A visit to Europa Engineering

Sitting on the plane from Australia to Heathrow, probably somewhere over rural Uzbekistan, I gazed out at the snow capped mountains below and cracked open my fourth bag of complimentary peanuts. I wondered what I’d find in England over the coming months, and what sorts of car stories I would be able to pursue. Sure, there would be the planned events, but the best stuff is never planned. My ideal was to chance upon a small workshop in a country village filled with extraordinary things and lovely people, but as a complete stranger this seemed a remote chance at best.

I would never have expected for this exact dream to occur, but it did. One evening the other week my girlfriend and I were driving through a little village 15 minutes north of where we’re currently staying in Southport, near Liverpool in the north of England. We pulled into a Co-op convenience store, and as I got out of the car I noticed a large Lotus emblem with a sign saying ‘Europa Engineering’. How unexpected. A Lotus Europa specialist in a small village in rural northern England? This begged further investigation.

A few days later I made contact with the owner, Richard, and arranged a time to come and have a look. What I found in meeting Richard was not so much a dedicated Lotus Europa specialist, but one of the most humble and talented automotive generalists I think I’ve ever come across. A man who has taught himself to perform almost every automotive skill you could think of, and one who has possibly the coolest collection of stuff that I’ve ever seen. In true English fashion he made me a cup of tea, gave me a tour of the premises, and let me loose with my camera to shoot anything I wanted.

First, some background. A panel beater and spray painter by trade, Richard began Europa Engineering in the late eighties to manufacture replacement parts for the Lotus Europa. The catalogue gradually expanded until Richard was producing everything required to build a new Europa, which is what he did. Over 500 Banks Europa’s were built; a completely accurate replica whose parts were fully interchangeable with an original car. At one point there were distributors selling complete cars in America and Japan, Richard ran a fleet of 11 Europa’s in historic racing for pay drivers, and he manufactured and supplied spare parts all around the world. You could spec your Banks Europa in completely stock trim indistinguishable from an original, as a serious balls-to-the-wall track weapon with a modern supercharged race motor, or anywhere in between. Banks would build your Europa with an original backbone chassis and suspension as designed by Lotus, or with their own bespoke tube chassis and inboard coilovers for more serious applications.

Richard and his team of 11 did everything on this small site in Banks – manufacture of the famous steel backbone chassis, manufacture of suspension components and fuel tanks, construction and painting of the fibreglass body, engine building, interior trimming and assembly. Nothing was outsourced, and each of those 500+ cars rolled out that small driveway past the convenience store to worldwide acclaim.

With spiralling labour costs, increasing regulation and monotony setting in from completing the same tasks over and over for decades on end, Richard decided to wind the car production side of the business down. The parts manufacture and supply side is still going strong, but Richard now spends more of his time working on individual customer projects, maintaining customer cars and working on his own eclectic projects. One of the earliest Banks Europa’s has even returned for restoration.

That narrow lane from the main road leads through a gate and into a large courtyard created by brightly coloured sheds on all sides. This wasn’t a courtyard when Richard moved in 30 years ago, but one by one the buildings have been added as extra space was needed. And yes, that is Richard’s helicopter. More on that later.

With tea peacefully consumed over plenty of banter, I was at a loss as to where I should start to photograph. I picked the glass walled showroom and headed into Richard’s temple of speed, with a loose plan of working anticlockwise around the courtyard. I was nearly speechless – I’d come expecting to find a handful of Europa’s in varying states of disassembly, yet instead I’d discovered a veritable museum of Richard’s mechanical and engineering excellence. It was telling that the only two vehicles on site to remain in stock condition – an Aston Martin V8 Vantage and a BMW GS adventure touring bike, were parked away in another shed under covers. Only the custom stuff sits on display.

This is Richard’s toy room, full of motorcycles, trikes, choppers, push bikes, what must have been thirty remote control helicopters, drones that he was building from scratch, model cars, trophies and F1 memorabilia. The truly astounding thing is that almost everything in this room has been either completely restored, built from the ground up, modified or earned by Richard.

Other than the small collection of modern Buell sports bikes, almost nothing in this room has been simply bought and put there. Everything has a story to it.

Richard has a particular passion for sports bikes from the seventies and eighties, and all of them in the room have been completely restored by Richard. The engine building, the wiring, even the painting is all done by Richard.

There are bikes from Laverda and Moto Guzzi, a Ducati 900 SS and 900 SS Darmah, a Kawasaki Z750 and Z1000, as well as Triumphs and Hondas. All have been restored to concours condition by Richard.

