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Flash Dany departs Lotus

Editorial Staff

Dany Bahar has been fired from Lotus. No one is saying exactly why, at least not in public. But it all comes down to two things: money and ambition.

Dani Bahar : "Developing five new cars in six years is something that is close to not being very realistic."

In order to do it, Bahar needed much more money than the company could possibly generate. Design, testing and manufacturing are very expensive.

When he arrived at Lotus, he says, he found production technology that was 25 years old. Lotus' main asset, he said in a documentary shown just days before he was suspended for an investigation into the company's finances, was its people.

But Bahar wanted to move Lotus onto a new plane - one where it competes with Ferrari and Porsche without losing "the DNA" of Lotus.

And he wanted to capitalise on the name's racing heritage.

A Lotus is still hand-made. Even now, Bahar's team - from Ferrari and Porsche among other major European sports car manufacturers - introduced mechanical aids new to the company. But there is still 200 man hours in each of the company's Evora model - and they make just five per day.

Bahar got involved in a dishonourable spat with Tony Fernandes who bought the defunct Team Lotus name and took it back into Formula One. Bahar became petty and jealous. He put Team Lotus memorabilia all around Lotus' Hethel headquarters. He put pressure on Malaysian politicians to compel Tony Fernandes into surrendering the name and he took the company into an expensive and diversionary legal action in London's High Court. Lotus did not win.

He decided that the company's motor racing heritage needed to be capitalised upon so Lotus sponsored the Renault racing team when, after crashgate arose from the team's cheating in the Singapore Grand Prix, sponsors were hard to come by. There's no doubt, Lotus got in cheap - but it caused confusion. The Renault team had Lotus in big letters but it was not Team Lotus. Now, as the major sponsor of the team which has been renamed "Lotus Renault, " It is the only team with the word Lotus on it. But it's not "Team Lotus." Bahar failed to claim the iconic name. And there is little, if any, input into the F1 team from Lotus. Bizarrely, the sponsorship deal has ended; Lotus are not putting any more money into it but their name is still on the car.

In the USA, an Indycar was branded Lotus but it was just a paint-job. This year, Lotus is putting an engine into a third party chassis for the series (as do all other engine manufacturers). But the engine isn't working properly.

Lotus was disqualified from le Mans when Colin Chapman realised that he could benefit from different tyres front and rear. Chapman vowed Lotus would never return to le Mans. Bahar - embarrassingly in a Lola chassis - with a Lotus V8 engine is back in France. It is racing in other endurance races. For Lotus, the chassis is the core of the car, that and the suspension is what makes Lotus great. And there's a Lotus paint-job on the Rebellion car - but Lotus have no input except sponsorship. The cars in all three formula may be black and gold, they may have the Lotus name, but they are not Lotus in the Chapman tradition.

But in other formulae, including for the first time since Lotus breathed on the old Ford Cortina rallying, real Lotus cars are going racing. And they are doing pretty well. In one Lotus-only series there are 40 cars on the grid and there is talk of splitting it into two because there are too many entrants.

Bahar also signed off on the company's first foray into Go Karts. But instead of building what is undoubtedly the most beautiful kart ever built, he subcontracted production out to an Italian company.

Bahar's legacy is a better known brand but it's an illusion: while the road cars are pure Lotus with the engineering vision that goes back to Chapman's principles the racing image is largely fiction - money not talent. And Lotus doesn't have the money to go racing.

For the road cars, production quality has always been flaky. Lotus have always been, at their heart, supercars built in a shed.

Where Bahar has made a huge and positive improvement is in the production process. Now, in the style of Bentley and Aston Martin, individuals are responsible for specific parts of the build. Detailed check-lists on paper are backed with computerised monitoring.

The new Evora 2+2 is the company's first totally new package since the Elise. And it's aimed at a totally different market.

Historically, Lotus was a car with performance that the big boys envied at a price that was, for many, affordable. You could drive a Lotus for the same price as a BMW - if you could afford the insurance.

No more.

Production numbers fell - some said to as low as just two cars across the range - each day. But the order books were full. And Bahar's range of new designs including a four-door that makes e.g. the Maserati Quattroporte look dull are already in prototype form. They are, without doubt, a stunning line up. For long term Lotus fans, seeing the cars unveiled was an emotional moment.

