It’s the size of the Ares Design HQ that delivers the initial surprise.
We’re in an industrial estate on the northern outskirts of Modena, Italy, on a mission to hear the latest of Dany Bahar – the former Lotus chief forever remembered for launching five new sports cars at once, for falling out very publicly with his Malaysian employers, and later for founding an Italy-based vehicle customisation business as a way of moving on.
Invited to visit the latter, we’ve been imagining Ares occupying a couple of industrial units in the back-blocks, but the reality is an 18,000sq metre former Fiat-Alfa-Lancia dealership complete with three storeys of modern buildings, a showroom and acres of parking and workshop space – plus another 10,000sq metres of spreading space in reserve, all of it identified by impressive totems bearing Ares’ script and the ancient Greek god of war’s helmet for a logo.
There’s irony in both. When Bahar and a handful of friends sat down to discuss what to do post-Lotus, they soon agreed they had no further appetite for corporate employment.
They resolved to start a car customisation business in the world headquarters of car craftsmanship, choosing work that would avoid what Bahar now describes as “the misery of homologation”, using the slings and arrows of recent experience to avoid pitfalls and fighting hard to make it work. Hence the Ares name and helmet.
We gather in a large white showroom labelled Ares Atelier and scattered with modern furniture. On the other side of a covered apron is a line of cars in progress, visible through glass doors. We linger over coffee until Bahar appears, seemingly no older that he was in 2010, a diminutive figure made larger by the presence he has always carried. He smiles, welcomes us and immediately starts talking business: Ares has been going since 2014, during which time it has “improved” around 300 vehicles and has established itself as a profitable entity with a £27 million annual turnover and strong prospects.
The requirements of clients are developing as fast as the business itself, he tells us: from initially providing individuals with new trim and body decor for their cars, Ares’ work now requires much more specialist design and engineering. A launch staff of five has progressed to 110, most of them engineers or dyed-in-the-wool northern Italian artisans.