The Voice of Experience
December 2017
Gavin Green
courtesy and copyright of Car

‘Lotus’s fortunes dipped when Chapman moved upmarket, deserting the small, simple, lightweight sports cars that were his signature’

JUST OCCASIONALLY, journalists can enlighten the car industry. Walter Hayes did. This former Fleet Street editor joined Ford in 1962 and persuaded them to bankroll the Cosworth DFV racing engine. It was one of Ford’s cleverest decisions since old Henry’s moving assembly line.

The Ford Cosworth DFV V8 became the most successful engine in Formula 1, powering nine drivers – including Jackie Stewart (three), Emerson Fittipaldi (two), Graham Hill, James Hunt and Mario Andretti – to 12 world titles. It won at Le Mans. Its DFX derivative won the Indianapolis 500 10 times.

Hayes’ motor sport initiatives, from the Lotus Cortina to Le Mans, from rallying Escorts to Formula Ford, sprinkled magic dust on the Blue Oval. He gave Ford the richest motor sporting heritage of any mass car maker. Here, too, we can see the roots of Ford’s excellence in driving dynamics, as nobly demonstrated by the latest Fiesta.

He also persuaded Henry Ford II to buy Aston Martin, and became chairman aged 68. He was a key figure in the DB7. In its first 12 months on sale, Aston Martin sold more cars than in any previous year of its 82-year history.

He also became a mentor to Lotus founder Colin Chapman, whose Formula 1 cars first ran (and won with) the Ford Cosworth engine. When I interviewed Hayes in 1993 for CAR, we discussed Chapman. He said: ‘I know where Lotus went wrong. I used to tell Colin he was getting out of his market. He should never have got out of the Elan into Esprits. He used to tell me how big the mark-up was on pricier cars. But I retorted, “Colin, how can you have anything better than the Elan? It’s cheap to make, simple, everybody loves them and no-one gives a bugger if they leak. Stick with them and the market will be yours for ever.” But, oh no.’

Hayes was right. Lotus’s fortunes dipped when Chapman moved upmarket, deserting the small, simple, lightweight sports cars that were his signature. Now, after more than 40 years of red ink, some glitz, much gloom, the death of Chapman, the theatricality of Dany Bahar and a string of different owners, Lotus is still in a delicate state.

But there is hope. Lotus has just been sold to China’s Geely, which transformed Volvo. Geely is rich, has a clever entrepreneur at its helm (self-made billionaire Li Shufu) and has gold-card access to the world’s biggest car market, China. I just hope it takes a moment to study Hayes’s advice to Chapman. While nearly every other sporting car maker – from Alfa to Bentley, from Jaguar to Maserati, from Porsche to Lamborghini – jumps on the SUV bandwagon and makes ever more convergent and expansive cars, Lotus should ‘think different’.

Stick with small premium sports cars and own that market! There is a gaping hole between the minimalist and masochistic machines of Caterham, Ariel, Radical and Elemental, and Porsche. Show young affluent Chinese enthusiasts that driving joy is to be had in a lightweight Lotus, not behind the wheel of a two-tonne turbo demo-truck.

For years, Lotus has understood great driving dynamics better than any rival. Lotus engineering training has long been the Oxbridge of car chassis education. McLaren’s ride/handling brilliance today is partly due to its ex-Lotus engineers.

The Elise (the more basic, the better) is a driving delicacy. No car is sweeter to steer, more joyfully communicative, so poetically intuitive to drive, so adept at gliding over challenging roads.

Expand the company’s range of small sportsters, stretching from an improved (easier entry, more power, better cabin, more refined) £30,000 Elise, up to a new £60,000 rival to the 718 Boxster/Cayman (the Lotus would need to be lighter and more fleet of foot). They should mostly be everyday usable, not weekend hardcore. Think old Elan. Or new MX-5.

A decade or so after I saw Walter Hayes, I interviewed Bernd Pischetsrieder, then boss of the Volkswagen group. I asked about his favourite cars. Pischetsrieder had a big collection and was a keen driver. He mentioned two. His Ferrari Enzo for its technology and speed. And his Lotus Elise for pure driving joy.

That’s some legacy to build on.

@greenofrichmond. Former CAR editor Gavin Green is one of the world’s most influential motoring commentators. Since he started writing for CAR in 1985, Lotus has had five different owners.