The carmaker is ready for “the world’s first luxury 4×4” to be built in Crewe, reports Robert Lea
Everybody, it seems, wants a sports utility vehicle, a 4×4, a Chelsea Tractor, an offroader, a crossover, an urban SUV, a faux by four.
The upright estate is the motor segment of the moment. Jaguar Land Rover has launched or relaunched three Range Rover models in the past three years and is working up a Jaguar SUV. The bestselling car in Britain outside of the normal troupe of hatchbacks is Nissan’s Sunderland-built Qashqai.
Vauxhall, meanwhile, claims that its Mokka will help to catapult the brand into market-leadership in Britain. Ford is regretting that it cannot get enough of its SUV models into the UK market. Smarter streets are clogged up with bulky Germans known as M-Class, X5 or Q7.
Yet one German engineer believes that there is a gap in the market, a sub-sector still to be invented. Wolfgang Schreiber is the chairman and chief executive of Bentley Motors and he believes the world is ready for the first luxury SUV. His reputation and perhaps even that of Bentley itself hangs on whether he is right.
Having overseen in 2013 the launch of the latest Bentley, the Flying Spur, which helped the group to record deliveries of 10,120 for the year, Dr Schreiber admits that the as-yet unnamed Bentley SUV is now the single biggest item on his agenda.
The project has already been fraught with politics and industry spite. “It has needed a lot of effort to get everything together, to answer all the questions, from financial aspects to where it should be built. All has been discussed many times in many, many meetings,” Dr Schreiber says in the improving English of a man 16 months in a country he neither expected to live nor work in.
Bentley is a proud, British heritage motor brand whose sprawling former Second World War aircraft engine-making plant dominates the Cheshire rail interchange town of Crewe. Dr Schreiber says that the debate with his bosses at Bentley’s parent Volkswagen were as forceful over whether a new SUV would be built in the town as they were over hitting a 21 per cent target return on investment — VW is ploughing in £800 million to create 1,000 jobs in the factory and supply chain.
Many had assumed that a Bentley SUV would be assembled in Bratislava, where VW builds its existing SUVs, the Touareg, the Audi Q7 and the Porsche Cayenne.
“We fought very hard to get this car to Crewe because we know that the people here are the only people who can create a real Bentley. The craftsmanship and the many secrets — we explained in detail to our group board members what the strengths of the people in Crewe really are. In the end, they were convinced with a business case that was seen as a bit better compared to our internal competitors.”
The vision is this: “SUVs have been successful across all segments [car sizes]. What you haven’t seen so far is a real luxury SUV. We know Range Rover and Porsche Cayenne. These are high-spec cars, but they are premium, not luxury. There is huge demand from rich people who like horses or fishing or transporting goods. They have the same problems as everybody else. Our current cars do not have the U — the utility. This market is a huge chance for us.”
But not if the look is not right. When Bentley — prior to Dr Schreiber’s time — unveiled a prototype at the 2012 Geneva Motor Show, the reviews could not have been worse. A pimp’s car, alright for the least tasteful of foot-ballers, boxy like a 1970s Range Rover, the design of an unimaginative undergraduate. “It’s just bad,” autoblog, the car critic, said.
When asked what Bentley has changed with the latest prototype ahead of a planned launch in 2016, Dr Schreiber says: “All of it.” Really? “From back to front. Even the roof. We learnt a lot and we learnt enough. We got the message and we have acted on it. We also learnt that people will buy — even though they don’t know what the price is — and we are absolutely sure now that it is a true Bentley.
“The good thing for us is the demand for SUV is worldwide. In the UK, Range Rover sells many, many cars; in China [Bentley’s second-largest market, after the United States] they like to sit higher in a bigger, safer car.”
The sensitivities are such, however, that Bentley has no plans to relaunch the car at any of the big upcoming motor shows, even though it claims that it has demand to make 3,000 SUVs a year on the way to hitting an internal target of making a total of 15,000 vehicles a year by 2018.
Dr Schreiber, 55, has ended up in Crewe after a peripatetic 30-year career in Volkswagen that has seen him run both VW’s vans business and its Bugatti supercar brand.
His initial journey to an engineering PhD is perhaps typical of a German of his generation. The son of a hausmeister — a caretaker — in a toolmaking factory, aged ten he found an old NSU motorbike with a useless fuel tank in the cellar. Over a number of weeks he and his father got it running. He was hooked. Even now he admits to being more comfortable talking transmission and torque rather than interior finishes.
He has left his family behind in Saxony but his job takes him home on a frequent basis. “I never expected to work in England, to be honest. It came to me unexpectedly. I was running the Volkswagen light commercial vehicles business and my boss [Martin] Winkerhorn [VW chairman] asked me: ‘Schreiber, what do you think about doing the job in England running Bentley?’
“I said: ‘Do I have a chance to say ‘no’?’
“ ‘Sure,’ he said, but he was only being friendly.”
Running a British plant has been strange. “There are some differences in behaviour. Germans are much more straightforward. In meetings in Ger-many, you really come quickly to the major issues. You are not trying to find the easiest way. You are always trying to go forward.
“[At Crewe] they are more polite, which I like very much. In meetings in Germany sometimes we shout. Here you do not hear that. But in terms of focus, in terms of skills there really is no difference.”
Who, or what, is your mentor? It is a desire. I am constantly striving for 100 per cent. It is about doing everything as good as possible and not only about as good as necessary
Does money motivate you? No, not personally. I am driven by success. Not only my success but the success of the company I work for