There was an unspoken rule when I started doing this job back in the 90s – as a British journalist you were supposed to be kind in your reviews of British cars. The editor didn't follow you home one night and threaten you with a terrible death if you did happen to tell the audience that the latest Jaguar S-Type was in fact a bucket of poo, but you were subtly nudged in the direction of positivity. And if you weren't amenable, your raw copy was.
I remembered those days when I saw the new Lotus Evora 400 press release on Wednesday. Viewed dispassionately, it's an overpriced machine that will make zero impression in the European marketplace, and I doubt it will do much better over on your side. But the Brits will cream all over it because it's a Lotus.
Car magazines and media outlets – or whatever they call themselves these days – are naturally xenophobic, and it's much more than a case of simply pandering to the advertisers. Lest we should forget, Lotus doesn't have many pennies to spend on advertising. The sanctity of complete editorial independence was probably always a myth, but nationalistic pride comes from all manner of factors other than advertising coin – personal relationships between journalists and employees of those car makers being one of the most important. As a man who has received death threats from Corvette owners, I know this is a global phenomenon.
But perhaps the most pernicious of them all is the one that on paper appears the most worthy – the simple desire of the individual journalist to see the success of a company. And in the UK it's normally some cottage-scale sportscar manufacturer that is scrabbling around for oxygen in a world of Porsches and Lamborghinis.
In fact it's normally Lotus, but for years it was TVR and it was once Aston Martin, or whichever one was in dire financial trouble at the moment in time and attempting to beat the 911 with the budget Porsche spends on a tail-light. There'd be a magazine cover-story resplendent with something like 'Panther Solo beats Ferrari' or some such claptrap, and we'd all know that the writer had swallowed the bullshit and the car would never make production.
Resisting the urge to fall into this sympathetic-cycle is very hard indeed. Visit the Lotus factory at Hethel and you'll meet passionate people who will tell you of their dreams. You'll meet drivers with otherworldly skills and you'll imbibe a philosophy of vehicle dynamics that will make you scoff at anything from Maranello. I have never visited a religious cult, but I imagine this is how it must feel.
A visit to TVR in its 90s heyday was even more intoxicating. The combination of Al Melling and Peter Wheeler could persuade most journalists of most things – and they managed just that. I only met Peter once and was reminded of Kaa, the rock python in the Jungle Book, when his eyes begin to hypnotize: once ensnared he could have told me the early AJP V8 was a reliable motor and I'd have believed his every word. So fanatical was the place that I know the old PR boss will read this and issue me a stern bollocking on behalf of TVR, despite the fact the company no longer exists. These allegiances are life-long.
And of course I was a part of this process – I'd like to think I was unwittingly swept-along by a tide of youthful positivity – but in hindsight writing road tests that omitted such insignificant events as complete electrical failures and blown engines probably means I was guilty as a Labrador lurking next to an empty plate.
So I do have enormous sympathy for those people who see themselves as the editorial custodians of these fragile little companies – I really do. The world would be a very bland place if all you could buy was a Boxster and a 911. We need variety, but at the same time I think the specialist motoring media, especially in the UK, needs to take its fair share of the blame for the demise of companies like TVR and the parlous state Lotus now finds itself in.
Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Too often we didn't, and in some cases we still don't inform the punter of dire reliability, fit, finish and serious engineering issues. So the car maker didn't feel compelled to improve standards. Whereupon the customer was the one that found himself 'discovering' all of these issues, and by that time it was all too late because once he's got shot of the thing, he told all his mates on the Internet that it wasn't a properly resolved motor car and he was off to buy something German. And then the whole game was over.
The incessant positivity that surrounds Lotus in the UK media fosters a we-got-away-with-it mentality that means it will never properly compete with Porsche and the big-boys. How many new-dawns can a company survive? This is the corporate equivalent of the modern school sports day in the UK where the nanny state insists that none's a loser. It's complete balls.
The world is a meritocracy and you'll be judged on how good you are relative to your peers; especially so if you happen to be an automobile. And at what point will the media realize that the people who buy these cars congregate online and laugh at the fanboy editorial?
Once the goodwill from the UK magazines and websites has subsided, Lotus will be left with a car that is more expensive than a Cayman GT4, has a fraction of the showroom appeal and looks far too similar to the model that's been on sale since 2009. An 'all new supercar?' Come on.
Cut me and I bleed Lotus, but after the Bahar shambles and the years of poor decision-making something drastic needs to happen. And in that process, the media needs to stop treating Lotus like some tubby child in the school sprint race who will be coddled and told that 'everyone's a winner today,' because they're not. Lotus is in the shit, and needs to change fast.
Proper Elise replacement anyone? Yes please.
Top illustration credit Sam Woolley