BQ Newsletter

Lotus position

Wednesday 8 February 2012 17:20

It may be madness, but one thing is for sure, designing five new cars in less than a year is going to be exciting. But Lotus has never been short in the ambition stakes, as Josh Sims reports.

Donato Coco says he feels rather tired. “This just never happens in the car world,” he says. “Normally a car company builds on the previous generation of cars. New cars evolve. We’ve had to pull together all our brand values and start from scratch. As a designer that’s very exciting. So exciting you could die from it...”

Coco is, however, still with us, even if he is no longer with Ferrari. The man who helped shape Ferrari’s F430 Scuderia Coupe, California, and the F458 Italia, among others, has now made the move to design director of Lotus, the relative minnow of a British sports car company that in recent decades has been somewhat on the skids.

He has given up sunny climes for eastern England. For what? Only to design five new cars in the space of nine months – against the industry norm of one every year or so.

“The design staff went up from 15 members to 65 almost overnight,” he says. “We got them from all over the world – wherever we could find them. And we’ve had to dream up what we’ve done since, otherwise when we woke up each morning we were already late.”

Next year sees the launch of the first dream – a new Esprit V8, returning Lotus to the supercar market and, of course, making a nod to arguably its most memorable model, driven underwater by Roger Moore as James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me. This will be rapidly followed by a new Elise, to take on the Porsche Boxster entry-level market; the Elite, a two-plus-two coupé more in the mould of Aston Martin’s DB; and the Eterna, Lotus’ first four-door “super-saloon” – all of which will necessarily share a distinctive handwriting.

In short, Lotus is gambling that it can go from historically-significant, fondly-recalled but commercially-stalled has-been to a serious new player in the luxury sports car market almost overnight.

“Why do it? Madness, stupidity, all the usual reasons,” explains a buoyant Dany Bahar, an ex-senior vice-president at Ferrari, and before that the COO of Red Bull and now the new CEO at Lotus. “But then any manager dreams of being able to reawaken a sleeping giant. It’s better than just doing more of what your predecessor did.

“This is a massive challenge. There are massive problems. But it’s massive fun. There aren’t many people who would take on Lotus now, not even without its debt, not even if it was for free. So the only response is attack. It’s 50/50, win or lose.”

Amid a recession, they may seem intimidating odds. But Bahar is confident that Lotus can be turned around and a British motoring institution saved – after all, Lotus may now be owned by the Malaysian car-maker Proton, but it was the company’s late founder Colin Chapman who put motor racing on the map in the UK. He made stars of the likes of Mario Andretti and Ayrton Senna. He pioneered many of the clever engineering techniques that became standard in Formula One racing (the company continues to operate a world-class engineering division, contracting to the likes of GM, Toyota, Vauxhall and Dodge). And he created a name legendary in the UK’s autophile circles to stand alongside the likes of Bentley, Rolls Royce, the late Bristol Motors, or the now also re-born Jensen.

Bahar’s plan is simple – to follow up on what Chapman realised back in the 70s, but could not correct, that it is almost impossible to build a business on low-volume, low-margin car manufacture. Instead, as Porsche has done, you need to retain the enthusiasts’ love for the brand while offering a range of cars that target several niche demands, including the latest ones.

“Even the idea of sports cars being sold as everyday, useable cars was unheard of just 10 years ago,” says Bahar. “But that’s not enough to revive the brand – you have to retain that special enthusiasm for Lotus, one that has survived even the last 15 years, when the company has been somewhat slowly disappearing. Lotus is still up there for those fans even after that.”

Indeed, as well as a design revamp and a market re-positioning, an image overhaul will be part of the turnaround process too. All Lotus cars will continue to be hand-built in England (“not by three robots wherever,” says Bahar); there will be a new emphasis on tapping into the romance of the brand through the launch this autumn of a clothing and accessories line – less the usual car brand promotional spin-offs as an upmarket collection in cotton, cashmere and high-grade leather that mentions Lotus in passing – products that can reach the strong base of fans who love Lotus but cannot afford the cars. And, as of last year, there is the return by Lotus to F1, after an 18-year gap.

“That’s just a no-brainer,” says Bahar. “It’s part of what the company is. Road cars were developed by Chapman just to finance the racing. Lotus is the only company to have won all major racing championships. And, besides which, racing gives us technical credibility. If it works for racing, it will work on the road – and the true sports car customer is someone who still cares about that.”

The company is even going out on a limb in the most unexpected of ways. The eagle-eyed may have noticed that five new car launches were mentioned, but only four described. The fifth is, remarkably, an electric, four-seater city car concept – chic, nifty, progressive, but hardly something to get the petrol-heads revved up. Yet it points to the revamped company’s new maturity.

“There’s no real reason for launching a car like that,” Bahar concedes. “You could live without it, but the fact is that the whole car market has changed over recent years towards smaller and greener cars, like Smart, Mini, Prius – and we have to recognise that.

Besides, there is still room to do all that with a sportier model.”

Room, certainly, has been something Donato Coco has been pondering too, in between trying to catch some sleep.

“We’ve enjoyed this last year,” he says. “And we’ve suffered a lot. Now we see if it will all work out. The most important thing has been to make sure we don’t repeat mistakes – that we correct previous cars’ limitations.”

What could he be referring to? The horsepower? The power/weight ratio? The handling through that tricky s-bend?

“I met this guy the other week who was a real Lotus fanatic, one of the many around the world,” says Coco. “But he told me he had a problem with them. He was tall and couldn’t get into any of the cars. That’s crazy and such a shame. So we’re making sure you can get in and out of these new cars more elegantly.”