Imagine taking the helm of one of the best-loved, most evocative automotive and motorsports marques ever known, then charting a radical new course for it. It may be the understatement of the auto industry to say Matt Windle, Managing Director of Lotus Cars, has a lot to think about these days.
Majority-owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group since 2017, Lotus Cars sits within a portfolio of automakers including Volvo, Polestar, Smart, Lynk & Co, and Geely Auto. The storied British brand—known to enthusiasts as a builder of legendary sports cars like the Elite, Elan, Esprit, and Elise, dominator of Formula One racing in the 1960s and ‘70s, and embodiment of founder Colin Chapman’s often-quoted ethos, “Simplify, then add lightness”—had changed hands three times since the 1980s.
Now, Lotus is three years into a 10-year plan that could see it scale up to become a full-line automaker. This would include increasing sales volumes 10 times-plus, shifting its focus entirely to battery-electric vehicles, and revitalizing its R&D-for-hire arm, Lotus Engineering, into both a consulting powerhouse and the hub of vehicle innovation at the company.
In 2018, amid the 70th anniversary of its founding in 1948, Lotus announced a strategy called Vision 80, which would be in place by its 80th birthday. The first directional hint arrived in 2020 in the form of the Evija all-electric hypercar: a radically designed, 2,000-horsepower beast that spotlighted Lotus’ BEV-focused plans with equal parts shock and awe. Earlier this year, Lotus offered traditional enthusiasts an olive branch in the form of a straight-line development from its Evora sports car, the Emira, which the company intends to be its last vehicle powered by internal combustion. The company’s since announced a pipeline that will introduce a second all-electric sports car, an SUV, and the promise of additional battery-electric “lifestyle” cars to be built in China that will account for most of the increase in Lotus Cars’ sales volume in the coming years.
Windle says he’s energized by the challenge. A Lotus veteran who joined in 1998 as a CAD designer, he left to work for Caterham, Zenos Cars, and Tesla, and returned to head up Lotus Engineering in 2017 and became managing director in 2021. Windle understands both the technical mission and the company culture, and calls his role, “seriously one of the best jobs in automotive at the moment.”
The Drive: As an automaker, Lotus is in a unique spot right now. It’s an EV startup and a 70-plus-year-old company. It operates within a large organization but has its own culture and legacy. As managing director, how do you navigate those contrasts?
Matt Windle: I think the thing that’s great about the way that Geely manages [its] group of companies is [it] pushes the boat out and it steers the boat, but it doesn’t jump on the boat. We are able to manage our own destiny and take our direction in line with what our board approves, in line with what our CEO [That’s Fengqing Feng, also Chief Technical Officer of Geely Auto Group – Ed.] approves. Generally, I can go along to him with any idea and say, “Right, this is what I want to do.” They go, “Yeah, okay.” If it works, you go for it. There’s no strict corporate direction on how we deal with each other and stuff like that, so it’s pretty flexible. We’re able to build our own relationships inter-company as well.
TD: How does tech-sharing work within the Geely Group brands?
There’s the supermarket of parts that are out there on the shelf, if you like. Technologies across the group. But also technologies within Lotus that the group want to share. The most simple way of explaining it is if you went to another OEM, you would have to pay to go into that supermarket. With us we’re able to walk into the supermarket, have a look at the products that are on the shelf. Then if we want some, we buy them. We license it, we share that technology. We’ve gone to Volvo to license parts. There are Volvo parts on the Emira, column stalks and things like that.
Within the group, we do have innovation and technology-sharing sessions, so we will talk about what’s coming through in the group. With Type 131 [Emira], we were looking at the four-cylinder engine. We did go and look at the group first, but we just felt there was nothing in the group that we wouldn’t have to develop further to give it what we needed for the sporty engine that we’re looking for. We were working in parallel, looking for engines that are out in the market. When AMG said they were willing to work with us on it, it’s pretty hard to look past it. It’s a fantastic engine.
TD: Before taking on the managing director role, you managed the engineering of the Emira, right? What was the brief?
