Editor's letter: Lotus is at last being given the chance to thrive

mike johnstone lotus dealer jh 6

Brand that for so long struggled to survive now targeting 150,000 cars per year under Geely ownership

Trips to visit Lotus in Hethel, Norfolk for much of the 2010s followed a very similar format.

There’d be a chance to drive the latest variant of the Elise or Exige with a few extra kilograms taken out of them, followed by a chat with the management of how better times were ahead.

It was admirable the company kept going for so long in that period after the chaos left behind by Dany Bahar who, whatever you think of his plans to grow the brand and launch new model lines, made the crucial mistake of trashing the cars that needed to be sold in the meantime. 

History will be kinder to Jean-Marc Gales, the man who picked up the pieces after Bahar and steered Lotus through some of its darkest days when the company had a real hand-to-mouth feel to it. His ‘animated’ style was not universally popular, it’s fair to say, yet he ran the business diligently and kept the lights on.

Well, the lights were kept on metaphorically at least, for Hethel always felt deserted in the mid-2010s, a tone set when you drove into the site and were met with the ‘skeleton building’ of a steel frame from Bahar’s attempts to grow Lotus’s production capacity.

Whole floors of desks were unused in the main headquarters, and you’d question whether Gales was actually the only executive at the place for the ghostly feel on his office’s floor.

It’s in this office that the better days were always promised, and they finally started to arrive when Geely took a 51% stake in Lotus Cars in 2017. Geely’s presence at Hethel built up gradually, the staff-pleasing early signs including resurfacing the car park, making the coffee machine free, and then redoing the canteen. 

Car wise, things changed more slowly: it took four years for the Evora to become the Emira (via the reveal of the limited-run Evija hypercar, which is understood to have been created under Gales but not revealed until after his departure) and the production facilities were upgraded accordingly in Hethel. On my last visit there in summer 2021 there was a real freshness and vibrancy to the place for the first time in recent memory, now under the leadership of Matt Windle.

To return to Hethel now and you’d likely think not much else has changed, but in fact there’s been more change at Lotus in the past two years than in perhaps the rest of its history combined. Having been stagnant for so long, the company’s rapid pace of back-office growth and implementation of a new structure since then takes some getting your head around.

It’s hard to think which of the headline developments is the most remarkable: that Lotus makes electric SUVs in China, it is has technology and engineering centres in the Midlands and Germany, a design centre in the Midlands, wants to sell 150,000 cars per year (a near 100-fold increase on recent history levels), or that its official base is not even in Hethel anymore but in London, at a soon to open new headquarters for the Lotus Technology company that underpins this recently-assembled empire.

Lotus Technology is headed up by Mike Johnstone, a modest and quietly-spoken executive who joined Lotus from Volvo last year and sits above Windle in the new Lotus hierarchy. When I spoke to Johnstone recently along with my colleague Steve Cropley for an upcoming feature story at the firm’s swish new Piccadilly dealership in London opposite The Ritz, we ask to him if Lotus should in fact be considered a start-up brand given how much has changed and the wildly different path it has now taken.

“There are elements there that are like start-up brands but you don’t get many start-up brands with 76 years of history,” he said. “There’s a start-up attitude within the teams. If you think of the organisation previously, we were selling 1500 cars a year consistently over time. Now we have aspirations to get to 150,000 and to do that needs a certain level of agility you would expect to have in a start-up.

“Then you also have the benefit of not just launching a new brand that no one’s ever heard of, you’re taking something with its history and heritage and respectfully packaging that up and sharing all the fantastic things about it to a whole new group of consumers that would never have even considered it in the past.”

The switch away from Norfolk for its headquarters is surprising as that’s where the heart and soul of the company lies and the history and heritage is still being traded off, however hard an area it might be to recruit from. The review of the future of its design studio in Hethel is the latest development here. You don’t see Porsche moving out of Stuttgart or Ferrari out of Maranello… 

What impact that has will be seen over the coming years, but for now the rapid emergence of Lotus Technology culminated in an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in February, and this week Lotus reported its results for the first time.

This laid bare the huge task facing the company in taking on this monumental rate of growth: it reported progress as “steady” but losses were close to £600 million last year and the 7000 cars it sold is not even 5% of where it wants to get to by 2028. 

The clock is ticking, but having treaded water for so long, Lotus is at last being given the chance to thrive rather than simply survive. 

Source: Autocar

Leave a Reply