Ask a cross-section of his colleagues what Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern is best known for – besides leading a great team to produce a succession of fine Land Rover designs – and they’ll all say the same thing: he’s famous for fighting for the importance of design in any new car project.
McGovern, our winner of this year’s Sturmey Award for innovation and achievement, sees absolutely no need to apologise for this. In fact, he’s proud of his combative reputation. “If someone told me I’d be best remembered as a champion of design in car building, I’d be dead chuffed,” he says with a grin.
However, you’d be wrong to suggest that McGovern’s stridency in meetings is all about ego, although he’s undoubtedly proud of his achievements. But the toughness – and, he admits, occasional intransigence – is entirely for the good of the product, and even his opponents know it. Through a career spanning more than four decades, McGovern has seen evidence pile up that great design is the thing that most directly affects the desirability of a product. It’s an especially vital quality in the saturated car markets of the UK, US and Europe, where in normal times Land Rovers do very well.
One dazzling example of design leading success is the Range Rover Evoque, which emerged from a design team under his direction as a wonderful, seminal concept called the LRX. McGovern knew it would sell out of its skin if it reached the market with its shape unmolested by underbody compromises. He fought over millimetres so the car would retain its proportions. The result was a ‘junior Range Rover’ that sold five times its predicted volume and has continued doing so since 2011, transforming Land Rover’s financial fortunes.
“I’m absolutely not anti-engineering,” insists McGovern. “Far from it. My engineering counterpart Nick Rogers is a mate. But engineers love it if you give them something they already know how to do, so the job is just to make it perfect. But creating new cars isn’t about that.
“We’ve got an advanced group in our department whose job is to search for new ‘design enabling technology’ – slimmer lamps, new materials, flush glazing, new metal pressing techniques and intuitive stuff in the cabin that allows the driver to be comfortable and at ease. Taking advantage of new things makes the best new models.”
Mind you, even McGovern admits you have to know when the engineers have “run out of spit”, as he puts it, and can’t compromise any further. Then you shake hands and strike an agreement. McGovern is probably the world’s most vocal exponent of simplicity and modernism in car design, not for hobby-horse reasons but because he believes it’s right for Land Rover. But there’s no doubting he’s a lifelong enthusiast of those design styles. “I was brought up in Coventry,” McGovern says. “It was rebuilt after the war using the modernist principles by an architect called Donald Gibson and there was a newness about the designs and a cohesive consistency in his approach that I always admired. I suppose it rubbed off.”