Lotus Cars Managing Director Matt Windle last month visited the company’s North American operations, met with dealers and attended the 41st annual Lotus Owners Gathering at a racetrack in West Virginia.
His visit comes as Lotus expands its dealer network and readies for the biggest onslaught of new models in company history. Windle, 51, spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett. Here are edited excerpts.
Q: You met with Lotus owners on this trip. Managing directors of car companies don’t usually do that. What do you get from hanging out with the enthusiasts who buy Lotus cars?
A: I always think of myself as quite an open person. It’s what I want to do with the culture of the business as well. It’s really important for us to keep eye contact with the customers. So, as we grow over the next five years, it’s obviously going to be more difficult to do that. But coming along to these events, we learn. And one of the interesting things that we do at a big event — like Goodwood or Monterey — is we always man those stands with our people and volunteers. Everybody wants to get out and do it because it’s really good for customers. They get honest, direct feedback about the products and the company from people that know what they’re talking about.
Lotus has never really had a quick cadence of new products.
Well, you’re going to see five new cars in six years that Lotus was completely underinvested in. There was no direction and no strategy. And that’s completely changed now with us under majority ownership of Geely. They’ve made the investments. I mean, in the U.K., we spent £100 million at Hethel (Lotus headquarters) in a new factory. We’ve got a new factory in Norwich, where we do all our chassis manufacturing, semiautomated production and now a fully automated paint shop.
Chinese-built cars have not had an easy time in many Western markets. MG, for example, got off to a really slow start, but is finally beginning to sell some cars. And now the first Lotus, the Eletre SUV, is coming from China. How will the faithful receive a Chinese-built Lotus?
Oh, I think it’ll be good. It is Chinese-built, yes. But it’s designed in the U.K. The attributes were defined in the U.K. The engineering has been done between the U.K., Germany and China. So, it’s European. A Chinese-manufactured car is the best-quality Lotus you’re ever going to see. It is a huge step up in quality for us and is the next step up. That’s where we want to get to. You know, we want to be seen as a quality performance brand. And that’s what we’re working toward.
BMW, Mercedes-Benz and other expensive cars are being built in the United States, and consumers don’t seem concerned about the origin of those vehicles. But Lotus is not a mass-market brand. It’s always been made by a real hardcore group of dedicated sports-car guys. Chinese auto brands don’t really have that kind of image.
Geely understands the importance of the brand. They understand the importance of the DNA. And so the Eletre will drive well, performance will be great, and it’s got all new technology. So I’m going to make no apologies about where it is built.
How will the Eletre be launched?
It goes on sale first in the European markets that tend to be the most mature. So Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, the U.K. — where the incentives are the highest and the infrastructure is at its best. Obviously, we’re going to market in China, too, because it is the biggest EV market in the world and also it’s the place where it’s built. So, the first deliveries will happen in those markets. That’s where the rollout begins from next year. In 2024, the first cars will come into the U.S. The dealers are taking deposits now, but on the basis that those customers will need to wait two or three years for the cars to come.
Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini are other sports-car companies that recently launched their first SUVs. What do you take away from their experiences that will help you?
The takeaway is there’s a market for it and there’s a demand and it’s now a kind of well-trodden path really for these traditional sports-car manufacturers to be going into those areas. It’s good because it’s a high-volume product, but it can drive innovation back into the sports cars that you wouldn’t normally be able to afford. We’re looking really closely at how we can commonize systems, technologies and things like that because it makes sense.
As Lotus’ volume grows, will the company leverage Volvo’s parts and service infrastructure to help handle it?
To be fair, there are some areas that we’re looking at with Volvo, such as roadside assistance. But parts and service, we can do ourselves.
What potential annual volume is Lotus expecting in the U.S. once you get all your vehicles launched?
The potential is huge. I think we could be doing 10,000 cars a year over here. So, I mean, we’ve seen it already. We’ve got 10,000 deposits for Emira, globally. The U.S. is the biggest market for that. There’s been good uptake on the Eletre already even though it’s not going to be here for a few years. The U.S. has always been a very, very important market for Lotus.
How will Lotus’ dealer network change with the influx of new vehicles and expected volume increase?
We’ve got 36 dealers in the U.S. and we’ve got 10 that are under contract now, signed and coming on line. We’re probably looking at adding about 10 new dealers a year for the next three years. So we know we’ve got to grow the representation. It’s really important for those dealers that start with us as well.
We’ve been very careful with respect to dealer areas. We don’t want our customers to be driving four hours to get to us to have their car serviced. So we’re just trying to pick out those areas of representation. Dealers will have an opportunity to get good volume. So there’s a lot going on.
Early in your career you spent seven years at Tesla. What did you learn there that helps you as you steer Lotus into the EV era?
I was there 2005, so it was a very different company from what it is now, I’m sure. I suppose my management style has probably been influenced a bit. Quick decision making. Be confident in what you’re doing. Building the right team as well. That’s taken a long time, but we’re there now.
So what’s keeping you awake at night in these stressful times of the lingering pandemic, chip shortages and transitioning to EVs?
The ramp-up of production has been the hardest thing. The Shanghai lockdown. The war in Ukraine. The price of logistics makes planning very difficult. There are a lot of things that you can’t control. But the interest in the cars that are coming is really strong. We’re looking to get these products out there and definitely support the market more than in the past. The Lotus brand is loved.