This pair of trikes each take their power from a BMW twin and make over 200bhp, which is more than enough to scare even the fastest modern sports bike. They use their power and light weight to keep up in a straight line, and then capitalise on that wide front track and large tyre contact patch to go even faster in the corners. They’re good for 240kmh, apparently.

About as far removed from the vintage and modern sports bikes are the custom bikes built by Richard, using parts from Exile in the US and Total Performance engines.

The bikes almost look like static display models such is their clean aesthetic, but Richard assures me that they are both fully complete and ready to ride. There are almost no visible wires or cables anywhere on the bikes, even the indicator switches and controls are hiding in plain sight.

In a side room sits a custom trike built by Richard, also with a Total Performance engine, more remote control helicopters, and more priceless Lotus memorabilia. It’s scarcely believable but the trike tank is not bare aluminium, it is a steel tank with a flawless paint effect achieved by Richard.

As if to show off his skills with the spray gun, Richard has even repainted his Honda quad in a metallic pearl yellow that is a better finish than factory, and has chromed the wheels, too. I searched the whole quad looking for a flaw in the paint and couldn’t find one – it’s a show car level paint job. And what’s even better is that quad’s are fully road registrable in the UK.

The shelves are full of trophies and photographs serving to highlight Richard’s long association with the Lotus marque on the circuits of England.

Everywhere you look there are Lotus models, pieces from Formula 1 cars, helicopters, framed art, signed programmes, trophies, steering wheels, helmets, each with an intriguing story. For example, I point to a bench full of drones and spare parts. Richard mentions that he built some of the first drones to be used for filming, and is currently working on a drone that flies with a camera and is controlled by VR goggles.

Everything, no matter how bizzare and wacky, has been lavished with care and attention. Richard has made a nice little pit ute by placing a bar stool (Lotus branded, of course) onto a go kart chassis. This isn’t some back yard ‘hold my beer’ type project – look at the quality of the paint work on the chassis, the custom nerf bars on the rear and the heat wrap cloth running the length of the exhaust.

A special shelf is dedicated to endurance trial rallies on the continent, some of which are over 3 or 4000 miles in length, and awards from the British Racing Drivers Club and a trophy from the Monterey Historic at Laguna Seca.

Richard’s own Banks Europa circuit car is housed in a special work area of this room. This is a highly developed twin chassis track car fitted with a 400bhp supercharged Vauxhall twin cam, inboard pushrod suspension, air jacks and full data logging.

Such is the level of detail and amount of care and maintenance lavished on it that the Europa has its own dedicated work space, bench and tools. Richard hasn’t had the Europa out for about a year due to other commitments, but he’s looking forward to having it out and breaking records again soon.

I stepped out of Richard’s toy shop and headed across the drive to the main mechanical workshop, passing by the smart Brabus Roadster he’s built to use on endurance rally events. It wears prototype AP Racing brakes front and rear, runs higher turbocharger boost pressure, has the transmission software modified for faster shift times and has had every ounce of weight stripped out. I make note of the lovely pair of carbon fibre Tillett seats, when Richard mentions that they aren’t Tillett’s but a pair he made himself just for this car. He based them on the Tillett design, but made them slightly wider and more comfortable and trimmed the cushion pads in soft leather. He bought the smart as a flood damaged write off and rebuilt it, naturally repainting it in that metallic pearl yellow while he was at it, as you do. Once again I looked hard for a flaw and couldn’t find one – a factory finish.

This workshop is where the main assembly of Richard’s cars takes place. The orange Europa on the hoist is fitted with the complete drivetrain and electrical componentry from a Smart Brabus – three cylinder turbocharged engine, sequential transmission, air conditioning, heating, ABS, traction control and stability control. Richard built it just to prove it could be done, and currently uses it on the long distance endurance trials. Another Europa chassis sat waiting restoration under the hoist, and all around lay parts and tools and jigs. That lovely Mk1 Escort packs a rather shocking surprise too, but you’ll have to wait until our new print magazine launches at the end of 2017 to find out what it is. Sports Car Safari Issue 1 will carry a full feature.

A room at the back serves a dual purpose as engine building room and store room for a litany of mechanical components.

Gearboxes, complete engines, heads, cam covers, carburettors, exhaust manifolds – any Lotus part you could imagine sits awaiting a future project.

Another chassis sat almost completed in the assembly area. I’d spent a couple of hours talking to Richard by this point, and the true brilliance and left-field thinking of his approach was beginning to properly sink in. Parked in the spray booth/body shop area in the next workshop was a white Banks Europa, almost completed and the third Europa on site. It was powered by a small capacity turbo diesel drivetrain from a Renault Kangoo delivery van, a rather odd choice for a sports car I thought. However, Richard was building it specifically for long distance endurance trials. The torque from the turbo Diesel engine would make such a light car quite punchy, and the fitment of a large fuel tank would give a range in excess of 1000 miles. It’s not only the extra fuel economy that will give Richard an advantage, but also not having to search as often for open fuel stations in rural back block areas of Europe will save considerable time, too.

