Industry insight: Lotus cars

The new Lotus era

The New Lotus Era is not a new model to continue the Elite, Elan, Excel, Esprit theme, but a summary of Group Lotus plc as it exists under General Motors ownership. That means we included Lotus Engineering and its 17 (mostly undisclosed) international clients in the generous interview time allotted by Group Lotus Director Michael Kimberley, but not the Grand Prix team.

The Camel-backed racers remain under the totally separate ownership of Hazel Chapman and Fred Bushell at Ketteringham Hall, while Lotus production and engineering facilities continue to be sharply expanded around the Hethel base on which Colin Chapman laid the July 1966 foundation stone. However there are technological and promotional links between the Norfolk neighbours, the most obvious being the interchange of "active suspension" development since Peter Wright transferred to Hethel in 1982.

Mr Kimberley expects Lotus road cars to have such suspension "in the early Nineties. It will be a standard feature of our M300, a 200 mph flagship for our range which should be shown in October 1990 and produced in Spring 1991.

"Even then we'll probably be the second company in the world to fit the full Lotus-engineered system. No, I'm not telling you who will be first. . .", but readers can draw their own conclusions from the 1987 debut of an IMSA "Corvette" (actually a Lola chassis) using active suspension in racing trim.

Michael Kimberley was equally forthcoming on life for Lotus under GM share ownership. "I sincerely believe we have come of age. Our job is to make sure it does not become too large, too impersonal; my priorities are to maintain the spirit of Lotus through cars which perform, ride and handle, but we are now also achieving standards of quality and reliability which are typified by the latest Esprit."

In January 1977, Motor Sport published an account of "a whirlwind day at Hethel"; DSJ and myself were privileged to drive a then-new £7979 Esprit of 160 bhp as well as interviewing Colin Chapman. Rather than tell me how much more refined the 1988 Esprit has become, the Lotus boss arranged for me to experience a silver pre-production Turbo used for much of the publicity work associated with a very successful Anglo American launch.

More about our Esprit track outing later; meanwhile it is worth noting that, a week after Motorfair and the American debut, Lotus sales director Terry Clarkson reported: "We took orders worth £8.2-million at Motorfair for 371 Esprits. In the USA only Turbo Esprits are offered and the score, so far, is 225 orders worth $11-million." The total covers 88 Chapman commemorative specials, for which Lotus has more orders than cars.

Such public reaction means another 80 production staff will be hired in addition to the present payroll of 973, approximately 50% of employees being qualified engineers. "If we achieve our targets, about 1100 will be employed at Hethel in 1992," commented Kimberley.

By then there will be a new look to the Lotus range. Aside from the extremely expensive M300 mentioned earlier (more than £90,000 for "an entirely new V8, not the Seventies prototype reworked"), the "end of 1989" should bring the long-awaited "new Elan." Coded M100, this machine has been in the Lotus pipeline for so long that even loyalists may wonder if said pipe is permanently blocked by previous promises?

The Gospel according to St Michael of Kimberley reveals that Lotus has worked at its normal high engineering speed, but the company's chaotic history has interfered in this third generation of the cheaper sports car's birth.

"The M100 we know today is the result of a June 22, 1986 decision to entirely revamp the project under the control of Colin Spooner. Previously the project had been the M90 of 1979-80, stillborn by the end of 1982 because we could not get funds to develop it, though we did have running prototypes.

"In October 1983 we were able to restart work on a slightly restyled version of M90, which was coded X100, but the lesson learned was that both were taking too long and were overtaken during development.

"I'd also like to place on record my gratitude to Toyota in 1983 (former 21% shareholders) who lent us £400,000, with no strings but trust and friendship. They saved us, pure and simple," revealed the Lotus Chief Executive with customary frankness.

"Now I am full of optimism for the M100. There will be a convertible from the first model onward, with the option of a hardtop. Naturally I think the style is stunning, taking some inputs from outside as well as our in-house team with Peter Stevens.

"I can truthfully say it will be constructed in a unique manner, giving three times the torsional stiffness of existing designs. Yes, it will have a front engine, but I am not going to tell you which one.

"What can say is that it will be small, agile and a very high performer. In short, the Elan of the Nineties . . . If I were pricing at today's values, rather than those of its 1989 debut, I would expect customers to pay £12,000 to £13,000."

