Who mattered most in motoring this year? From company executives to engineers and racing drivers, Steve Cropley decides who deserves the top honours
Steve Cropley Autocar
29 December 2014

The car business is precarious and always has been, the pundits say, because of the huge investments needed, the low returns on offer and the sheer size of the pitfalls. 

All of which makes you wonder what motivates those who rise to the top.

As well as coming up with inspired and profitable ideas, those who lead have to be expert at motivating people, at anticipating customers’ tastes in five years’ time, at meeting those desires affordably, at beating off competitors, at dealing with ever more rigorous car legislation and at coping all the while with the fact that the car business is more exposed to day-by-day scrutiny than practically any other. 


Risks are great and failure is an ever present possibility, but 
despite these brain-sapping challenges there is a strain of people who not only rise to the top – in engineering, design, management and elsewhere – but who also show every sign of both loving the challenge and loving the cars they build. Such qualities make heroes, every year.

Here’s our choice of 2014’s high-achievers, and this is our chance to venerate them. 

 Ralf Speth, Jaguar Land Rover

Britain’s prestige car maker, led by the indefatigable Ralf Speth, has had another extraordinarily successful year selling Land Rovers and is just starting to make proper money from the more formerly obstinate Jaguar brand, helped by the impressive success of the F-type sports car.

The new XE, Jaguar’s BMW 3-series chaser, promises far greater financial rewards if it is successful, and there is much more to come. 

However, there’s a lot more to Speth’s and JLR’s 2014 achievements than mere money. The company has opened an engine plant in Wolverhampton to build the new strain of high-tech powerplants Jaguar and Land Rover need for the future. Speth is advancing a long-term deal to become a favoured customer of Saudi-smelted aluminium (needed for his cars’ advanced chassis) in exchange for a transfer of technology.

For the umpteenth year, JLR is Britain’s biggest spender on R&D and one of its most important recruiters of graduate talent. It is well advanced at shaping a partnership of huge potential – along with mammoth manufacturing facilities – in China.

It is deepening its co-operation with Tata Motors in India and has plans for a Brazilian manufacturing base. It is working fearlessly on replacing the Land Rover Defender, to which Land Rover’s history is forever attached, with a brand new model. 

Above all, it has stopped being a mere flea bite on the backside of the ‘serious’ premium manufacturers – Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz – and turned into a serious rival, with engineering advances and designs even habitual BMW buyers can envy.

JLR let slip a while ago that it wants to reach 750,000 sales per year, en route to something even bigger – and behind it all stands the determined, all-seeing but publicity-shy Ralf Speth, compact in stature but a car-making colossus. He richly deserves top spot on our podium.

 Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Given his extraordinary deeds and demeanour, the reputation of Sergio Marchionne, the 62-year-old workaholic chief of the newly configured Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, as one of the contemporary heroes of the motor industry is surprisingly little known in the UK.

Perhaps it’s because his marques – Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler and Jeep – don’t have the prominence in our market that they do elsewhere. 

Nothing alters the fact that Marchionne has probably pulled off the automotive coup of the century so far by spotting, back in 2009, the potential of the struggling American giant Chrysler as a workable business partner for Fiat, equally troubled.

Most thought that any alliance between the two would be an awful idea, especially since Daimler had failed at a similar plan some years earlier. 

Yet the plan has worked. Since 2009 Chrysler’s renewed product range and determined cost control have taken it to impressive profitability, which in turn has propped up embattled Fiat, because the two companies are now one, listed on the New York Stock Exchange but with its headquarters rather bizarrely located in London.

Marchionne’s achievements have accelerated in the past 12 months. He has produced five-year plans for each of the group’s business divisions and has taken Chrysler sales to a market share not seen since before the recession.

According to Automotive News, Chrysler has had five years of year-on-year sales gains. It now leads Honda in the US and is closing in on Toyota. Given that business conditions remain difficult, it’s a towering achievement. But now it’s time for renewed attention to the European model ranges.

 Carlos Tavares, PSA Peugeot Citroën

Even among motoring’s highest achievers, Carlos Tavares’s story is extraordinary. After a long career at Renault, he parted ways with his old employer midway through 2013 when his desire to get to the very top was thwarted by Carlos Ghosn, who was there already.

Within months Tavares bobbed up as successor to PSA chief Philippe Varin, who had presided over losses of £5 billion in the previous two years. In an orderly takeover, Varin conveniently ended his tenure by sending 9000 redundant Peugeot employees down the road. That was an extraordinarily difficult act under French labour law but it cleared the decks for his successor to demonstrate his dynamism.

