Gerry McGovern Gets Frank About Land Rover Design

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While we were in Los Angeles for the 2017 LA Auto Show last month, we pulled Land Rover’s Design Chief Gerry McGovern aside for a talk about his favorite subject, design. Being the hand that drew such unconventional vehicles as the original Freelander and the Evoque, as well as being the chief architect of the current design strategy, McGovern acknowledges he’s a polarizing figure among Land Rover traditionalists.

But get him away from the auto show podium, take away his PR talking points and sit down with him one-on-one to converse about design in a more general sense, and you’ll see a different side of McGovern. He’s clearly passionate about the role great design can make in everyone’s lives. And in a way that’s perhaps difficult for some of us to understand, he truly believes in the Land Rover brand – particularly its authenticity in a world of boring commodity vehicles.

We only asked him seven questions, but McGovern, with a self-proclaimed penchant for verbosity, rewarded our efforts with innumerable answers. Plus the occasional off-color remark, which we regarded as a sign of mutual respect. What follows is long, but insightful.

Alloy+GritThe last few years have been really good for Land Rover. How much of that do you suppose is attributable to design versus improvements in quality?

Gerry McGovern – Well, I’m going to give you a biased view on that, of course. Aren’t I? Look, we have to acknowledge we still do have our quality problems; we are getting better, but we’re not over the hill on that one yet.

Starting with the Evoque – which was the start of this journey of transformation that we’re going through – we’ve seen that vehicle help transform our financial status, for one. And it has changed the image of the brand. From there we’ve done the new Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, Discovery, now Velar, plus Cabriolets, and the all the SVR stuff. We have made this transition from being what was a very specialist brand that talks to this [pointing to a Defender on the open page of Alloy+Grit magazine]. And I’m not criticizing that, but in order for us to get to the critical mass that we need to be sustainable in the long term, we needed to grow. For me, that was about creating vehicles that were more universally desirable through design.

Design, in my view, is the differentiator in the marketplace. Once everything becomes comparable, whether it’s through technology or quality or whatever, what are you left with? You’re left with the DNA of your brand, and design is the conduit that communicates what the brand stands for. And we have put design at center stage of the business.

Clearly, capability has always been important [to Land Rover] and always will be. It is at the core. But capability on its own wasn’t enough for us to make that leap. In some respects, it was pulling us back a little bit as well, because people would look at these vehicles and we were promoting on the basis purely of that capability – they look the way they do because of what they do. And I think it was polarizing people. They’d say, “yeah, it can do all that stuff and it’s great, but I don’t need all that stuff.” So we’ve maintained the essence of the brand without it becoming generic, but have made it more universally desirable.

Think about the Velar and what that is, compared to what we’ve come from. That’s a massive move forward. In the same way, look at the new Discovery and what it was before. We’ve managed, I think, to reconcile the things that we’re known for, but in a very modern, contemporary and relevant way. That’s what we’re about. And we’ll focus on replacing the vehicles that we’ve established, but also look at opportunities to give the brand greater resonance. What isn’t out there yet? The Velar is a good example of that. Certainly the design execution, the approach to design, wasn’t predictable. It really surprised a lot of people.

But for me, the idea of creating different market segments – creating different types of niche vehicles that can also be volume as well – is what intrigues me. So we continue to explore against the backdrop of all these challenges that are coming at us – electrification, mass urbanization, legislation, taxation and all these other things. For us we need to embrace them, but in a way that allows us to create products that people still truly engage with.

You look at your publication, and these vehicles here [again pointing to Defenders on an open page of Alloy+Grit magazine], these are vehicles that stir the emotions in people, clearly. I always like to remind people in our business that we’re not producing commodities, we’re creating objects of desire – products that people truly fall in love with, for whatever reason. That can be different from a Range Rover to a Discovery to a Defender.

