Currently reading: Land Rover design chief Gerry McGovern on the Defender and future projects
The designer has shaped the Land Rovers of the last 25 years, but he refuses to be defined by the past
Steve Cropley Autocar
News
7 mins read
3 November 2019

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 favourite 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 modernise what we already had.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Find an Autocar review

Read our review

Car review

The fourth-generation Range Rover is here to be judged as a luxury car as much as it is a 4x4

Back to top

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 criticised 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.

Back to top

The ‘new Defender’ proposal everyone remembers is the DC100, which appeared in various colours 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. 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.)

Back to top

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 have 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.

Back to top

“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, 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?"

READ MORE

Why Jaguar Land Rover is back in profit

Jaguar Land Rover opens giant Advanced Production Creation Centre

Tata rules out sale of Jaguar Land Rover, but looks for partners

Join the debate

Comments
30
Add a comment…
Tornadorot 4 November 2019

“A few people criticised the poor rear vision...”

Or in other words, form over function! Who cares if you can see sod all out the back window as long as it looks like what Gerry wanted it to look like?

Vee_8 4 November 2019

Discovery 5

I think the Discovery 5's (and to some extend the revised Discovery Sport's) biggest problem is that they're migrating away from their natural user base. The D5 and new DS are becoming too luxury inside, and that's a problem when your main market is  'active' families. If it's too nice inside it becomes less practical and as a result less versatile. 

Having looked around a new Defender, I find myself much more interested as it's a far more usable interior than the Discovery family is becoming, even though I probably would never need it's sheer ruggedness or (hopefully) ability. 

For me the Disocvery cars should be between the outright ability of Defender and the luxury of Range Rover, with the focus on versatility and practicality. No I don't want something that is too utilitarian as it has to be comfortable in daily use, but I don't want soft touch fabrics on door panels that get kicked, or soft plush carpets to soak in the mud etc. from children's feet. 

It feels like the only real difference between a D5 and a RRS is the ability to carry 7 adults. And with the new DS and Evoque it's just the interior space with both feeling equally plush and pretty much sharing interior quality. That just feels wrong. 

As it stands, you'd have to question why anyone would now buy the D5 over a Defender unless carrying 7 adults (with no luggage) was your number one criteria, and that seems like a bit of a niche market.... 

jonboy4969 3 November 2019

OH SHUT UP - all those

OH SHUT UP - all those moaning tools that harp on about the Discovery have never driven one, on and off road, try it then complain, you wont, the D5 is a far superior car to the old school D4, it was old and past it, you are just going on about its looks, well, thats nothing, its the actual car thats superior, the interior, is far more comfortable, has better on road and off road manners compared to D3/D4, we wont even go to D1/D2 - as they were already past it when they were launched.

 

The D5 Rear, whats the moaning about that for, it has a raising tailgate with a drop down level for sitting on, and you can we have had four full sized adults on ours and it just takes the weight with ease, there is far more room inside and the ability of the car off road is so far removed from the old D3/D4 its like a millenium has passed.

So before you continually harp on about it, try looking at the facts, and that will hopefully stop the same people moan moan moan - go get a life, you clearly have no idea what you are on about.

catnip 3 November 2019

jonboy4969 wrote:

jonboy4969 wrote:

OH SHUT UP - all those moaning tools that harp on about the Discovery have never driven one, on and off road, try it then complain, you wont, the D5 is a far superior car to the old school D4, it was old and past it, you are just going on about its looks, well, thats nothing, its the actual car thats superior, the interior, is far more comfortable, has better on road and off road manners compared to D3/D4, we wont even go to D1/D2 - as they were already past it when they were launched.

 

The D5 Rear, whats the moaning about that for, it has a raising tailgate with a drop down level for sitting on, and you can we have had four full sized adults on ours and it just takes the weight with ease, there is far more room inside and the ability of the car off road is so far removed from the old D3/D4 its like a millenium has passed.

So before you continually harp on about it, try looking at the facts, and that will hopefully stop the same people moan moan moan - go get a life, you clearly have no idea what you are on about.

