November 09 1996CAR 96
Proton's move guarantees the carmaker's survival, but, asks Kevin Eason , will it ever return to Grand Prix racing circuits? Controversial chairman Romano Artioli, above left, keeps a stake, while the stunning Elise appears safe Elise set to survive the Lotus eaters.
The sigh of relief could be heard all over Norfolk: the announcement that Proton is taking control of Lotus was the news the company had waited almost two years to hear. The deal guarantees the security of the workers at the Hethel factory and the future of the Elise, the most innovative car of the year; for without Proton's £51 million, Lotus would have been in the fast lane to oblivion.
The bad news for Britain is that two of Britain's top independent engineering centres of excellence are now owned by companies in the Far East. Apart from the Lotus takeover by Malayasians, Daewoo of South Korea owns IAD in Worthing, West Sussex. Romano Artioli, Lotus's controversial chairman, had been trying to find a "partner" for months. Potential investors or buyers were deterred by the high asking price, necessary to help Artioli pay off debts abroad accrued by his failed Bugatti supercar business, while others were wary of only being offered a controlling stake with Artioli determined to hold on to at least a part of the business.
The other factor was that General Motors, which sold Lotus to Artioli, threatened to end its lucrative engineering consultancy contracts if Lotus went to another manufacturer, which would have killed Lotus's engineering business.
In the end, Proton was ready to write a cheque in return for 80 per cent of one of the most famous motoring companies in the world; hardly surprising because it gives the Malaysian manufacturer cheap entry into the world of high-technology that would have taken years to build in its own business.
But Proton is ambitious and needs engine, electronics and chassis expertise which flows in abundance at Lotus. The Elise's unique one-piece aluminium chassis, which makes the sports car featherlight against its competitors, underlined this.
The engineering business will now be devoted to developing Proton models, while the cars division looks as though it will be free to get on with making the Elise.
Now the future is secure, the only question remaining for fans of the Lotus badge and the glory years of Colin Chapman is; will Lotus return to Formula One? Proton has got the money and Lotus probably still has the ability; the grand prix world would certainly welcome them.