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Interview: Lotus CEO Dany Bahar

New York bureau chief Jamie Kitman recently sat down with Dany Bahar to discuss the Lotus's new direction. It got a little ugly.

AM: I'm a big fan of Lotus . . .
DB: So then this must be a shock for you?

AM: Well, yeah. And I have to say I'm not entirely sure I'm down with the program. I'm concerned, frankly, about how heavy the new cars are going to be. I can sort of understand the business reasoning, which is probably not unlike Colin Chapman's own in the 1970s when he went upmarket with the Esprit and the Elite.
DB: So you mean what Chapman did in the '70s and '80s was wrong? When did Lotus have its greatest success when it comes to image, perception, to being a real sports car manufacturer -- when was that? Certainly not now. I think it was at the time when Chapman tried to sell Elites and Esprits.

AM: They didn't work out.
DB: But does it mean that twenty-five years later it has to turn out the same way commercially?

AM: No, it doesn't, although I would say that the company's image was built with things like the Elan, and the Elise was a car that went all the way back to the core value.
DB: The core value of who?

AM: Of Lotus, the brand. What the brand stood for was lightness.
DB: Was that the Esprit with the 1300 kilogram [curb weight]? So you think that was wrong? The Elite with 1290 kilos, that was wrong?

AM: I would say that I'm resistant, I want to be persuaded, I hope I'm wrong. I know from speaking to other journalists that there has been just a massive sigh of disbelief about all these new cars.
DB: A massive, say again, a massive?

AM: Sigh of disbelief, yes. People go, "Well, they don't really mean that, you know, they're not really going to build that, they're just raising money. "
DB: The press feedback after Paris was huge, and I believe the negative part of this was less than ten percent.

AM: You probably saw more than I did, and I would probably hear the negative part more than the
positive part.
DB: Yeah, because you are part of this enthusiast group that see Lotus in a certain way, and I don't agree with that.

AM: Well, what is your vision?
DB: I think I've read more than 1000 of Colin Chapman's documents from the early '60s and '70s [regarding] motor racing, but also road cars, and his vision about Lotus was very clear. And it's not the Lotus that most people see to be the real Lotus vision. I think the biggest issue we are fighting is that people in the last fifteen years just see a mono-product company, and the projection of that product into the brand has been, let's say, seamless, and they believe every car that Lotus should bring out has to be the same as the Elise, which I think is wrong. I haven't read one single sentence or paragraph in all the thousands of documents that I've seen personally from Colin Chapman that says the car cannot be longer than three meters and 80 centimeters, cannot be heavier than 1000 kilograms, cannot have the engine in front, not once.

AM: That's a fair point. But Chapman wasn't a saint, or always right, either.
DB: He was the founder.

AM: He was the founder and he was a type of genius, but he was not above being wrong.
DB: And commercially, it was a disaster. All the cars that I mentioned to you that actually made the company famous,
they failed. Our approach is if we can try to combine what made this company famous, that sort of positioning of the product, plus if we have the ability to make it commercially viable, I think that's a success. This is what Mr. Chapman wanted to do. Cheap cars did not pay his bills. And it's still the fact today -- the cheap cars do not pay the bills, that's the problem we have. That's why the company, the last fifteen years, wasn't moneymaking, it's very simple.

AM: Do your corporate parents at Proton want to get more outside money in?
DB: Absolutely. Outside money is already in, it's already committed. The number [€490 million, or about $750 million] is not a secret because Proton is a listed company on the Malaysian stock exchange, all the money that goes somewhere, their subsidiaries, are transparent. Our financing for the new models is already finished . . . [We] couldn't do Paris if [we] didn't have the financing already-a combination of Proton putting in equity and banks loans-this would be fooling the people, and it would actually put ourselves at huge risk. All the people that have joined [the recently announced twenty-three-person executive team]-these are heavy, heavy heavyweights from the sports car industry, with huge jobs, known in the sports car industry-wouldn't have joined us in the first place if they didn't know the financing was there.

AM: So it's got to work.
DB: It's like giving the company another last chance, so either we go down in glory or we really make it.

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