“DNA is the DNA—don’t f**k with it.” Land Rover design boss Gerry McGovern rates among the more quotable designers, and his comment captures his approach for both high-performance Range Rovers created by the in-house toy shop, Jaguar Land Rover SVO, and the newly unveiled PHEV Range Rover hybrid.
“People buy into a brand because of the essence of it. Design communicates what the brand stands for. Why modify that to highlight a certain propulsion system? People don’t buy a propulsion system. People buy a Range Rover.” We were sitting in a warehouse last week in the Los Angeles arts district where Jaguar Land Rover was staging a party concurrent with the LA Auto Show press days to present the SVO high-performance vehicles to select customers and dealers.
On the topic of the new PHEV Range Rover hybrid, McGovern was succinct: “Two trains of thought. One is that you design a range within your range. For the hybrid or full electric, do you create a separate DNA for that? Or keep your DNA in a holistic way. And the fact that it’s driven by hybrid or rocket fuel or bird s**t or whatever is of no relevance. I believe in the latter. The DNA is the DNA of the brand.” A Range Rover is a Range Rover no matter the powertrain. Range Rover is a luxe specialty brand, not a global mass-market brand like Toyota or VW expansive enough to indulge delineated sub-brands. There’s little room to create a separate design language and architecture to flatter a new powertrain.
“I have a team within the team to focus on SVO elements, but we’re amplifying the extreme capability. It is very important that we maintain the integrity of the vehicle. I don’t want customers to think that if they’re not driving in an SVO they’re not in a great Range Rover.” One of the most common mistakes luxury car buyers of all brands commit is buying the ultra-high-performance version because somehow it must be “the best” when a less powerful version might serve much better depending on customer needs. “With all these vehicles, people don’t really need them—they want them, that’s part of their charm.”
McGovern segued into his test for emotional design. “Three important elements: visceral, behavioral, reflective. Visceral—when I look at something, do I desire it. Stirs the loins. Floats your boat.
“Behavioral. Once I’ve got it, used it, experienced it, does it work properly? Does it function well? There’s a variance depending on your level of desire. If you love this thing so much, you will put up with some of its inadequacies. Like a beautiful woman you adore who is…difficult. But you adore her.” This is a common experience when people buy an expensive sports car based on years of lust and economic striving, and they discover the limitations of narrowly focused vehicles—but they still love them.
“And then reflective. Once you’ve experienced it for a period of time, had time to reflect, do you still desire it? Do you still want it? Are you building a relationship with it? We all post-rationalize when we’ve bought something expensive. ‘I bought this car because of it’s got this technology.’ But you buy it because you love it. We always try to over-intellectualize why we bought something when we actually bought on impulse.”
Special Vehicle Operations at JLR is also developing capability to produce one-off highly personalized vehicles for customers with unique tastes and desires. “Once people get to a certain point in their lives they want something that is personal to them. I go to my tailor and choose a fabric personal to me and I know I have got something other people don’t. It’s back to this thing about people don’t need this stuff, but they desire it.”
On the topic of the extremes of personalized design, McGovern said this: “If it’s only one car in shocking pink, it won’t erode the image of the brand. If it’s a few thousand of them, I’d be worried. In general people want to listen to the experts. They love coming to SVO and exploring the art of the possible. And have an insatiable appetite for it.” McGovern understands that customers want input from designers to guide choices that will satisfy long-term.
That same thinking applies to stewardship of Range Rover product development. “Sometimes John and his SVO team want to do certain things to the car that’s not right for Range Rover and I’ll say no. In terms of my creative officer role, part of it is making sure we do the right things for the brand—agrees with what the brand represents in terms of its values. Sometimes it’s difficult to reconcile things that might generate more revenue, but if that has a detrimental effect on the brand, we should not do it.” Design will be considered, even down to the butch appearance of the sidewall treads on the new Discovery SVX, the brand’s aggressive off-roader.
“SVO is not an independent tuner. Independent tuners do not worry about protecting the integrity of the brand because they are not the brand. That can manifest in the consumer getting something that is not the real deal, or infringement on the guarantee of the vehicle and the vehicle’s core integrity as a piece of engineering.” As someone who started in this business in the 1980s, the height of tuner car excess with one-off cars exhibiting outrageous and sometimes downright perverse esthetics, I find McGovern’s argument comforting. Leave the Miami Vice genre in the 1980s where it was fun if a little embarrassing.
“I live in London and you see outside Harrods lots of exotic vehicles. You might see a Range Rover that has been completely modified by a tuner. Tuner cars are more overt. At SVO we have the flexibility to give the customer what they want, offer more choice. It’s up to us as designers and purveyors of products that we give customers something with design and engineering integrity.” McGovern pauses, fiddling with his watch while eyeing a square of dark chocolate on the table. “I wanted the face of my watch changed to a different color and I sent it back to Patek. I didn’t want someone else to do it.”
Jaguar Land Rover’s Special Vehicle Operations has grown by leaps and bounds in less than four years, in part because the cars are all related and it’s easy to pass the learnings of a Range Rover Sport SVR to an SV Autobiography Dynamic. In the end, no matter the extra kick, they are Range Rovers, Land Rovers, Jaguars—only more so for those who indulge aggressive tendencies.