To suggest Lotus' business history has been checkered is to broaden the definition of "checkered." With its beginnings in the early '50s as a maker of component cars for competition, Lotus founder Colin Chapman – in a manner not unlike his postwar contemporary, Enzo Ferrari – was always hustling, living a hand-to-mouth existence in the production of road cars to support a racing program. Regrettably, Chapman never found a Fiat, as Ferrari did toward the end of the 1960s. Lotus had Ford in its corner for racing and as a resource for powertrains, and later benefited from the corporate support of both GM and Toyota for relatively short periods. Lotus Cars, however, never enjoyed the corporate buy-in that would have allowed Chapman to race and let someone else build the cars.
Regardless of what Consumer Reports or Kelley Blue Book might have thought (if they had ...) about those early Lotus cars, a great many are now regarded as classics. My first knowledge of a production Lotus was when Tom McCahill, the 'dean' of automotive journalists in the US, tested an early Elan for Mechanix Illustrated. While we're still not sure, some 50 years later, how McCahill's XXL frame fit into the tiny roadster, he had nothing but praise for the Elan's athletic chassis and now-timeless design.
In today's Lotus portfolio, the Elise and Exige continue that light, athletic tradition, while the larger Evora seems to strike wide – literally and figuratively – of the "less is more" ideal. With the Toyota-powered Evora, more is more. But in an eco-sensitive era demanding more of the original Chapman mantra – add lightness – there's little reason that Lotus can't regain relevance if given the financial resources.
Geely's acquisition of Volvo, the fruits of which appear regularly not only in the news but on the streets, suggests the Chinese investment will provide strategic vision (along with money) while allowing Lotus talent to do what it does best: Create an exciting product. And while at various periods in its history the product has been worthy, Lotus in the US has been ill-served by a flailing dealer network.
As manager (briefly) of a Lotus showroom in the late '80s, I know what a lack of marketing support can do – or not do – for an upstart brand. Once the Lotus lineup has been aggressively updated, I'd suggest installing Lotus product with select Volvo franchises in all metro markets without an existing Lotus dealer. And for those markets with an existing Lotus franchise, encourage those operators to either step up to the game or walk away.
If Geely's success with Volvo is a guide, its acquisition of Lotus could be a lifeline. And for those with a love of driving – and little use for autonomy – it could not have come at a better time.