Interview: Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s head of design

Interview: Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s head of design
Interview: Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s head of design

Talking about Velar, New Bond Street and post-rationalisation

There are some Land Rover traditionalists who don’t like the company’s head of design. They still hanker for a Range Rover where you can hose out the dashboard. They don’t approve of Gerry McGovern’s penchant for Saville Row suits, family home in Chelsea and his confidence that he’s right. There are a few problems with these people’s views.

One of them is that Land Rover is growing exponentially. Seven years of notable sales growth have led to 434,583 vehicles sold in the last year. The Range Rover Velar has more advanced orders placed for it than any other Land Rover product since time began.

With the vehicles romping up the price range, it’s clear that many owners are wealthy enough to buy one without troubling the bank or the rest of the vehicle fleet – again something the purists dislike. But with his family home in Chelsea rather than Birmingham, McGovern is well placed to see these people, see the Range Rovers parked in their droves in New Bond Street and around, and to engage with the owners. It has helped him understand what Land Rover is doing.

“We’re not just selling to car lovers. We’re dealing with customers who buy luxury in many forms – holidays, clothes, shoes, jewellery – and it has taken our business quite a long time to understand that. These people buy things that make them happy. Sure, they care about a Range Rover’s engineering, but for many, that’s the post-rationalisation bit.”

Much of the success in conquering that market is down to design being put on the same pedestal as engineering at Land Rover. It wasn’t always like that. When McGovern returned to Land Rover in 2004 after a spell in the USA, it worked, in his words, like this: “Go away and make it look good, they’d say. But if you’re forced to do it that way, the horse has already bolted. Hard points define volumes and proportions, and together they’re the number one requisite for a great-looking vehicle. Get them wrong and it’ll never look any good, however good your details and surfaces. That’s why designers need to be involved in these decisions.”

And that changed in 2008 when Tata took over Jaguar and Land Rover. Ratan Tata himself asked the key question: why does design report to engineering? It was the pivotal moment.

Range Rover Evoque
McGovern penned the Range Rover Evoque

The first result of that change of emphasis was in 2011 with the launch of the Evoque. “It was a vehicle with design at its very core,” says McGovern. And now it sees its full expression in the Velar, which has been treated to critical acclaim around the world – before people had even driven it. People liked how it looked.

But what the Velar demonstrates is that less is more. That might seem odd when looking at what is still a large SUV, even if it’s not as large as the full-fat Range Rover. But everything is there for a purpose. McGovern explains the philosophy behind the Velar: “Our team did a good job,” he says. “What moves Velar on is its emphasis on modernity. Modernist doesn’t mean contemporary in the design sense. Modernism is a movement, a philosophy involving the use of simple forms. It’s about paring back, about not including things unless they absolutely have a job to do.

“Or several jobs. I haven’t seen a lot of that in recent car design, though some of the best classic cars have inadvertently embraced modernism because their designers created beautiful forms and left it at that.”

Range Rover Velar
The Velar is the latest Range Rover overseen by McGovern

It’s that pared-back almost minimalism that will take Land Rover forward, with Gerry McGovern very much at the forefront. He wants to take it further in the future: “In my view, synergies need to be struck where the customer doesn’t see them, doesn’t feel them and doesn’t even know they’re there. If we can achieve that – and I think we’re well on the way – we’ve got a bloody good business strategy.”

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