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From the Eastern Daily Press.

Veteran carmaker Mike Kimberley worked his way up from the factory floor to the chief executive's office. Today, he's in his second spell as boss at Lotus - but it nearly never came to pass. Business editor Paul Hill reports.

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A young engineer lay in a hospital bed nursing bruises and broken bones. Six months into a new job, he'd borrowed his boss's new car to nip home for lunch - only to roll it and write it off.

The engineer? Mike Kimberley.

His boss? Lotus founder Colin Chapman.

Crashing Chapman's three-wheel Bond Bug 40 years ago almost ended Kimberley's Lotus career before it had taken off.

But today he is back at the carmaker's Hethel HQ in his second stint as the group's chief executive.

"I was here about six months when my name got put ignominiously in front of Colin Chapman," Mr Kimberley said.

"We were renting an old vicarage in Ketteringham and I used to pop home for lunch each day. One day a dayglo orange Bond Bug arrived on the back of a truck - the first one off the line.

"I decided to take it home for lunch. I got round three bends, but not the fourth.

“I did two end-over-ends, and about five barrel rolls and slid for about 100 yards and ended up in a crumbled steaming wreck leaving shredded dayglo orange metal all over the road.

"I woke up upside down with petrol running into my nose and ears. I don't know how I got out, but I did, but with a few broken bones.

"Half an hour later, Colin Chapman came down the road and saw the steaming wreck and asked our security chief, who was standing there directing the traffic, who had been driving: 'Kimberley, the new man from Jaguar.'

"Colin said: 'Right, he's fired.'

"I was in hospital and I was fired. But then the marketing and sales director managed to get hold of another Bong Bug, took it to Colin's house, and insisted that he drive it in a tight turning circle on his shingle drive.

"Colin got three quarters of the way round his first lap - he was a very fast driver - and ended up on his side. So I was fired and reinstated while I was in hospital."

Born in Coventry, Mr Kimberley grew up in Browns Lane, half a mile from the Jaguar factory.

"I loved cars from when I was a young child," Mr Kimberley said.

"I used to see Jaguars going by on road tests and it whetted my appetite. I loved all things mechanical. My bother and I used to buy old bangers and do them up, and try to keep them going.

"We didn't have the money to buy a new one or a decent second hand one. I was one of these people who wanted to get into the car industry and I decided at an early age - 13-14 - that I wanted to become a technical director.

"Despite the pleas of my headmaster and my parents, I refused to stay on at school past the age of 15 and applied for an apprenticeship at Jaguar. I was incredibly lucky. Out of 370 applicants, they took on 11 apprentices. I was number 11.

"Then, or of course, I realised what a stupid thing it was to leave school without my full qualifications, but thanks to Jaguar I started on nightschool and weekends at college, doing all the things I should have been doing at school, but working during the day."

The young apprentice was there on the evening of February 12 1957 when the factory caught fire - braving the flames to recover some of the cars from the flames.

"I got my ears clipped by Lofty England [Jaguar's racing manager] and Sir William Lyons [Jaguar's founder] for risking my life by driving cars out when the tyres were melting and the steering wheel was starting to drip.

"I gave up when the glass roof started to run like a river."

Qualifying as Jaguar's top apprentice, he became a design engineer and project leader in charge of creating the marque's XJ13 Le Mans mid engine car.

"Then Jaguar got taken over by Leyland," Mr Kimberley said.

"We used to call Longbridge the Kremlin because you couldn't get a decision out of them."

Then the offer came to join Lotus.

In 1970, Chapman asked him to lead a project designing a new Europa.

Mr Kimberley's original drawings for the car are framed in his office, along with a portrait of Chapman.

"We had the Europa in production in 13 months," Mr Kimberley said.

"Colin came up to me and handed me an envelope, and said 'Well done'.

"Inside the envelope was 500 shares, Lotus was a public company then. I guess I never looked back from then. I became chief engineer and then I became technical director in 1972-3, so I achieved my ambition from my teenage years.

"I guess I came up the hard way, and done almost everything there is from welding to machining to panel beating to trimming to designing, building and designing engines and gearboxes."

By the late 1970s, Mr Kimberley was Lotus managing director and working with Chapman on developing a new strand to business: the engineering consultancy, "making our technical services - our innovative, creative know-how - available to other companies."

After Chapman's death in 1982, Mr Kimberley was appointed group chief executive and led the refinancing of the firm by Toyota.

Four years later and General Motors took a controlling stake in the firm.

"The GM chairman Jack Smith offered me the job of executive vice-president of GM Overseas Corporation," Mr Kimberley said.

"In 1982 in the second oil crisis, GM had pulled out of Asia, now they wanted to go back in. So we moved to Asia and redeveloped the company's Asian market."

Success with GM saw Mr Kimberley field a number of offers from headhunters. One post proved irresistible.

"One came along over dinner one evening... president of Lamborghini . I couldn't resist that one. Being at Jaguar and Lotus, you'd always admired those famous names."

After two years, in Italy, Mr Kimberley returned to Asia.

But a tropical bug forced an early retirement and a return to the UK.

"I got fed up and after 12 months started to do consultancy work and due diligence," he said.

"Then I got a phone call asking if I'd join some of the boards of Proton as a non-exec, including the Lotus. In 2005, then I got asked if I'd take over as an acting CEO of Lotus for three months and did and audit of the company and came up with 120 key performance indicators that needed attention. Then the board turned round and said 'would you take the job?'. I've always loved Lotus and the people here and have fond memories of Colin and the family. So I took the job.

"At that time Lotus was technically insolvent and among the things that needed doing was a recapitalisation of the balance sheet, which the shareholders and board agreed to do.

"They are tremendously supportive. The net result was wanting to develop a long term strategic business plan for the group - and that resulted in a plan for three new models, the first being the Evora, which is the first new model for 13 years.

"They also authorised the rebuilding of Lotus Engineering. The engineering side had been allowed to become smaller by focusing on doing work for Lotus or the shareholders. But my view is work for third parties all around the world."

Since Mr Kimberley's return the firm has turned an £11m loss into a £2m profit. The engineering business worked with 140 clients on 340 different projects last year. Car production is due to grow from 44 cars a week to 54 a week by the end of March to 88 cars a week by July - 34 of them being the Evora.

So is Mr Kimberley's work done at Lotus?

"It is now really, if I was honest," he said.

"We went from £11m loss to a £2m profit last year.

"From my point of view, the turnaround was complete. But, we're moving forward. In the first half of this year, we were matching our business plans then the world fell apart. It's a question of minimizing the damage and working harder to capture what business there is out there."

With the grey clouds of recession hanging over the auto industry, Mr Kimberley's experience - and battle scars of past downturns - may well help steer Lotus through the downturn. If he was thinking of retirement, all his talk is of Lotus's future.

He is, after all, a man for whom the marque is more than a badge on a car's bonnet.

"Cut off my arm and you'll find green and yellow blood in it," he said.
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