Your first thought when you step over the threshold of Jaguar Land Rover’s $40 million Special Vehicles Operations division in Ryton-on-Dunsmore, just outside Coventry, is that you’ve arrived in the foyer of a Formula 1 team’s headquarters.
The place has the same wall-to-wall modernity of a classy, new piece of industrial architecture, the same aura of forensic efficiency of a grand prix team and the distinct feeling that nothing here happens by accident or just the passage of time.
But whereas F1 teams make half a dozen cars a year and don’t build the engine, this place handles vehicles by the thousand. Managing director Michael van der Sande says SVO’s job is to take JLR’s already potent and luxurious models and “amplify” their characteristics, at times “turning them up to 11”.
Among manufacturers of premium cars, there’s a powerful demand for bespoke and specialist vehicles that seems currently to defy economic cycles. BMW has its Alpina and Mercedes has its AMG, and on this spot, where Peugeot once built numerous undistinguished 206s, specialist Jaguars and Land Rovers now start their lives.
SVO builds several different kinds of bespoke car. Broadly speaking, there’s the uniquely specified, hugely valuable type that involves wholesale re-engineering, complex painting and often lengthening and armouring to meet some ultra-rich customer’s whim.
Then there’s the most common type, production SVR models whose enhanced packages still allow them to be made on JLR’s regular production lines; the Range Rover Sport SVR and Range Rover SVAutobiography Dynamic are good examples. Such cars, around 10,000 of them per year, don’t need a special trip through the new SVO Technical Centre, because they’re built to suit the facilities of JLR’s regular assembly processes.
And somewhere in the middle of these is a breed of standard cars whose owners desire only special paint jobs: SVO handles around 5000 of these a year and has an innovative robotised plant whose smart ovens, JLR claims, save enough heating to power 65,560 homes for a year. Quality is extraordinarily high.
The production-line SV models may not be built on SVO’s premises, but they’re still very much the business of van der Sande and his engineering director, Jamal Hameedi, whose spectacular pedigree includes time as the global engineering chief of Ford Performance, responsible for cars including the Focus RS and latest GT. They decide in the first instance exactly what these profitable and strong-selling SVR cars will be like and then set about developing them.
SVO’s contribution to group earnings is described by van der Sande as “very significant”, although nobody inside or outside the group will talk precise figures. It’s obvious, and becomes clearer as we walk around, that this is a very high-margin business. The most modified cars we come across, some kept secret until their owners see them for the first time, are akin to works of art and so can require months in preparation.
If you’re a serious bespoke customer here on a visit, you’ll probably be accompanied by someone from your local dealership. Having signed in, you turn right out of the foyer into a luxurious design suite where you can view, touch, feel and smell samples of paint and trim materials, fascia textures and badgework. This is where you propose and mock up – on a gigantic digital configurator – your desired vehicle. “People can spend up to half a day in here,” says van der Sande. “We encourage them to do it. And we often offer one of our designers to assist with choices. Clients usually find their suggestions helpful.”
Do customers ever insist on bad choices? According to designer Adam Hatton, who has particular expertise with bespoke projects, it’s rare. “Clients have strong likes and dislikes,” he says, “but they’re rarely adamant. We advise them, no more than that. In rare cases, we might emphatically discourage someone from making a choice we think they’ll regret. But we have to understand their priorities – that some apparently odd choices work better in different cultures and light conditions than the UK’s where the cars are built.