Land Rover’s Spiritual Leader Makes No Apologies for the Design of the New Defender

Retro really isn’t his thing.

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Land Rover

Update, 4/28/2021: In yet another blow to the haters of the new SUV's design, the Land Rover Defender has been crowned the World Car Design of the Year for 2021 by an international jury. The win for Gerry McGovern and his design team is, as it turns out, Jaguar Land Rover's fourth World Car Design of the Year award in the past five years.

If you have any complaints about the exterior of the new Land Rover Defender, Gerry McGovern probably doesn’t want to hear them all that much.

You’d also be in the minority, he says, as the feedback to the new vehicle revealed in September 2019 has been overwhelmingly positive. Still, as he told us during a lengthy sit-down interview — one in which we touched on the importance of design at Land Rover to that boxy element on the side glass — the SUV’s styling will look far better on the streets and in the wilds than it will under the hard spotlights of auto shows and dealership floors.

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The Land Rover Defender in its starring role at the Jaguar Land Rover booth at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Q: How long ago did [Land Rover] decide to pull the trigger on this?
A: You know, I’m not sure how important that is. I mean, we’d been talking about doing a new Defender for a long time, but…it’s one thing to want to do a new Defender, it’s another to have the wherewithal to do — it in terms of financing, in terms of getting the rest of the business sorted out.

We knew all along we were going to bring back the Defender, but it took a while to make the final decision. We did a concept called the LR1, maybe four, five, six years ago. And when we looked at that, we said, “All right, this is the one we want to bring to production.

Q: Because there was also the DC 100 before that, right?
A: Yeah. They were done really to keep the conversation going…we created those concepts to generate interest. And also to start the conversation. From my perspective, they were useful, because they actually informed me that that’s exactly the way we shouldn’t be doing it.

Q: What is it about the DC 100 that you felt like shouldn’t have been done the way it was?
A: It was just too much. I think we were trying a bit too hard. There wasn’t a purity of thought to it. Proportionally it was okay, but…the cumulative thing, it just wasn’t right.

But I think sometimes you have to go through those exercises. It didn’t have enough of what I call “desirative consequence” — you know, this sort of balance of firmly looking forwards in terms of its modernity but at the same time acknowledging its unique heritage. I think this [the new Defender] has far more credibility in that respect.

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The DC 100 Concept.

Q: When I think of the last Defender, I always identify it with brush guards. Is that something you guys played around with on this design?
A: Well, we’ve got our different accessories, and there’s one that’s got this sort of full protection system. Which probably does a better job, because that sort of traditional approach…I think that’s of a bygone age. These vehicles are designed now with a lot of inner strength.

I mean, a lot of these things are put on cars to reinforce the visual strength of them. Because actually, the cost of putting those on probably outweighs the [cost to repair any damage], anyway. So they were more of a visual metaphor. And for me, in my sort of modernist approach, that didn’t sit very well with me.

Q: Did you guys feel a lot of pressure to make it more retro? If you’re having a conversation about great off-road nameplates that have been around a while, you have Jeep, you have G-Wagen, and you have Defender. And the other two have stayed very conservative with their styling.
A: Well, first of all, I don’t use the world “styling.” But that aside…I was cognizant of the fact that there was a great deal of anticipation around [the new Defender]. I didn’t even think about that; and I told my team, we don’t think about it. Because, if you start thinking to much about [being] precious — it’s a bit like top performing athletes who let the pressure get to them, and they suddenly can’t perform.

At Land Rover, we have, over the years, desired to put design at the center of the business. We have developed a culture that has enabled us to do things like the new Defender, things like the Velar, things like the new Evoque or even the original Evoque. Which, before that, didn’t exist.

The brand did have a very strong engineering background. And one of the things I was very focused on was, how can we put design at the core of this brand that would enable it to flourish as a consequence? You can set it up hierarchically, you can have design on the board, but you still gotta get people to support you. You still gotta get the engineers to engineer your design. And the only way you do that is by success.

And I think once there was that recognition — that design and engineering could coexist and create a balance that enabled you to create products that are truly compelling and have that emotional connection with the consumer — you’ll be far more successful. I think Evoque was the first step, where people realized, Jesus, this car is still a Range Rover, it’s incredibly capable, but it’s highly desirable and highly design-literate. And that was the start of it.