For me, when Tata bought Jaguar and Land Rover, there was a bit of concern. What do they know about the premium automotive business? They were first to admit they knew nothing about it. But [they said], “That’s why we bought you. You’re the experts. You run the business in the way you see fit.”

One of the things Mr. Tata insisted on, having come from a design background and trained as an architect, was that design had to be right there at the top table, and that quality had to be another pillar to the business. That gave us a lot of responsibility. It gave me a lot of responsibility; I didn’t want to be negligent with that. So I want to have the most desirable cars and designs, but I also want them to have true engineering integrity. They are mutually compatible, design and engineering. That doesn’t mean one having power over the other; it means having equality and working together.

Our approach is different than what it was before, and I’m sure it’s different from other manufacturers. In design, we envision the concept, then we engineer it. In a lot of businesses, they engineer the platform first and then give it to design and say, “Make this look good.” And I think that’s why we can create things that are truly differentiated. So it’s an exciting time.

Modernism takes many forms in Gerry’s life

If you had to define Land Rover design in three words, what three words truly express Land Rover design?

That’s a good question. Three words? Hmm. My vocabulary is touching on verbosity, so I find it difficult to limit it to three words. That’s a bloody good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that before.

You could argue that desirability comes from modernity. I think modern, relevant and compelling. Modern is the approach, relevant is making sure it’s of the day, and compelling is ‘you’ve got to have it.’

Design has the ability to elevate itself above the ordinary, whether it’s the design of a watch, a pen, or a building. To me, there are three components to good design. Visceral: When I look at it, do I desire it? Behavioral: When I’ve got it, does it work, and properly? And last but not least, Reflective: Once I’ve used it, abused it, spent time with it, do I still desire it? Does it still work properly? Am I building a lasting relationship with it?

The danger with all these challenges – with electrification, for instance, do we need to continue designing cars with a bonnet if there’s not an engine to house? – is that we start thinking about these products as commodities rather than objects of desire. The technology should be embraced in a way that doesn’t erode the desirability of the product, its DNA. To me, DNA is God. That’s what differentiates us.

Talk about the difference between design and style.

That’s easy. Style is really a preoccupation with just the aesthetic. And quite often to the detriment of the engineering. Design is more encompassing. It’s about looking at the product holistically and getting to a solution that enables the engineering to be credible. There has to be a balance between the aesthetic and the function; the usability and the feasibility. Design is the glue that pulls all these things together.

If you go back to America in the 1950s when all this great styling was being done – the style wars, they called it, from the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s – the stylists of the day were taking these packages that were already done – there’s the platform, there’s where the wheels are, there’s the powertrain, here’s your seating positions, your firewall, your bumpers, and so on – and being told, “Now go style around that.” That’s styling.

Design starts with a blank sheet of paper. What is the concept? What type of vehicle is it going to be? First you define the concept and then you start working out your vision, where you’re going to put all those components to fill out the volume and define the proportion. And then you design the aesthetic for it. So it’s a more holistic point of view.

But what do I know? I’ve only been designing cars for 40 years.

Which is more important in making memorable vehicles: form or function?

Let’s take the LRX show car that became the Evoque. When we showed that vehicle there was incredibly positive response. “This is a Range Rover?” Very dramatic with a falling roofline and rising beltline, the overall robustness with the wheels at each corner. This was still under Ford ownership. When we brought that concept vehicle back to our design center in the Midlands, there was a great debate that ensued.

“Well, of course it got great critical acclaim, but we need to make this more practical. The form needs to follow the function more, so therefore we need to lift the roof for more visibility out of the rear. We need to increase the height of the car so that we’ve got more wheel articulation for off road…” and all these other things.

And I basically said, because I swear a lot apparently, “F**k it! Either do the car like that or don’t do it at all!”

Fortunately I had a sympathetic ear in the engineering department, because at that time design reported to engineering. We went and we developed that car, and we changed very little – raised the car maybe 10 millimeters on the bonnet or the roof, you know, for legislative requirements. Now, we know there’s been criticism for visibility out of the rear window. Has it stopped us from selling 130,000 a year? No.

