The inside story of Lotus’ radical comeback

From its humble beginnings behind a pub to the all-electric SUV — the Eletre — spearheading Lotus’ return, we dive into the high-octane history of the carmaker…

It’s fair to say that Colin Chapman was a tenacious fellow. Born into modest means in 1928 in Richmond, London, Chapman would go on — against the odds — to establish what would become one of the world’s most successful racing teams and sports car brands, in nothing more than a semi-derelict stable block behind his father’s pub. That team and brand was Lotus. 

Since its foundation in 1948, the plucky British carmaker has continually punched well above its kerb weight. Battling with motorsport Goliaths like Ferrari and McLaren, Lotus defied the odds in Formula One and racked up no less than seven constructors’ championship titles in the 1960s and 70s. Fielding some of the most remarkable cars and pioneering technology of the time, Lotus went from a stable start-up to a global brand that would even gain a place in Hollywood history within a matter of years. But the going hasn’t always been easy. 

Marred by periods of financial instability and a humble product portfolio, the marque is now on course for its greatest and most radical comeback yet with new investors and a tantalising lineup that takes aim at the biggest players in the sports car market. Sitting proudly atop a podium as the marque’s most recent creation is its new all-electric SUV, the Eletre. “This car marks the start of a new era from Lotus,” says Matt Windle, Lotus Managing Director ahead of the car’s launch. “We’ve already confirmed the next three new Lotus cars,” he adds, excitedly. 

Now 74-years-old, the automotive equivalent of David once again goes up against the car industry Goliaths. While the launch of an all-electric sports SUV is nothing new in this age, for a spirited yet modestly-sized marque like Lotus, it’s seismic, not least because it appears to fly in the face of what its founder stood for — featherweight, agile sports cars. But to understand the pertinence of Louts’ latest and greatest comeback, we must — of course — consult the past. 

Our story starts with Chapman as a distracted engineering student in post-war London. Skipping lectures, he preferred to make his way through the bomb-damaged streets, where he was a regular at Warren Street’s infamous second-hand car market. Here, he was happy hustling alongside his studies, buying and selling motorcars when one particular car — an old Austin 7 changed his life forever. 

After the car had remained unsold on Chapman’s books, the young engineer decided to take it home and tinker with it to prepare it for racing. With 24 horsepower, no one expected Chapman’s homemade creation to make its mark on the racing world. But, surprisingly, it did. Winning his first race at Silverstone in 1950, Chapman and his unique ability to read between the lines of a racing rulebook, soon started to draw the attention of other racers who asked him to tweak and develop parts for them. 

And yet, despite the endorsements, Chapman still lacked the financial means to become a fully-fledged car manufacturer. All that changed, however, when his fiancée, Hazel, bankrolled him to the tune of £25 in 1952, which would give way to the founding of the Lotus Engineering Company. 

From that moment on, Chapman threw himself headfirst into producing the best racing cars. Not long after entering the gruelling 24-hours of Le Mans, he realised his dream of competing in top-flight motorsport, entering two Lotus 12 Formula One cars into the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix with drivers Graham Hill and Cliff Allison behind the wheel. Despite finishing far down the order, Chapman had gone from garage start-up to a credible Formula One outfit that was capable of competing against Ferrari, eight years on from his very first amateur race. 

Into the 1960s, the road car portfolio grew alongside the tally of race wins that rolled in, and by 1978, the team had clocked up seven constructors’ and six drivers’ championship titles in Formula One, catapulting Lotus into the global limelight. Hollywood appearances followed and the company’s wedge-shaped Lotus Esprit took up the starring role in the Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. Once again, Chapman had proved a plucky British brand could stand up to industry giants on all fronts – on and off track. 

“Lotus has always been about innovation, a pioneering spirit and a slightly maverick approach,” admits Windle, looking back. “That hasn’t changed and it never will. However, this latest evolution for Lotus, inspired by the investment from our current shareholders is different. The solid foundation on which that is built is allowing the company to move forward in an exciting new direction.” 

This new direction Windle refers to takes the form of an all-electric era for Lotus — a stark contrast to the high-octane combustion cars it forged over the years and almost unrecognisable from its doldrum days in the 1980s and 90s. 

After the stratospheric success of the 1960s and 70s, Lotus’ Formula One wins soon started to dry up into the 80s and 90s, as did the funds. Unable to keep pace with the spiralling costs of running a team and manufacturing cars, the team fell down the running order and the product line shrank. Through the new millennium, the marque’s little Elise proved popular and provided some much-needed stability for Lotus as it focused on the future. 

Bathurst Edition Lotus Elise CUP 250

Bathurst Edition Lotus Elise CUP 250

Then, in 2017, the company’s fortunes were transformed with investment from new shareholders, most notably Chinese car giant, Geely. Prompting a radical shift, the Norfolk based carmaker revealed its plans to make the Evija — an all-electric hypercar with nearly 2000 horsepower on tap that was first revealed in 2019. With other well-established marques still contemplating the shift to electric, the Evija was a powerful sign that the British underdog was biting back once again and leading the charge to electric. 

“The investment from our shareholders meant we could design and deliver a car like the Evija, a real statement of intent for what we wanted Lotus to become,” says Windle. “Everyone can see the results of the £100 million that’s been invested in UK facilities – investment that’s led to the Evija, the Emira and now the Eletre. While things haven’t always been so positive for Lotus, the support from our shareholders means our people are really motivated to drive the business forward.” 

With the foundations for an all-electric future laid, it was time to aim for the mainstream and in came plans for the unthinkable — an SUV. For sports car makers and especially Lotus — a marque shaped by Chapman’s philosophy of “simplify, then add lightness” – a complex, heavy and high-riding SUV would seem entirely contradictory. But Windle insists otherwise. “Aerodynamics is an area in which Lotus has maintained innovative leadership and that continues to this day,” he says. “Carved by Air was the theme chosen for the Eletre world premiere and we will continue to be inspired by these long-established Lotus cornerstones.

“The Eletre is clearly a Lotus. It is the epitome of beautiful design, with efficient and elegant engineering solutions, it’s embracing technology, it has the best craftsmanship, advanced materials, innovation and ingenuity, and it’s pushing new boundaries. These are the very things which made Lotus great in the first place,” he says, moments before the car makes its global debut in London.

With Lotus’ latest car now out in the open, the marque boasts a refreshed product portfolio that’s once again capable of keeping up with the global sports car giants. With a hypercar, a compact combustion-engined car, and a family-friendly SUV already on the cards, the lineup will be added to with a four-door electric coupe (2023), another SUV (2025) and a new electric sports car in 2026. “The launch of the Eletre is the most significant milestone yet in the ongoing transformation of Lotus into a truly global performance car brand,” says Windle. “With all we’ve got planned in the near future, I’d say there’s plenty to look forward to!”

All that remains is to see if Lotus can muster the strength to make a return to the top echelons of motorsport. While its comeback campaign is heavily focused on making cars ‘for the drivers,’ as the brand maintains, surely there’s an appetite to honour Chapman’s legacy and return the marque to the prestige of Formula One or even Formula E? 

For now, at least, that seems like a distant prospect and something for Windle to focus one eye on as he battles it out in the sports car showdown on the road. What’s more important, is that Lotus – perhaps the most affable British sports car success story – appears to be in rude health more than seven decades on from its foundation. Not bad going for a marque established on a shoestring in a stable behind a pub, right? Long live Lotus. 

Want more inside tracks? Here’s the bizarre story of Tesla’s Cybertruck…

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