My life in 12 cars: Lotus boss Matt Windle

Engineer extraordinaire explains how he went from van-building apprenticeship through Lotus hot seat via Daewoo and Nissan to Lotus hot spot via Tesla, Daewoo, and Nissan

It is fitting that Lotus boss Matt Windle, the man charged with bringing about the Lotus Emira sports car, should have started his driving career in a Volvo 343 – one of the most humble Swedish marques ever produced.

The Austin Seven was the Austin Seven’s humblest car in Lotus’s post-war years. This is where Colin Chapman, the legendary founder, demonstrated his engineering skills. It may be that Lotuses are built from a deep understanding of the lowest levels of motoring. They deliver exceptional dynamics and a great deal of luxury equipment, as well as high prices.

Before his father took him to the Volvo, there were signs that Windle was headed for a career in the automotive industry. Windle recalls spending hours in his back yard with his father, who was a long-suffering man, learning how to drive a go-kart and then sitting on his dad’s lap to learn how to control the Mini on a handy abandoned airfield.

Windle also took five-hour trips north to visit his grandparents. During these conversations, the conversation was always about cars. Young Windle learned how to identify different cars by their shapes at night.

Windle senior was an engineer and worked in the power-generation industry. However, his interest in cars wasn’t as strong in his son’s eyes. The Austin Princess (“the back was like a large bed”) and the orange Austin Allegro Sport (it had a square steering knob”) were two of the special lowlights.

Windle admitted that he wasn’t a great student at school. He left school at 16 to become an apprentice coachbuilder at Dormobile in Essex. Windle quickly demonstrated a talent for technical drawing, and upholstery. Dormobile was a large business with an educated apprenticeship program. The new recruit loved his new lifestyle and learned quickly.

Volvo 343

Windle was 17 when the Volvo arrived. His dad calculated that the Volvo’s armchair seats and sedentary performance would keep him safe. Windle says that his father wanted to protect him from bike accidents, having lost many friends. Windle says that he expected me to be in a few prangs, so it was logical to get something that would bounce …”.

Windle cannot help but notice how far the 343 was dynamically from the Lotus cars he and Lotus drive today.

Hillman Hunter

He said that the Volvo was OK, but he drove it hard and soon destroyed the gearbox. So Dad got me a Hillman Hunter, which is the most terrible car I have ever owned. I painted it in Dormobile Blue because the car was old and worn. It was a complete disaster but it taught me that painting cars is a skill.

Dormobile was soon in financial trouble. However, it wasn’t for a lack or paint. Windle joined the Daewoo Technical Centre, formerly International Automotive Design, in Worthing. There, design and engineering teams were working together on the Matiz microcar.

Windle’s technical drawing skills helped him quickly learn computer-aided designing (CAD), and his artistic eye allowed him to create surfacing. These skills were further developed by Windle enrolling in engineering design courses. He grins. “The people who can only draw straight lines got into chassis engineering, while those who understand curves and can make great surfaces got into body engineering.”

Windle began to meet like-minded colleagues around this time who, it turned out, were also headed for important jobs in the British low volume industry. Neil Patterson was one such person. He went on to become McLaren’s chief engineer and now serves as the principal at Silverstone’s University Technical College.

Ford Fiesta and Orion, Sierra Sapphire

Windle took a used but still in good condition Mk1 Ford Fiesta from his stepsister to drive him to Daewoo. The Fiesta was exactly what a 20-year old impecunious woman needed, sensible, economical, and reliable. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

Windle quickly traded it in for a 1987 Ford Orion in black, which had better credentials but was in much worse condition after it was vandalized. The door locks were broken, leaving holes. The engine sump broke, bouncing off the road and spewing oil all over the place. This made the car unusable forever.

Another Ford hand-me-down was used to replace the vehicle, this time a 1986 Sierra Sapphire 1600 that had been damaged by the 1987 great storm. Although it was in good condition mechanically, the paintwork had been damaged by fallen branches and then left outside for several months. This caused rust spots. Windle drove it for several years before deciding, with the encouragement of his father, that a 24-year-old ambitious man needed a new car.

Peugeot 107 Aztec

The new Peugeot 107 was a great choice, especially since there was good commuting. Windle allowed his father to lead negotiations, and initially was shocked at the price disagreement with the local dealer. His dad advised him to “Walk away”, which at first glance seemed bad advice, but was actually correct. The dealer returned to his phone within hours and the deal was completed at Windle senior’s cost. Windle attributes his father’s encouragement to him in his desire to succeed by helping him learn and work at Daewoo.

Windle’s modern story began at this point. He joined Lotus in 1998. He heard they needed CAD designers so he applied. Richard Rackham, the legendary architect of Elise’s extruded aluminum chassis design, was his immediate partner. This iconic piece of automotive engineering has been studied extensively and copied all over the globe. These principles were to be used in the Aston Martin Vanquish.

Personal note: This decisive move to Hethel was followed by some personal turmoil, which included the sale and purchase of a jointly-owned house. Windle spent PS24,000 of the newly-freed cash on a car that he had always admired…

Alfa Romeo 156 V6

Windle was aware of the Alfa Romeo 156’s concept and design and had read a lot about them. Windle was making great career progress so why not get it now? There were good reasons, as it turned out.