I know for a fact that part of that vehicle’s charm and desirability is that very dramatic falling roof and that very dramatic rising belt line. So if we’d increased visibility in those areas, yeah, it would be easier to see out of, but it wouldn’t have been as desirable. Would it have sold as well? I doubt it.

You can always counteract those [issues]. We’re always cognizant that, yeah, in the back it can be a bit claustrophobic, for instance. So what do we do? We put in a massive panoramic roof. The light that we’ve taken from the back and the side we can add back in from above, which gives you a different impression. So I think that’s a very good example of where form did win over function. I go back to visceral, behavioral, reflective. It’s the visceral – that desirability – that comes through first.

Now, you think about the Defender. Despite the fact that you almost need to be Quasimodo to drive it more than a week, and it’s compromised because it was done 60-odd years ago, people will forgive that because they love the car so much. Design has the ability to reach people’s lives.

Now, there has to be a balance to it. You can say that ultimately you can reconcile [form and function], but there are areas where you can’t. You have to make the decision [as a designer], “Do I accept a level of compromise in certain areas to achieve a much better design, or do I let function and rationality rule and end up with a boring car?” I know where I’d rather be. An engineer would want to be on the other side.

We can look at the competition in terms of various specifications and attributes. We can say we want to be comparable to such-and-such a model in terms of rear vision, have the same internal space as this [model], and we can design a car around those targets. But you could end up with just absolute mediocrity. I would rather have certain attributes compromised if it allows me to achieve something that is far more distinctive in character. I’d rather be really good at a few things than equal on everything.

McGovern introduces LRX concept vehicle at the 2008 North American International Auto Show.

With the current Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and now the Discovery, there’s been some criticism that there’s too much similarity in the design. How much family resemblance is too much for its own good?

See, I don’t accept that. I think that clearly you’ve got these three families – Range Rover, Discovery and Defender – and there are similarities between Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, but one’s about formality and the other is about this sort of stealth-like, sporty appearance. In a Range Rover you sit up high on a throne looking out over; in a Range Rover Sport you sit down in it, you’re cocooned in it. So there are fundamental architectural differences, but they are of the same family, so you would expect them to have some of the same design cues that relate to each other.

You’ve got a similar daytime running lamp, for instance, on a Range Rover and Range Rover Sport, but they’re of a different scale. One is deeper, because it’s more formal; the other is slimmer, more stealth-like. We put a lot of creative intellect into the way we think these things through, and I think it’s a bit of an old fashioned view that everything has to be different, that we have to have maximized differentiation.

I think our vehicles are very distinctive, very singularly minded compared to what I see out there generally. Because when I go out there [signaling to the surrounding auto show floor displays] I see a lot of cars that don’t know what they are; a lot of brands that don’t know what their DNA is.

A Discovery is completely different from a Range Rover. But again, they’re all Land Rovers, so there are certain things in common. But look at a Discovery; it’s got a stepped roof, it doesn’t have a continuous beltline like a Range Rover does. I think sometimes those observations are overlooked. I say to people, “Well, look at the car properly. It’s too easy just to say they look alike.” Sorry. Pay respect to the designers, the experts.

Now, we’ve only seen two of the three families so far – Range Rover and Discovery. We’ve deliberately pushed Discovery a little closer [to the Range Rover] particularly in terms of luxury and premium appointments to allow more room for Defender when it comes. When Defender comes, that’s when you’ll see the whole story.

Defender will be polarizing in design terms from Range Rover and from Discovery. At that point we’ll probably be able to pull the Discovery a little bit back that way [toward Defender]. So there is a logic there.

And it’s easy for me to say you aren’t seeing the whole picture – and you might say it’s about time that you did, and I’d agree – but it’s coming.

