Special Vehicle Operations: what's it all about?
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Sunday 2nd April

Special Vehicle Operations: what's it all about?

  • Jaguar Land Rover's Special Vehicle Operations division isn't a new idea. ETO - engineered to order - has been knocking around for years, and the back catalogue is full of random commissions, many of them royal in bloodline, British or otherwise. What is new is a determination to streamline the operation while expanding it with an ambition that'll have JLR lifers old enough to remember Red Robbo spluttering into their Typhoo.

    This feature was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Top Gear magazine

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  • So much so, in fact, that to describe SVO as a skunkworks - guilty, m'lord - is doing it a disservice. These guys have outgrown their Brummie outbuildings and are thinking BIG. In fact, a 20,000m² HQ with Formula One-inspired, surgically clean workshops, a state-of-the-art paint facility and a lavish VIP area is close to completion on the site of the old Peugeot factory near Coventry. Fast forward 18 months or so, and Land Rover will have Disco Sport, new Discovery and new Defender ready to go, along with Range Rover Sport and the globe-slaying RR itself. Jaguar, the perennial bridesmaid, will be touting XE, XF, F-Type, F-Pace and revised XJ, minty fresh (or fresh-ish) world class cars all. Now imagine SVO as a home-grown version of AMG and you'll have some idea of how spangly the prize is.

  • The Range Rover Sport SVR is the first special ops car to hit the road. The next production car to wear the badge will be a Jaguar, almost certainly an XE. In between, we'll drive the finished version of last year's D-type-referencing Project 7 F-Type concept, and might finagle a go in the ghostly lightweight E (six of which are being manufactured wearing the VIN numbers of cars that never saw the light of day back in 1963). On top of which is the recently announced £148,900 Range Rover SV Autobiography, complete with duo-tone paint, exotically trimmed fold-out seats and hanging foot rests. Yes, a £150k Range Rover.

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  • Add merchandising and licensing to the special vehicles, personalisation and heritage matrix, and you're looking at a projected annual revenue of around £900m from four separate pillars. The only thing missing from SVO is a helipad to land the chosen ones on, but Birmingham airport accepts private jets.

    Former Land Rover global marketing boss John Edwards is the man in charge. "I think of it in terms of a triangle," he says, drawing an appropriately triangular motif on a piece of paper. "Ultimate luxury, ultimate performance and ultimate all-terrain capability. Apply that formula throughout the line-up, and it's clear we're nowhere near the full potential of what we can do."

  • The SVR badge will likely be joined by an SVX one for the off-road iterations (forget the wackily glazed early Nineties Subaru coupe), with nomenclature for the luxury line still tbc. He concedes that it'll take time for the strategy to become fully transparent, but denies that SVO is an overdue response to an increasingly lucrative aftermarket.

    "There isn't a huge amount of product integrity in that area," he says. "It's quite easy to play the style game, but building the engineering integrity into it is more difficult. Which is why I went after Paul Newsome."

  • Newsome is SVO's technical boss, and formerly chief technology officer at the advanced engineering division of the Williams F1 operation. (He was a vital conduit between Williams and Jag during the co-development of the C-X75 hybrid hypercar, shortly to enjoy an afterglow as the Bond villain Oberhauser's car in Spectre). Although the regular Sport is an excellent platform on which to tune a 542bhp SVR version, and JLR is hardly lacking in ride and handling experts, the finished article still has an impressive depth to it. It bodes well.

  • "Paul's input into the next SVR will be even greater than it has been on RR Sport," Edwards insists. "Before he'd even started here, I'd talked to him about putting Project 7 into production. We quickly decided we'd do it. Then Paul equally quickly discovered it needed a lot of work to make it credible, as well as pretty. A lot of time has been spent re-engineering it, time in the wind tunnel, and getting it to work as a track car has taken a huge amount of effort. We can talk about the physics underpinning the cars we do. And Paul is great at that."

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  • Although there were dissenting voices - internally and externally - all of the 250 Project 7s were spoken for in the wake of an appearance at Goodwood. "It's reinforced my instincts about special ops," Edwards says happily. "There's an increasing appetite for special cars, with a special story, from a special brand. Initially I wasn't 100 per cent sure, but it didn't take long for the doubts to disappear."

  • Will there be one-offs?

    "We're quite interested, but the significant business opportunity is in larger-volume projects," Edwards confirms. "I'm not saying we won't do them, but we'd prefer to push the boundaries of the existing product rather than completely re-engineering a car. One-offs also tend to be one-off business opportunities."

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  • Besides, SVO has its hands full. While Edwards admits that the limited-run collectors' cars obviously get everyone juiced up, the halo derivatives are the priority. The RR Sport SVR is apparently running ahead of all sales projections, so SVO is off to a strong start.

    "I'm really enjoying this idea of not being able to build enough cars," he smiles.

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