Lotus stunned the world last week with the launch of six new models at the Paris motor show that will take the Norfolk firm right into the heart of Aston Martin, Porsche and Ferrari territory. Many commentators have expressed extreme scepticism over the plans, so Steve Cropley went to meet Lotus's new CEO Dany Bahar for the inside story on how the firm will carry out its radical plan.
“I always had a weakness for this brand,” says Hethel’s rule-changing CEO of the past 12 months, Dany Bahar. “Even while I was working at Ferrari, I knew Lotus was special. But to me, the products weren’t doing justice to the great name and heritage.”
Bahar, who sounds like a soft-voiced Michael Schumacher when he speaks, comes across as a far more emollient character than the person portrayed on the rumour-mill for the 12 months he has so far spent in the main man’s seat at Lotus, avoiding interviews while he put his radical changes into action.
He settles comfortably in an armchair as we talk, resting one leg comfortably on the other and displaying the sharpest trouser creases I’ve ever seen.
“We want our new cars to be as big as the brand itself,” he explains. “The previous management tried hard to do that with the Evora, but they had to leave everything else the same. Our new plan means we have the opportunity to change everything — to do things from a better position — and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Bahar readily acknowledges outsiders’ worries about his plan — raising the investment, finding the buyers, delivering the quality — and deals calmly with them, one by one. “Our investment is confirmed,” he insists. “Our shareholders have lost a lot of money at Lotus over the past 14 years, and they wanted to stop that. There were two options: sell the company or run it to its potential. They made the second choice.”
But just how dependable is the solvency of Lotus’s owner, Proton, given its well-known past losses and market difficulties? Bahar points to its strong links with the Petronas oil company and with the Malaysian government.
“They’re strong,” he says. “They have their own aggressive plan to lift production to a million cars over the next five to seven years, from around 350,000. Besides that, they’re fun to work with. They have 1000 engineers of their own, and Lotus is already making use of those as capacity allows to work on third-party engineering projects. It’s a great partnership.”
Bahar insists that although his name is on the recovery plan, it wasn’t simply something he dreamed up. “I asked people,” he says. “I'm not a car guy. We did lots of research and I consulted people I trust, some of whom liked the idea so much they now work in the business. That part feels good; knowing there are people who believe we can do this thing just as passionately as I do.”
Downsides? Bahar is disappointed by the reaction of the UK’s coalition government to Lotus’s requests for loans to finance its plant development. “We were asking for loans,” he says, “not grants. We could have 1200 new manufacturing jobs here under the new plans. They complimented us on our presentation, and the whole thing looked a no-brainer. But we learned it wasn’t a no-brainer…”
Now, Bahar says, they’ll make more use of outside suppliers. “We’ll do what we have to do here, but we’ll outsource things that aren’t our speciality — just like every other modern manufacturer does. That, and clever design, will help a lot with the quality thing. We won’t try to be experts at leather work. We’ll find people who can deliver it.
Bahar, a study in coolness, becomes almost excited when the talk turns to motorsport. “Lotus’s DNA is based on racing,” he says. “No other company has ever had such a wide spread of success: F1, other open-wheelers, Le Mans, sports cars, GTs. Why would we discard such treasure, when it’s where the brand’s authenticity comes from?
“Besides,” says Bahar, “racing has a big impact on the road cars. After they have been tested by the best drivers, you feel safe to take them to the maximum.”