And so, I hear other companies talking about the importance of design, but I don’t always see it in the end result. And you made an interesting point there, where you say was there pressure on you to make it more retrospective? Nobody puts me under pressure. And that’s a great thing. You know, Ralf [Speth], who’s the CEO [Speth was JLR CEO from 2010 until 2020, having since been replaced by Thierry Bolloré. —Ed.], and Mister Tata, the owner of the business — he’s retired now, but he’s still involved — [they were] cognizant of [the fact that], if you want design to succeed, then let it, and not try to compromise it. And I think that’s been quite pivotal.

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The new Land Rover Defender 90.

So I don’t get people coming up to me saying, “Oh, could you make it more retrospective?” I don’t get marketing coming up to me saying, could you do this, could you do that. Because, quite frankly, I don’t take any notice of them. I’m employed as a professional. Design is a separate issue for the brand; I’m the spiritual leader for the brand. I define what that vision is, and my team executes it. It might sound very arrogant…which it is.

[WSC laughs]

That’s not to say I’m not listening to other people, hearing their views and talking about how we get the right balance — from the manufacturing perspective, the engineering perspective and the marketing perspective. But when it comes to the design, when it comes to any of the disciplines where I’m an advocate…you have to respect each others’ disciplines. Don’t tell the designers how to design cars. I don’t tell the finance man how to do all those numbers, et cetera.

I think retrospectivism is the kiss of death, quite frankly. It’s a slippery slope. It actually conveys that you haven’t got any new ideas of the future, because you’re looking back too much. Now, that’s not to say you don’t recognize your roots, because I think authenticity — particularly in a premium brand — is important. But you don’t let that manifest itself in the product to the point that the product looks like a facsimile of something that was created 60-odd years ago. For me, that’s not honest design. That car created 60, 70 years ago was right for its time, but things have moved on.

And the hygiene factors of safety legislation, manufacturing techniques, technology, all those things are gonna force change anyway. So you have to embrace those. But ultimately, it’s about designing a product that is thoroughly modern, contemporary — and relevant.

Now, what I think [the new Defender] does very well is, it recognizes its roots by taking some sort of references and incorporating them, executing them in a thoroughly modern way. But it’s details, it’s not in the overall essence of it. People say, y’know, is this an evolution of the original? Well, no, of course it’s not.

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The Land Rover Series I.

[he pulls out a picture of the Defender’s predecessors]

You look at that, that’s the original Series I. [The new car is] not exactly an evolution of that, is it? You can see, it’s recognizing where it’s come from, but it’s a modern vehicle. And it’s getting that balance, for it not to appear like it’s a caricature…it needs to stand up in its own right. This needs to be equally desirable to people who don’t even know what Defender is. And then, y’know, the traditionalists — not in this country so much, but in parts of Europe — they’re not gonna change from [their old] vehicle, anyway.

When we launched the car in Frankfurt, we did the analysis: 97 percent positive sentiments toward the vehicle. [But] it’s usually the ones who don’t like it who are the most vocal.

Q: How did you, or would you, react to the people who came up to you and said, “I don’t like this car”?
A: Everybody’s entitled to their opinion, that’s fine. What I would say is, when they start talking about the design — design is a discipline, and somebody who just criticizes design and looks at design and has a view on it, they’re not experts. I’ve spent my whole life designing stuff. But I respect the customers’ views; if they don’t like it, that’s for them.

But don’t say “That design is wrong” when you’re not an expert. If it was somebody who was an expert telling me that, then I’d have a listen. [But] once there’s something there to critique, everybody becomes an expert! Going on about wheel-to-body relationship, plan shape, proportions. When you’ve got a blank sheet of paper, there’s nobody around with their opinion then. But that’s fine, because that’s what our discipline is about.

People think I get sensitive; I don’t actually. If people don’t like it, fine, that’s up to them. But I’ve met more people who do like it. I’ve been very encouraged over here particularly — they know what they’re looking at.

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Gerry McGovern and the new Defender 90.

Q: It does feel like you were trying to play up the fact that a lot more urban users will be buying the new Defender.
A: That’s one of the tastes, of course. I think the beauty of this particular design…it almost lends itself to different characteristics. That was the idea behind these sorts of different personalities and design packs and groups of accessories that play to different lifestyles. And urban, clearly, is one of them. The urban environment can be just as treacherous [as off-roading].