He felt the need to say, “That car was garbage.” “Bits kept falling off. In the first year, I had to go through two sets brake discs. It was very fast, and I even enjoyed driving it at times. It was stunning. My dealership was too familiar to me, so they were not much of a help. It taught me that cars, no matter how desirable, still require quality and reliability. After a few years, I finally took the biggest hit in my life and sold it for 8 grand …”

Windle made rapid progress at Lotus. Rackham and his talented acolytes were a great way to improve engineering skills. Rackham enjoyed working directly with Aston Martin (“they seemed like I liked being around”), which led to him taking on more customer-facing roles as well as a greater practice of his management skills.

In 2005, at age 34, he made the move to Tesla. Tesla’s one product was the Elise-based Tesla Roadster.

Tesla Roadster

He says that at first, it was as simple as crossing the corridor to change jobs. But my boss soon moved to the US and I took over the management of the work in Norfolk. Then, I moved to the USA. Those were wonderful years. We had to modify the Lotus Elise chassis in order to be able to carry the battery, and to extend the body so that the car could be produced for 2008. That was done.

Windle met with Tesla boss Elon Musk during that time: “He was extremely intelligent but if he delivered, he didn’t have any problems with me.” SpaceX was also in progress at the time. He was extremely busy but you always felt like you had his full attention during meetings. He taught me it was okay to take a quick decision when it makes more sense than waiting.

Windle enjoyed Silicon Valley, his “surf in a morning, stay until midnight” work-life style. Although the Roadster was a revolutionary product when it was launched in 2008, only 2500 Roadsters were made over the course of three years.

Windle says, “We would have made more,” but Lotus had their own big plans. This is his reference to the Dany Bahar era of Paris, where five concept cars were revealed in one day at an unforgettable Paris motor show.

Windle’s Tesla years ended 2012, when he said that car engineering had advanced a lot. “Tesla was truly a trailblazer. I learned a lot.” Car companies need to think less like car companies and more like start-ups.

Nissan Qashqai

Windle returned to the UK with his freewheeling spirit, new management skills, and lots of US-honed engineering match-practice. He went to Nissan’s Cranfield technical centre, where Europe’s Nissans were ready for the local market.

Private motoring meant driving four Nissan Qashqai SUVs for company. They were cheap to operate, easy to use, and convenient for young families. He found that the Nissan experience wasn’t as exciting as Tesla and didn’t give him the authority and autonomy he was used too.

Windle was attracted to the challenge of the earlier Norfolk years and accepted an offer from the Alpine and Caterham sport car project. This partnership was established under Mike Gascoyne, ex-Formula 1 technical Director. Windle fondly remembers it, but it soon went out of business. He recalls that it was great for a time. I would spend a week at Hingham, then in Paris and then in Alpine. It was amazing.” The Qashqai continued to drive his family car unobtrusively.

Windle’s next move was to Zenos in Norfolk, a start-up that builds sports cars. Windle arrived in the midst of a prototype being built. He was quickly appointed operations director. This gave him direct control over 25 employees, but also allowed him to build chassis on the shop floor along with the rest.

This lasted for two years. All agreed that Zenos’ cars and vehicles were very promising. However, it was taken over by administration in 2017.

Lotus Evora

Windle’s international experience and strong Norfolk roots made him an ideal candidate to be head of body engineering at Lotus. Jean-Marc Gales, an ex-head of PSA Group, was in his final weeks as head of Hethel. He drove the company with a rigour, determination, and a style that wasn’t for everyone. Within weeks, his goal was achieved. Chinese car-making giant Geely announced the acquisition of Lotus. Windle quickly became the head of all Lotus engineering.

He says, “Back at Hethel I started driving Evoras.” I had never seen one before so it was quite a surprise to discover how amazing they were. When I traveled a lot for business, people always asked me if it was a McLaren, or a Ferrari. It was half the price of a Lotus. The Evora has an exotic look, but it is also very comfortable to drive for long hours.

Volvo XC60

Windle’s need for family transport was not going away so he returned to Hethel and started driving his first Volvo XC60. He chose this car from a diverse group of cars because of its practicality, perfect size, interior space, safety, and comfort.

He says that driving one all the way back from Scotland will make you feel like you’ve been shopping. What about his next family car? “Another XC60 I should think”

Lotus Elise-240 Final Edition

Windle was named Lotus Cars’ managing director at the start of the last year. He was charged with bringing the radical Vision 80 plan to life – a complete transformation of Lotus Cars in time for the company’s 80th anniversary in 2028.

There isn’t a better person to do the job. The role of MD is one that Windle could be credited with having completed a perfect 30-year learning curve. He recently demonstrated his determination to succeed, laying down his own cash for a Lotus he knows will be a keeper, an Elise 240 Final Edition.

There are too many connections between the car and Lotus, Windle and Lotus. The Elise is a pioneer in extruded aluminum chassis design. Windle was a young CAD designer who worked on the Elise. It inspired many other highly-acclaimed performance car designs such as those from Aston Martin and Tesla. These were also designed by Windle.

The Elise chassis, now 25 years old and still in use by rival manufacturers, is so successful that they are used as a benchmark for new products.

Windle says, “The Elise is an example that will help us stay on track.” “Our future cars should be intuitive and simple, even when others are complicated,” Windle said. Lotus believes that light is the best, and will always be.