We’re in a darkened room in the heart of Land Rover’s design centre in Gaydon, England, and Gerry McGovern is talking about Hermès handbags. “A lot of well-heeled women have an insatiable appetite for these things,” he says, gesturing at the colourful images of beautifully crafted leather work projected on the screen in front of us. Land Rover’s chief design officer, dapper in a bespoke chalk-stripe Gray suit and Gray turtleneck sweater with a rose gold Audemars Piguet Royal Oak peeking out from under one cuff, is using pictures of $12,000 handbags to help explain his vision for the future of Range Rover.
McGovern’s fundamental point is that all handbags do pretty much the same thing—they carry stuff. Likewise, a Range Rover, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and a Toyota Land Cruiser all do pretty much the same thing: Confidently take you where no roads go. But, says the Land Rover design boss, notions of functionality and capability, flexibility and sustainability—all the sober left-brain stuff that’s used to rationalise which handbag, or which SUV, you might actually need—are easily overwhelmed by the white heat of desire.
No one needs a Hermès handbag just to carry stuff. No one needs a Range Rover to go off-road, either. But McGovern wants you to truly, madly, deeply, desire a Range Rover, just like wealthy ladies lust after their next Birkin bag. That’s the rationale behind the stunning new Range Rover Velar, the exterior of which was styled by Italian Massimo Frascella—who in the early 2000s worked with McGovern on all those fabulous Lincoln concepts Ford never had the balls to build. You can see echoes of McGovern’s Lincoln show cars in the Velar’s sheer surfacing, extravagant proportions, and obsessively reductive detailing. It’s impossibly elegant for an SUV. And yes, it’s very desirable.
Like the smaller, haute-couture Range Rover Evoque launched in 2011, the rakish, low-slung Velar is what McGovern calls a white-space vehicle for the storied off-road brand. And while he acknowledges other automakers have already launched sporty, coupe like SUV, it’s clear JLR execs hope the Velar emulates the Evoque—60 percent of which are purchased by women—in terms of putting new customers behind the wheel of a Range Rover.
More significantly, though, the Velar is also the result of a product development workflow that’s a dramatic departure for a specialist off-road vehicle manufacturer that once prioritised functionality and capability over all else. “We in design create the concept, and the engineers work hell-bent to deliver the concept with as few changes as possible,” McGovern says.
Design might now lead at Land Rover, but McGovern understands all the company’s vehicles, no matter how good-looking, must retain an element of the go-anywhere capability expected of the brand. As with that expensive hand-made Swiss watch on his wrist—one of a personal collection that includes classic timepieces by Rolex and Patek Philippe—he knows that no matter how chic the sheet metal, there has to be real engineering substance underneath.
“Our German competition would kill for what we have with Range Rover,” McGovern says, reinforcing that Range Rover, having long been the preferred off-roader of princes and plutocrats, already has impeccable credentials in the luxury SUV segment. But he knows top-end Range Rovers are now facing unprecedented competition, not just from Bentley’s recently launched Bentayga but soon also from Rolls-Royce’s giant Cullinan crossover and a Mercedes-Maybach SUV that’s under development in Stuttgart.
McGovern is not one to pull his punches. Early in his stint at Lincoln, he bluntly told horrified dealers he wasn’t worried his designs would alienate the brand’s existing customers because “they’ll all be dead soon anyway.” In the coming fight for the hearts and wallets of luxury SUV buyers, Land Rover’s design boss is coming out swinging, shrugging off accusations he’s gratuitously glamorising the Range Rover brand. “Just because it’s glamorous,” he says, “doesn’t mean it’s not tough.”