Is Your Car Really British? Part Eight – Lotus

Sat 5th May 2018

The British Isles used to be one of the bastions of motor supremacy, some of the biggest car brands, names that go down in history. But no more – we may believe that the famous name brand car we are driving is as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding – unfortunately we are probably wrong.

Lotus Engineering was born in 1952 by legendary automotive designer Colin Chapman and his fellow University College, London graduate, Colin Dare. The company first started building kit cars in a factory based in some old stables behind the Railway Hotel in Hornsey, North London. The kit car philosophy made sense to the company for two reasons, it saved on purchase tax when Lotus sold their cars to privateer racers and trialists, but Lotus were also a company with pure racing sensibilities and were one of the most famous names in Formula One from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Team Lotus broke off from the original company in 1954 and by 1959 Lotus had moved to a new purpose built factory in Cheshunt. Their most iconic car of this early era was the Lotus Elite, an ultra-light two-seater coupe which was produced for five years from 1958.

Lotus found success through the 50s and 60s with a number of popular models, including the Elan, the Seven (which was later sold to Caterham) and the Europa. But it is perhaps the 1970s which saw the company’s most famous model, the Espirit. First built in 1976, the famous Giorgetto Giugiaro model had the famous polygonal ‘folded paper’ design and endured for more than 28 years, with almost 11,000 models rolling off the production line.

But by the time the last Espirit was pushed out the factory gates in 2004, the Lotus company was no longer a truly British company.

Group Lotus were in serious danger of going bankrupt in 1983, Chapman had died one year earlier, leaving a historic legacy, but the company also had a legacy of scandal after being linked to a deal where UK Government subsidies were used to produce the DeLorean DMC-12, the Inland Revenue chased Lotus for the money and were they were close going bust until they were rescued by ‘the saviour of Lotus’, David Wickins. As Founder of British Car Auctions, Wickins knew plenty about motors and set about turning around the company’s fortunes.

Wickins recognised that the classic supercar company needed further investment if they were to flourish and in 1986 he oversaw a sale of 91% share to General Motors.

In 1993 GM sold the company for £30million to Italian businessman Romano Artioli, who also owned Bugatti, but three years later a majority share was sold to Proton, a Malaysian car company.

Lotus remained the property of Proton through to May 2017, before a 51% stake in the business was sold to Chinese motor company, Geely.

The once proud British company remains British in spirit, and the link to its founder Colin Chapman remains with the initials Anthony Colin Bruce Chapman forming a part of the original Lotus badge.