Light on the Fens – Lotus Progress Report

There are no more unicorns in Norfolk, but until we can discuss Lotus without the Great Bahar being mentioned, unfinished business remains.

Lotus' Jean-Marc Gales. Image: Eastern Daily Press
Lotus’ Jean-Marc Gales. Image: Eastern Daily Press

Dany Bahar’s legacy hangs around Hethel like a dank mist over marshland on a gloomy winter’s evening. But since Jean-Marc Gales took over in 2013 there have been a few shafts of sunlight. The sales slide appears to have been been reversed, and new models are filtering through. Gales has focused on improving quality, delivering cars on time and above all, executing the living hell out of the product he has, rather than what he’d like to have. Staff levels have been cut, down from around 1200 to about 900 and costs have been trimmed in other areas too, especially bought-in components. Build times are lower too, according to Gales, by 10% per car. All of which adds up to a leaner, more efficient operation.

Lotus is set to become profitable again during the current financial year, the first time the business has been in more than 20 years. “We’ve been cash flow positive since August”, Gales told Top Gear magazine recently, “and we are now turning an operational profit. With this money we can afford our future product developments.”

The sales picture is also looking better, Gales telling Automotive News that he expects to sell in the region of 2,300 cars in the year to April 2017, the bulk of which will come from the US. The Evora 400 was relaunched there during the summer to positive reviews with production now sold out until March 2017. In Europe, which probably means the UK – (it’s unlikely many are sold elsewhere) – sales of the Elise in the January-August 2016 period are down, but deliveries of both Evora and Exige have risen over the same period. The overall figures remain tiny, but this is Lotus we’re talking about.

Image: Motrface
Image: Motrface

The latest product announcement from Hethel is the Evora Sport 410, a new track-focused, stripped-out performance model. Gales told Top Gear the open version of the Evora is now scheduled for 2018 and that the inevitable SUV project is also on track, with a prototype running by year’s end. Also in the current product plan is an all-new Elise for 2020.

Gales’ recent volubility of course could be seen as context to a recent report that DRB-Hicom, the Malaysian owner of Proton and therefore Lotus, is looking to sell part or all of the business. In September, Autocar reported that PSA , Renault and Suzuki have expressed interest in Proton, but it remains unclear whether conversations have included the purchase of Lotus. Autocar reported again last week, suggesting a link with Chinese manufacturer Geeley who currently owns Volvo. This appears to have stemmed from talks two years ago where the Chinese car maker seemingly expressed interest in technical collaboration with Lotus, which Autocar have conflated into an interest to buy. Needless to say, Geeley have denied all such speculation.

None of this should be a shock to anyone, as DRB-Hicom’s intention was always to sell Lotus once it ceased to be a financial drain, allowing them to concentrate on the struggling Proton business. This of course will shake down in the fullness of time. Someone will buy Lotus, and a Far-Eastern car maker is the most likely – one can only hope it will be someone with deep pockets and a sympathetic ear.

Lotus Originals Store in London's Piccadilly. Image: Driventowrite
Lotus Originals Store in London’s Piccadilly. Image: Driventowrite

Returning however (with some reluctance) to the subject of the Great Bahar, strolling through London’s West End, last week I passed the Lotus Originals store – one of Dany’s big ideas for the marque’s increased visibility and outreach. It’s still there, although business was looking a good deal less than brisk. Buy three items and save 40% doesn’t sound like roaring trade to me. Another fine mess, Mr. Bahar. One can only assume the lease on the premises has a way to run yet, as I can’t imagine Gales having much patience for vanity projects of this ilk.

Image: Driventowrite
Image: Driventowrite

While on the subject of vanity, I also passed The Great Bahar’s latest temple to ‘excess all ARES’, his vehicle enhancement operation’s Green Park showroom. It was eerily devoid of vehicular substance – lights were on, but nobody appeared to be at home. I expect to see a To Let sign on the showroom window anytime soon and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to experiencing a frisson of schadenfraude at the thought. Perhaps there is a light on the fens after all.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Light on the Fens – Lotus Progress Report”

  1. That showroom is just absurd. Mercedes opened something remotely similar here in Hamburg a couple of years ago, branded as Mercedes me®. It was set up in order for people to experience Mercedes-Benz not just as a purveyor of automotive goods, but as a BRAND. In similar news, Dieter Zetsche did without a tie at recent product presentations. Kewl.

    Even more absurd though is the Bugatti Salon in central Munich. The rent must be substantial, yet the overall impression one gets just by looking through the windows is one of utter silliness: there’s some Veyron special edition (or at least that was the case in July) parked inside, next to a very ugly set of Bugatti-influenced chairs, which are all apparently intended to draw the crowds in and make them spend their hard-earned on either a Bugatti T-shirt (which isn’t made of vicuña, just in case you were wondering) or a 1/12-scale model. I’d be surprised to learn that they sold a single car there.

