‘Cut me and I’ll bleed Lotus.’ It’s a good quote, made all the more memorable for the man who made it. For this was not Colin Chapman nor any other Lotus employee past or present, but none other than Gordon Murray, designer of some of the most successful F1 cars and perhaps the most revered road car of them all.
I know how he feels. The Lotus approach is so simple, so pure, so obviously and ineffably right you’d think all car manufacturers would follow it. And yet, 70 years after Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman made his first Austin 7 Special, hardly any do. Why? Because it’s brought Lotus to the brink of oblivion on more than one occasion.
Chapman’s approach as all will know, was to make his cars as light as possible, figuring quite correctly that while adding power will only make a car quicker on the straights, removing weight will make it quicker absolutely everywhere. But there’s more to it than that, advantages that should make the Lotus way more relevant and enticing today than ever before: because a light car will use less fuel, produce fewer emissions and eat consumables like tyres and brake pads more slowly.
A light car is a car that wins on every front, bar one: the showroom. In an era we will come to regard as one akin to when dinosaurs ruled the earth, high and heavy SUVs are what people want, regardless of their manifest dynamic limitations and often calamitous fuel consumption. A lightweight, gorgeous Lotus you can drive with your fingertips? Not so much.
The truth is that a Lotus subscribing to traditional Lotus design principles is a devilishly difficult car to make. Actually, let me modify that statement: it’s a devilish difficult car to make and then sell for a profit. For it is now and always has been both cheaper and easier to add weight and offset at least in part with additional power. Building properly light cars either means they must be stripped to the bone, in which case you can’t ask too much money for them, or made out of exceedingly expensive materials which forces the price point far beyond what people expect to pay for a Lotus.
But now Lotus has a chance to shine, because its purchase by Chinese giant Geely has presented it with quite clearly the greatest opportunity of its chequered life to date. If you don’t know Geely, be advised that the total and utter transformation of Volvo’s image and fortunes in the marketplace of late are down to Geely’s patronage. What’s more Geely has, at least in Volvo’s case, backed those who best know and love the brand to make the most of it. It has provided Volvo with the backing it needed, but otherwise resisted the urge to meddle in its affairs.
So the question is if and when Geely does the same for Lotus, what car should it first make? The temptation to do another Elan or Elise is obvious. They live in the Lotus sweet spot, exactly where people expect Lotus to operate with cars that are true to Chapman’s original vision. And, to be fair, it is the Elise and its derivatives that have kept Lotus alive for well over 20 years. But at times only just.
But I think it is another kind of Lotus that should lead the charge: I think it should do a new Esprit. An Esprit would make sure Lotus kept within the bounds of what customers might expect, but the profit margins could be wildly higher, not least because it could doubtless adapt an extant Volvo four cylinder turbo powertrain to suit. And that would be true to the Esprit’s roots too. Most of all however it would start to change people’s perception of Lotus. That’s why the Esprit was originally conceived in the mid-70s, but build quality issues meant it never quite turned the brand into the true alternative to a Ferrari Chapman hoped for. Now Ferrari itself has gone further upmarket, there is a something of a gap in the market for a mid-engined two seater above the likes of the Porsche Cayman but below where Ferrari, McLaren and Lamborghini operate. A mid-engined Esprit with, say, 500bhp, costing less than £100,000 would even position itself below the Aston Martin Vantage. And it would be a far more hardcore driving machine than a standard Porsche 911, but more affordable than the GT3s against which it might otherwise compete.
After the successful introduction a new Esprit, I think Lotus can then spread its wings and create not just a new Elise but, I’m afraid, an SUV too. Think what you like about the idea, but if SUVs remain the flavour of the month, year and decade, no serious sports car brand can really afford to be without one.
Anyway, that’s what I think it should do. Whether it will do that, or anything remotely similar is an entirely different matter: my record in predicting what any car company might do next is not exactly flawless. But what I do know is that for the first time in decades the future for Lotus is genuinely bright and for that, all of us who bleed Lotus, should be truly grateful.
Words by Andrew Frankel