At this year’s Paris Auto show, the relatively-newly-appointed CEO of Lotus Cars embarked on a $1.2 billion rebranding of Lotus, hoping to transform the small engineering firm that happens to make cars into a credible automaker that happens to be really good at math. That CEO would be Dany “I’m not a car guy” Bahar, who – yesterday – announced that Lotus would be stepping away from its current engine supplier, Toyota, and take steps towards developing its own, “all Lotus” sportscar engine …
Why again? “Again”, because this isn’t really news, and Lotus has probably been – quietly – developing sportscar engines for years.
Back in 1996 (when Lotus was owned by Bugatti) the company revealed a new engine. Calling it the type 918, it was a small, twin-turbo V8 that was so compact and space-efficient it fit in the same space as the 2.0 L Renault-based four-cylinder the copany had been using for over a decade. According to the July 1996 issue of Motor Trend, the capacity of the adjacent cargo area had actually increased as a result of the swapping the twin-turbo V8 into the space of the old 4, causing MT editor Bob Nagy to proclaim that “Lotus’ engineers have mastered the space-time continuum.”
In addition to being space-efficient, the then-new type 918 Lotus V8 was also thermally efficient to the point that its twin Garret-derived T3/60 turbos ran effectively without the use of intercoolers – something practically unheard of in a high-performance, mid-engined exotic.
The 918 engine’s architecture was designed with an eye towards modular construction, such that the engine could be manufactured as a twin-tubo V8, a single-turbo inline-4, a supercharged V6, or even a naturally-aspirated V10 … this “modularity” is a well-practiced black-art at Lotus, which uses the same basic modular chassis to produce two generations of the Elise and Exige sportscars, as well as the GT1 Elise, the Opel Speedster, the 211 track-day special, the Europa, the Evora, the Hennessey Venom, and – last but not least – the Tesla Roadster.
At the time, Lotus had hoped to provide the 918, in various guises, to other small-volume manufacturers. Those hopes were dashed, however, by the sale of Lotus to the Malaysian company Proton, which imposed enough real “business-sense” into the engineering-driven Lotus culture to essentially save the marque. Part of Proton’s “Lotus Survival Strategy” was, of course, to partner with a much larger firm who could absorb R&D costs for new powertrains, which – in the late 90’s – also included new, tougher emissions regulations in the US and Europe (Lotus’ core markets).
The Lotus Esprit – the only model to make use of the innovative 918 – was discontinued for sound business reasons. The 918 was shelved in favor of cheaper/more profitable Toyota-sourced engines, until a time came when Lotus (and, indeed, the world) might again need a dimensionally compact, efficient, and powerful turbocharged V8 again.
Fast forward 15 years to 2011. There is a huge new demand for small, thermally-efficient, turbocharged engines. Racing series all over the world are switching to small, turbocharged 4-cylinders. Proton has injected over a billion dollars into Lotus and the company is set to launch a new chassis, which will form the basis for several new Lotus models. Lotus is moving upmarket, and has developed its own, unique hybrid-drive systems …
… in other words: Lotus doesn’t need Toyota anymore.
You’ve got to hand it to Bahar. He’s not a car guy, but he seems to have a good business head on his shoulders, and he may be the guy who finally turns the world’s best engineers into the world’s smartest car company.