    The only convincing downtown car showroom I’ve come across so far has been Rolls-Royce’s here in Hamburg, though: two cars at the front for people to gaze at, and, more crucially, a ‘studio’ at the back, featuring examples of RR’s craftsmanship, such as different wood panels with exquisite inlay work and a cabinet maker’s workstation (which is fake, obviously, but does illustrate the point that a Royce is about actual craftsmanship). There’s also a ‘starry sky’ roof lining on the wall, which can be tilted, so that the hundreds of LED threads become visible. I still wouldn’t option it, but I was quite impressed to see the amount of work this particular gadget requires.
    Mind you, they don’t sell any kind of merchandising. No ‘my other car’s a Roller’ coffee mug for me then.

    1. The inspiration for the merchandising is from high fashion, Ferrari and cigarettes. Versace sell cheap-ish branded commodity items whose appeal rests on the fact Madonna or Ivanka Trump might have a Versace haut-couture garment at home. Ferrari trade on their name to sell anything that can take a label. Camel want to link activity clothing to activities to smoking. Lotus doesn’t have the brand power to support the brand drain that is labelled clothes.

  2. I’ve been up and down Piccadilly a few times recently, but never noticed that Lotus were still there. I’d just assumed that piece of vanity merchandising had disappeared with Mr B. I know I’m in the minority in thinking that branding is for cows not people, but surely Lotus would do better having their actual primary products, historic or contemporary on display rather that this stuff. This sparse shop just diminishes the label to me.

    1. JLR have taken over Aston Martin’s former vanity site in Munich (whose rent must be in the five figure region) and use it to exhibit past and present Jags and Land/Range Rovers. It’s still too car dealership like, but I appreciated seeing a Jaguar Heritage C-type in a location other than Gaydon.

      What really set that Rolls-Royce showroom apart was the earnest attempt to show the substance behind the product, at least in terms of artisan- and craftsmanship. To see and even touch a wood panel made of a dozen different kinds of timer and mother of pearl was something to behold, even if I’d never spec my car like this. The reproduced designer’s sketches (some of them depicting the very early stages of the process) also underlined a respect towards the creative process that made those cars into what they are as a finished article.
      Obviously, such presentations are inherently ‘fake’, but in this case it didn’t come across as a cynical exercise.

    2. Hi, it’s tucked away a little off Piccadilly – i.e. not directly visible from that street. You come out of the northern (I think) exit of the Tube station and can’t miss it. It must burn cash like a Veryron burns unleaded …

  3. Heartening to hear positive news coming out of Lotus.

    It sounds as if the Evora is finally getting close to the car it should have been (a 21st century Esprit). I have said before that their attempt to create a ‘premium’ product for the daily commute was folly – measured on those terms, Evora was always bound to fail.

    As a kind of half-pint supercar, however, it finds itself in rather more comfortable territory.

  4. Ford and Vauxhall need some vanity showrooms. They should send staff from the main offices on weekly rotation to tell the customers what they do and to learn what a customer looks like. No merchandise except for some model cars.

  5. The most dispiriting thing about sales is that people either want your product, or they do not. No amount of marketing flummery can disguise an ugly car, or move a badly priced one. That said, passive messaging is best used to guide attention towards the inherent virtues of a product. That’s why a Land Rover stand should always feature a car clambering at an absurd angle over rocks. Kris Kubrick’s experience in the Rolls Royce centre shows how it should be done: their cars are all about materials and craftsmanship. Heritage is a difficult play in Lotus’ case as it invites an unflattering comparison between the past and now. Their show room should feature expositions about the virtue of lightness, including milled aluminium pieces, suspension cutaways and nicely finished super stiff body panels you can lift with a finger.

  6. The site of that stupid €0.75 (to make) logoed cap sitting like an art exhibit on top of a far more costly, veneered flightcasey thingy sums up the fur coat/no knickers approach of Brand Bahar. Not that I’m really knocking him. It’s amazing what sells these days (see Brexit and US Presidents) so why not give it a try?

    1. The style is pretty cheesy, isn´t it? I can´t help noticing that the chaps in the car magazines seem to be similarly attired. I notice no Lotus tie or Lotus brogues.
      Lotus´ position in the world is a bit like Morgan and Ariels. They really don´t need to introduce new models with any great frequency as their constituency is quite stable. Better to hone the cars and make changes only where technology dictates. The multi-model strategy would be hard for a Citroen or Ford or Mazda. For a company with 900 employes selling just over 2 cars per person per year it´s impossible.

    2. The difference between Bahar and Gales is that the latter seems to realise that the business of a car company is selling cars. Bahar preferred ignoring and belittling the actual product available for sale in favour of his vanity project.

  7. If you want a bowler hat from Lock & Co, they need you in the shop. They measure your head and then adjust the hat to suit while you wait. I had a hat made for me by a hatter in Cologne. I didn´t notice for a long time that he skimped on the lining. And the oil in the sewing machine left very slow spreading discolourations on the band. I returned to the shop and he alleged it was perspiration. That lost any further business from me. Never fob off customers, ever.

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