Paul Horrell 26 November 2013

What's Lotus doing with our cash?

Hethel gets a chunk of taxpayer money, but where's our new Esprit? Paul Horrell investigates

Lotus has just announced an infusion of £10.4 million of Government money, aimed at supporting new product development and adding 313 jobs in engineering and car making.

Well, jolly good. It adds confidence in Lotus after a scarily quiet past couple of years, since the collapse of the plan to launch five new sports cars, most of them to have been driven by a brand-new in-house V8 engine.

After the Malaysian owners, Proton, were taken over by bigger Malaysian owners, DRB Hicom, they said that this five-car plan was on ice. But they refused to say exactly what would replace it. If anything at all.

Instead they have concentrated on slowly growing sales of the current range, and improving quality. It's admirable in its modest way, and has not been without success. But of the long-promised new Esprit (concept pictured above), a total refusal to comment. The moment we received the announcement of this new money, I got on the phone to Norfolk. But the stonewalling goes on.

So we don't know what the new money will be used for. The agency stumping up is the Government's Regional Growth Fund (RGF), which "supports projects that are using private sector investment to create economic growth and sustainable employment".

It's not a big amount in automotive terms - £10.4 million will hardly cover the engineering and tool-up of an instrument panel, never mind a new supercar - but it shows the Fund has faith in Lotus. And to be fair Lotus itself announced in August a much larger £100m investment from DRB-Hicom, again without saying how it would be used.

But hang on. This £10.4m isn't really Government money. There's no such thing. It's our money. We the taxpaying people. So we'd like to know how it's being spent.

After all, Lotus remains a company too small to succeed as a proper global sports-car force, but too big to run as a low-cost 'men in sheds' operation making super-specialised machines. It needs a wider car range.

And we want to see jobs secured, and we'd be delighted if Lotus could contribute even more to the UK's thriving high-tech automotive engineering activities. Plus, selfishly, we're busting to get out there driving a new Esprit.

It's accepted car maker practice to keep schtum about a new car when you still have its predecessor to sell. That's why Porsche doesn't go public about each new generation of 911 until it's about to go on sale. But if there's no car to replace, it's wise to prepare the market for the new entrant. That's why we saw endless show cars and early models of the Aston Vantage, Audi R8, and Nissan GT-R.

Lotus's secrecy makes me wonder whether there really is a new car on the way. It looks as though the Esprit, which has already been designed, then re-thought, and delayed several times now, is suffering yet another bout of Lotus's characteristic dithering.

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