At the recent Frankfurt Motor Show, amidst a bounty of important new car introductions, one vehicle seemed to steal the spotlight. Land Rover unveiled a concept that will serve as the foundation for the next generation of its aging icon, the Defender. Interpreting such an enduring symbol of your brand for a new generation and new market realities is no easy task — perhaps only the Volkswagen Beetle and the Mini Cooper can compare —but Land Rover’s Gerry McGovern is confident in his team’s effort.
The proof? The DC100 concept, which made its debut in a couple different configurations in Frankfurt, was the hands-down hit of the show, winning numerous awards for best concept and best vehicle. Whether this initial burst of excitement translates into a successful replacement for the Land Rover’s purest, truest torchbearer remains to be seen in the final product. Based on our talk with Mr. McGovern, Land Rover enthusiasts the world over should have no concerns when the Defender’s flame eventually passes in the next few years.
What follows are McGovern’s own words on the future of the Defender, as well as the repositioning of the Land Rover brand in the coming years.
kilometer magazine – The press materials you released for the DC100 state that this concept will continue to evolve as it comes closer to market, with input from the people who use them. What are the core attributes that absolutely have to be there when a new Defender comes to market?
Gerry McGovern – Well, it’s got to be incredibly capable. It’s got to be able to do all the things you’d expect a modern day Defender to do in terms of payload capacity, towing capacity, all terrain capability. Part of the reaction I’ve been getting is a lot of people saying, “Can it really do all those things? It looks so blooming good.” And I suppose part of the design execution speaks to what we call a premium durability. And with modern materials you can have a certain look and yet it can still be incredibly strong and durable.
A good case in point is the vehicle out there today, the DC100 concept dressed as a Red Cross vehicle. Now, we’ve had a relationship with the Red Cross for many years, and they were more than happy to have us put the concept out there with their logo and name on it. They wouldn’t use a vehicle that couldn’t do all the things they need it to do. It’s got to go over every terrain, it’s got to go through hot climates and cold climates, it’s got to be able to carry things, it’s got to be incredibly functional. That’s the baseline.
The fact that we’re trying to stretch the appeal of this vehicle is part of an overall strategy for Land Rover and Land Rover-badged vehicles. And I say that because they’re differentiated from Range Rover, particularly in the North American market where there’s a perception that Range Rover and Land Rover are two separate brands, which of course they’re not – Land Rover is the brand, and Range Rover is the luxury arm of that. So I’m specifically talking about Land Rover-badged vehicles because we’re in the process now of developing a whole new generation of them. And Defender is a fundamental part of that, but it needs to be able to relate to the next generation of Discovery, Freelander, etc. – and maybe there are some other opportunities as well – so that what we develop is a cohesive point of view, a relevant group of vehicles for the brand – as opposed to these disparate vehicles that have been generated over time – to make sure that we have the right balance and the right amount of differentiation, targeted to be market-specific and usage-specific, for that matter.
km – As you move forward with the distinction in the branding, it sounds like Land Rover will become more utilitarian.
GM – At the base of it, yes, certainly with Defender. Although, if you look at the market, if you look at utility vehicles for a start, there’s something like 2.5 million units sold globally per year. If you move to the left, where you’ve got the multi-purpose, crossover, more car-like vehicles, a multitude of different types of vehicles, you’ve got something like five million. If you look at Freelander (LR2), Discovery (LR4) and Defender, they play across those segments, so it’s about tuning those vehicles [to market demands].
They’ve all got to be capable – even Evoque is highly capable – but this new Defender has to be indestructible. You need to be able to kick the hell out of it and have it get up for more. But it must also have the ability to stretch and to appeal to people that want to use it for a multitude of lifestyle activities that aren’t necessarily related to a basic utilitarian function. They’ll want it to be incredibly durable, but they’ll want that image as well. That’s what the Sport version is all about.
I still live in California, and I used to live on Monarch Beach and in the morning I’d go up to the end where you’ve got Dana Point and the Ritz-Carlton, and you’d see all the surfers there, and you’d see them with all their stuff in the back of all sorts of vehicles. These were serious surfers, and that Sport is exactly the type of vehicle that would resonate with that group of people. And then you consider all the other types of modern-day activities…
So for me I’m intrigued by the “stretch” of the next Defender. In its base form it can be stripped right down, it can be “hose-outable.” But I think we have to have the ability to dress it as well, because personalization is quite important to people, and then relating the personalization to the usage.
