Range Rover Velar 2017: 20 questions with design boss Richard Woolley

9 August 2017
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Richard Woolley is Land Rover's design studio director, SVO and Advanced research. Visiting Australia this week to help launch Range Rover's sleek mid-size Velar, he's worked around the world on passenger car programs for Rover, MG, Mini and Land Rover, not to mention a stint with Airbus Industrie in Hamburg, Germany.

Self-professed car nut and diehard supporter of the Welsh 'Dragons' rugby union team, he agreed to face up to a CarsGuide 20 question grilling. 

1. Could you give us a thumbnail of your role as studio director. What does that mean day-to-day?

I have a team of 25 to 30 designers that report to me, and we tackle various projects through the normal Land Rover design process.

2. Can you describe how you work with Gerry McGovern?

Gerry's my boss, and a very astute guy. He's great to work with, incredibly focused, and enthusiastic. He has a clear vision for the brand, which is a powerful thing to have. Design within Land Rover is a core part of the business. It's not peripheral. It drives decisions in terms of what the products are going to be, and where they are going to sit in the marketplace.

It's atypical in the industry that design in Land Rover, and Jaguar, is represented at board level. At many places, design reports to engineering or marketing, and that can lead to a different kind of culture. Land Rover and Jaguar are very much design driven.

3. With a few years under its belt, how is SVO evolving as a business?

It's incredible, actually. From set up just under two years ago, it's going from strength to strength. It's an amazingly exciting place to be. Some of the stuff we do in there, in brand new facilities, is absolutely incredible.

There appears to be an insatiable demand from people who want their already very special vehicles made a little bit more special, with a more personal, bespoke feeling, thanks to their own choices.

4. That's been the most interesting SVO bespoke project you've worked on so far?

The high-performance Range Rover Sport SVR is just a beast. It's an amazing car. But there's also the ultimate in luxury, the Range Rover SV Autobiography long wheelbase. That vehicle unleashes the potential within Range Rover as a brand, taking it almost beyond Bentley and that kind of thing, where it's never really been before. It's now easily compared to those kinds of vehicles.

The Lamborghinis, the Ferraris, were hugely influential in my design education.

5. Are there SVO customer requests for bespoke elements you won't fulfill?

We want people to have as much choice as possible, but on the other hand, we mustn't put the brand in jeopardy by doing just anything.

We do have some requests where we try to gently guide customers in another direction, and help them make better choices, because at the end of the day I'm sure they're interested in the resale value of their own car. We try to guide and curate their choices.

6. What was the design brief for the Velar? What's the intended personality? The Range Rover line-up is filling up, so how does it fit in?

It's a car that would appeal to a couple of different customers. Someone who's coming into the brand for the first time, and the Evoque is a little bit on the compact side for them, but the Range Rover Sport may be too big a leap.

Then there's the person who's already in the brand but outgrown their Evoque. Maybe a couple of kids have arrived, and they want to move into something a bit more spacious.

That's not to suggest the Velar is just another step on the ladder. It has its own personality, because of its very distinct design.

7. Is a Velar SVR in the pipeline?

There's lots more good stuff in the pipeline. We've got huge ambition within SVO to support the core brand, so there's lots of exciting stuff happening.

I'm a car nut. I love all cars, and I think it's an awful shame when a brand goes to the wall because it depletes the gene pool.

8. Who do you have in mind as the prospective Velar buyer?

They're really interested in Range Rover, but want to take a more cautious line, because the Velar comes into a burgeoning part of the marketplace. There are a lot of great competitors out there. But I think the Velar will offer them something very different, yet characteristically Range Rover. Something new but unexpected.

9. Was the Evoque the design turning point it looks to have been for the Range Rover brand?

The Evoque was an absolute turning point, and opened up a new chapter for the business. Range Rover already had a great strength, but the Evoque opened people's eyes, within the business and with customers, to not only what the brand could do, and how the brand could grow, but the different markets we could invent in many ways.

It set the benchmark for the next iteration of the Range Rover design language, including the latest Range Rover, the Range Rover Sport, and indeed, to a certain extent, the Velar. There's a family DNA, and it's great to have that.

10. What was the biggest change, from a design perspective, in the transition from Ford to Tata ownership?

Ford is a great brand with an amazing history, and it brought a lot of rigor and process to the business, but it felt like we were a small cog in a bigger corporate machine.

We weren't really in charge of our own destiny, and the most powerful thing that happened when Tata took over was it gave us that control, and we then had our hands on the tiller for the first time in quite a long time.

I remember Mr Tata saying, "You guys are the experts. You do what you think you need to do." Rather than being pigeonholed by other companies, including BMW and Ford, where we were seen as one of a portfolio, a product. Whereas, within Tata we have an open brief, and we can do what we think is the right thing. And the Velar demonstrates the freedom we've got.

I feel very proud about the early work I did on Velar, and the way the car was taken into production and remained true to its original vision.