As if this wasn’t crazy enough, Richard then mentioned that he was probably going to head in a different direction with the project and replace the Renault engine with jet turbine propulsion. I thought he was having a laugh, until he pointed to a small jet turbine engine sitting on the shelf next to the car.

On the other side of the bodywork workshop and spray booth sat a small trim shop, filled to the brim with templates and cuts of various fabrics. Trimming is the only thing that Richard doesn’t do himself; a part-time employee helps with this side of things.

 Sitting in the trim shop for storage was another Smart Roadster, although this example was rather more serious. Little more than the rear lights, side blades, door handles and mirrors remain from the original car – this is a very serious track weapon.

This Smart was built by Richard as a project for a customer, and sadly since its completion a while back its had no track time other than a brief shakedown. Even in its shakedown it proved blisteringly fast without any proper tuning and setup, and the potential residing in this car is huge.

A closer inspection highlighted Richard’s competence at building race cars. Everything from the chassis design and construction, component fabrication, bodywork, paint, and auto electrical work has all been done in-house by Richard. It’s quite incredible.

Located alongside the trim shop was the motorcycle workshop where another pair of Moto Guzzi’s underwent the final stages of restoration. Everything in the restoration of these bikes, from the careful replication of the vinyl seat trim to the engine builds and paintwork, has all been done in-house.

The next project awaiting restoration is this 1954 Augusta Bell 47 Helicopter, an example of the first helicopter available for civilian sale. This will be another for Richard’s collection, although I’m not quite sure where exactly he’ll keep it.

Richard has recently purchased it from France and even convinced the vendor to let him take control for a short time during the test flight. Local rules in the UK permit non licensed pilots to fly non approved aircraft so long as they remain over a nominated private property at all times and go no higher than 400ft. Luckily, Richard has a friend with a nearby farm, which is where this Bell will see most of its post-restoration flight time.

The final space is reserved for the machine shop; the heart and soul of the Banks Europa enterprise, and the place where most of the serious customer parts construction takes place.

This jig has guided the construction of every Banks Europa over the years, and other smaller jigs stored on the surrounding shelves permit the manufacture of everything from suspension arms to engine mounts.

On one bench sat a supply of swirl pots in mid construction…

… and scattered around were a handful of replacement fuel tanks also under construction. As the original Lotus parts corrode and disintegrate with time and use, Richard’s parts are often the only available solutions to keep even the genuine cars on the road. All of these parts are made by Richard, and it still amazes me at how he finds enough hours in the day to run a parts manufacturing business and still have so many complex projects on the go at once.

Richard does have a modern 5-axis CNC which is heavily used for the more repetitive tasks, but a fair chunk of the work is still done the old fashioned way.

The smallest building in the complex is occupied by Richard’s humble office space, and even this is filled with yet more objects of intrigue. I ask about these incredible looking Europa models in what looks like 1/8th scale or similar, and recognise the purple one as being a direct model of Richard’s own race car. At one point when Banks was running the fleet of race Europa’s, the owners of the various cars got together and commissioned a model maker to produce 20 body shells. Richard took five painted in the livery of each car he’d run, and the owners took the rest. The mould was then destroyed so that no more could be made, preserving the rarity and significance of the 20 in existence.

I ask about Europa Engineering’s relationship with Lotus, and Richard tells that it was at one point quite frosty. Lotus had even sent a letter demanding that Europa Engineering cease trading. Richard countered this by inviting Lotus representatives out to Banks to see what they were actually doing, and apparently the engineers were so impressed that Lotus instead gave its full support.

After a tour around Europa Engineering it’s hard not to be impressed not only by what Richard is doing, but also by what he has done in the past. It just shows that with a strong work ethic and an open attitude to learning and perfecting a skill, almost anything is possible.

  It also highlighted the types of incredible cottage industries that take place all over the United Kingdom. I’d read stories about people doing remarkable things and not making too much of a fuss about it, and I was thrilled and honoured to experience this for myself. You typically don’t get this type of stuff happening all that often in Australia.

As the major manufacturers shift increasingly to other technologies and away from small scale sports cars, it’s people like Richard who will keep these cars alive and running well into the future. Thanks again to Richard for taking the time to give Any Given Reason a tour.

Words and photos by Andrew Coles.

 

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