Founded in Britain, Lotus is very much a specialty outfit, with output limited to high-performance racecars and sports cars known for their sleek and lightweight designs. Though its cars are prized by enthusiasts seeking maximum handling performance, Lotus has never been particularly keen on sales volume, and it rarely has more than one or two models for sale at a time.
The marque was founded by racing enthusiast Anthony Colin Chapman. The first Lotus was built in 1948, and used by Chapman to compete in races. By 1955, Chapman had officially formed Lotus Cars Ltd. A company milestone was reached two years later with the unveiling of the innovative Lotus Elite. This remarkably light coupe owed its featherweight status to its fiberglass unibody construction. Though the use of fiberglass for a car's body wasn't unique, the Elite was the first vehicle to use this material both in its skeleton and its skin. The resultant weight savings helped the Elite to distinguish itself at Le Mans and other notable races around the world.
The 1960s saw Lotus expanding its line with the addition of the Elan. First available as a roadster, the car offered a twin-cam engine, four-wheel disc brakes and a four-wheel independent suspension. Hardtop versions were later offered. By 1967, Lotus had added the Elan Plus 2 to its lineup. Dubbed Lotus' first family car, the Plus 2 was just as sporty as the Elan, but more practical thanks to a bigger cabin and the addition of two jump seats.
Lotus discontinued the Elite in 1972, but the name was revived in 1974. The new Elite was a four-passenger model with a 160-horsepower engine. Two years later, the Lotus family grew yet again, with the addition of the Esprit. The two-seat sports car continued Lotus' ethos of lightweight design, and it was instantly recognizable due to its distinctive wedge-shaped exterior and appearance in two James Bond movies.
Movie stardom aside, this was not a good decade for Lotus. The brand's vehicles had evolved significantly since the first Elite cruised off showroom floors. But Lotus cars of the 1970s were bigger and more expensive than their predecessors, and the brand had muscled its way into a segment populated by the likes of Ferrari and Porsche. Lotus cars were now premium-priced exotics; unfortunately for the brand, this segment saw a dramatic fall-off in demand in the wake of that era's fuel crisis. As a result, the niche-market automaker suffered significant losses.
In 1986, General Motors took full control of Lotus and created Lotus Cars USA in 1987. That relationship lasted until 1993, when GM sold Lotus to Bugatti. Bugatti's ownership was even shorter; Lotus was sold to a Malaysian firm in 1996. The same year, Lotus began producing the flyweight Elise, a car that would quickly become the company's main product and financial savior. The Elise was finally imported to North America in 2004 after safety and emissions considerations were overcome.
Today, Lotus remains true to Chapman's original desire of producing lightweight and race-oriented sports cars. With tight cabin accommodations, a stiff ride and minimal comfort and storage features, modern Lotus cars make poor grocery-getters. But for the enthusiast looking for world-class handling, sporty style and an unfiltered connection between car and driver at a reasonable price, the Lotus brand is hard to beat.