The Group Lotus headquarters near Norwich has not been a pretty sight recently. The sports car factory and automotive engineering firm has been a haven for hard hats and Portakabins, with cranes, diggers and construction vehicles often more in evidence than fancy Elise roadsters.
Four years after being acquired by the group that makes Malaysia’s humble Protons, Lotus is being transformed. When order is restored over the next few weeks, Lotus will be ready for the most ambitious expansion in its history.
New entrances and access roads are being built and the test track has a new layout to reflect Lotus expertise in chassis development. But a major part of the work is the creation of production facilities to treble capacity to around 10,000 cars a year.
Production over the past few years has already soared. Output this year will again be around 3,500, mainly Elises and a few Esprits. The Vauxhall VX220/Opel Speedster now in pilot production will account for almost the same number again next year. So will the M250 concept coupe after its launch in late 2001/early 2002.
None of this would have been possible without the clever aluminium chassis which is now a fundamental part of the Lotus DNA. The VX220 and M250 will use derivatives of this light, strong and flexible unit, as will another coupe to be made by Proton in Malaysia from 2003.
Fabricated of bonded aluminium extrusions by Hydro Ruofoss in Worcester, the chassis is a key Lotus calling card whenever it drums up work for the contract engineering side of its business.
The claims are impressive: the engines of one out of 10 cars made in Europe this year stem from Lotus engineering contracts, the company says. And it has 50 projects for 33 manufacturers or tier one suppliers.
With engineering expanding in parallel with car making. Lotus is looking for further acquisitions in the engineering sector. There have been two in recent months: an engine testing firm in Michigan and the assets of MGA Developments in Coventry. But the biggest manifestation of Lotus’ success is the impressive new R&D centre at its headquarters. The first of the 300 design and engineering staff moved in during July, and the centre will be operating fully this autumn.
Critically, since April, client directors have been given profit and loss responsibility rather than simple job responsibility. `That has focused people on the whole business,’ says Graham Peel, chief operating officer. What’s more, Lotus is making money (an operating profit of £12.4m on a turnover of £138.9m last year) and is essentially debt-free.
Suddenly, rural Norfolk looks a more interesting place for an automotive engineer.
Richard Feast is editor-at-large for Automotive World
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