready. However, Mike Rawlings was quick to realise the sales and marketing opportunity the appearance would present, so it was a case of all hands on deck.
Rawlings also realised that the motor show demanded something special. Therefore, with less than two months to go, he decided to produce the ultimate GS Europa for the show. The bodyshell was repainted in striking metallic Lime Green; it was certain to split opinions, but also guaranteed that the car would be noticed. He also took the decision to fit a Ford Cosworth BDA engine mated to a five speed Lotus-Renault gearbox, and sent a BDA unit to John Robinson of John Robinson Racing Services, who tuned it suitably and modified it to fit the Europa’s engine bay. This was a proper production-minded engineering job rather than a quick show-only lash-up – a dry-sump lubrication system was incorporated to avoid the oil surge problems often experienced by mid-engined sports cars because of their inherently higher lateral cornering forces. The down-side was that the BDA sat one inch taller than the original twin cam unit the bodywork had been designed around, so a small bump was let into the engine cover to clear the alternator drive. Final adjustments included fitting the adjustable uprated Spax dampers to improve the handling and stance.
At launch, the GS conversion could be carried out on any Twin Cam Europa for £1200 including paint, while the outlay for the BDA-equipped version with all options boxes ticked was just short of £3800. Take-up was disappointing – although a production rate of two cars per week was envisaged, only 12-15 cars are known to have been completed. There are only two GS Europas left on the road, this being the only BDA-equipped example.
Concludes Rawlings, ‘The Europa was a good car before we started but we certainly improved the aerodynamics and handling. The BDA version had considerably more power than the standard Twin Cam. On a wet road, if you put your foot down hard it would get a bit squirrelly but you would expect that with any car with this sort of power-to-weight ratio. I did quite a bit of the test driving of course and all in all it was an absolute delight.’ I’m inclined to concur.
Flying buttresses are not load-bearing but helped to resolve the pick-up styling conundrum. The original John Robinson-tuned BDA had seized, so was rebored to 1760cc during the car’s recent restoration. Extra weight impacts on agility, but uprated suspension improves ride and grip. Mamba alloy wheels are 13in wide both front and rear. It was a sales flop, but a drive in the sole BDA-equipped survivor proves what a well-executed package the GS Europa was. Fuel filler caps had to be relocated. The show car’s dash was a backlit black plastic panel, since reversed. A window to a former existence.
1975 Lotus GS Europa
Engine 1760cc Ford Cosworth BDA inline-four cylinder, dohc, 16v twin Weber 40DCOE carburettors
Max Power 170bhp @ 6500rpm
Max Torque 140lb ft @ 4500rpm
Transmission Renault five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Front: independent wishbones, coil springs
Rear: independent links, radius arms
Brakes Discs front, drums rear, servo assisted
Steering Rack and pinion
Weight 850kg (1874lb)
Top speed: 132mph
Cost new >£3800 (BDA with all options)
Approximate value now £40,000
LIVING WITH A GS EUROPA
Says owner Martin Ricketts, ‘I previously owned a standard Twin Cam-engined GS Europa. When the first prototype came up for sale in 2007 I couldn’t resist it, knowing that it was the motor show car and still fitted with its original BDA. ‘It wasn’t running and was in a bad state; the BDA was partially seized but the car was complete. I decided to restore it then pass the Twin Cam on to another enthusiast. The bodywork and chassis was dealt with by Richard Winter at Europa Engineering. Dave Jones rebuilt the engine and rebored it to 1760cc, but sadly passed away shortly afterwards so never got to see the completed car.’
‘Like the Esprit, the car originally had a colourful patterned interior which had been replaced, and we had no photos or reference material. Since it wasn’t possible to replicate that without any real degree of accuracy, I chose to stick to the original Europa interior. The same applied to the opaque black dashboard that Rawlings had designed – it was reverted 18 months after the initial conversion, so I decided to stick with the standard Europa’s wood veneer. ‘The restoration was completed in 2015. The first outing was a demonstration run at the Cholmondeley Hill Climb where it ran faultlessly. People were fascinated by it and the BDA engine caused considerable interest. I use it fairly regularly and still get an immense buzz driving it.’