Currently reading: JLR Special Vehicles boss on V8s and EVs for VIPs
Michael van der Sande tells us how you add even more luxury into the Range Rover and reveals his electric plans

Michael van der Sande was appointed managing director of JLR Special Vehicle Operations in 2018, having previously held senior positions at Alpine, Renault, Aston Martin, Tesla, Harley-Davidson, Bentley and Nissan.

Here, he talks to us about how SVO sits within the wider JLR business, its main areas of operations and his excitement for the future as the firm moves to a more high-end position and the industry transitions towards electrification.

Can you explain Special Vehicle Operations for us?

“We tend to do the cool stuff that doesn't fit into a large, more volume-based manufacturing process and that really leverages the emotional connection between the customer and the car to do something even more special. We have four activities within that. The first one is our SV-badged cars, which are the high-performance and high-luxury Land Rovers and Jaguars, then there’s our vehicle personalisation business that basically does anything to add more content and value to an existing model, from accessories to armoured cars.

“Then there’s our classic division, where we restore cars and we buy and sell very high-quality examples of classic cars. We have more than 70 years of history in both brands, so there’s a lot of cars on the road that we try and support with parts, expertise, technical knowledge and so on. And we build continuation cars in very low volumes, like C- and D-Types, XKSS and so on.

“And, finally, more recently, we purchased Bowler back in 2019. And in a few weeks time we are kicking off our Bowler Defender Challenge race series, initially in the UK.

“We’re a business within a business and we tend to look at the more niche, really high-end, really sporty, really off-road activities that you wouldn’t put through a mainstream development or manufacturing process.” 

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How do you take a modern Jaguar or Land Rover and make it into an SVO vehicle?

“We have a slightly different strategy than most of our competition in that we dial up the content of the car to nine, 10 or even 11 sometimes depending on how crazy we want to go. But rather than making everything sporty, we try to remain faithful to the underlying character of the car.

“So, as you know, we’ve just launched the new Range Rover SV, which adds a lot of more luxury into an already luxury SUV. The Range Rover is already fantastic, of course, but there’s always a customer that wants that little bit more content, more personalisation, more materials, technology, more performance, whatever. What we do is basically dial that up as far as we possibly can. And the Range Rover SV is a perfect example of that.

“Interestingly, technology is enabling merging of segments and these days you can have a luxury car that’s also sporty or a sporty car that’s also luxury. The technology allows us to dial different attributes up at the same time.”

You mentioned bespoke there. Can anyone enlist the services of bespoke creating their own Jaguar Land Rover vehicle?

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“We do not offer bespoke services on every model and every trim level yet but that's just a matter of scaling. We are starting at the top end because that's where the pricing power is. But we do try and satisfy everybody's wild and not-so-wild requirements for personalisation.

“Customers will want to make the cars their own and sometimes the request is relatively simple, such as a special paint job that goes with either another car they've got or the colour of their favourite handbag or the colour of their favourite necktie or whatever.

“More extreme requests do come in. One that we didn't fulfil was a customer that asked us to imitate the accent of our previous CEO in the car. We thought that was a bit much. So we do draw a line somewhere but we try and fulfil pretty much every wish.”

Describe the essence of Jaguar Land Rover Classic?

“Classic for me, our team and a lot of customers is a real source of passion and excitement because, ultimately, no luxury or premium or sports car brand lives in isolation. It's an amalgamation of your stories from the past, whether it’s Land Rover creating a segment or Jaguars winning Le Mans in the 1950s. There's a backstory that creates context and authenticity to what we do in the future. So it's a really good way of telling stories about the brand.

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“That doesn’t mean we’re looking over our shoulder or looking in the rearview mirror – we're not retro. However, in those stories from the past, there's a lot of opportunity for us to provide context, provide relevance and, frankly, for customers to enjoy those old cars. And that's why we're treating it as a business activity, not just as a marketing activity.

“So we source the best cars and sell them with good warranties. We restore the best and most exclusive cars - we just completed 12 very high-value restoration E-Types to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the car. It's really a business within the business that curates the stories of the past and supports owners of existing classic cars, helping to keep those cars on the road with knowledge, parts, servicing and so on. We're custodians of the past acting in the service of the future.”

What are your favourite projects?

“Well, we obviously have our very high-end customers that want to spend quite a lot of money either buying a C-Type or restoring a E-Type and really making it their own but it's not just that; we also had a customer who came in with a rather ropey XK8, which is a more recent classic that wasn't worth very much. It was not in good condition.

“This customer had had that car since new, it was the car in which he picked up his newborn son from the hospital, so he wanted that car restored back to its original condition. He didn't want us to go and source a better one. It was absolutely economically crazy to do it, but that car had a lot of emotional value for that customer. So we gave him a restoration to a brand-new standard. It's not just technically brilliant work - it can be incredibly emotionally rewarding too.”

What is a continuation car and what makes it special?

“Some of our back-catalogue cars have now become so valuable that they're difficult to use on a regular basis. So we've had both existing owners of those iconic cars and owners who want one but who are put off by the £5m-£20m valuations on them. So we try to faithfully recreate not just the car but also the engine. And really we create the feeling of that car in a usable way.

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“Each car is two-4000 hours of work so they're expensive, and as a result very exclusive, but we feel there's a market for it and they're fantastic opportunities for us to tell the story of what happened back in the 1950s.”

What about restomods?

“What would break my heart was to take a very rare car and chop that up and turn it into something that's not original. However, if you look at more recent or more mundane cars, of which there are many still running, I actually think the restomod movement is very interesting.

