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Can Lotus Make a Comeback?

The marque was founded in 1948 by the legendary Colin Chapman but has struggled in recent years. Here's why it may once again establish itself as a successful automaker.

When Elon Musk was figuring out how to construct his first Teslas, he flew to the Lotus HQ in Norfolk, England, in order to get a better understanding of its cars. Tesla recognised that Lotus produced the best-handling sports car on the road, according to the electric car company’s co-founder Martin Eberhard. It wanted to tap that expertise.

When Tesla unveiled its first car in 2006, the Roadster, it had an obvious similarity to the Lotus Elise - hardly surprising given the basic Roadsters were built at Lotus’s Potash Lane factory, before being shipped off so Tesla could install an electric drivetrain.

The link between Tesla, now the world’s most valuable car company and perennially loss-making Lotus may have been a key factor in the recent appointment of Matt Windle to the top job at the Norfolk business. Back when Tesla was learning about automotive design from Lotus, Windle was one of the team offering up more than 50 years of Lotus expertise. Windle was then poached by Tesla, and worked there for seven years.

In between Elon Musk's visit and today, Lotus has been acquired by Geely, giving it some heavyweight backing. Geely has promised more than £1bn of investment and Lotus can now tap 20,000 engineers at Geely’s technical centre in China. Drawing on this vast parts bin means Lotus doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel, freeing engineers up to concentrate on the characteristics for which the company is famed: handling.

The superb handling of Lotus cars is partly down to an ethos summed up by founder Colin Chapman as “simplify, then add lightness”. “Adding power makes you faster on the straights, subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere,” Chapman once said.

Of course, today, the biggest issue is electrification. The heavy batteries needed by electric cars might seem to go against everything Chapman stood for, but Autocar editor Steve Cropley says that in fact they are part of the same tradition. “Lotus is at an absolute advantage,” says Cropley, a keen supporter of the brand who has owned nine of its models. “The less weight in a car the power train has to propel, the better off you are. That means you need fewer batteries, smaller motors, smaller brakes.”

So maybe, just maybe, the UK will have a pure-electric car giant on its own soil in the not too distant future.

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