I think as far as Emira is concerned, we had a pretty good starting point with the Evora platform and the dynamics. Everything has changed on the chassis, but it’s basically those principles, really. If you’ve driven an Evora in anger, this is a step up as far as dynamics are concerned. But we knew we wanted to get to a much wider audience than a current customer base that we had. We had to look at the ergonomics, we had to look at the comfort, we had to look at the convenience. People these days want to get in their car, they want their phone to connect, they don’t want to have to be putting cables in the glove box and things like that.
In a way, it was simple because we had the basis of a great car. We knew what we needed to do. The car is comfortable for a six foot four person, even with the crash helmet. The technology is new, the materials are lovely. The environment’s lovely, but we have a few things that are in our DNA that come through.
It’s simplistic insomuch that if we don’t need it, it’s not there. So, we’ve got this car that will generate positive downforce, which is pretty unusual. So straight away you get into a virtuous circle, because you’ve done the exterior design, so you don’t need the active aero, so you save the weight. You can then save on other areas of the car.
TD: What can you say about the engine choices for Emira?
I’ve got to say one of the most common questions we’ve had is which engine would you go for? I always make people laugh because I always say, I’m from Essex, I’ve grown up with turbos so I love the turbo.
TD: I get it. I’ve seen that show [The British reality TV series, The Only Way is Essex].
But the thing to say about them actually is, the two cars and the two engines have got different characters. You could, if you could afford it, you could easily have one of each and you’d have two different characters of cars.
I really enjoy the turbo, it does feel lighter, it does feel a bit more agile. Obviously, there’s a little bit of lag on there. It’s not too bad. You only get the DCT with the I-4 as well, so a lot of people—for you guys [in the U.S.]—want the stick shift, because they want the engagement with the car, so it’s the V6.
TD: A lot of people want the manual, but a sports car like the Emira is a place where that [2.0-liter Mercedes-AMG M139] engine hasn’t been yet. It feels like that’s where that engine should be, in a car like this.
Yeah. It’s interesting that it’s at the back, for a start, and it’s a match to our dynamics as well. I think it’s a really good match. The engine works well, the tuning is great for it as well. Yeah, I’m really excited about it. It’s a modern engine as well, isn’t it? The Toyota [3.0-liter 2GR-FE V6] is a fantastic engine. It’s robust, but so is the AMG one. We could have gone in-house, we could have developed something ourselves, but I think it works better that there’s a renowned engine to match what is a beautiful car.
TD: What has your engineering background brought to your management style?
I think the engineering background is one thing, but I also came through manufacturing. I was an apprentice, and I’ve worked on job floors, I’ve worked all my way through, which gives you an understanding, I think it gives you a relationship as well. A lot of the guys on the line were pleased that it was an internal recruitment and not somebody else coming in. Somebody that understood Lotus and understood the ethos. I think you need to give Geely credit there. This is back to what I was saying about Geely is it understands how the businesses in its portfolio operate, and it could see that it needed somebody of that ilk to come in.
As far as my experiences, I’ve done a lot of engineering but I’ve done a lot of ops stuff as well. I’ve run the ops side of small businesses, so I kind of always call myself a bit of a jobs list man, so I like a list. I like to crack on, and I don’t really like doing decisions by committee, I’d rather just get the important people in, make a decision, and move on.
TD: Maybe it’s just my perception as an outsider, but there seems to be a thread running through Lotus as kind of a family organization. There’s the Beckers, the late Roger [project engineering director for 43 years] and his son Matt [lead development engineer], who’s since moved on, but only after 25, 26 years with Lotus. [Vehicle dynamics lead] Gavan Kershaw has been there for 30 years. You started there 20 plus years ago before leaving and returning. Plus there’s the sports cars and motorsports legacy. Do you find there’s a clash of cultures in terms of leading the organization in new directions? There’s a lot on your shoulders in that regard.
Yes and no. When I first moved up to [an executive role] I was a little bit unsure where I fit into that, and confidence in myself. You start thinking, how do people see you and if that’s the right role. As far as moving into the [managing director] role is concerned, I’ve actually found that easier. It kind of feels like a job that’s been waiting for me, and that I’m suited for.
I think bringing different people into the culture is difficult. However, if you bring the right people, then the Lotus faithful, if you like, can see they bring value. My management style is very open. If there’s an issue, please bring it to the fore so we understand it. We’ll deal with it together and we’ll get through it.
