Magazine article The Spectator

Who Sings Now?

Magazine article The Spectator

Who Sings Now?

Article excerpt

Another preconception bit the dust this month, but this time the taste was far from acrid. I had always thought that Lotus cars were made in Norfolk by about half a dozen chaps in a barn. Well, they are made in Norfolk but their Hethel factory is genuinely a factory, albeit an adapted wartime airfield with converted hangars and the runway turned into a test circuit on which you scatter partridge and moorhen along with your wits. Also, the chaps number over 1,400 and the whole place looks busy and prosperous, an appearance that the greatly improved 1997-98 company results (L4.5 million profit on L104 million turnover) are about to confirm.

I worked briefly in two factories many years ago, one making televisions and the other cricket bats, and I don't suppose I've been in another since. Neither was like this; here, everyone seemed to be doing something, and doing it quite busily. Noise levels were variable but nowhere intolerable and the ubiquitous muzak did at least vary from one work (and radio) station to another rather than blasting you over the public address system. I'm always reluctant to believe that people actually want this enforced listening but the evidence is overwhelmingly against me. Perhaps it's just company and they don't really listen to it. Whichever, I suspect it has the paradoxical effect of actually making us less musical. My father used to sing as he worked and walked about, a tradition that must be nearly as old as humanity but which is now almost extinct in industrial societies. It's not only power saws, factory presses, offices and so on that make it impossible, but the muzak drug that most people live with seems to still the musical impulse. Many of our 19th-century ancestors had cottage pianos, played in church orchestras and village bands and sang whenever they got together. Who sings now?

But back to Lotus. I was there to test that award-winning, fashion-accessory, whippet-like zip of a car, the Elise. Arguably, this is what saved Lotus's bacon and made their Malaysian owners - who also own Proton - smile upon Hethel. It took only two and a half years and L3-4 million to develop. The planned production run of 800 a year currently runs at 3,000, with an 18-month waiting list and a price of L22,000 (less if you're one of the chaps at Hethel, who are showing their confidence in what they make by being keen buyers). Powered by the standard MGF engine, it exemplifies the original vision of Lotus's founder, Colin Chapman, in its lightweight construction, high powerto-weight ratio and limpet-like road-holding. …

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