I'm sure the actual car is superior in many ways, but, as it is a more modern replacement for Disco 4 shouldn't that be taken as read?  But come on, who really wants to spend that much money and have to drive around in something that looks so amateur. JLR really took their eyes off the ball with Disco 5, its schoolboy error stuff getting the basic proportions so wrong: It didn't have to be like this, as JLR's other designs show. At least a Rodius had value on its side.

manicm 3 November 2019

catnip wrote:

catnip wrote:

jonboy4969 wrote:

OH SHUT UP - all those moaning tools that harp on about the Discovery have never driven one, on and off road, try it then complain, you wont, the D5 is a far superior car to the old school D4, it was old and past it, you are just going on about its looks, well, thats nothing, its the actual car thats superior, the interior, is far more comfortable, has better on road and off road manners compared to D3/D4, we wont even go to D1/D2 - as they were already past it when they were launched.

 

The D5 Rear, whats the moaning about that for, it has a raising tailgate with a drop down level for sitting on, and you can we have had four full sized adults on ours and it just takes the weight with ease, there is far more room inside and the ability of the car off road is so far removed from the old D3/D4 its like a millenium has passed.

So before you continually harp on about it, try looking at the facts, and that will hopefully stop the same people moan moan moan - go get a life, you clearly have no idea what you are on about.

I'm sure the actual car is superior in many ways, but, as it is a more modern replacement for Disco 4 shouldn't that be taken as read?  But come on, who really wants to spend that much money and have to drive around in something that looks so amateur. JLR really took their eyes off the ball with Disco 5, its schoolboy error stuff getting the basic proportions so wrong: It didn't have to be like this, as JLR's other designs show. At least a Rodius had value on its side.

I’ve seen the D5 many times in shopping malls etc and on the road,  and really the looks are not that bad. Haters here will hate irrespective of the car’s positive attributes, and that’s why I can’t take most seriously here.

Poor sales are a matter for another conversation, but that could be down to any number of factors besides looks.

eseaton 3 November 2019

So we're not allowed to say

So we're not allowed to say it is a pig? Even if we see a pig?
Old But not yet Dead 3 November 2019

Eh!

jonboy4969 wrote:

OH SHUT UP - all those moaning tools that harp on about the Discovery have never driven one, on and off road, try it then complain, you wont, the D5 is a far superior car to the old school D4, it was old and past it, you are just going on about its looks, well, thats nothing, its the actual car thats superior, the interior, is far more comfortable, has better on road and off road manners compared to D3/D4, we wont even go to D1/D2 - as they were already past it when they were launched.

Did you fail to notice the article was about design and nothing to do with ability ?

And I am pretty sure the Disco 5 sales are considered to be very disappointing. So, if the cars abilities are brilliant there must be some other reason for poor sales. Want to try to guess why.

289 3 November 2019

@ old but nit yet dead

You made my point for me ...Thx.

Totally agree with you and FM8. They got it badly wrong with D5 and privately, within JLR, this is acknowledged.

With regard to the Defender, that plastic wart (which is mandatory on 110/130), on the sides would have to go.....I mean why would you (create a blind spot for absolutely no good reason). I will be keen to look at this in the flesh to see how possible it is to lever/cut this off and consign it to the dustbin of daft ideas.

FM8 3 November 2019

jonboy4969 wrote:

jonboy4969 wrote:

OH SHUT UP - all those moaning tools that harp on about the Discovery have never driven one, on and off road, try it then complain, you wont, the D5 is a far superior car to the old school D4, it was old and past it, you are just going on about its looks, well, thats nothing, its the actual car thats superior, the interior, is far more comfortable, has better on road and off road manners compared to D3/D4, we wont even go to D1/D2 - as they were already past it when they were launched.

 

The D5 Rear, whats the moaning about that for, it has a raising tailgate with a drop down level for sitting on, and you can we have had four full sized adults on ours and it just takes the weight with ease, there is far more room inside and the ability of the car off road is so far removed from the old D3/D4 its like a millenium has passed.

So before you continually harp on about it, try looking at the facts, and that will hopefully stop the same people moan moan moan - go get a life, you clearly have no idea what you are on about.

Most of those 'moaning' are referring to the styling, which is challenging. Why would one have to drive one to discuss its styling?

eseaton 3 November 2019

This is an article, and a

This is an article, and a conversation, about styling.

As much as I suspect he'd like to say he did, McGovern had no input on the vehicles technical or dynamic abilities.

Find an Autocar car review