So that doesn’t worry me. I’m absolutely convinced that our design strategy, our brand architecture, our DNA is all relevant, all contemporary. I don’t see our modernist approach being employed anywhere else. I think it’s got a lot of legs, a lot of longevity. And ultimately it’s reflecting in the sales. You go back just seven years and we were producing just under 100,000 vehicles [globally per year]. We’re now up to 500,000 and going north. There isn’t a German carmaker, or any other, that wouldn’t like to have [a vehicle like] the Range Rover or Range Rover Sport selling in those volumes and at those price points.

Can a vehicle’s perfection lie in its imperfection?

That’s bloody good! Are you an intellectual professor? Ha! [Laughing]

I collect a lot of things related to design. One of the periods I’m particularly fascinated by is Mid-Century Modern, and I collect Italian glass from Murano. I go for this particular technique called ‘submerso’ which is clear glass where color is floated into the glass. It’s just pure art, beautifully done. Interestingly, a lot of that glass, because it’s hand blown, has lots of imperfections in the surface, lots of undulations. If you place a vintage piece next to a modern-day piece that would be made in Murano now, which today will be molded – which can replicate exactly what that [effect] is while taking all the imperfections out – it absolutely loses something. And it looks manufactured.

The irony is, we manufacture vehicles. The difference is that when Defenders were created, the manufacturing techniques were not as good as they are now. They would have loved for them to be very precise but they couldn’t make them like that.

So I think we have to be careful of that with Defender. While I respect our traditionalists, the people who love Defender, we have to be careful we’re not preoccupied with designing a vehicle just for them. Because to be honest, they love the Defender they’ve got and they’ll probably die with it. They probably won’t buy the new one. There will be other people that will.

The new vehicle has to be relevant to a world that has changed massively from when those [Series/Defender] cars were first created. It needs to be of its time technologically. It needs to have the technology features a fully up-to-date vehicle should have. It’s also going to be made in a state of the art assembly plant. So to “create” those imperfections would not be the right thing to do.

I think what the new [Defender] has to do is maybe replicate the charm and the essence of the original, and that’s more around it capabilities, its durability, its ruggedness. And we have to be careful we’re not preoccupied with trying to do a retrospective vehicle or trying to do a modern-day facsimile of what’s gone before. So we shouldn’t be doing the Mini thing, or some of the other [retro] things we’ve seen.

I think people will be quite surprised when they see it. I think a lot of people, even the traditionalists, will smile. But it has to be modern, it has to be of its time, and it has to be able to do what it says it can do on its tin. I haven’t f**ked up yet, and I’m certainly not going to do it with Defender.

Gerry with Aldo Magada of Zenith watches

 As a designer, what do you find is the ultimate expression of luxury?

That’s a good question too. The ultimate luxury for me is time. Time to enjoy my family, my homes, the things I’ve collected. If you’re asking how does luxury manifest itself specifically in a product – and it could be anything from a watch to a house – I would say that you can see that the people who have created it have been highly cognizant of creating something that’s very special. To me, that’s the essence of luxury. And that could even be a service – a luxury hotel or restaurant. When they’re delivering you something that they’ve put a lot of care into.

My wife collects Hermès bags. The most collectible Hermès bags – there are three of them that are rare like rocking-horse shit; you have to go in and order one, and it might be three years later before you see it – are the Kelly, the Birkin, and the Constantine. They probably only make a few of them a year. Trying to get one is very difficult. And they make it difficult; they almost interview you to see if you’re worthy of having one. You could say it’s a little bit extreme, but you can tell when they bring it out – it’s covered and they’re wearing gloves and this thing is so special to them – it’s so beautifully made. Beautiful craftsmanship. Everything is flawless. I think that’s a great example.

But I ask my wife, why do you desire this thing so much? And she’ll say, because it makes me happy. And as a designer, the ability to make people happy is the ultimate. Good design has the ability to enrich people’s lives.

On stage at the 2011 Frankfurt Motor Show, about to unveil the DC100 “Defender Concept”

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