Once you work out your strategy and you get a culture and you’ve got a name, very quickly new people come in and you see if they’re not going to fit in there. You need to change that pretty quickly. If people come in and just don’t buy into the culture or the Lotus way of doing stuff, they won’t last very long.
The ones that have been here, Gavin’s an example, Russell [Carr, head of design] is an example. There’s a manager in manufacturing that came up to me today and just said, “Thanks for all you’re doing, everybody really appreciates it. We can see where we’re going.” They understand the mission. So yeah, I think I’m not a dictator, so giving people room to flourish just really does mean that they integrate. You don’t hire good people to then tell them how they’re supposed to do their job. I leave it open enough that if they bring good ideas, that we’re able to implement them as well.
TD: With the Emira as Lotus’s last internal combustion car, have you had difficult discussions with people from Lotus clubs and fans where you had to say, “Well, just hang on. You’re not going to be disappointed with the electric thing that comes after this.”
People say, “[Lotus founder Colin] Chapman would be turning in his grave.” Actually, I don’t think he would because he was always pretty agnostic about powertrain. He wanted the best solution for the product that he was trying to achieve. When I say that, people don’t necessarily agree, but we’re innovators. We want to move forward.
And then pretty much after we made the decision [to go all-battery electric], places like the UK brought their legislation forward five years [The UK government accelerated a ban on the sale of internal-combustion cars from 2040 to 2030, and hybrid vehicles in 2035 — Ed.] and other areas are as well, so it kind of looked like we were really clever, but that kind of came towards us.
I worked for Tesla for seven years, I drove the Mk1 Roadster. I knew more than most people did over here. It was a thrilling car at the time. All right, it was old technology, but people… Have you been in the roadster? You’ve obviously seen it.
TD: It’s a while back, probably 2011, something like that.
Yeah, but when you first got in it, it was incredible. So if you think about where that was, and the technology moving forward. I’ve actually seen some of the initial work they’re doing on the next sports car [Type 135] and it’s blown me away already. It will be everything we want it to be: beautiful, lightweight. It will be the Lotus you expect and it will have an amazing performance as well. We are driven by those [principles], lightweighting, dynamics, aerodynamics, they’re our core that have been in our business from Chapman.
TD: That’s the car that started as Project LEVA?
Project LEVA was a program that we did with a grant from the UK government and a couple of other UK suppliers, and what we wanted to have a look at was, “Let’s come up with a simple structure, take a couple of castings, put some simple extrusions in it, make it so the battery pack is part of the structural solution so that you haven’t got to carry that extra weight.”
The challenge that I’ve set them for Type 135 is that it needs to weigh the same as Emira as an electric-propulsion car. So they’ve had to think differently, and the weight saving is significant between what they’ve done on Project LEVA and where we currently are.
TD: Is the plan still to use that platform in different configurations, larger, smaller? Two-seater, 2+2, all of that stuff?
It’s not currently in our product plan. However, it has been designed so it’s flexible like that. To start with, we will be looking at a two-seater configuration in different body styles. Also, we’re working very closely with our OEMs around using that platform for their products as well, which ties us into the product strategy and Lotus Engineering, so you can see where that element is there as well. So, there will probably be different wheelbases between those products to give it the market segment that the OEM wants and we want.
Back to Geely. When we started the process of laying out what we wanted to do products-wise and what we wanted to do technology-wise, we said to them, the foundation of Lotus must be tied to its own platforms. They said, “Oh no, we’ve got all these platforms. You can have access to them.” We looked at them, they’re way too heavy, they don’t give us the configuration we want, they’re not flexible enough. Wrong materials, things like that. So we said, “Okay, this is what we want to do. This is how we think we can grow Lotus Engineering. This is how we think we can overlay the products,” and they bought into that. That really gives me a lot of reassurance that, as I said, we have a bit of autonomy for us to make our own plans.
TD: What are the real upsides and downsides to building an engaging enthusiast car around an EV platform, or EV drivetrains right now? Obviously, we talk about weight a lot, but is that really it, or is it just about hiding that weight in a place that gives you the best center of gravity or something else?
We want our cars to look beautiful. So, for us, for the sports cars, we really like that low sports car line. We could put the batteries at the bottom, which would give us better CFG, however, it doesn’t give us the roof height that we want and the profile. You’d be looking at a car that is 1,300 to 1,400 millimeters high whereas we want to be down in the twelves. Even lower, if we can.
