Authorities have expressed concern as reports of unicorn sightings are once again rife in Norfolk.
When former Lotus CEO, Dany Bahar packed his trunk and said goodbye to the Norfolk broads, the outpouring of relief was not only palpable, but most likely mutual. After all, for the former Ferrari sales and marketing supremo, the unglamorous environs of Hethel were unlikely to have been to his taste and for Lotus themselves, because his ludicrously unrealistic visions and spendthrift policies had to all intents and purposes bled the business dry.
In his stead, former PSA chief, Jean-Marc Gales became the putative safe pair of hands, successfully stabilising the business, arresting an alarming talent-drain and restoring a missing sense of purpose and fiscal rectitude. However, following last year’s partial acquisition of Group Lotus by Geeley Auto, Gales departed, replaced at Group Lotus by the Chinese car giant’s group head of engineering, Feng Qingfeng and directly at Lotus Cars by former JLR and Sunseeker Yacht executive, Phil Popham.
Following Geeley’s controlling stake in the business, many speculators and commentators converged around the notion that the Chinese motor group, who have so successfully stewarded Volvo’s post-Ford resurgence, and currently control Polestar, Lynk & Co, taxi builder, LEVC, Proton Cars and aero-car maker, Terrafugia would set Lotus on a similarly upward trajectory. Even those of a more cynical bent suggested that this would likely be the best (and possibly final) opportunity the historic specialist carmaker would be offered to realise the potential it hitherto had been denied.
With a reputed £1.5 billion of fresh investment from its new Chinese parent, the mainstream press reported that Geeley’s plans would include an expansion at Lotus’ Hethel headquarters, a new design and engineering centre in Warwickshire, not to mention the prospect of a further manufacturing plant in the Midlands to cater to the increased production volumes Lotus’ expansion would likely entail.
In a recent piece, Autocar breathlessly reported upon news that management have sanctioned a £2 million electric hypercar, aimed at the very top-end of the exclusive car market. According to staff writer, Mark Tisshaw, the limited-run two-seater projectile will be the quickest, most exclusive, and most ambitious model Lotus have made in their 70-year history. According to the author, ‘project Omega’ is ‘shrouded in secrecy’, which as a statement requires a certain suspension of disbelief.
He goes on to state that Geeley plans to make Lotus ‘a force to be reckoned with’, adding that as a result of their new Chinese patron’s largesse, the historic carmaker currently has ‘the World at its feet’. It is of course for such forensic investigatory journalism that we truly cherish this storied, 123-year old UK automotive weekly and its online equivalent.
The electric hypercar is not the only programme believed to be in hand at Hethel. Lotus is also said to be planning not one, but two crossover CUV vehicles, to be built using shared Volvo/Lynk & Co platforms and powertrains, and according to the Autocar report, to be built, not as previously reported in the UK, but at Volvo plants in either Sweden or the US. In addition, a replacement to the long-running Evora model is believed to be in hand, although there is no mention of a planned replacement for Lotus’ strongest seller, the entry-level Elise.
Following Jean-Marc Gales 2014 appointment in the wake of The Great Bahar’s precipitous fall, Lotus sales rebounded somewhat, at least within the confines of the miniscule volumes in which they are made. But it appears as though the Gales’ plan of leveraging the existing range through product extensions and special-run editions has reached the limits of expediency. European sales across the board for 2018 (year to October figures)* amount to 523 cars, while no figures are available for Lotus in the US market since 2015, suggesting few (if any) have been sold since that date.
Clearly the current situation lies some way short of adequacy or viability and that in order to arrest Lotus’ further descent into irrelevancy their new owners have concluded the future for the marque lies further upmarket. However doubts have been expressed as to whether Geeley understands the historic carmaker sufficiently in order to steward it towards a sustainable future without damaging its essence.
Because what is abundantly clear is that the very last thing Lotus requires is a £2 million hypercar, not only because it exists so far outside the carmaker’s most ardent ambition and historical remit, but also because the world is already awash with similar tawdry conveyances aimed at what are loosely termed ‘high net worth individuals’. What could Lotus realistically bring to market that could possibly swing a purchase over a Bugatti or top-end McLaren, should that be one’s ardent desire?
But let us for a moment put aside the notion that Autocar could simply be adding two plus two and making ten, a not entirely improbable calculation from the habitually hyperbolic Haymarket weekly. Because even if they are even loosely correct in their assumptions, one cannot help feeling that the whole thing has doom written all over it.
Last year, Geeley CEO, Li Shufu pledged that his business was “fully committed to restoring Lotus into being a leading global luxury brand.” A statement which far from sounding emollient, ought to elicit dread in anyone who wishes the legendary carmaker well. Because not only does it reek of vainglory, it comes with the broadest whiff of Unicorn, the unmistakable and wincingly expensive aroma of eau de Bahar.
The rules of Lotus have always been simple enough. Mess with them at your peril.
*Sales figures: Carsalesbase