When my loan of the new Lotus Elite 503 ended (see last month's Motor Sport), Lotus suggested that instead of them collecting the car from me on a transporter, as is their usual practice, I should return it to them and at the same time take the opportunity to look around the Hethal factory, near Norwich. Even thick fog on the way to Norfolk didn't spoil the pleasure of driving what had proved a very satisfying car, so I was in a very Lotus mood when I met Richard Morley, Lotus's young Managing Director, and Tony Rudd, the Group Chief Engineer, who should need little introduction to Motor Sport readers. Unfortunately the fog did prevent the lift back to Elstree by "Air Chapman", so we had to swap the comfort of the Elite for the discomfort of British Rail, making our way back to Elstree, where we had left the photographer's Dolomite Sprint, by a crazy circuitous route.
Richard Morley, who took over as MD in the middle of last year, having worked his way up through the administrative side of Lotus, was cheerfully optimistic about his company's future, in spite of the restrictive economy combined with the high price of the Elite. Currently an average of 25 Elites per week is leaving the Hethal line along with about a dozen Europa Specials, the latter gradually being run down. What is more, sales are increasingly encouraging, which pleases me, for in spite of my criticism about lack of torque and over-pricing, I do feel that now early deficiencies have been sorted out, the Elite can take it's place among the best drivers' cars in the World and deserves to sell.
So far 48% of Elite production has been exported, mainly to the States, though another lucrative market which seems to be opening up for them is Japan, where Lotus are finding none of the difficulties encountered by other British manufacturers who have tried to make inroads. Now the increasingly ambitious Lotus sales staff are looking to Saudi Arabia, where they feel there might be a wide-open market for them.
Richard Morley obviously disagreed with my opinion that the Elite was £1,500 over-priced. I stick by it, but in fairness to him I will qualify myself a little further. My opinion isn't based on the value of the overall package, for it is beautiful, eye-catching, and has fantastic roadholding and handling, but on the mechanical contents, which to me don't justify such pricing. The sheet-steel backbone chassis must be relatively cheap to manufacture, the suspension, though it works magnificently well, is particularly simple, and the same engine can be bought for £4,000 less in the Jenson-Healey. Now that I have seen the manufacture, of the body in it's two glass-fibre halves, I find it difficult to look upon that in terms of a huge pile of pound notes, while the beautiful and comfortable interior is a success largely because of clever styling rather than the use of expensive materials. Lotus counter this by crying that such small production figures mean that all bought-in parts and raw materials become so much more expensive. Really, I suppose, the only person who can have a true opinion of it's value for money is the man who has just spent £6,800 on one, and as that isn't, and isn't likely to be me, I suppose I'd better hold my peace. One last thought on that subject: how much more splendid the Elite would have been if fitted with a Rover V8 engine !
Much pruning of labour has enabled Lotus to survive the difficult months of slow sales since the Elite was introduced. From a peak of about 820 employees when Elans were being shelled from the line like peas from a pod, the figure has dropped to 538, and as the maximum Elite production capacity is only 45 cars per week it would seem unlikely that there will be a need to increase the workforce to the same peak as sales and production increase.
There was an embarrassed silence about production figures from the engine plant, which has a maximum capacity of 125 per week of the twin-cam, 16-valve, 2-litre engine, but was obviously was working at a fraction of capacity. The silence was in deference to Jenson, whose Jenson-Healey sales are known to be dramatically low. Apart from the poor economics of low engine production figures, Tony Rudd is faced with technical problems, such as transfer machines which are inaccurate, unless warm, so need a night shift and sufficient work to do to keep them running 24 hours a day. I understand that negotiations are under way for the sale of engines to an additional manufacturer.
Lotus's production line isn't as I'd imagined it; there is no mechanical track, just a long piece of concrete floor along which the body shells are wheeled by hand on trolleys. Here all ancillary equipment such as electrics, is added and at the end of the line the body meets the chassis, already assembled with the engine, gearbox, suspension and brakes. Then the body is trimmed.
I had been intrigued by all the secrecy with which Lotus has surrounded their glass-fibre moulding process, secrecy, which was continued by the banishing of our photographer from the glass-fibre department. In fact there was very little to see or show for this is one of those clever processes which is successful because of it's simplicity. Glass-fibre matting is laid on a female mould, the male mould is placed on top and resin and a catalyst is injected into the mould at the same time as air is evacuated by vacuum. What remains a well-kept secret is the amount of resin used and the vacuum pressure. Small items such as the front and rear bumpers are made in a similar way to the two halves of the body. The body halves are bonded together, though Tony Rudd insists on them being bolted together with metal brackets as "belt and braces" security.
After a whirlwind tour of the factory, for the British Rail timetable threatened, Tony Rudd revealed to me the secrets of Ketteringham Hall, a vast mansion some thee-quarters of a mile from the factory, in which are housed the offices of other Chapman companies, and tucked away in the old kitchens and stables, the Group Lotus experimental department. There in those quiet, stately and beautiful surroundings complete with lake ("Looking after it's level is another of my responsibilities," joked Rudd, whose many hats as chief engineer include responsibility for John Player Team Lotus, and boat building, as well as production cars), hides a selected band of development engineers and their plans for the next generation Formula One and production cars. Beyond that I am sworn to secrecy too, for Rudd's main reason for taking me to Ketteringham Hall was to reveal the mid-engined two-seater sports car which Lotus will announce later in the year. To say that it was impressive is a considerable understatement: with this on the stocks the future of Lotus should be rosy indeed.--C.R.