Also, the chest [mid-mounted] configuration we’ve got on Evija—and we will take forward as well on future products—really puts the weight of the car where Lotus knows how to deal with that weight as well. The aerodynamics, the driving dynamics, the weight are the critical things to us.
TD: I guess for engineering there’s a packaging question and there’s a dynamics question. Those two, sometimes they’re difficult to reconcile.
Yeah, the packaging is really important. I mean, some of the really biggest gains are, how do you get the lightest, most efficient motor that’s going to give you the performance you want? BEV sports cars are difficult because people want enough range if they want to go away for a weekend in their car, but they also want to be able to light it up from the stoplights, legally of course. They want both ends of that scale, they want performance but they want range.
TD: Are there other takeaways from your time with Tesla you can use now?
I suppose the takeaway from Tesla is not so much product-related, it’s more about the ethos. It’s about Elon [Musk] not being scared to make decisions, you know? I think that is something I use for my management style, I hit on that earlier. Let’s have a discussion, let’s have a sprint, let’s make a decision, let’s move on to the next thing.
I think it’s really important for Lotus to keep that because we’re never going to be a really massively capital company. We don’t want to be competing with the GMs. So, to be able to have the same punch at the same sort of level, you need to be innovative and fast-moving. I think staying abreast of the technology side of it as well because it’s just moving so quickly that the product could be out of date before it gets to market.
And [Musk] was very keen to do everything he could in-house. I think his view was always, “We can do it in-house better than anybody else. I want to do it in-house.” We’re not in that position, so I think it’s just finding the right partners for us to get the car that we want at the end of it.
TD: Traditionally, the cauldron of motorsports is where a lot of the innovations in dynamics and vehicle performance came from, but not as much in the EV space. I know Extreme E is where you guys are currently working with Jenson Button. Is there a thought of the new generation of Formula E car? Where are you guys with motorsports right now?
So, where we are right now is we are doing some work with Button and Extreme E through Lotus Engineering, so we’re trying to help them with improving their product. That is somewhere we could possibly go in the future because we’re moving into the SUV space, which fits quite well with Extreme E.
We’ve always tried to race our products, and the primary driver for us at the moment is GT4, so we will be doing an Emira GT4 next season which will race across Europe, China, and America. We’re setting all our ambitions pretty small at the moment, but we’ll see how it goes.
As far as the EV, it’s going to be driven by customer demand, isn’t it? We can see the customer demand as far as the on-road product is going is moving towards EV, and they will then have to work out how they move that into the motorsport arena as well. F1 is working very hard to innovate as far as materials are concerned, cost, and things like that. That for us is a step too far, I would like to bide the time to see how it plays out with the future as far as products are concerned as well.
For me, the ability to get distracted by stuff is quite high so I’m really trying to keep the focus on getting Evija and Emira to production with the right quality so we satisfy those customers. Then what comes after that, it’s an open door, really. We’d be open to partnerships, we’d be open to series, a series if they want to come along. Yeah, there’s plenty of opportunities there.
TD: Speaking of partnerships, I know that you guys have a partnership right now with Alpine. How do you approach strategic partnerships at this point? Is it just strength and strength combining, or are there other considerations?
I think it’s important for us to complement each other, so with Alpine, we’ve got a [memorandum of understanding] at the moment and we’re working in three areas: Around future products, shared engineering services through Lotus Engineering, and then whether we can do something in the motorsport space in the future.
Sometimes it’s just a really interesting and cool thing to do. An instance is the partnership we’ve got with British Cycling as far as the Olympics was concerned. We didn’t make any money out of that. It was an interesting area for us to be in as technology around bikes and innovative fork design as we did for those bikes. We came away with seven gold medals in the Olympics, and various other medals. That’s quite satisfying, so we will keep those going as well. Also as well as CSR is concerned, brand corporate social responsibilities, we’re trying to build partnerships there as well. It’s on different levels, it’s from a full commercial partnership to donating a car or donating time and things like that. So, yeah. It’s interesting. The opportunities are wide.
TD: The revival of Lotus Engineering. For me as a kid looking around at the “Engineered by Lotus” ads and logos on various cars over the years, and then running into Lotus engineers at other automakers’ model launches, it’s pretty clear Lotus Engineering was a big part of the group. What are the plans for not only tuning for other automakers but other applied engineering projects?