As outsiders eagerly awaiting such a small sports car, one surely influenced by the June 1984 arrival of Toyota's MR2, we can only comment that the lightweight strength of M100 will naturally trade on Lotus' composite plastics expertise. Any kind of direct Grand Prix racing spin-off is ruled out vehemently by Lotus personnel on grounds of cost.

As to the M100 choice of engine, the GM Family 2 16V units (presently 2-litres 150-155 bhp for injection production and carburated competition use in the GM Vauxhall/ Opel-Lotus Challenges) seem most likely to power the 1989 Lotus. However there is also an apparently excellent GM 16-valve in the Oldsmobile Quad 4, premiered for Europe at 1987's Frankfurt Show.

Thus that 1992 employment level will be asked to produce and further develop a Lotus range consisting of the M100 at a target 3000 cars a year; 2000 per annum annual production of further updates on the present "mid-range" Excel/Esprit themes; and just 200 of the M300 supercar, which was shown as the Etna in its 4.0-litre/320 bhp four-wheel drive format of 1984.

For comparison, Lotus built about 650 cars in 1987 and expects to make just over 1200 in 1988 — projected as 950 Esprits and 300 Excels, and sold roughly as 550-600 in Britain, 400 for the USA and "about 250 in Europe and the rest of the world."

Today's Lotus thinking seems to be that "four-wheel drive is important on high power applications. I can say we have engineered seven such systems for clients, and two are pressing ahead now.

"As far as the M300 is concerned I am looking at a relatively simple V8. A car which will shine with Lotus character, not a direct Ferrari F40 or Porsche 959 competitor. Simply, the ultimate Lotus," said Kimberley whilst striding through Lotus history and premises.

History? Certainly, for we watch the early Esprits pushed from production station to station. In six months all that will be history— some of the Esprit's present space invaded by the M100 mechanisation, as part of the five-year £53-million plan. The investment bias? "We plan £33-million in car production facilities, including new building and lines, and £20-million for engineering purposes."

Perhaps the most remarkable and intriguing (because confidentiality is an essential ingredient to obtaining such business) aspect to Lotus today is the engineering consultancy work. Examples which have been made public include Volvo's active suspension demonstrations, Chrysler USA's 16-Valve future car engine programme declared in March 1985, the expected Corvette contingent "on site" (also to be found at Porsche Weissach), and Isuzu's recent suspension modifications for the Piazza.

Pointing to one corner of his spacious office, Mike Kimberley explained: "That's where the separate engineering side started. In 1977 Colin and I sat down to seek extra sources of revenue for Lotus. There was the obvious example of the financial stability that Porsche enjoyed, partly through its Weissach client engineering activity."

Colin Chapman had already earned engineering consultancy fees outside his Lotus domain, and Kimberley recalls: "I got the first client, Chrysler's Sunbeam Lotus road rally saloon with its 2.2-litre version of our engine. Colin got the second: De Lorean."

Yes, there was a pause at this point, but I did tactlessly ask how he recalled that infamous liason today. Instead of being hurled out to join the hurricane debris (Motorfair catalogues were spread for miles after the sales office literally lost a corner), I got an answer: "I will remember De Lorean for the fact that it put us on the US map. Lotus took that car from scratch to a crash and emission-certified model in 21 months; 5-8 years was the norm.

"In fact I thought our achievement was matched by every-one over in Belfast at DMCL, who took a green site to a production facility in 27 months — but both achievements were overwhelmed by the great tragedy of subsequent failures. I will not comment on any further investigations the tax authorities are making, except to say that Lotus Cars regards the De Lorean episode as history.

"So far as Lotus Engineering has been concerned, those first two clients were followed by a rapid expansion in business. Comparing 1986 with 1982 showed ten times as much revenue had been created. "I think the figures prove that GM's involvement with us has not deterred outside engineering customers. Now we have seventeen clients — up six on the pre-GM ownership figure," Kimberley asserted.

Although the Lotus badge has not been offered to such customers in the manner of the old Lotus Cortina or Sunbeam Lotus, Isuzu's recent suspension face-lift is accompanied by the acknowledgement "Handling by Lotus". What seems to have been a fairly straightforward spring and damper development task on the live-axle Piazza turbo coupe is heavily promoted in America for its Lotus origins. GM also has a substantial stake in Isuzu. Similar work (plus an obvious boost in wheel and tyre widths) was carried out for Toyota on an earlier Supra, without Lotus badgework.