In the late autumn of 1970, as the brown colours replaced the green of summer, the yellow streak of a sports car with the sides of a low slung bread van caught my attention in a South London showroom and instantly I fell for the contemporary, to some outrageous, design and the brightly painted body. My indifference to the impracticality of a two door, two seat, sports car was obvious. As a certified fanatic for exemplary design, particularly constructed around four wheels and an internal combustion engine, the vision in front of me, glistening in that showroom, deserved further investigation.
On asking to go for a drive, the salesman, ignoring my youthful appearance, or possibly relishing in the potential for my naivety, snatched the keys from his desk, opened the showroom’s large glass sliding doors and beckoned me towards the Lotus.
The driving position was extraordinary, I was virtually lying down just a few inches from the ground!
The black interior, the shiny wooden facia, with each dial displaying the Lotus emblem, the electric windows, rare in those days; all this and we had not even started the car, let alone driven anywhere! I digested the salesman’s instructions and explanations about the functions of the switches and dials, before sinking deeply into my seat, rolling the tiny gear stick from side to side to check and check once more that I was in neutral. This routine was born of the embarrassment and discomfort of lurching forward, leaping as a frog does, should I have turned the engine in first gear.
The roar of the engine echoed between the buildings as I edged cautiously along the street. The salesman sat in the passenger seat, he was talking but I wasn’t listening. The engine was literally behind our heads, serenading me with a well tuned, endless hum. As the Europa went faster the hum changed key, smoothly up an octave, building to a crescendo of delightful sound.This pulse of the engine was reassuring, the slick bodywork sliced through the wind, the gears shifted with ease as if through melted butter.
A mile or two of glorious motoring ensued, prior to pulling to the side of the road, climbing out and wandering, in a private admiration, around the car. The salesman extricated his portly frame from the passenger side and lit a cigarette.
“Only six months old. Twin cam, racing pedigree, well it’s a Lotus init?” His sales spiel was not the most eloquent, but he rumbled on. “Dunno, we had a fella come in who wanted to buy this, fink he’s coming back tomora, going to bring the wife to have a run out.”
I had to hide my youthful exuberance, not willing to seem over keen, although my heart was beating with desire and avarice.
“All right, call me if they don’t buy and I’ll make you an offer,” I retorted as we squeezed ourselves into the Lotus and headed back to the showroom.
The salesman played his well practiced waiting game for a day or two, to see if I blinked first. Eventually, after a long and excruciating silence over the weekend, he called and we agreed a price.
Looking back now, it seems almost inconceivable that the man who designed the folding workbench, the ‘Workmate’ also created the extraordinarily smooth lines of two Lotus sports cars, the Elan and this car of my young dreams, the Lotus Europa.
The folding workbench came about when South African inventor, Ron Hickman, sawed through an expensive chair when attempting to cut a piece of wood at his home. This error encouraged him to create a design which went on to sell over thirty million workbenches throughout the world.
The Lotus Elan, the first of Mr. Hickman’s designs for Colin Chapman, the Lotus Cars business owner, was an icon of the ‘sixties’, available as hardtop or convertible, with a fibreglass body. The Europa followed later in the decade. Ron Hickman’s sagacious talents had originally designed this model for the race circuits. The version I had purchased was the second incarnation, a marginally more ‘street’ than ‘track’ car. Not a conveyance for ‘look at me’ drivers either, the cabin was so small and dark, it was difficult to see inside and anyway, the ‘laying down’ driving position obscured sight of the person behind the wheel.
Much driving fun was to be enjoyed, especially the cornering; I felt as if the Lotus was on rails when tackling the curviest of bends, flying out the other end as if launched by a catapult.
A friend suggested we drive to Paris on a road trip, as she had acquaintances who would share their apartment with us during a short stay. I had another friend who lived there, working at UNESCO. We had not met for a long time and the lure of lunch at their canteen with fare from over one hundred countries seemed a wonderful idea.
The ferry crossing felt slow as I was eager to drive on the open Route Nationale to Paris, even though driving on the other side of the road would be a new experience.
On arrival in the City, as we drove to our destination in Rue Saint Charles, youngsters would shout ‘Lotusse’ as we passed by. One teenager yelled from the open back of a bus,”Qu’est-ce que c’est la plus vitesse ?” My school boy French could deal with the first part and I guessed ‘vitesse’ was speed as Triumph had made a convertible called the ‘vitesse’ which, although not fast at all, gave the impression, by the name alone, of being a speedy roadrunner. The second problem, was the translation of miles per hour to Kilometers per hour. This for me descended into random guesswork, thus I think the young sports car enthusiasts of Paris concluded, after a staccato, yelled conversation, raising our voices above the decibels of the Parisian traffic, that the yellow Lotus Europa, before their eyes, was capable of 200 mph!
On the second day, my travelling companion went to visit her friends and I met Vanessa for lunch at the UN staff cafe. That evening, a suggestion was put forward that we go to a cafe for a light supper, in a small town on the river Seine, a few miles from the bright lights of the City.
I chose to drive on my own and follow the friends’ car. As darkness came we pulled off the main highway. The roads became smaller in width and eventually, in total darkness, we turned onto a track with pot holes and enormous puddles. The Lotus did not like it, bumping and scraping its undercarriage on the stones below.
Our convoy was travelling at about 30 mph. due to the adverse conditions. Without notice, the lead car ploughed into a puddle the size of a small lake, the spray completely obscuring my view, giving me not a moment’s chance to slow and survey as to whether the Europa would make its way through the water safely.
There was no time, my car aquaplaned on the ‘lake’ and spun to the right. I heard a scratching noise beneath me as the Lotus grazed over the bushes at the side of the lane then plunged into the river.
My door would not open, although the back of the Lotus was wedged on the river bank, most of the car was submerged. There was no sense of desperation, more an instant feeling of unedifying regret that the fateful journey had ended in a catastrophic manner. If the rear of the Lotus had not been wedged, I surely would have been floating down the fast flowing river, entombed in a fibreglass cocoon.
I pushed the door against the mud to secure my escape. There was little movement, not enough to allow me to squeeze out anyway.
To my surprise, the headlights were still on, illuminating the underwater world of the river Seine. Water was seeping in from somewhere, my passport and driver’s license were in the passenger seat footwell, they were the least of my immediate concerns.
I slid my fingers over the button controlling the electric windows. They were still functioning. The window space was too small to climb through, although with the window now down, I was able to grip the door more robustly, with both hands, to have some leverage; back and forth, this rhythm gouged the river bed until the mud had retreated enough.
I gave the door one last heave and effected my escape into the water. The headlights had gone out by now. In the darkness, I clambered up the bank and stood still, observing the partially submerged Europa below. At times like this, the shock of the event is emotionally crushing and the disbelief shrouded in questions. Could this have been avoided? If only I could turn the clock back just five minutes? Will the car still work when hauled from it’s resting place in the river?
The car in front had turned around, the occupants desperate to see if I was alright. Eventually, a police car and an ambulance arrived. The only damage to me was my pride and the overwhelming despair of seeing my dream car shattered and broken.
Some six weeks later, the Lotus was delivered to me at home, by the Automobile Club. The fibreglass body, although bruised and cracked from the ordeal, was repairable. However, all the instruments and badges, anything with the word ‘Lotus’, had gone, stripped out as souvenirs, somewhere along the journey from the river to my home.
The man from the Automobile Club observed that there must be a few Citroens and Peugeots driving around Paris sporting a ‘Lotus’ badge!
Although based on a true story, some details have been changed but not the car!