Defying Stereotypes, Lotus Europa Proves Rock-Solid On Heroic Cross-Country Trek

Illustration for article titled Defying Stereotypes, Lotus Europa Proves Rock-Solid On Heroic Cross-Country Trek

Everyone was pretty impressed by the Aston Martins driving from Panama to Alaska, but we must assume that rally was loaded with top-flight mechanics equipped with the correct tools. How would you feel about buying a Lotus Europa in San Francisco, hopping in, and driving straight to Alabama- across mountains and desert in the height of summer, with room for only a couple of hammers in the toolkit, no less? Reader Matt has done just that, and he's been kind enough to send us photos and a well-written description of his adventure. Jump, jump! [Picasaweb]


July 1st my dad and I bailed out of a visiting with my grandmother in Kansas and flew out to San Francisco to buy my dream car - a Lotus Europa. I had been lusting over these cars for about a year and half. Race car suspension? Check. Extreme light weight? Check. Racing history? Check. Lots of personality? Oh my yes! Good price? Well, a little higher than I wanted to pay ($8500) but I figured it was the perfect time to do it in my life. The one we were picking up was in ok condition - actually mechanically it was in very good condition, but aesthetically it was not that great - even by Europa standards. Oh, and by 'picking it up' we were actually driving it 2700 miles most of the way across the country to Huntsville, AL! David, who I bought the car from, was great in coordinating everything with me and also did a lot of prep work to get it ready for the trip - he even gave us a full tank of gas! We got to his house about 2:30pm Tuesday and he spent a couple of hours getting me familiar with the car, this would be the first time I had ever driven a Europa. So at about 4:30 we left from San Francisco.

The drive through rush hour San Francisco traffic was a bit nerve racking to say the least. This car is low, real low. From our vantage point Ford Foci looked like towering Expeditions. We also found out real early that bumps that an ordinary car wouldn't even notice were like hitting huge potholes that sent shudders all throughout the car. It also lacked power brakes so I had to get use to the long pedal travel and high effort. The shifter in this car was good but different; most cars you can just push the gearshift up to shift into third, in this car you had to deliberately move the shifter to the right a few inches. The cable operated clutch was something to get used to too.

We did eventually get across the Golden Gate and took a break at the park there. What a spectacular view! I couldn't believe how many bicyclists were there too (I love bicycling). Our goal for the first day was to camp at South Lake Tahoe which was approximately 240miles from David's house. Unfortunately we got a late start and found ourselves driving in the dark - not fun in the Europa. I could barely see where I was going and worse was that I could tell that the road was nice and curvy - so I was missing out on all the fun. About 30 miles from Lake Tahoe we decided we couldn't take anymore and found an entrance to a National Forest where we wondered around for a while looking for a campground until we couldn't take that anymore so we just camped on the side of the road. Compromises in packing for this trip saw no room for a tent so we were sleeping under the stars - somehow I slept better that night than I typically do at home.

The next day we had the goal of getting to Zion National park - some 600miles away. One of the funnier events on the trip was when my dad was getting back in to drive after stopping at an overlook for Mono Lake. The overlook was slightly sloped towards a guardrail. He got in, put it in neutral, took the parking brake off, and let it roll right into the guardrail while frantically searching for the brake pedal! The pedals in these cars are extremely close together, I actually bought a really narrow pair of shoes but they were still not narrow enough so I drove most of the way bare foot. Because the pedals are so close together it's easy to put your foot on the clutch thinking it's the brake because in a normal car the clutch is about where the brake would be. I started laughing after he did it, he was pretty embarrassed I think. Luckily it didn't do hardly any damage (those bumpers actually do something!).

Onwards from Mono Lake, where I got to test out the Europa's dirt road ability (it really hated the washboards), we made it to Zion National park at about 7-8pm. Zion probably used to be a great place, it's still nice, but there are way too many people there. We actually camped in a designated campground that night but once again without a tent. The next morning we spent a few hours hiking at the park before heading out. The roads the previous day were actually a lot of fun, but the third day was mostly straight desert roads in the hot of the Summer. Right outside of Zion we also made an adjustment to the car that we should have made at the beginning - remember all that crashing over the bumps? That was mostly caused by the 12 way adjustable shocks being put on their lowest setting for comfort. Bad idea, we put them on setting 6 and it improved things dramatically.


Desert driving also caused the car to run rather hot especially when driving uphill. If you have ever driven through the northern parts of Arizona you know there are a lot of slow climbs up to the summits....and then back down. Luckily the car didn't get hot enough to cause problems so we didn't lose any time. Around 6pm we finally made it out of the desert, both of us extremely tired of seeing rock formations, and got into the mountains of Colorado. The car did really well here too, even at about 2 miles high it wasn't struggling although if you floored the throttle it was obvious it wasn't getting all the air it wanted. After supper we found ourselves driving in the dark once again, but we figured something out - nobody cared if we used the brights all the time! We could actually see with the brights on so it made night driving 20 times better. We found a campsite somewhere in between South Fork and Alamosa.

The next day's goal was to make it to Kingman, KS - about 400 miles away - where we could rendezvous with my mom who was taking care of her mom. We made good time and got there around 2pm on Friday - I was finally able to take my first shower since Tuesday! After visiting with my grandmother, my uncle and my cousin for a while we left with me driving the Europa following my mom and dad in their car. The intent was making it as far as we could without falling asleep. Unfortunately we only made it to about Tulsa, OK before I hit this particularly nasty bridge transition at 70+mph in the dark. The car absolutely launched in the air and I knew I heard the sound of pieces falling off. I immediately pulled over to the shoulder and checked for missing pieces or bent suspension - no problems found! But it scrambled the electrics quite a bit (insert Lucas joke/reference here) - one of the headlights went out, and the turn signals wouldn't work but the lighted turn signal indicators on the dash were on solid when ever the lights were on! A policeman pulled over and offered any assistance and showed interest in the car. Everything was road worthy except the headlight so we drove to the nearest hotel.


The next day was just about making the best time possible to Huntsville. The car made it without any more problems - in other words, for a British car (especially a Lotus) - it did really well. It leaked about a quart of oil every 600 miles, and averaged above 35mpg - I got 41mpg the last time I filled it up! The car, in my opinion, was really comfortable to drive - no back aches or sore muscles. The last day my ears started ringing a bit. There were a few people that were pretty interested in the car, and it was fun watching people coming the other direction turn their head probably wondering what in the world it was. It was really an incredible trip, one I hope to do again in another unique car but hopefully then I can do it over 2 weeks rather than 5 days so I can actually take my time and enjoy the scenery. I also probably won't do it right in the middle of the summer either. In conclusion, I used to think all those cool cars I wanted being in California was a terrible burden, now I think it's a plus!


Rob Emslie

@bozoerrebbe: Ha! I made the mistake of wearing Doc Martin's while driving a '65 Elan in a New Year's day road rally. Finally had to take 'em off because I kept hitting all three pedals.

Great story Matt, congrats on a great car and a successful trip!