Some people are getting pre-occupied with it. I spoke to an enthusiast yesterday who said, “It’s gone too far.” I said, “What do you want us to do?” and he said, ”Don’t change it!”
But that’s not a good business proposition. Actually, I’m as big a fan of the original Defender as anybody, but within a short amount of time it won’t meet pedestrian safety or crash performance; its interior packaging is already not competitive, nor are its ergonomics, its driver interfaces or its comfort; there aren’t airbags, and so on. And it was built to manufacturing processes from a by-gone age; and maybe that’s part of its charm, but we can’t build a good business plan on that. We all love cars, but we’re in a business as well.
And this concept is as much about generating a vehicle for a new generation of people, because the world has changed anyway. Clearly we don’t want to alienate our current customer base, but we do want to grow it.
km – The headlights seem to be the most controversial element of the design, specifically their slope. Tell us about that decision.
GM – If you look at the concept, it’s got quite a lot of the key elements of a Defender, but treated in a modern way. It’s got the vertical body side, but it’s got more form in it because that gives it strength and also allows us to press the panels more easily. Put that (pointing to a Defender) on a tool and it’s flat, you can’t press it; more will be scrap than will be good. It’s got the planton roof, it’s got the equal glass-to-body relationship, so you’ve still got the good vision out of the vehicle – that’s what the latticing is about in the rear post. It’s got that wheel at each corner, the overall picture of business.
I’d say the one area [where it differs most from the current Defender] is the angled front, but part of that is aerodynamics; it’s got more plan shape and more lean, so that helps out a lot. And then it’s pedestrian safety [requirements]. I mean, you start putting vertical fronts on and…well, we have all these numbers we have to meet.
Having said that, Mr. Tata gets very involved; he comes over every eight to ten weeks, and I spend a whole day with him. He’s highly design-literate, trained as an architect. Now, he doesn’t come along and say, “I want this and I want that…” just because he’s the chairman, but he gives us his view. He’s incredibly supportive of design; particularly he’s very keen to get a balance between design and engineering right so that our vehicles don’t just become the consequence of their engineering. That’s crucially important when you’re talking about luxury vehicles, but it’s also a factor here because design is just as important to a Defender as it is to a Range Rover.
But we’ve had this debate, and we’ve had a lot of discussion about the angle of that front. And you know, you may find the production version might not have as much angle as the concept. We’re intrigued to know what people think, but at the end of the day we can’t design by committee.
The question I have is, “Have we gone too far, because I don’t think we’ve gone too far at all, or have we gone far enough?’ It’s all about balance: you go too far and you become generic, you lose your brand image and you’re lost in the masses; you don’t go far enough and you’re retrospective and you’re old news and then you’re dead.
It’s about getting that balance. Irrespective of the design, it’s got to be able to do all those things we talked about first.
km – You mentioned that the current Defender was designed with an old, inefficient manufacturing process. Can a new Defender be built cost-competitively as a modern vehicle?
GM – It has to be. This has to be built within modern-day manufacturing processes. We need to be able to configure the vehicle in a way to do all the things it needs to do for the market, and we also have to stretch it to appeal to new consumers and new lifestyle decisions.
It’s not like we can just replace [the current Defender] to do all the things it does now for the same people. That won’t get us where we need to be.
It’s got to be cost-competitive, it’s got to be manufacturable, it’s got to be feasible, and we’ve got to have the level of configurability that we want. All those things will affect the final design. I’d probably say by the time we get to production, if we choose this direction, it may change, but we could argue it wouldn’t have to change very much. We could choose another direction, or that’s the end of the story.
But that’s all the work that’s going on now; platform and manufacturing strategies, cost base, all those things. In base form, I think it wants to be very affordable, but yet it can be dressed right up to something that’s very exclusive, rather than keeping it stripped out and all about basic utility and just a base Land Rover. That strategy to me isn’t necessarily a good commercial one, or even an appealing one. Certainly not desirable. Because I think in itself it has the ability to stretch in the same way that Evoque takes a different approach for Range Rover. We’re not selling trim levels; we’re selling in design themes. It’s sort of a new world.
km – Is it safe to say North America is on the list for this Defender?
GM – Well, North America is incredibly important to us. And remember California is still our biggest share of that market. I could see a car like that DC100 Sport concept resonating quite well there. So yes, absolutely.