Sunday Times: September 9 2001 BUSINESS NEWS

Lotus race: Alchemy's Jon Moulton, left, and Rover's John Towers are again in opposition, this time for the sports-car maker.

Rover and Alchemy in Lotus fight

David Parsley

JOHN TOWERS, chairman of MG Rover, and Jon Moulton, head of Alchemy, the venture capitalist, have locked horns again in a battle to win control of Lotus, the British sports-car producer.

The last time the two fought was to win control of Rover when BMW put the ailing car manufacturer up for sale last year. As was the situation then, Moulton is understood to be in pole position.

Proton, the Malaysian car group that paid £80m for 80% of Lotus five year ago, has been in negotiations with Moulton for three months. But the deal is understood to be complicated by the long-winded nature of Proton's decision-making process.

Proton has a complex ownership structure. Petronas, the Malaysian national oil company, owns 27%, while Khazanah Nasional, the state bank, owns a further 18%. Mitsubishi, the Japanese electronics and automotive group, has a 16% holding.

Lotus, despite worldwide acclaim for its Elise model and engineering expertise, has been struggling recently. Last June it had to cancel production of its M250 models. Production of the Elise and the VX220, which it makes for Vauxhall, is also behind schedule. It is understood the group has accumulated about £40m in debts.

These have also delayed Moulton's takeover attempt. Observers had thought Lotus would fetch about £50m for Proton, but with £40m of debt and the other problems, a buyer is unlikely to go much above £20m.

As with BMW's disposal of Rover last year, Towers is unlikely to get Lotus, which denies talks are going on, unless Moulton pulls out.

Last week, The Sunday Times revealed that Rover had reopened talks with Proton. The discussions are understood to involve a platform-sharing deal. Neither Rover nor Alchemy would comment.