My biggest fear with the seemingly inevitable departure of Dany Bahar was having to read the contempt and gloating of the automotive media’s self-appointed product and management experts, whereby they claim vindication for shitting on Dany Bahar’s vision to do something about Lotus and their lack of profitability and his desecration of sacred “brand values”.
This time last year, I became one of the few people to back Bahar’s plan, and I still stand by it. Conduct aside (and I mean, conduct that is actually questionable, not just being mean to Jalopnik when they asked him asinine questions), Bahar’s plan still makes sense. There’s a large segment of the population that hasn’t yet realized that the locus of profitability has shifted, and tastes in those regions necessitate a different way of thinking. That’s without taking into account that the extremely narrow range of cars sold by Lotus will only appeal to a very small group of wealthy people willing to put up with the sacrifices that come with driving the most pure sports cars in the world.
The Lotus plan involved creating a broader range of cars, including an Esprit that would finally become a real supercar, a next-generation Elise and a much to the horror of car nuts, a sedan – something that Chapman, whose cars grew more cushy and family friendly as he aged – wanted to produce before his death. Lest we forget that the Lotus Cortina and Lotus Carlton were born of utterly mundane stock yet have become automotive legends. Along with the new cars came a plan for greater branding and merchandise, something that has helped line Ferrari’s coffers after being implemented by, you guessed it, Dany Bahar. The Lotus branded gear was also much more tasteful and restrained than the Ferrari/Puma stuff that floods my local Foot Locker discount rack.
I always felt that so much of the hate directed at Bahar and his plan was just personal anger being projected onto him and the clientshe hoped to attract. Bahar was handsome, suave, wealthy and accomplished in many fields; he would be an easy target of hate for your typical scrawny, awkward and impoverished auto journalist, akin to how females can exhibit catty behavior towards their mental or physical superiors. Why else would he be branded an “over-coifed little shit“? Lack of automotive experience never stopped Stephan Winkelmann, Alan Mulally or hell, Soichiro Honda (who loved aircraft and motorcycles more than the automobile).
The other side of it was the resistance to any sort of change that is a deeply human trait not reserved for car guys. The Elise and Exige are sublime cars that are not only brilliant, but potentially affordable on the used market (and when new, cost far less than other exotics). The Lotus plan would move them into a whole other pricing category, but lest we forget that the planned 2015 replacement date would mean that those cars would have been on sale for nearly two decades. Not even the Acura NSX had such a long tenure.
The Lotus of the past had me futilely following my neighbor’s Racing Green Esprit S4 on my 10-speed as he roared down my street. It had me lie through my teeth, using an S2000 press car as a prop, just so I could test drive an Elise. In inspired my to peer through the glass of Gentry Lane Toronto’s workshop and take that picture at 1 AM on a Thursday night. It had me taking an unpopular position, against the grain of everyone else, because I believe so strongly that the brand still has so much to offer that a 4-door sedan and Lotus brand shoes wouldn’t have hurt it at all.
The alternative is a world without Lotus. It’s not that difficult to imagine. When Fiat is handing over development of an icon like the Alfa Spider to a struggling Japanese automaker like Mazda, it’s safe to say that we are not living in the world of Colin Chapman’s Magical Norfolk Workshop where building sports cars at a loss is a viable survival strategy. Whatever you may think of it, Bahar had a vision, and his job was to sell and market that vision. Now that it’s off the table, it’s easy for DRB-Hicom to give up and justify it by refusing to throw good money after bad. Long term thinking and a bold plan is necessary. And it’s got nothing to do with continuing to sell the Elise.