There's Only Room for One Lotus

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Two companies would look exactly the same if you didn't read the fine print, and CarBuzz Editor in Chief Noah Joseph thinks its time they merge.

Here's a little game of trivia for all your car fans out there: Think of a British automaker. It carries the legacy of Colin Chapman, who designed the original Lotus Seven and turned the notion of what a sportscar could be on its head with his "add lightness" motto. Today the company is owned by Malaysian investors, and doesn't build its own engines but sources them from major automakers. Its products are favored by purists and track-day enthusiasts. It has its own Formula One team (powered by Renault engines, incidentally) and extensive engineering research divisions.


It also has grand ambitions to expand far beyond its existing range of sportscars. If you thought of Lotus, you're right. But if you thought of Caterham... you're also right. That's because both Lotus and Caterham have emerged as essentially the same company these days, but with different names and owned by different people (from the same country). Until recently, Caterham was but a shell of Lotus. It produces what essentially comes down to kit cars that, like so many others (names like Donkervoort, Elfin and Westfield come to mind) produce as modern interpretations, continuation cars or even replicas of the original Lotus Seven. But Caterham is on the rise.

After Tony Fernandes came on to the scene with a license to run the Lotus name in Formula One, subsequently rebranding it as Caterham following a legal dispute with Lotus Cars and its parent company, he took over Caterham Cars and set about taking it out of the fringe and into the mainstream. But in order to do that, he needed partners. The first alliance was formed with Lola Cars, the racing chassis manufacturer that, though financially troubled at the moment, builds the SP/300.R track car for Caterham. A more comprehensive partnership followed just days ago that will see Caterham enter a joint venture with Renault to build a new sportscar or two.

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While attending the announcement, Fernandes revealed aspirations (if not firm plans) to produce not only new sportscars but also a potential city car and SUV, among others. If that sort of ambition sounds familiar, it's because the "other" Lotus - the real Lotus - was traveling along the same trajectory until just a few months ago when its new parent company DRB-HiCom put a stop to it all and kicked chief executive Dany Bahar out of the company, and with him all but one of the six new products he was directing Lotus to develop. That, however, is where the similarities between Caterham and Lotus (and between Fernandes and Bahar) end.

Lotus, on the one hand, has struggled for decades under shifting ownership to secure the funding it needs to further product development, dictating at the same time subservience to corporate oversight (as Bahar so dramatically discovered). Caterham, on the other hand, is a financially stable company that answers to no one but Fernandes, who just announced he's stepping down from running his F1 team full time to concentrate on the carmaking division. Fernandes generates his revenues from his entertainment and airline interests and has the business acumen to find the partners he needs in order to make his plans a reality.

That in and of itself puts Caterham in a better situation than Lotus, but while that which Lotus lacks Caterham has, the inverse is also true. Joint ventures will only take Caterham so far. What it really needs is the know-how to realize Fernandes' ambitions. Lotus has exactly that kind of know-how. The result is a match made in heaven and as natural a conclusion as this writer has ever seen: Lotus, meet money. Caterham, meet know-how. All that's left to do is to sit down - in England or in Malaysia - and iron out the details. (Apologies, dear readers, for the day-late editorial. Look for a new one on the first Wednesday of each month.)

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