29 June 2013

Jeremy Clarkson on: Lotus

Lotus is in trouble again. Jeremy knows exactly what’s gone wrong…

Jeremy Clarkson
Car image

And so there we are. Saab, TVR, Humber, Riley, Gilbern, Wolseley, AC, De Tomaso. All dead. And now it seems Lotus is peeping through the cemetery's rusting gate.

Indeed, earlier this month, there were reports that the axe had already fallen. Can you even begin to imagine the torrent of stories that this would have generated, had it been true? We'd have read reams about the engineering prowess of founder Colin Chapman, who realised in the Fifties what other carmakers are only just beginning to understand now: lightness is everything.

Motorsport enthusiasts would have produced thousands of words about the black and gold JPS Lotus F1 cars. There would have been eulogies about the seven world championships, and interviews with Emerson Fittipaldi. And tears would have turned the purple prose into a mauve mush.

Then you'd have been treated to miles of column inches on road cars from the glory days. Men with beards would have gone to Norfolk and driven around in old Sevens. There would have been pictures of Diana Rigg who used an Elan in The Avengers, and Roger Moore who had an Esprit in various Bond movies.

And I wouldn't have been surprised by any of it, because Lotus did indeed have a veneer of excellence. But behind the outer layer of sharp handling and Ayrton Senna and boffins working their magic among the turnip fields of East Anglia, Lotus is actually a company with a hopeless and, in some ways, slightly disgusting past.

It all began well enough in some London stables. And there can be no doubt that Colin Chapman was deeply clever. Having coined the mantra "Simplify, then add lightness", he proceeded to do no such thing. He added complications, many of which were very successful. It was he who brought aerodynamics to motor racing. He who invented ground effect. He who introduced composites.

But, sadly, it appears that he wasn't a very good businessman. Which meant that in 1980, when sales were low because of a global depression, he didn't innovate or invest his way out of trouble. He made an arrangement with Toyota whereby Lotus would offer expertise in handling in return for not much, so far as I can tell.

Meanwhile, to boost sales in the US, he did a deal with an American lawyer which was one gigantic tax-avoidance scheme. Anyone who invested was given a personalised Esprit Turbo. I'm sure it was all very clever, but when you are moving columns of numbers around in ledgers, you are not thinking up the next big thing in your car factory...

That's why the next big thing was in someone else's car factory. John DeLorean's. Mr DeLorean had employed Lotus to design a chassis for his new sports car which would be built in Northern Ireland, in a factory paid for by the British government.

All was well until it transpired a great deal of money had gone missing. DeLorean fled and was subsequently busted for dealing cocaine. DeLorean went t**s-up. And Her Majesty's tax inspectors turned their attention to Colin Chapman, who promptly died of a heart attack. He was only 54.

The company was saved by a group of businessmen who did some kind of a deal with the taxman. And there was much cheering and waving of flags in the turnip fields. But it quickly became obvious that the businessmen, though wealthy, were not wealthy enough to go it alone in the car world. And so, in 1986, Lotus was sold to GM.

It was a vanity project really for the then GM chairman, Bob Eaton. But, quite soon, the bean-counters and shareholders and everyone else realised that entrusting a small, boutique sports car company to the biggest car firm in the world would be like United Biscuits taking over Prince Charles's shortbread operations.

So, six years later, Lotus was flogged to a company in Luxembourg which was run by a chap called Romano Artioli. He commissioned a new car, named it after his grand-daughter Elisa. And then went bust.

So along came Proton who seem to have invested the grand total of Rs 0. They kept on making the Elise in various guises until it started to feel old-fashioned and a bit rubbish. Then they kept making it some more. And then they employed Dany Bahar who'd been senior vice president (small cog) at Ferrari's aftershave division who said that he would take Proton's £0 investment and use it to turn Lotus into the best and biggest sports car company, with lots of exciting new models, all of which would be better than any Ferrari. He was suspended and then dismissed.

Now, Lotus is run by a company called DRB-Hicom. Which doesn't sound very romantic. The original Lotus Sevens are now made by an outfit whose F1 car turns up at the track every other weekend to come last. And then there's the actual Lotus F1 car which isn't a Lotus at all.

So. To recap. Lotus was mismanaged from Day One by an endless succession of owners who didn't know what on Earth to do with it. People who used it as a tax dodge. Enthusiasts. Massive corporations.

All lured into the web by some piece of engineering cleverness in the Fifties. And then all spat out again by the harsh reality that image won't sustain an inferior product for very long.

Where have we heard that before? On the epitaph of every British car firm that's gone belly-up in the past few years. Take Austin. They made the Mini, and it was very clever. So they kept making it... for 40 bloody years. Then you have Land Rover, which, after the war, made a sturdy 4WD car. It, too, was very clever and they're still making the damn thing today.

When Lotus really was in trouble and really did need to scythe its way back to prosperity, what did it do? It built a new Elan. And what's it doing now? God knows. Not preparing to shock the world, that's for sure.

If VW was being run by the British, it would still be making the Beetle. If Citroen were based in Coventry, it'd still be churning out 2CVs. If Apple were a UK business, its computers would still be six-feet across. We seem to have made resting on our laurels a national pastime in this country, and I worry we are seeing the same sort of thing going on today at Aston Martin.

I like the current range. Everyone does. But I can sense when I drive the supposedly new Vanquish that it feels old-fashioned. Buzzy buttons don't completely mask the fact that it comes with a whiff of the 10-year-old DB9. This is no good. To survive these days, you need to find money so you can invest your way into the future.

Or you need an innovation so brilliant that buyers will come in droves anyway. You can't just bumble along in a red-phone-box state of mind saying: "But we've always done it this way." Or you'll end up like the London taxi.

Meanwhile, the 20th series of TG will be back in the summer, featuring The Stig, Stars in the Reasonably Priced Car and items in which Richard falls over and James gets lost.

Tags: jeremy clarkson, lotus, aston martin, citroen, proton



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