Gerry McGovern is a master of auto design artistry

Jaguar Land Rover's Chief Design Officer says the next big challenge the industry faces is self-driving vehicles.

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I always admire an artist, be it Mario Lanza signing the aria Vesti la giubba, Terry Sawchuk winning the last Stanley Cup for the Maple Leafs in 1967, or Willie Mosconi shootin’ a little straight pool.

Those guys all knew what they were doing, as distinct from thinking they knew what they were doing. They were enthusiastic and they were passionate (well, maybe not Sawchuk; he was just the best at what he had to do to earn a living). In the end, though, they lived for what they did and they loved doing it.

You’ll notice, though, that the people I mentioned are all past tense. It’s not that there aren’t current artists; it’s that their work hasn’t stood the test of time. But there are exceptions.

I met one two weeks ago when I was in Los Angeles for the L.A. Auto Show. His name is Gerry McGovern, and he’s the Chief Design Officer for Jaguar Land Rover. You want talent? You want enthusiasm? You want passion? With him, you get it all, plus exuberance.

At the show, Land Rover rolled out the fifth-generation, full-size, Land Rover Discovery, and McGovern was front-and-centre at the unveiling. I snagged an opportunity to sit down with him for a chat about the SUV, but the conversation veered off in any number of directions, which is what happens when you interview somebody who’s naturally chatty but has interests and expertise that go beyond the subject under discussion. Such as, his ambitions as a youngster.

Also Read: Land Rover shows off new Discovery

“Originally, I wanted to be an artist — a painter,” he said. “Before that, I wanted to be a football player. I was pretty good and had trials at the county level and up. But then, I discovered girls and lost interest in the soccer.

“Like a lot of art students, I wanted to get into music. Then I wanted to be a painter. I remember my auntie saying, ‘Painting’s great; do it when you’ve made some money.’ Artists usually make money after they’re dead. That was then; they make money now, or some of them do.

“I remember being thrown out of a maths lesson because I was caught drawing cars. The instructor pulled me out of my desk and he said, ‘And do you think you’re ever going to make a living drawing cars?’ Little did he know …”

You can say that again. While in secondary school, McGovern met the chief of design for Chrysler, Roy Axe, who became his mentor. With Chrysler’s support, he studied industrial design at Coventry University and then went on to the Royal College of Art in London, where he concentrated on automotive design. He so impressed them that, following some of his successes, they invited him back to the fold. “In fact,” he told me during our interview, “I’m a visiting professor there now.”

After he graduated, he worked for Chrysler before joining the Austin Rover Group where he designed the MG EX-E concept car — “It’s the one I’m most proud of … it’s in the Heritage Motor Centre” (now the British Motor Museum in Warwickshire, England) — before designing the MG F sports car in 1995, which was the first MG in 30 years.


1985 MG EXE Prototype Heritage Motor Centre, Gaydon

Then, just before the turn of the century, he was hired by Ford to put some life into the Lincoln-Mercury Division (“We came up with a lot of concepts of what we thought would be the new generation of Lincolns, but in the end, they didn’t do them, and that’s another story’). It was during that period, however, that he moved into the business end of automobile manufacturing by being named to the Lincoln-Mercury Board of Directors. He joined Land Rover in 2004, and as well as heading up the design team, also sits on its board.

Thinking back to when his teacher caught him drawing cars when he should have been studying long division or multiplication, McGovern admits to always liking automobiles. But as he’s grown, he’s changed.

“I think I’m a design nut rather than a car nut now,” he said. “I also tend to look at things from different aspects. Although I am a designer, I’m also a businessman. You have to be, first and foremost, creative, but you need to be realistic as well, and there’s a balance there to be achieved.”

Some of that balance is disappearing, he fears.

“When I was in Paris (for the recent Mondial de l’Automobile 2016), I walked around, and there were a lot of designs there that, from my perspective, were highly questionable. There are principles when it comes to designing a handsome-looking car, which I think are starting to be forgotten.”

Also Read: Top 10 debuts at the 2016 Paris Auto Show

On the other hand, to a guy like McGovern, who then puts on his business hat, that sort of thing spells opportunity. To be successful, however, he’s also convinced that Land Rover has to become more mainstream in order to take full advantage.

“Land Rover has been around for 60-odd years but has never done ordinary vehicles,” he said. “For me, it’s like recognizing the unique heritage that we have and moving it along in a way that is more relevant and appealing. Land Rover for a long time was a very specialist brand. If we’re going to sustain ourselves over the longer term, we need to become more universally desirable.”

He knows how to do that.

“Design plays a fundamental role in making that happen,” he said. “Design has the ability to connect with people on an emotional level. There are three things in that: visceral — ‘When I look at something, do I desire it?’ Behavioural — ‘Does it do what it’s supposed to do?’ And then last, but not least, reflective — ‘Once I’ve got it and used it, do I still desire it?’ ”

Along those lines, he’s very involved in the presentation of the Land Rover brand. He works closely with the company’s advertising agencies, and he’s concerned with how the cars are presented at auto shows and at dealerships. In fact, everywhere.

McGovern says the next big challenge for automotive companies is the looming world of self-driving (autonomous) cars.

“Autonomous driving is something that could change the world completely in terms of what you actually do in the car,” he said.

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“You’re having a nap, you’re reading a book, you’re on your computer, you’re having a conversation in the back of the car. You can take away the steering wheel. What does that do to the interior architecture? Or electrification? You don’t have an engine any more and there’s more space and how do you utilize it?

“The opportunities are massive. But before autonomous driving comes — and it’s going to come — it’s going to take big infrastructure changes. And I think there will always be the desire for people to connect with the car, not just on an emotional level through design but engagement through driving.

“For me, if I’m driving back from my home in London to where our studios are in the Midlands, on a Sunday night or whatever, I might want to drive the car out of London, but then the self-driving will kick in, and the steering wheel will disappear, and I’ll go to sleep. That’s a massive challenge. We’re already designing in the next stage; in fact, the autonomous approach is going to come in stages.

“The question for me is how do you reconcile those things in a way that maintains the essence of what this brand is about. So, take all those things and present them to the consumer in a way that maintains the essence of the brand but does it in a way that’s unique and differentiates you.

“Those are the challenges.”


Land Rover reveals the New Discovery alongside world record breaking Lego structure of London’s Tower Bridge at global unveiling at Packington Hall, Solihull, UK. Jaguar Land Rover Executives Recieve Guinness World Record Certificate.

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