It’s less than a year since he took over, but Tavares’s achievements have been mounting fast. Within months he launched an inspirational turnaround plan called ‘Back in the Race’ and announced a surprising and highly significant, if comparatively tiny, trading profit of £5.6 million (“It’s encouraging but not impressive,” he said).

His justified reputation as a car lover has helped him sell within the company a plan to cull slow-selling models running between now and 2022. 

Now the real graft begins. Tavares must continue to reduce materials, operating and manufacturing costs while improving net pricing. Most car leaders want these things, but few can deliver. Tavares is confident: “When you move those levers the right way, you see immediate improvements. It is already doing wonders for morale.”

 Jean Marc-Gales, Lotus

If you didn’t know better, you could view Lotus’s new CEO as a disappointed big-company man who took the Norfolk job simply because it was available.

Five years ago he was the boss of both PSA’s Citroën and Peugeot marques and launched the DS brand, which is already very successful. Now he runs a tiny sports car manufacturer whose 1200-strong workforce is in the throes of being whittled back to 900. “I intended to stay longer at PSA,” says Gales, “but I was number two in the hierarchy and I couldn’t agree with the management style of the number one, so I terminated my own contract.” 

For a while he worked at an important but much lower-profile job within the EU, then he was head-hunted for comparatively tiny Lotus, where he is undoubtedly in his element.

He has been a keen Lotus enthusiast since childhood – to the extent of maintaining a pristine brochure collection – and insists the Hethel job, into which he stepped eight months ago, is his dream position. “A CEO is a CEO,” he says. “I wouldn’t change places with anyone.”

Gales’s recovery plan for Lotus makes more sense than anything proposed for years and gains great credibility because it’s overlaid with the enthusiasm of someone who knows exactly what Lotus is like and what it needs.

The company can’t afford to finance all-new models, says Gales, but it can definitely improve what it has through less weight, easier ownership and more engine power. By this means Gales is confident he can build volume to around 3000 a year in 2015 and maintain it thereafter. 

Then, when things are more stable, Lotus will use a Proton platform to build what Gales describes as “a four-door model”, likely to be a sporty SUV, that has the potential to take volume as high as 10,000 a year – a level Gales insists he wants to be around to attain. Good times hardly ever roll for Lotus. This time it looks as if they will.

 Andy Cowell, Mercedes-AMG high performance powertrains

It’s only a few months since Andy Cowell, managing director of the Northants-based technological powerhouse that produced Mercedes’ all-conquering hybrid F1 powerplant, was describing the team’s early grand prix victories as “a brilliant surprise”.

Even after romping to easy wins, Cowell talks vividly about the tensions of pre-season practice, of not knowing how his precious engine would do against the opposition from Ferrari and Renault. “There were three engines,” he says, “and they were all quite different. We were confident, of course, but we really had no idea whether we’d made the right technical choices.”

In the event, the Brixworth contingent pulled off one of F1 history’s greatest feats by winning 16 of 19 races for Mercedes, helping Williams to dramatically improve its achievements over a lacklustre 2013 and aiding struggling McLaren (which is leaving the fold for Honda next year) to avoid humiliation.

The Mercedes powerplant was so far ahead of the rest that by far the season’s toughest racing was between Mercedes team-mates Hamilton and Rosberg.

The Merc’s key secret seems to have been the location of its turbo compressor at the front of the 1.6-litre V6’s engine block, close to its induction system, instead of further away, near the exhaust-driven turbine at the rear. The idea was unconventional, but it reduced turbo lag, which made the car quicker to respond and easier to drive than its peers.

Cowell insists the major decisions about the engine and its revolutionary concept came out of an early meeting of eight or 10 people; his peers insist that his leadership was a vital factor. They will have to agree to differ.

6 – Andy Palmer, Aston Martin

Few car companies have been more in need of decisive leadership in recent times than Aston Martin, which has been drifting for 18 months since the departure of the architect of its modern era, Ulrich Bez, celebrated his 70th birthday and retired after 13 years at the helm.

After a tortuous search for the right successor, Aston announced a month ago that the big seat has been taken by former Nissan chief Andy Palmer, of whom big things are expected and whose hero status here is to some extent taken on trust, not only because of his reputation as a mover and shaker (cars such as the GT-R and BladeGlider came to fruition during his tenure) but also because of his understanding of car making in the UK, which included a grounding at beleaguered Rover.

Palmer, we assume, is unlikely to have taken this difficult role without first satisfying himself that his oddly matched shareholders in the Middle East, Italy and Stuttgart had workable aspirations for the brand, and that the finances of the company (rumoured to be affected by solid accumulated losses) could be straightened out in time.

Reports say the company is about to begin the biggest investment programme in its history – and it certainly needs its products to be refreshed.