I want Lotus Engineering to be back where it was. In some of my predecessor’s eras, Lotus Engineering wasn’t seen as that important. Obviously being an engineering guy, I did run Lotus Engineering for a little while when I was through my various jobs running up to MD. I’ve got a good understanding of the business. It’s a varied marketplace, it’s a competitive marketplace as well. There’s a lot of people out there, but then there’s a lot of business out there as well, so it’s an exciting element.
We’re working on doing various projects that are quite interesting. We’re doing stuff around engine technologies, we’re doing stuff around software, we’re doing stuff around ECUs, all those things that we used to do, the bike, materials.
We’ve now got four battery testing capabilities in the Midlands in the UK for cell modules. We do EV training, so we’re trying to spread our bets a little bit on the traditional mechanical stuff. We’ve still got test cells at Hethel for gasoline engines, but we’ve converted some of those into EDU [electric drive unit] test cells as well. Vehicle dynamics is still a thing that is really popular. We’ve got the track here. Also, cockpit design and technologies. We’re looking at acoustics, both noise-canceling and noise enhancing because that’s a big area that’s going to be coming off of EVs as well. You won’t have that engine noise that normally cancels out a lot of the noises in there.
The [unique selling proposition] as far as Lotus Engineering is concerned is we can do from a sketch through to building you a homologated car that comes off the line, and anything in between. You could come to us as a one-stop-shop, or we can do any bit in between that process.
TD: It may seem obvious, but can you talk about how doing work for other companies might also be an engine of innovation for Lotus Engineering internally?
Yeah, absolutely because not only do we interact with other businesses out there, so we understand what they’re trying to do, it gives us the ability to do programs. For instance, the BattCon program that we’re doing where we’re testing batteries, we will be testing other people’s batteries in our facilities. You learn about performance, you learn about durability, you learn about various things like that.
It also keeps the engineers sharp. You can see the buzz about the place. They’ve got new products, they’ve got new technologies. They want to go and write white papers. Our guys are now going out to universities, they’re going out to conferences, they’re starting to talk. That’s a shop window for us, but it’s a two-way thing because they are seeing what’s going on as well.
The products we’re putting out there should bring attention to Lotus Engineering as well. Because it’s the same guys. There’s not a Lotus Engineering team and a product engineering team. There used to be. Here, again, I’m really keen to keep that as one team so that you get the technology and innovation mating between the product guys and the Lotus Engineering guys. They’ve got the same leaders who are responsible for delivering both. And it’s great for our leaders in the business as well, the experience they get from not just having to deliver on time for an in-house program, they also have to deliver the commercial elements.
TD: We’ve been watching the Evija [EV hypercar] emerge bit by bit. I know there have been some COVID-related disruptions. You’ve had to temper the timeline expectations?
Yeah, so the timeline, that’s gone back. There’s no doubt. We were out in Europe testing, COVID hit March 2020. We had to get those cars back, and we had the show car in the States, it was stuck there. It really screwed up our plans. However, it’s progressing very well. It’s been quite nice, because, in a way, Emira has taken the limelight at the moment, with everything we’re doing around Emira. We’ve kind of been able to keep Evija going in the background without having to make too much noise about it, however, I’ve driven it. It was a bit boring, they’ve restricted it to 1,400 brake horsepower.
TD: That’s a shame [/s].
It was great, it was an early car but you just know it’s going to drive well. Then we had the car at Goodwood and I got a ride up the hill with Gav and I can honestly say I didn’t breathe from the start line to the finish line. It was such an experience that everybody needs to have a go in it, I think.
The program’s going really well, we’ve got two cars that are out in Italy now doing high-speed testing so we can approve the top end of that. Battery technology is really coming on, I’m confident that when those cars go into production early next year, we will have a good product. Sales are doing well as well.
TD: You said Italy and high speed. Are you talking about Nardo by any chance?
Couldn’t possibly say, but yeah.
TD: How do you feel that in the EV space, hypercars are a more compelling motivator for innovative engineering than competitive motorsports is? Will that change?