Seriously: in Paris last year, no manufacturer had as many teary eyes.

Bahar's ambition needed a massive cash injection - and a prudent spending policy. And Lotus is owned by Proton, a car company that was created as part of a vision for the future by Mohammed Mahathir, for decades the unchallenged prime minister of Malaysia. Proton, originally little more than a screwdriver plant for Mitisubishi, was struggling to fund development of its mass market cars and to improve their quality. to Proton, Lotus was part of its development team, working on the design and production of its road cars - cars that even the Lotus badge did not help when reputational issues were considered.

In fact, Proton, with Lotus input, has also re-invented itself. It produces cars that are comparable with European mass market cars in terms of style and performance. But it's still got to meet its original brief of getting people off motorbikes and into tin-tops. So it still produces the kind of cars that many dismiss. Even so, Proton has in the past half-decade, produced a range that it can be proud of. When GM was losing millions each day, Proton was making a profit.

Several months ago, the Malaysian government divested itself of almost its entire share of Proton to DRB - Hicom a conglomerate that makes, among other things, commercial vehicles. Although independent, DRB - Hicom has close links to the government. Within weeks, management changes at Proton saw the CEO - who had wide popular support - and other senior people turfed out and replaced.

At the same time, an investigation was launched into Dany Bahar's expansive lifestyle - and where the money came from. There are allegations and rumours that company money was used for expensive renovations at his home, that he used private jets instead of commercial airlines adding substantial cost to his travel budget. It is alleged he gave away cars as gifts (not a rare thing if a celebrity can be persuaded to drive it around), extensive use of private helicopters and (somewhat bizarrely) staying in five star hotels. Certainly, Bahar is a million miles away from the cloth-cap and tweed (with an oily rag in the pocket) that characterised Colin Chapman when he was dressed up. He didn't dress up often: he was much more likely to be found up to his armpits in some new idea he was developing. But even Chapman had his own light aircraft - which crashed, killing him.

Bahar may, if his vision is pushed through, turn out to have been the best thing that happened to a small English car company. But whether what he has left behind is Lotus, truly Lotus, remains to be seen. Somehow, it all seems just a bit too, er, polished.

But then, when one sees the pride in the eyes of the production team, hears the break in their voice when they recount seeing a Lotus in town and realising "that's one of ours," sees cars that Colin Chapman would have been pleased (he was rarely "proud") to see his name on that somehow, maybe, what Bahar has done, aside from all the fripperies and the new price points, made Lotus was it always would have been if it had not had a succession of poor management.

And for that, regardless of what he did wrong, regardless of the arrogance and bad grace, is something that British sports car manufacturing - and Proton - should approve of.

DRB-Hicom is reported to be looking at cost-cutting at Lotus which now employs some 1200 people in Hethel alone although a significant number are engaged on consulting projects for Proton and other manufacturers. They have installed a bean-counter at the top of the company and are reported to be trying to re-organise the loans that the former Proton management took to fund Bahar's expansion plans.

So long as they count the cost of wasted resources but keep funding the projects in hand, there's a good chance that their investment will pay off. Toss the cars out with the Bahar bathwater and DRB-Hicom could just find themselves the latest in a long line of Lotus managers who neglected and ultimately almost killed the company - but not the brand.

Within days of DRB-Hicom's takeover, Lotus announced "production of the current cars is back to normal and also the New Esprit - although delayed - got the green light and development continues."

But against all of that is a totally unsubstantiated rumour in Malaysia that Bahar had a semi-secret plan to recreate Lotus as a stand-alone sports car company and then to find a way to spin it off in a deal that would have made him millions in side deals. It's just a rumour and rumour - especially in Malaysia - has a tendency to rush around before anyone bothers to check its accuracy. If there is any truth in that rumour, then his continued involvement is clearly against the company's best interests.

For DRB-Hicom, the challenge is simple - DFU. Because half the world is waiting for you to do it. And the other half craves the cars, even if they can't afford them new.


-- Lotus is the subject of a "Megafactories" documentary on Discovery Channel. Lotus have posted a copy at https://lotus-view.4me.it/view... .