You know, there are a lot of people who will buy this vehicle for its ability to stuff, and they’ll enjoy it for all types of lifestyles, and extreme off-road capability is one of them, which, I suppose, the Explorer pack is the one there. But, there’ll be people who just want to tool around London or New York or wherever in one of those and feel so bloody cool. And that’s fine, because I go back to what I’ve always said as a designer: a design in whatever manifestation it finds itself in has the ability to enrich people’s lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that, provided it can be done in a sustainable, moral way.

And for me, there’s an honesty about this design, which I suppose comes out particularly in the detailing of the lamps, the front face, the simple geometric forms. There’s a rightness about it, it’s not trying to be something it’s not. When you look at that face, it’s proud, it’s strong, but it’s not trying to be overtly aggressive. It’s got big lamps, it’s got open eyes. And I think once you see it on the road, it’ll really transform, and its character will come out.

Q: I feel like the degree to which it was rounded off, at least around the edges, was a bit surprising.
A: You’ve still got strong intersections: shoulder, collar, all those things. And then the rear, that’s really hard. A lot of the softening at the front is to do with aero. And actually — you look at the last [Defender], even on those corners, those corners were bowled off.

But the [side of the old ones] was so flat because the pressings were such crap. On some of these [older] Defenders, you look along the body side and it’s like the Atlantic Ocean. Well, that’s unacceptable for a modern-day vehicle.

Q: (pointing to the box behind the doors) I’ve forgotten the name of this particular design element…
A: That is what we call a floating pillar. People have remarked about that — I really like it. It’s done for a number of reasons. First of all, you’ve got it on the five-door and the three-door; now on the five door, if you took that away, that cabin would start to look very long, so it sort of reduces the visual length. It’s part of the structure as well. On [the three-door], it’s done to anchor the car down and create more visual interest, and as one of the guys talked about, it’s a great anchor to put stuff onto. From the inside of it, you’ve got storage in it, so it’s functional.

Now, from the second row of the three-door, it does obscure the vision out to a certain degree. But our thinking was, on the two-door, the second seats are not used as much. If you don’t wan’t to have it, you can opt not to have it, but I would not. It’s fine without it, but I think it’s got more character with.

We were thinking earlier about where do your influences come from; I’m not your typical car designer, my interests are in architecture, product design in general. And it was a bit of a sort of retrospective thing to me, that came to mind, when I started looking at that. And I certainly wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but if you think about that square, are you familiar with the artist Josef Albers? He did these series of pictures called “Homage to the Square,” and I think there’s an element of that in it.

Q: Was there any element of the design you felt really proud of when you were done?
A: For me, it’s gotta be the total [design]. You have an overall feel of something that’s right, that always starts with the volume and proportions. It’s gotta work as a total. I’m very proud of that design, and it’s not just me, that’s the work of many talented designers and engineers. it’s a team effort when it comes to car design, you can’t do it on your own. Although if it goes wrong, I’m the one that’s getting a bullet in the head.

Q: Is there anything you’re looking forward to beyond this?
A: We stopped working on this [a while ago]. I’m looking at a whole new generation of vehicles; we’ve got a lot in the pipeline. I’m here talking about [the Defender] because I suppose I’m the mouthpiece for the brand; I’m seen as the spiritual leader of it, and I’m happy to do that, because this is an important vehicle for us. But equally important is the next-generation Range Rover, next-generation Range Rover Sport, and y’know, how are we gonna embrace sustainability, electrification, autonomous driving, massive changes in legislation. Those are the things I’m preoccupied with.

Q: How are those sorts of things affecting design?
A: For me, the only traditional element of [electric] vehicles is that they’ve got a bonnet. When you embrace electrification, when you embrace change, it’s in that area, which means you either go cab-forward or complete one-box. I’m not a big fan of one-box vehicles. I think I-Pace is probably on the limit of how far forward the windscreen can go.

We will evolve it and see how that works for us. When it comes to classic proportions in anything — in architecture, even in clothing — there are certain things that will always look right, and there are other things that, if you’re not careful, will end up looking…fashion, or transient. There’s a balance to this stuff. There are different ways of doing it. You’ll have to wait and see.

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