The stagnant market must also be a worry. Aston’s annual sales record was 7000-plus cars nearly a decade ago, but the current level is barely half that.

Luckily, the company has been selling high-value models and is about to have the vital assistance of Mercedes-AMG as a supplier of top-class components.

However, a recent announcement by Mercedes chief Dieter Zetsche that his company has no ambition to improve on the four per cent stake it holds in Aston seemed to close off any prospect of Mercedes taking control at Gaydon. Palmer has tough choices ahead. Still, he’s most definitely the ‘big beast’ we hoped would take the helm, and we wait with baited breath.

Honourable mentions

Ulrich Hackenberg – Having built the successful A-segment Up, the VW Group’s legendary technical fixer has turned his attention to Audi, revising its design cues in a new LA motor show concept called Prologue.  

Pat Symonds – The arrival at Williams of the world’s most experienced F1 designer coincides with big improvements in the team’s cars and the adoption of a Mercedes powerplant. It has all brought success. 

Elon Musk – The billionaire entrepreneur shows no sign of reducing the pace of development of his Tesla electric car empire. UK sales are booming and the network of ‘supercharger’ stations is expanding.

Richard Noble – The indomitable speed king, already with two successful land speed records behind him, has kept his biggest enterprise yet, the 1000mph Bloodhound, on track despite unprecedented challenges.

Jenson Button – Experienced, statesmanlike grand prix driver of 15 seasons has coped admirably with uncertainty over his McLaren seat, but now we know he's staying put for another year

Stephen Odell – Ford’s European CEO (plus Middle East and Africa) has shown coolness and skill in a turbulent post-2008 market that brought sales declines, closures and reorganisation. Now he moves to the US.

Linda Jackson – Former Citroën UK boss has taken overall charge of the marque, based in Paris, and is one of Carlos Tavares’s earliest appointments. “She has a can-do spirit,” he told us. “She likes progress.” 

Tobias Moers – Hard-driving AMG boss Moers has been closely involved with every recent AMG model and has injected a steely dose of practicality into each one. The new A45 demonstrates how the brand can stretch.  

Luca Di Montezemolo – The outgoing Ferrari boss deserves enormous respect for guarding the famous company. Started in the early 1990s when both models and racing were poor. Took both to the heights of achievement.

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Comments
4

29 December 2014
Here we go again.steve seems to love sergio.
every time we have one of these lists he is there near the top.
May I ask why.under him fiat is little more than a two car company.both cars are small so profits are low.
As for alfa.well.we have had so many plans all of which have failed I have lost count.
steve said nothing about the huge debt he has to fund his dream in the states.when he pays that of
if he ever can.
sorry with what he has done in the past I think this man could not run a chip shop.

29 December 2014
I'm afraid I have to agree. Alfa is fading into obscurity while its promised new models seem endlessly delayed. The Mito and Guiletta weren't brilliant at launch and are increasingly off the pace. Rebranding a rebodied MX-5 as an Abarth (instead of Alfa Spider) would be lunacy: Abarth is virtually unknown beyond a small circle of enthusiasts with very long memories. I understand the resistance of the Alfisti to the prospect of seeing the Alfa Romeo name on a rebodied Mazda, but beggars can't be choosers and Alfa seems incapable of producing a competitive RWD platform of its own. Lancia looks to be a lost cause. Meanwhile, Fiat is desperately exposed to the 500, a retro fashion item that has seen almost no real development and will likely prove difficult to replace. The larger 500L and MPW derivatives are truly horrible. At least the 500X looks more promising, but Fiat really needs a broader range of mainstream competitors to return it to profitability. I would love to see a new generation of truly competitive Italian cars to challenge the VAG hegemony and hope my pessimism is proved wrong...

29 December 2014
Excuse the mis-spelling in my rant above. Autocar IT, is there any chance of reinstating the edit function on posts?

1 January 2015
I don't think you can expect much from the likes of the big german companies and their management because they have achieved the position where they wanted to be and if I'm honest i can't see that getting any better. so better in fact i get tired/bored of phrasing them and their cars and any car they make well, it's good to the point of boredom. I think the likes of Jag and Fiat being up there in 1st and 2nd is spot on because look where they were and where they are now and that is a real achievement. Sure Fiat has big debts but which big corporate company doesn't have huge debts, look at vodafone, Ford has in the range of just over $100bn in debt, GE has under 4 times that of Ford's debt, i think this is about who has achieved the most from where they started off. with regards to Alfa Romeo well, that's just business. Sergio has to prioritize what is important in his business plan and if it means shelving Alfa then it will have to be. i'm sure when the time comes and Alfa plan comes to life it won't disappoint.

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