Automotive Industry

Only the Sociable Survive

While the Elise’s demise is heartbreaking, it’s only the latest move of a company that has relied on partnerships to stay competitive

Considering that high-performance is the most emotional car category, it is only natural that the discontinuation of any model of that type is difficult to take. The latest news in that regard is Lotus’s decision to stop producing the Exige, the Evora and the Elise, the latter after 25 years in line getting nothing but moderate updates.

According to Automotive News Europe, the automaker is going to shift its focus towards new models such as the Emira in order to adapt to the new times and automate its manufacture process. However, since the Elise is still considered “a wonderful car”, as managing director Mark Windle has said, Lotus opened itself to a new option.

The British maker will consider selling the Elise’s tooling to another company “if the right project and the right partner came along”. While such strategy is unthinkable for the likes of GM, Toyota or Volkswagen for many reasons, it is common and, sometimes, necessary for smaller makers. In fact, that is not the first time Lotus uses it.

Collaborate to compete

The activities of developing, producing and marketing a car model require big investments from the beginning, but make money over years. Big automakers deal with that by keeping a lineup of car models at different stages of their life cycles: the older ones support the development of their successors. However, not all automakers are big.

Companies like Lotus live in a vicious cycle: can only work on a few projects at once, so their lineups are small. That grants them fewer opportunities to make money and their prospect of growth is hindered. Looking for new customers is not so helpful because sports cars have inexorably limited sales potential; they must look the other way.

Since making more money is hard, they try to spend less by buying some parts from other companies. Engines and transmissions are the most common ones because of their development cost, but there have been cases of sharing visual elements as well. Lotus is important to this Chronicle because it is particularly well-versed in this topic.

Teamwork, the British way

Lotus has always borrowed parts of other cars. The acclaimed Esprit was born with the Citroën C35’s manual transmission and the Fiat X1/9’s tail lights; the Excel took rear bumper and lights from the Rover SD1; the original Seven had Ford engines and so on. Cars became faster to create and cheaper to maintain, which was what Lotus needed.

Later, Colin Chapman’s company would often get hired to help improve urban cars: Ford Cortina from 1963 to 1970, Chrysler/Talbot Sunbeam from 1979 to 1983 and Vauxhall Carlton from 1990 to 1992. It was also recruited by Toyota to help design the Celica Supra in 1979 and by Chevrolet in Brazil to tune the Omega’s engine in 1993.

And what does all that have in common with the Elise? Lotus has already sold two other projects, namely the Seven to Caterham in 1972 and the Elan M100 to Kia in 1995. While the latter was permanently discontinued four years later after only a few units sold, the former has become an icon still produced and praised around the world.

Does that happen a lot?

Not at all, and the reason is easy to figure. Cars are often developed to express their maker’s image, whether through design or dynamics, and that is widely advertised throughout its life cycle because this characteristic exists precisely to be a strong sales argument. Trading hands is hardly enough to make people ignore all that in a car.

In fact, such abrupt change often does more harm than good: people take the new car as a joke, it does not blend in with the others on the showroom and it uses so many different parts that it naturally becomes expensive and difficult to maintain. While the Seven does well mostly for being a specialty model, the Elan was quickly forgotten.

That experience is surely part of the reasons why Lotus has been careful about where will the Elise’s tooling go. The British maker wants to make sure that its beloved sports car will go a capable partner, a company that will know how to honor its tradition and keep improving the car while respecting the guidelines with which it was created.

Lotus has worked with several partners in several ways over the years and was successful in most of them; it has acquired such experience that not even the decision to resell the Elise’s tooling to another company is new to it. What do you think of that strategy? Should more companies consider it when ending a car’s life cycle? Share your opinion!

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.