GAYDON, UK - When Nick Fell took over responsibility for developing the new Land Rover Discovery he heard some harsh comments from the vehicle's customers. Not about him. Not about how the current Discovery looks, but about the way it drives on the road.
Of course, many of the 385,000 Discovery owners bought their vehicle for its off-road performance. But enough of these drivers leave the road only occasionally, for this to be a very serious challenge to the team developing the new vehicle that will make its first public appearance on 29 September. Sales will start in January.
'The Discovery is the lifeblood of the company. It is critical to the business in terms of volume and markets,' says Fell. 'But that has made it all the more thrilling to work on.'
Fell did what the customers wanted. The new Discovery looks very much like its ancestor, helped by the signature kink in the roof line. But under the skin it is a very different vehicle: 95 percent of the parts are new.
Retaining the family resemblance to the current Discovery was particularly important, says Fell. When Land Rover first launched the Discovery it faced 12 rival models in the sport-utility segment. It now has 30 competitors, and it is essential to keep its clear identity, he says.
Inside the vehicle, he says, 'we had to address certain durability problems in the existing vehicle,' which his team did 'through new engineering and new suppliers.' Many more of the Discovery's components are now sourced from a Europe-wide supplier base shared with BMW.
In the process, Land Rover established common engineering test standards with BMW. One consequence of this, says Fell, is that an abundance of Land Rover experience has been passed on to BMW engineers developing BMW's E53 4x4 Sport-Activity Vehicle, which is due to appear in about 18 months.
Fell carries his responsibilities with apparent ease. Part of this confidence comes from three fairly demanding years he spent in Japan from 1985 to 1988. Although only in his 20s he had responsibility for Rover 800 production at Honda's Sayama factory. This production arrangement was part of a deal between Rover and Honda when they were partners.
Fell learned to speak Japanese fluently, as did his wife, Alison, whom he had only recently married at the time. 'She speaks it better than I do now' he says. 'She works full-time as kaizen (continuous improvement) team leader at Britax Vega's plant in Droitwich, which collaborates closely with the Japanese, so she uses the language routinely.'
When he returned to the UK from Japan, Fell took responsibility for Rover 200 production at the Longbridge plant before being made project director of the new MGF in 1992.
The changes made to the sports car were incremental, he says, unlike with the Discovery.
But another difference between the two projects is that 'it is now my responsibility to see the Discovery into the market and also to consider its successor. And, of course, we are already thinking about the next Discovery - but I cannot talk about that.'
Although he chooses his words carefully and delivers them confidently, there is nothing studious about his ready smile and relaxed manner.
Perhaps, he says, it is easy to relax when there is so much satisfaction in his private life.
He and Alison have two children, aged four and two. Their presence may have curtailed one of his favorite hobbies, hill walking, but he can find time for his other pastimes at home.
He enjoys Italian cookery - 'it's making a hobby out of a necessity' - and working on their 16th century house with its traditional English garden covering a third of a hectare.
At weekends he also looks after his 1955 Citroen Traction Avant 11B.
Nick Fell, product director, medium 4x4s, Rover Group
Born: 6 December 1959 in
Education: Engineering at Imperial
Warwick University, UK
Family: Married, two boys, 4 and 2
Languages: English, French, Japanese
Hobbies: Hill-walking, cooking,
1980: Rover, graduate intake,
1985: Honda Sayama, resident
engineer, Rover 800
1988: Rover, Longbridge,
for Rover 200
1992: MGF, project director
1995: Product director, medium
4x4s, responsible for
developing the new
Land Rover Discovery