While Lotus has made some great cars over the years, paradoxically its fortunes have always been precarious. The Hethel-based sports car maker swings between crisis and salvation, seldom ever reaching that utopian state of being 'in rude financial health'.
Chief executives of Group Lotus – an outfit that includes the car manufacturing division and an automotive engineering consultancy business – have displayed an alarming tendency to pop up beaming with optimism and then quietly disappear. The last man in, Kim Ogaard-Nielsen, lasted all of 18 months and now there's a new man at the controls, one Michael J Kimberley.
Lotus fans might recognise the name. Kimberley first joined the company in 1969 during the Colin Chapman era and became the cornerstone of Lotus after its founder's death in late 1982; he didn't leave until the end of 1991 and went on to work for General Motors and Lamborghini.
'Mike', as he prefers to be called, appears to be just what Lotus needs. Yes, you can see that behind his smiles and easy-going manner that he's a hard-nosed businessman, but he's also a car nut and a Lotus nut in particular. I doubt that there's anyone who knows the brand inside and out like he does and when it comes to the cars themselves he's as keen as anyone around the factory to get behind the wheel.
He loves the Exige, for example, personally prefers it to the Elise, and is keen for the coupe to be regarded as a completely separate model. He'd also like to see a return to the days when Lotus engineered its DNA into the mainstream models of other manufacturers. 'This would not be badge engineering,' insists Mike, 'but properly developed cars like the Lotus Cortina, the Lotus Sunbeam and the Lotus Carlton. The Lotus Cortina really put Ford on the map and a similar type of niche model now for some other manufacturer would add another leg to the Lotus business base.'
Oops - it's the Esprit
But what about 'real' Lotus product, what's Mike's plan for that? 'For Lotus to be successful we need a three model line-up and the jewel in the crown is the Esprit; it always was.' (At this point the PR man cringes and reminds Mike that what he meant to say was 'the mid-engined sports car' – no decision has been made about the name yet. Allegedly.)
'This will be a great car,' Mike continues, 'and it will instantly recognisable as a Lotus. As for the Elise, it will continue a commonsense evolution with a number of minor and major changes to come – there'll be a reasonably major change in a couple of years. You'll see some more model variants, an expansion of the range and we'll continue to develop the entry-level market. The Elise and Exige will continue to provide the iconic, purist baseline for Lotus. Some people are criticising the Europa but the fact is that there are a lot of people out there who want a sports car they can drive every day – to not do the Europa would be to deny Lotus access to a market five times bigger than the one we're currently in.'
As for detailed model plans, Mike is unable to be more specific, citing the fact that, at the time of our interview, he had only been in the job for eight weeks. However, part of his remit is to conduct an audit of all the company's facilities and projects, the Esprit (how could Lotus not call it Esprit?) and Europa included. Mike confesses that there are a few changes to be made to the Europa's interior before it goes on sale in September and similarly there could be modifications to be made to the Esprit. However, he does say that despite rumours that Lotus is looking at other drivetrains for the Esprit, development is too far down the line to consider changing something so fundamental.
Can Lotus execute?
Of course, previous incumbents of Mike's position have reeled off ambitious model plans then shortly afterwards announced catastrophic financial losses, so what's different this time around? Well, talking to the tall 69-year-old, you get the sense that watching from the sidelines for several years has given him a special insight into what needs to be put right.
'One of my key objectives,' states Mike, 'is to turn our corporate culture away from a 'big company' mentality back to a small yet lean and mean organisation with a 'can do' attitude from a bunch of motivated people. I want Hethel to once again become the place that people aspire to work. Colin (Chapman) was one of my mentors, and although we used to have the most tremendous fights, he was great to work for and a great motivator.'
Helping speed up the decision making process is the fact that Mike is one of just three people sitting on a sort of operations board with Proton Holdings, owner of Lotus, and this triumvirate is sanctioned to approve any major plans for the company.
Having had to do so many times in the past, Mike believes in working very closely with the company's shareholders, and as a consequence Group Lotus is getting a tremendous amount of support from them – witness the announcement shortly after Mike joined that production of the Esprit would not shift to Malaysia as had earlier been mooted. And having lived in Kuala Lumpur for several years when working for GM, he understands the idiosyncrasies of doing business in southeast Asia.
So far all the talk is of the car side of Lotus, but there's also the engineering division to consider. 'Colin and I set up Lotus Engineering in 1977 to emulate Porsche which had been very successful with its consultancy business even during a downturn in its car operations,' explains Mike. 'For some reason our Engineering division appears to have been allowed to reduce in scale, yet I see it as a real growth area.
'At one time about 90 per cent of our profit came from Engineering and now it's the other way around. We've perhaps concentrated too hard on car manufacturing and within Engineering itself we've done too much work for shareholders. But we have an impressive skills base here – for instance, Lotus can homologate cars for all global markets and that's a real benefit for any client.'
What Mike is unable to add for reasons of client confidentiality, is that Lotus Engineering has also been responsible for several pieces of serious technology for iconic sports car makers. However recent agreements with Chinese car maker Nanjing to develop MG product for its home market and Europe, and the American firm Tesla to co-develop and manufacture an Elise-based all-electric sports car, show that the resurgence of Lotus Engineering has already begun.
Time will be the final arbiter of whether or not Mike Kimberley's take on how to take Lotus to a higher plain, one where in addition to producing fabulous sports cars the company can make comfortable profits, is any more credible than those who have gone before him. However, having interviewed most of the men who have occupied his chair inside the low-rise offices at Hethel, there's something about the man that suggests that he could well be the bloke to do it.
His knowledge of the company is unrivalled, he admits to its failings as well as its strengths, he's well connected with Lotus's owners, he understands the global marketplace, and as well as being a level-headed businessman he's also passionate about the cars and the engineering that his company produces. Furthermore, I see him as a genuine figurehead for Lotus, someone to inspire Hethel's somewhat battle-weary troops, and that's something that the company's been lacking for years.
Picture of Colin Chapman (c) The Cahier Archive