Lotus: The perils of a hands-on CEO

Lotus CEO Jean-Marc Gales did well to escape with a 30-day driving ban after being caught driving at 102mph and eight points already on his licence. But as he told PH when we caught up with him earlier this week, the defence put forward by his lawyer was no sob story: he really does sign off every new car personally. Ban him for six months and he can't do that. "On the road I do it. Gav [Gavan Kershaw, head of vehicle engineering] does it on the track. He's a racer, I'm not. But I can pretty much judge whether a car on the road is good enough," he said. "I am the typical customer."

He was embarrassed about getting caught on the A11, a fairly straight dual-carriageway that runs past Hethel on the way to Norwich. It happened while driving a prototype of the Evora 410 last January. "I was focused like hell on the car," he said. A police BMW clocked him from behind, the policeman who emerged recognising him but booking him anyway.

Gales insists he has the final say on the car's road manners. "I check that the car doesn't feel nervous, that it feels like an average driver can handle on the road, has a nice balance between ride and handling," he said. "And it can't have noises I don't like." Sign-off for him takes an hour, usually in the evening after he's finished work. Now he can't (the ban came into force directly after the court case) until well into February. He's also £832 lighter. No doubt Bahar would have hired a chauffeur in this situation, but Gales has done extremely well to drag Lotus out of the financial hole dug by his predecessor and that's partly because the company "turns around every pound twice" before deciding to spend it. So currently he's being picked up each morning by his head of manufacturing.

The ban isn't going to upset Gales when things are going so well with Geely, Lotus's new owners. The Chinese firm has made commitments over new models, including the inevitable SUV but also more sports cars (which will be revealed in three to four months, he says). "It's the best thing that could have happened to us," Gales told us. He said the buyout "saved us from becoming another Morgan or Caterham, making the same stuff over and over again. If we hadn't been bought that might have been one of the options."

Norwich magistrates were unlikely go too hard on Gales. The city has recently lost two high-profile companies, first when Britvic announced last year it was shutting its plant there and then earlier this year when Colman's Mustard, owned by Unilever, confirmed its exit. True, Lotus might not yet be in profit (this is the year, Gales promised), but Gales has certainly stabilised the company's finances to the point the company was viable enough to trigger a bidding war to buy it last year when Proton put it up for sale.

Staff numbers fell to around 800 but are now scheduled to rise again as the company can once more plan new models, something that hasn't happened since the Evora was launched back in 2009. There's even cautious talk of doing something with the giant, two-storey-high production hall that Bahar started but now lies abandoned; a soggy-bottomed skeleton reminding Lotus employees of past excesses on a daily basis.

Not that the taps will be opened right away. Gales is the man who, when he first joined, had his staff strip down an Evora, Elise, and Exige to their constituent parts and label them all with a price tag. Then he worked to reduce the cost of each, either haggling with the supplier, finding a new supplier, or asking whether it was even needed. For example he dumped the Evora's electric glovebox for the 400 facelift and replaced the Recaro seats with Sparco ones, 60 per cent cheaper and 6kg lighter (Lotus trims its own seats, and makes the standard composite and lightweight carbon fibre ones from scratch).

As new cars come on stream, these parts will now come from Geely, allowing Lotus to take advantage of premium Volvo bits, for example. "Geely has many nice parts; that's the important thing, that they have bits to allow us to make a class-leading sports car," he said. The chassis will still have to be bespoke, but headlights, electrical systems and so on will come from Geely or their global suppliers, complete with pre-negotiated discounts and reliable quality. "Sports suppliers are notoriously unreliable sometimes," he added.

What happens to the £30,000 Elise in the new era is another question. "I frankly believe manufacturers of small sports cars will find it tough to survive," he says, without explicitly answering the question of whether the Elise will or won't be a survivor. Increased legislation and the need to turn a profit conspire against it. "Sales volumes are notoriously low, investment is notoriously high so you need to do your investment well. So it's not an easy task, but the juicy markets seem to be a bit more upmarket," he said.

So maybe it's time for another Esprit? "For brand building Lotus needs something above the Evora," he agreed. "It needs a poster car again."

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (173) Join the discussion on the forum

  • K2iss 27 Jan 2018

    The guy is now a legend. Not that I condone driving at this sort of speed on a dual carriageway... The Norfolk police should just close the roads for his sign off testing, he has saved Lotus after all!

  • zebede 27 Jan 2018

    I’d agree with the first post, after all it wouldn’t take much for the police to assist! It’s not like they’re always busy.

  • 80sMatchbox 27 Jan 2018

    I love the bit about stripping the car down and then haggling or changing supplier to get better pricing on everything. It's often the simplest and most obvious ideas that are most effective.

    He gives you great hope of a rosy future for Lotus.

    When I was a kid, I knew a bit about cars and used to look at Lotus on a par with Porsche and Ferrari(n the era of the impact bumper 911s and Ferrari 308s). I had no idea about the size of these companies eye and it was all based on the cars appearance and Top Trumps type info. They need this again and it sounds like they will.

  • oldtimer2 27 Jan 2018

    Sounds like double standards are in operation when it comes to exceeding the speed limit. I would have thought the proving grounds at Bedford would have offered him plenty of choices of road without having to worry about speed limits - and the Alpine circuit there just the place to try out a new car. It cannot be that far away and one day of his time would surely not be too much to sign off a product.

  • Riverside Red 27 Jan 2018

    It'll be a sad day if we lose cars like the Elise, we need more sports cars in the £30-£40k bracket not less. The numbers of true sports cars are dwindling to be replaced by faceless hot hatches.


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