Lotus looking to bright future after 70 years of pride and passion
Motoring editor Andy Russell grew up with Lotus. Here he looks at why people took this Norfolk sports car maker to their heart, sharing the ups and downs, success and failure and why, 70 years after being founded by Colin Chapman, it is still very much in the driving seat.
I was five when Lotus moved to Hethel – an impressionable age for a lad fascinated by space technology and cars. Like many others, this fledgling Norfolk car company won a place in my heart and I’ve wanted a Lotus ever since.
I am of the generation that grew up with Lotus, sharing the passion of Formula One world and driver championships, feeling the tragic loss of racing drivers and fearing the worst in difficult times with takeovers and huge losses which threatened the iconic brand.
Lotus always bounced back with parent companies valuing the Lotus street-cred as much as its engineering expertise which has benefitted many car-makers and the Lotus coffers.
Like David and Goliath, Lotus trounced the opposition in Formula One. Driven by boyhood heroes – Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt, who died during his winning season, Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti – it pushed the boundaries with innovative thinking, such as aerodynamic ground effects and active suspension, way ahead of its time and sometimes banned. But it was know-how that found its way into its road cars and saw our Norfolk car-maker competing head on with the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati.
Founder Colin Chapman was a master engineer and a master of winning Lotus publicity. Star product-placement roles saw models become icons of early TV and cinema screens – Emma Peel’s (Diana Rigg) Lotus Elan S2 and S3 in TV’s The Avengers, Patrick McGoohan’s Lotus Seven in The Prisoner but my favourite is James Bond’s (Roger Moore) Lotus Esprit S1 submarine car in The Spy Who Loved Me movie. They helped build the Lotus cult following with, in the case of the Seven, many owners building them from affordable kits.
But the constant key to success has been the Lotus mantra that lighter is better – Chapman’s obsession with light weight is still at the root of its DNA.
“Simplify, then add lightness,” he said.
“Adding power makes you faster on the straights, subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”
It’s as true today with the latest models going into the Lotus ‘lightweight laboratory’ working out how to use fewer, stronger components, the latest composite materials and constantly striving to deliver the less is more philosophy.
Lotus is set to reap the rewards of its takeover last year by Zhejiang Geely Holding Group – or Geely – a rising Chinese automotive star making more than 2.5 million vehicles a year at a time Lotus also finally returned to profitability.
In 2010 Geely bought Volvo, from Ford, and the Swedish car-maker has seen a dramatic turnaround, currently holding UK, European and World Car of the Year titles.
China is a vast market car-makers want to break into – Geely gives Lotus a foothold. China’s pollution problems is also driving its development of electric and hybrid vehicles – Lotus’s work in this field would have added to its appeal.
Volvo is building cars in China, and its first fully electric car will be built there as well, so there’s a good chance a new range of electrified Lotus SUVs, sharing some Volvo technology, will be too, mainly for the Chinese and American markets.
So where does that leave Hethel?
It was reported last month Geely is preparing to pump nearly £1.5bn into building the Norfolk manufacturer into a global sportscar heavyweight with, according to financial news service Bloomberg, a significant investment in new staff at Hethel, a second factory in the West Midlands and a design and innovation centre in Coventry as it aims to raise annual Lotus sales from 1,600 to more than 10,000.
The Norfolk factory will continue building its exclusive sports cars, including two new models being developed, on a modernised production line but, while some heavier tasks will be automated, the emphasis will still be on handmade cars.
So, as Lotus looks back on 70 years, it can look forward to the future with a new sense of confidence, purpose and investment. Another winning formula.