I think if there’s a way of getting those cars into some sort of motorsport element, be it Le Mans electric or something like that, I think yes. I think to have a car that’s over 2,000 brake horsepower is a pretty mean engineering feat, but to drive it, it’s still a Lotus. This sounds really weird, but it’s really agile and it’s really direct. You know you’re driving a Lotus.
TD: So, it sounds a little bit like motorsports haven’t caught up with EVs yet. There isn’t a league yet that encompasses everything that we really want out of EV racing.
Yeah, I agree. As I said earlier, I think when we brought Evija out two years ago, we were ahead of customer demand then, which is great because that gets back to: “We are innovators, we are ahead of where we are.” Now, Pininfarina has done something, Rimac has done things. It’s becoming more acceptable, people understand what the process is. Yeah, the next thing is, people are always doing it, aren’t they? You give them a fast car, they want to put it on the track and race. So, somebody will come up with that pretty soon. Range obviously has an impact on that. If you can get a format that works for the cars, I think it would be quite interesting.
I think the Extreme E is an example, isn’t it? That’s not necessarily a racing aim, there’s environmental and then there are the new products, it’s taking its places where it goes, it’s a sustainability program as well. But actually, the racing is quite interesting. I think that the lack of knowledge around how the products are going to perform and what they are going to do adds interest to the series as well. So, I’ve got no doubt that people will be racing EV saloon cars pretty soon, but in what format? Don’t know. But I’m happy to sell 10 Evijas to anybody who wants to set up an Evija series right now.
TD: For someone is not familiar with where Lotus Group stands right now, what are the component parts of it and how do they interact?
The group Lotus is going to be split between Lotus Cars and Lotus Tech, as it’s called, so the Chinese element of it. Both of us report to the same CEO. Lotus Cars will be responsible for design, engineering, manufacture of sports cars in the UK, but we also have motorsport and Lotus Engineering. The colleagues over in China will be responsible primarily for the engineering and manufacturing of the lifestyle cars [The Type 132 SUV, for instance – Ed.], even though those have been designed for the UK. Ultimately, we are looking to drive Lotus to be a global, premium automotive manufacturer with volumes in the high tens of thousands, as opposed to the high thousands or low thousands as it is right now.
Ultimately, we will have global production facilities across two countries, two continents. Sports cars will be built in the UK, lifestyle cars will be built in China. All vehicles that we’re doing are world cars. We know that you’ve been badly serviced, shall we say, by Lotus in the past with products over in the U.S. That won’t happen again. All products that we’re doing have been designed for all markets. The Evija is a bit of a special case, but Type 131 [Emira] onwards will be world-market cars.
TD: That’s really a step change. Is that a different way of thinking for you? I mean, how are you looking down the road at the challenges of becoming a volume maker?
It is different, it’s different thinking as well because of what you have to achieve with the product to achieve that volume. You need products that people are familiar with. If they don’t understand the car, or it puts them off by getting into it, you’re not going to sell the volume.
However, it’s really important for us that we also do products that appeal to what our DNA is. It’s a fine balancing act. We look at our competitors, we look at the market segments, we look at where market growth is. Hence, type 132 coming along because SUV is one of the fastest-growing markets and segments as well. It’s been a path that’s been trodden by people before, however, the car is very modern, it’s got lots of technology in it. It’s good looking, it’s got porosity [That’s how the air channels through the vehicle, like the Evija’s aero pass-through holes – Ed], it’s got aero. You’ll recognize it’s a Lotus when you see it. That’s important as well. Brand. When we started on this journey back in 2017, you’d ask people do they know Lotus and they’d go, “Yeah, yeah. They won Formula One in the ’70s. Are they still going?” Building the brands, building the confidence.
We’re having to redo our retail network throughout the world, new [customer intelligence] CI, bringing the right people in as well. We need to grow our representation, particularly in the States. We know that there are some areas that you’ve got to drive a long way if you want to own a Lotus and get it serviced. So, that’s something that we’re concentrating on. We literally had to press reboot, restart, back in 2017 and the first two to three years were about getting the right management structure, getting the right processes, getting the right strategy. Working out the investment models, and now you’ll see the fruits of that coming through.
We’ve got a lot to do, we’ve got to move really fast. What we’re trying to do is probably as ambitious as anybody has done, if you just take it in volumes. We think we can do it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Got a tip? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.