The designer has shaped the Land Rovers of the last 25 years, but he refuses to be defined by the past.

Autocar UK, By Steve Cropley

© Image credited by Haymarket Media Group | Land Rover design chief Gerry McGovern on the Defender and future projects.

Gerry McGovern doesn’t believe in fairy tales. I’ve arrived in the Land Rover design director’s light and spacious Gaydon office desperate to hear the full, emotionally charged saga of how he and his design crew created a new Defender to replace the company’s 1948 icon – and the first comment he can offer is that it all happened “quite a long time ago”.
This is true, of course. One well-known fact about modern mass manufacture is that all the really important stuff about market positioning, major dimensions, mechanical layout, and styling gets decided anything up to five years before a model hits production. Just the same, as the new Defender goes on sale this month for deliveries next spring, I’m desperate to hear as much sentimental stuff as McGovern can remember – especially about the mystical influence of a secret concept from 2015 called LR1, whose existence was never publicly shared…
Sixty-two-year-old McGovern affects a tough-guy persona that is both well-rehearsed and anchored in reality: his favorite gym pursuit is boxing and he has biceps as thick as other people’s thighs. “People keep asking me if the new Defender is my legacy,” he says with more than a hint of weariness. “The answer’s no. I’m a professional designer and I’m always looking for the next project. As it happens, our next big job is the Range Rover replacement and that’s just about done and dusted…”
Luckily, beyond the bravura display of toughness he has been cultivating all his design life – no doubt as a way of prevailing against engineers and bosses who might otherwise seek to limit the flights of his design fancy – McGovern reverts to what he really is: one of the UK’s great design leaders with a rare and sophisticated eye for beauty in cars, even when they must be tall and boxy.
His powerful influence has shaped most Land Rovers and Range Rovers of the past 25 years (this despite a five-year period working at Lincoln-Mercury in the US), but he doesn’t yearn for the sketchpad the way other design bosses purport to do. “We have a fantastic design team,” he explains. “My job is to edit every detail of what we do. I’ll be in the studio after everyone’s gone home, seeing what works and what doesn’t.”
In a relatively junior capacity at the then-Rover Group, McGovern created both the MGF sports car and the original, pioneering Freelander of 1997, a model that single-handedly established a new European class of affordable family 4x4s and then led it for nearly seven years. The Detroit phase and a series of much-admired Lincoln concepts followed but, frustrated by slow-moving management, McGovern was back at Land Rover by 2004 to lead advanced design on a tacit understanding that he would succeed soon-to-retire Geoff Upex as design director in 2006. “Even back then, the company was talking about Defender replacements,” he says, “but those were mostly facelifts that set out to modernize what we already had.”
McGovern recalls inheriting a thick book called the Design Bible, filled with the design cues and DNA elements Land Rover had been using for years – such as the Range Rover’s clamshell bonnet, its 50/50 glass-to-body relationship (“the original Range Rover was like a viewing gallery on wheels”) and the Range Rover’s bonnet castellations.
The new design boss felt the real job that needed doing at Land Rover was to decide how all this would be relevant “in a modern context”. Much discussion and brain-strain eventually resulted in the adoption of Land Rover’s current three-pillar philosophy, the plan to have Defender, Discovery and Range Rover families, and to add models to each one. It’s still a work in progress.
The other big event in McGovern’s early career as design director was the launch of the LRX concept, the highly influential model – created by an advanced team headed by today’s Jaguar design director Julian Thomson – that led to the launch of the Range Rover Evoque in 2011. McGovern’s achievement was his recognition that this was a game-changing design, and his implacable insistence that it should be produced with no watering-down of the core idea. “A few people criticized the poor rear vision,” says McGovern, “and I guess they were right – it wasn’t brilliant. But the rising beltline and falling roof were the absolute keys to the way the Evoque looked. I said if anyone really didn’t like it, they should buy another car.” Few were unhappy enough to take the design director’s advice: whereas marketing traditionalists within the company had predicted sales at 30,000 units a year, the figure exceeded 130,000, an achievement that transformed JLR’s financial fortunes, even if it has struck tough times lately.
The ‘new Defender’ proposal everyone remembers is the DC100, which appeared in various colors and bodystyles (short-wheelbase roadster and hardtop) in 2012 and was made available for selected hacks (Autocar’s among them) to drive for much-published photographs on a Californian beach. A great debate ensued: the size and modern simplicity appealed to some (me) but the concept’s obvious differences from the traditional ‘Landie’ upset many head-in-sand purists. McGovern rode it without much trouble. “My job was not to think much about the great expectations,” he says, “and I tried to keep them away from the team. If I’d kept going on about it, I think it would have been quite debilitating.
“The DC100 came about mainly through discussion between me and public affairs,” McGovern recalls. “We needed to get this new Defender idea going. Nobody in the company was even talking about it. And it definitely got the debate running.
“Some say DC100 influenced the 663 [new Defender] but that’s really not true. I’d say it showed us how not to do it. The proportions were okay but I felt it was over-styled, and it was trying too hard to be contemporary. It wasn’t rugged enough, either.” Above all, it didn’t have what McGovern calls “lines of consequence” – body lines that uniquely define a model’s shape. Car designs can be simple, he says – in fact, it’s usually desirable. But the best have lines of consequence, and if you examine models from McGovern’s recent period such as the Velar and new Evoque, you see them immediately. The real driver of the new Defender’s shape, size and philosophy was the LR1 concept begun in 2011, says McGovern, which reacted to the criticisms of the DC100 concept that had been created a little earlier. This study was never shown in public, perhaps because the company had become exhausted by the tumult around DC100. “When we did LR1, most people around here got it,” he recalls. “Mind you, that might be because they didn’t want to get into a fight with me…” LR1 was McGovern’s best bet and it reached maturity relatively easily. It learned from DC100 by having lines of consequence that were simple and straight. There was no DC100 “silliness” and it looked rugged. The screen angle, though more raked than the original Defender, looked just right and so did the sheer shape of the car’s rear. The tiny front and rear overhangs helped give an impressive look of toughness. “The big challenge was going to be making the various versions,” says McGovern. (We so far know of two, the 90 and 110, but the outgoing Defender also had a 130.)
Can Land Rover maintain the ageless quality of the original Defender, having adopted only a seven-year model cycle in recent years? McGovern believes so: “We’ve already started to change our model philosophy by staying with a well-loved look once we establish it, and allowing changes to be dictated by improving technology, materials or manufacturing techniques rather than the calendar. The new Evoque is a good example of that, and you’ll see us use more of it.
“What I think differentiates us as a design house is our desire to deliver modernity – reductive design, great proportions, lines of consequence and no silliness. I don’t usually talk about our competition but, when I drive to London on the motorway, I find it hard to tell one model from another. We’re never going to be like that.”
Design for the electric age
Gerry McGovern sees designing fully electric cars as “the next big thing coming at us” but he’s notably reluctant to predict the demise of Land Rovers with bonnets: “We’re embracing electrification, of course, and the day is coming when cars won’t need engines. But just having a one-box vehicle strikes me as pretty boring. I think what Jaguar has done with the I-Pace – their screen-forward layout – is close to the limit, unless you want your car to look like a bar of soap.
“Models like ours need proportions that look right. There will be other stuff to accommodate in that space, after all. But the big point is special products need design elements to differentiate them from the rest. Look at fashion: people say it changes all the time, and some of it does. But take a look at design classics – they don’t. For me, the design is what communicates most clearly what your brand stands for. It’s the main differentiator of brand values once the technologies of different brands become comparable. Why would you want to mess around with that?"
This article was originally published in Autocar UK.
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