For all but four of its 72 innovative and sporadically successful years, progress at Lotus has looked fragile. Even during its greatest racing days, those who knew the company behind the headlines were aware that it was often only a step or two from financial disaster, as if founder Colin Chapman needed a view of the financial abyss as a form of motivation.
Since 2016, life has been quite different. In that year, Lotus was acquired by the Chinese Geely group, the successful and much-praised owner of Volvo and the London Taxi Company (now LEVC). Geely founder and chairman Li Shufu promptly signalled that £1.5 billion would be invested in the Hethel company over the long term to fund an ambitious development plan to replace the current range of UK-built sports cars in the UK and to create a brand new range of sporty SUVs in Asia.
Late in 2018, Geely hired the high-achieving former Land Rover and Sunseeker boss Phil Popham to lead Lotus’s charge as CEO, building on improvements to sales and manufacturing efficiency begun by his mercurial ex-PSA Group predecessor, Jean-Marc Gales. One early, pleasant task for Popham came with the unveiling in July last year of the new Lotus Evija, a £1.7 million all-electric hypercar designed to grab worldwide attention for a brand that, in the new CEO’s words, has “high global awareness but low familiarity”.
As a means of demonstrating the potential of modern Lotus, the Evija could hardly have been more effective, especially since other aspects of Lotus’s business were starting to go well. A backlog of overstocked cars had been cleared, sales were rising, dealer numbers were being carefully increased, quality was on the up and a skeletal, half-finished factory at Hethel – a monument to previous failures – was on the road to completion.
Even so, when Covid-19 arrived early this year to knock Europe’s motor industry sideways, media pundits familiar with Lotus’s fragility expected some of the earliest bad news to come from Hethel. Only this time it didn’t. For once, others seemed to be doing worse. Lotus went into a well-organised survival mode, but its secure backing meant it could keep its eye on the long-term plan.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, Lotus became the first important automotive player in the UK to stage an event intended to signal a return to normal(ish) life, choosing the Warwickshire driving enthusiasts’ haunt Caffeine & Machine, just off the Fosse Way, as a venue and bringing along a selection of its latest and best Elise, Exige and Evora models. Selected hacks drove the cars and enjoyed them but, on this occasion, it seemed more important for Autocar to hear the latest from Popham, notably about progress with Vision 80, the 10-year plan he drafted soon after his arrival that sets goals for where the company aims to be on its 80th birthday in 2028.
“At present, we’re running two businesses,” Popham explains. “There’s the long-term project that will transform us into a much bigger business at the end of the decade and there’s our current business. Vision 80 at present is about product development, finding the right people and setting up infrastructure for the long term – and because that’s currently funded from shareholder investment, it hasn’t been greatly affected by the Covid crisis. Staff have been working remotely and many will continue to do so.