When Lotus unveiled five new models at the Paris motor show in September 2010, it captured the world’s attention. In the buzz surrounding the launch, Lotus announced its intention of becoming a leading luxury carmaker, one that could make Porshe or Ferrari sit up and listen.
Representatives from McLaren and Lamborghini told me in Paris that Lotus’s move was as impressive as it was surprising. But even then there were doubts raised about the Norfolk carmaker’s ability to launch five new cars in as many years. Dany Bahar, the company’s chief executive, told Anglia News that building the five models would create a thousand new manufacturing jobs – but was unable to confirm exactly where those would be, as Hethel lacked the capacity to build that many models.
It’s now 2012 and not a single one of those new models has appeared on a dealer’s forecourt. That’s not to say there haven’t been positive signs within the past thirteen months; Lotus has invested in new facilities at Hethel, including three million pounds in a new track that was launched by former racing driver Nigel Mansell last June. The company was also promised ten million pounds by the British government to invest in its five year regeneration plan.
But the five year plan always depended on Lotus’s parent company Proton providing the financial backing. That safety net was snatched away this January when Proton was bought by the Malaysian firm DRB Hicom. Almost immediately the new firm raised the possibility of selling Lotus on. This has enormous implications for the nearly 1300 people employed by Lotus in Norfolk, as a new owner might well chose to move production out of Britain.
Speculation about potential buyers has grown over recent days, prompting Lotus to comment:
“Lotus is going through a very difficult phase at the moment but we are showing true fighting spirit every day in trying to keep this vision alive.”
The local MP Richard Bacon has also voiced concerns about Lotus suffering the same fate as MG Rover. That British company was bought by a Chinese firm who moved production abroad, with the loss of thousands of jobs. Yesterday Mr Bacon was lobbying the Prime Minister’s office to raise the issue of Lotus’s ownership with the Malaysian premier. He told Anglia News:
“I want to make sure that potential buyers who want to keep it as a going concern in Norfolk are allowed to come forward … and I want to make sure the Prime Minister impresses that very forcefully on the Malaysian government.”
David Cameron’s meeting with the Malaysian premier took place today, but Downing Street have so far been unable to comment on what took place in that private meeting.
Alongside the anxiety there is hope. One company that has expressed an interest in buying Lotus, Genii Capital, told me today that if they were successful, they would keep production in Norfolk.
Industry experts also say the prestige of the Lotus brand depends on its links to Hethel – which will weigh in Norfolk’s favour.
Dr Kevan Williams from the University of East Anglia said:
“The people are what make the company and if you move that overseas you lose all the core competencies, all the skills they have. It’s not simply a case of building a factory in another location and everyone can build cars there from day one. We all know the difference between good quality products and bad quality products.”
The road ahead for Lotus may be bumpy, but fans of the carmaker and the hundreds of people it employs, hope its final destination will be its historic home in Norfolk.