11. What emerging technologies do you think will have the greatest impact on the next generation of Range Rovers?

The Velar is the first step in the dance in terms of our user interface approach, but of course there's the whole thing about different levels of autonomy heading our way. It will affect interior design hugely in the next five to 10 years.

It's a big challenge, but within design we love challenges, and the question for us is, how do we best use the technology's capability to suit the customer?

Rather than it being a bit of self-indulgence in technology, it's a case of how do we deploy that technology to suit our customers' needs, and how does it then affect the space inside a vehicle, the geometry of the vehicle, how people use the vehicle. How we do it in a Land Rover way is the important thing.

12. Having worked around the world, how do you see the breadth of appreciation of the Land Rover brand? For example, the UK, Japan, Germany, Australia? Universal or individual?

We're often asked do we make specific models for specific markets, and the answer is pretty much no. Except we make a long wheelbase vehicle for the Chinese market. They love their long wheelbases because most people in China who buy a premium product are driven rather than driving themselves. They like space in the back, and we make that adjustment for that market.

We think Land Rover values are admired around the world, and when people buy our product - in something like 187 markets - they love them for what they are, and what they stand for.
 
Of course, there are subtle differences in market specification, in terms of diesel, petrol, what will be electric, hybrid, etc, but we think our vehicles are universally appealing because of what they stand for.

13. Who has been the greatest influence on your design career? Who's been your greatest mentor?

I've worked for a number of great design leaders, and they've all influenced me in different ways. One of my directors when I was starting in the business said to me, "Everybody thinks they're a designer. In a room of people, they've all got an opinion about design. But remember one thing, everybody's entitled to their own stupid opinion." That was one thing that shaped my thinking over the years.

There are certain product and architectural designers I admire. The obvious one is Apple.

It's important to listen to people's opinions, of course, but at the end of the day you've got to have the courage of your convictions, and belief in the team that's working for you.

Some of the Italian designs from the late '60s, early '70s, when Giugiaro was at his height, Bertone and Gandini; they made an impact. When I was a kid, I was awe-struck by that mind-blowing stuff. Beautiful, beautiful creations. The concept and production vehicles. You know, the Lamborghinis, the Ferraris, were hugely influential in my design education.

I'm a car nut. I love all cars, and I think it's an awful shame when a brand goes to the wall because it depletes the gene pool. We should cherish all the brands and vehicles out there because they all stand for different things.

14. Has your time with Airbus influenced your approach to automotive design?

There's a rigor to design in the aerospace industry. It's highly regulated, and very specific in its requirements. The rigor of the processes they use is always a good thing to reference. Lightweight, elegant design.

They have an ideal in their mind, that they're not afraid of expressing.

15. Which piece of work are you most proud of?

I feel very proud about the early work I did on Velar, and the way the car was taken into production and remained true to its original vision.

I led the team for the current Range Rover, and that's probably the thing I would look back on as the highlight of my career.

16. Taking your JLR hat off, and thinking industry-wide, who's currently doing a good job from a design point-of-view?

Maybe KIa. They've made huge strides through design. It comes home to you when you see a Kia on the road that's five or six years old, and then you see one of the current products. Pete Schreyer, their design director, has obviously taken that brand and made something very special out of it.

I've always had a soft spot for Porsche, although I'm not a huge fan of the Panamera. That said, I do like the Sport Turismo version. That's an interesting vehicle. The 911 is an enduring icon, and a fantastic bit of kit.

Minis are great fun. Uncomfortable, noisy, not particularly fast compared to modern vehicles, and they're pretty smelly. But I love them.

17. What designs (or which designers) do you admire outside the automotive sphere?

There are certain product and architectural designers I admire. The obvious one is Apple. I've also bought a packet of Giugiaro pasta, so he's branched out and done a lot of great stuff, and Georg Jensen is another.

Architects as well, like Norman Foster, you could go on, and on, and on. They have an ideal in their mind, that they're not afraid of expressing.

18. As a Dragons fan which opposing team do you fear most when it trots out onto Cardiff Arms Park?

The All Blacks are hard to go past, they're our nemesis, but the Wallabies are pretty tough, too. 

19. What machinery sits in your garage?

I've got a couple of classic Mini Coopers. I cut my teeth on Minis when I was a kid, learning to drive, and I think they deliver such an immediate, visceral response. They're great fun. Uncomfortable, noisy, not particularly fast compared to modern vehicles, and they're pretty smelly. But I love them.

20. What do you think is the most beautiful car of all time? 

I remember cars going back to the late '60s, early 70s that are beautiful cars, and unsurpassed. The DeTomaso Mangusta is a stunning piece of design. The Miura is a bit of an obvious one, but I can't help but feel weak at the knees whenever I see one.

I think the latest Aventador is stunning. True to its Lamborghini heritage, and an amazing bit of sculpture. And the E-Type Jag is hard to go past, but it has to be the Coupe. Series I 4.2… just amazing.

Has Mr Woolley's team designed the most beautiful Range Rover yet? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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