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