“In a way, our Defender V8 Trophy programme, which uses eight- to 10-year-old cars, is an example. We've decided to upgrade and re-engineer that car, to put in a modern V8 engine, upgraded suspension, upgraded brakes and so on to turn it into something special, the best Defender of its type there can be.

“Sometimes we run that as a programme and we will do 20 or 30 of them. Sometimes it's a one-off where somebody has a very specific idea of what they'd like the car to be. Where we draw the line is basically chopping up and changing an iconic car that has so much historical value in itself that we feel we can't touch it.”

 

What about electromods?

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“You’ll recall we did an E-Type concept car four years ago. We chose at the time not to productionise that - it's not difficult to electrify a car but it is difficult to do it safely. You're working with 400V and you don't want to either create a fire hazard for the car itself or set the mechanic’s hair on fire, so we put the programme on hold at the time. Also, the economics a few years ago just didn't make it feasible as a business proposition. However, we're constantly monitoring that. If we get involved in that, we need to do it right. Maybe one of these days, but not yet.

Can electrification give you new avenues to explore with modern vehicles?

“We absolutely are in the process of electrifying everything. I think that's the right thing to do. It's where the market is headed and, frankly, in the context of CO2 and global warming, it's what we need to do and what we want to do.

“So it is up to us to define what a great electric vehicle looks like. I see opportunities in electrification: it makes it even more feasible to combine different attributes, because an electric car is both comfortable and fast, for example, in a way that a V8 car can't be.

There are opportunities to merge segments and have attributes that are very attractive on multiple axes.

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“Then dynamics offer lots of opportunities to differentiate ourselves from the competition and from our own main business, through things like multi-motor solutions, tuning, torque vectoring and so on. There are many technical solutions that allow us to do things that are special.

“Clearly, when we bring out our first SV electric car, we want that car to be as emotionally attractive as a current internal combustion-engined car, and we're on that path. I can’t talk to you about the specifics yet, but I'm very excited about the electric future.

What about sound specifically? How do you replace the roar of a V8?

“Let’s be honest: I love my V8. But that sound is going to go away in time: Jaguar is moving to fully electric from 2025, so that's not far away. Is a future electric Jaguar Land Rover going to sound like a V8? No, probably not. I don't think that's an authentic way of doing it.

“But sound is a critical part of experience. So we are thinking through what that means. Do you go completely quiet or do you look for more synthetic sounds? We haven't decided the answer yet.

“Yes, I'll shed a tear or two when we make our last supercharged V8, but that's a bit of time away yet. I think that it is perfectly possible to build a highly emotional car without the V8 sound, but I think the whole industry is working its way through what that means and how we manage that.”

What kind of buyers are choosing Defender commercial vehicles?

“We've had the Land Rover Discovery commercial vehicle for a number of years, mostly sold in the UK but also increasingly around the world. Clearly there's a tax benefit to running that as a company utility vehicle. But the good news is that the attributes of the car otherwise remain unchanged. So while you don't have rear seats and a bulkhead, it still drives like a Discovery.

“Now we've also done that for Land Rover Defender Hard Top. Frankly, when we launched it about 18 months ago, demand just ran away with us. And in this past year of semiconductor shortages, we've not been able to build fully to the demand. We've exponentially increased the number of cars to a number of 1000s this year but we could have built a lot more. It's a luxury version of a utility vehicle - it's the high end of the of the Commercial SUV market.”

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Where does Bowler fit in?

“Many of us who have been around the car business have seen, admired and enjoyed the various exploits of Bowler over the years. It is a very small company: when we acquired it two years ago, it was only 23 people in a small facility in Derbyshire, but they did fantastic things through their conversions of Defenders.

“From a capability and brand point of view, they have always punched beyond their weight, but for various reasons since Drew Bowler, the founder, died six years ago, it never was able to scale up.

“We’ve focused our efforts on creating a new version of the Defender Challenge. Seven or eight years ago, Bowler and Land Rover launched the original Defender Challenge with the old Defender. That was a relatively small programme, very UK-based but popular.

“What we're creating this year, with the new Land Rover Defender, is an entry-level off-road race programme. Our intent really is to rekindle that spirit of grassroots racing, then decide whether they're happy with that or go to more competitive classes higher up in time.

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“We see that business as a small but critical part of our operation to really exploit the off-road capability of the Defender. It's a relatively light conversion of the car, but it can do amazing things and we're looking forward to enjoying that in various markets in future.

What’s next? It's a year since Jaguar Land Rover announced its ‘Reimagine’ strategy about the future of the business. A huge part of which was around Jaguar Land Rover models going upmarket becoming even more luxurious. That seems to fit in really neatly with SVO.

“We defined the strategy for SV ahead of the Reimagine strategy, but I was very pleased to see what [CEO] Thierry Bolloré is doing with the broader company strategy aligning perfectly with our mission at SVO.

My view is that when Land Rover and Jaguar move further upmarket, there's always going to be a super-premium or super-luxury customer that wants that little bit more personalisation, performance, off-road capability, luxury, whatever it is. So it plays right into our hands. I think it's going to deliver us even more customers to grow what we do in conjunction with our main business.

You’re clearly excited about the future with electrification. What kind of possibilities does that open up for you?

“I can't give details of course but, yes, it opens huge opportunities for segment-busting cars combining different technologies seamlessly.

“Take off-road capability as just one example. One of the facts is that an electric car can be much more precise in powering individual wheels than an internal combustion engine. That's one way electric will open up that we're looking into. It has huge advantages in some areas. I'm excited - and I believe people will still be excited by cars long into the future as a result.”

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Gerard McGovern OBE 31 March 2022
A simply fantastic service being provided by the guys. Assisting the most discerning VIP's in choosing their premium model and making it their own. No one else gets close in this, the most premium sector.

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