Noise, Vibration, & Harshness: When Lotus Went Disco

Red Bull, the improbably huge Austrian maker of sickly sweet energy drinks, has given the diverse worlds of music, art, and sport—including car racing, late-night drug taking, and the related pastime of booze-fueled club-going—so very much. Now we probably ought to thank Red Bull for the wholesale sea change going on at Lotus Cars.

Scratch that. Not sea change, philosophical tidal wave.

Having just spent some time with the sports car maker’s youthful new CEO, Dany Bahar (see interview, page 16), I learned that the sensibility in Hethel has morphed overnight into something almost completely unrecognizable, in a way that only an executive who cut his teeth at a place like Red Bull—the purveyor of a product whose success has been driven by relentless, assault-grade marketing—could front with a straight face.

Bahar did a stint at Ferrari—a company that knows a thing or two about profiting off the mystique of an alluring automotive brand—but if you talk to him, it quickly dawns on you that it was at Red Bull, the quintessential marketing smoke and light machine, where the relevant skill set was perfected. Ask yourself, do I need a Red Bull? Of course not, you’re drunk enough already. But will millions buy one tonight anyway? Yes. And that task—making more people feel like they really, really need a Lotus, that it is even cooler than the sum of its ingredients—is what Bahar is charged with doing. Despite a list of reservations that would quickly fill the modest trunk space in my 2005 Elise, I, for one, am not going to count him out.

Going into an audience with the smartly dressed, smoothly coiffed European at the L.A. auto show, I have to confess that I was not just dubious, I was crestfallen. The five concepts Lotus had shown the world at the Paris show and that were making their U.S. debut in L.A. not only seemed hastily slapped together, but they were being unveiled remarkably far ahead of anticipated production dates three, four, and five years in the future.

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True, the first Lotus Esprit broke ground four years ahead of its 1976 on-sale date. But, unlike the new Loti, it looked like the future, so you felt like you could wait. Aside from hardly radical, me-too styling that left the imagination untaxed and the heartstrings worryingly slack, the new cars seemed at first blush to break faith with the company’s long-standing tradition of game-changing technical innovation and lightweight construction at all costs, being larger and heavier than anything that had come from Lotus before. Indeed, I wondered how things like a nearly two-ton two-plus-two with a front-mounted V-8 could be anything other than sacrilege or part of a desperate, hastily cobbled ploy to raise development capital. Or possibly both.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles coming-out party for Lotus that had included a disarming array of B-, C-, and D-list celebrities, including all of the Baldwin brothers, did little to allay my fear that Lotus had lost its corporate mind, or at the very least traded it in on next year’s model. The last time I heard of Stephen Baldwin he was picketing a porn store on the outskirts of Nyack, New York, in the name of Jesus Christ. But what was he going to tell me about a company that once stood for steering purity? Lotus used to be all “This is our car, like it or piss off.” A good time was chassis engineer Roger Becker and a second pint at a damp pub somewhere in the wilds of England. Now they were trying so hard to please, they’d come to Hollywood in advance of the Los Angeles show to play the same tedious “the celebrities love us” game that all the world’s carmakers fall for these days. (Is it time yet for the reality show that pits starstruck automobile executives against cheesy thespians and washed-up pop stars to see who can fawn the most over whom?)

So those were the negatives. But that’s not all there is to the story. For one thing, Bahar was refreshingly forthright. For instance, Lotus doesn’t sell enough cars to make it. Colin Chapman never decreed that Lotus would sell only featherweight cars; you Lotus fans and all the world’s journalists have got it wrong—most of all, the founder wanted to make money. And, said Bahar, so do we now. What’s wrong with coming up with new models that might be profitable to build? Where does it say we have to be hamstrung by a product line so narrowly defined that most people have no use for it? Moreover, what’s wrong with openly competing with Ferrari? We’ve beat them on the track in the past—Chapman and Ferrari would bedevil each other then, why not now, now that Lotus is going back into racing? What’s wrong with marketing our brand aggressively?

These are all good, fair questions, even if in some of their particulars they run afoul of Lotus’s own press releases. What’s that, Lotus is not all about lightweight cars? The Elise is not the modern-day embodiment of Chapmanian wisdom?

Well, whatever. Lotus does have to expand its market—Elise sales are slowing down. Lotus is no stranger to crisis; it has almost fatally snapped a half shaft in the metaphorical high-g corner that is the automobile industry several times in its nearly sixty years in business, so one has no difficulty believing Bahar’s assertion that the company once again urgently requires a change. A recent visit to the McLaren facility in Woking, a billion-dollar space pad that makes the humble Lotus HQ look like a middle school in a depressed Ohio suburb, reminded me how high the stakes can be.

What I like about Bahar is his frankness, his willingness to take on the Lotus mythology that can at once be seen as its strength and its straitjacket. I left him feeling simultaneously elated, angered, depressed, hopeful, and confused, much unlike the way I do after spending time with bosses of most other supercar enterprises. Glad-handers and bullshitters, as likely as not some automaton on temporary assignment from Germany, they’ll admit nothing—and the lack of substance and emotion actually gets kind of boring. Bahar said several things I didn’t want to hear, but as compared to nothing, I’ll take it.

It’s a miracle that a company as exciting and fragile as Lotus has always been is still here almost sixty years on. An engineering-driven enterprise led by engineers, it’s now run by a twenty-first-century marketing dynamo.

So rave on, Dany Bahar. Let’s just hope the engineers can quaff enough Red Bull to keep up.

Illustration by Tim Marrs

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