Lotus goes on a drive to win more diehard fans
British sports car brand associated with 007 – and more recently with ‘Red 2’ – is on a mission to expand into China
The Lotus Exige S, which, along with the Elise and the Evora, is central to the carmaker's marketing
Helen Mirren in a Lotus Exige, in a scene from `Red 2'
From a defunct RAF runway in England’s agricultural heartland, surrounded by fields and sleepy country lanes, there is the improbable sound of super-charged sports cars. Located, as it is, far from the traditional midlands manufacturing hub, the Norfolk-based Group Lotus continues to hold a special, detached place in the imagination of the UK automotive industry.
Here, test cars scream around the track, splitting the quiet of the countryside with high-pitched engine revs, reminding the locality it is home to a hallmark of British engineering. Lotus is, after all, the car that James Bond chose to drive (twice), and the story of its foundation is as romantic a tale of British ingenuity as you will find. Colin Chapman began selling kit cars in the 1950s as a way of funding his dream of building a more luxurious, sporty product. The brand has come a long way since then, but is now fighting for survival in an increasingly competitive industry.
There are clearly two realities to Lotus: the contagious, almost geeky petrolhead enthusiasm of its engineers and staff, offset by the relentless pressures of an increasingly undermined consumer economy.
Producing just 2,000 cars a year – 85 per cent of which are exported – Lotus is a niche within a niche, and it relies on an inherent romanticism and formidable engineering to keep its foot on the gas.
“I think we have got a really unique brand position because we have got this amazing heritage,” explains Tracey Tompsett, head of PR at the company which has just announced its promotional tie-in with the Red 2 movie. “Lotus is a name that most people know and recognise. They may not necessarily know what Lotus cars are on the market today, but they have a Lotus story.”
And therein lies the potential problem. Though people may be aware of the brand, they may not necessarily be aware of what exactly it produces – an important detail for a small company with limited marketing resources that is determined to remain relevant.
Lotus was recently acquired by the Malaysian automotive conglomerate DRB-Hicom, which has ushered in a period of some investment, more efficiencies and a completely new direction (it all but scrapped a five-year plan it had unveiled in 2010). Now the number one rule at Lotus is: don’t talk about Lotus – or at least its specific future plans.
Of importance, though, is China. Next month it plans to launch the Evora S there, one of three cars, including the Exige and Elise, which are now at the centre of the brand. Each looks and performs impressively on the test track in Norwich, but in China, where brand is king, the look of a lesser name can be irrelevant.