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Ineos Grenadier: inside the off-roader’s world-class factory

It won’t be long before we get to drive the Ineos Grenadier. In the meantime, this is where it’ll be built…

Published: 16 Feb 2022

Jim Ratcliffe, we know, does not mess about. He is Britain’s richest man and self-evidently a phenomenal entrepreneur, whose fortune is derived from petrochemicals and a host of other industrial products. But he’s also owner of the French Ligue One side OGC Nice, provider of the financial muscle behind professional cycling team Ineos Grenadiers and Sir Ben Ainslie’s America’s Cup campaign, as well as having a 33 per cent stake in the Mercedes Formula One team. Ratcliffe = SUCCESS. (Fist thumps onto vast oak-panelled desk.)

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll also know that Jim loves old-school, hardcore off-roaders, the sort of vehicles that do without the S in SUV. He doesn’t want the lily-livered new Defender, he wants the original, a mission that was stymied when Land Rover refused to sell him the rights. This is one of the things that makes the Ineos Grenadier so fascinating: it’s indivisible from the man who’s bankrolling it. When was the last time anyone on this side of the pond had the cojones to start an entirely new car company on this sort of scale?

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All told, this is an investment/gamble that sails well past the £1bn mark, and Ineos is reckoning on annual sales of 25,000 units. We’ll find out pretty soon what the Grenadier is like to drive, but what we can update you on is the factory in which the first cars are currently coming together. It’s the plant in Hambach, north-eastern France, a hoot and a holler from the German border, and formerly known as Smartville because its primary purpose was the manufacture of Smart cars. It represented a €450m investment by Daimler when it opened in 1997, in the presence of Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl, and whatever deal Jim and co have done to build the Grenadier here, you have to take your hat off: they’ve netted themselves a world-class facility, complete with a highly trained workforce, a bunch of fabulously obedient robots, and a state-of-the-art paintshop.

Bridgend in Wales was, of course, initially tipped to be the Grenadier’s home, and the change of course – in tandem with Jim’s Brexity political inclinations – proved controversial. But a day spent touring the various constituent parts of this 210,000 sq m factory complex confirms that, politics aside, the Grenadier is unlikely to suffer from too many quality issues. This is quite the indoctrination.

First up, we watch as a measuring machine called an Eagle Eye – made by German specialist Zeiss – laser scans 4,000 separate weld points on a Grenadier body-in-white, in a relentless pursuit for imperfections. Apparently, this is the only car assembly plant in France to benefit from this equipment, and it takes four hours to do the measuring and two to carry out the analysis. Then another machine conducts a further 1,000 measurements, running its beady beam across all the radii, shutlines and even inside the headlamps. In parallel, a destructive test is done on a body-in-white, using machinery that has cut the time it takes from six weeks to three.

“I’m lucky, we’ve inherited a lot of Mercedes guys, so they are very well trained,” Stefan Bruhnke, Ineos’s director of quality management, says, before citing the G-wagen as the paragon. “But I think perhaps we are exceeding even that now. Of course, we only have one opportunity to get it right.”

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The factory is still making Smart EVs, and the front ends of Mercedes EQA and EQB will be produced here until 2027. But the most impressive thing to see is a production line geared around a truncated city car pivot towards the altogether different needs of a large 4x4. There are 133 separate ‘stations’ and according to Paulo Silva, who oversees the general assembly area, the full-line modification was done in less than 12 months. That included reinforcing the entire line to cope with the extra weight. Employees are working on pre-series cars, the end goal being to optimise the ‘takt’ time – the time needed to produce a unit in order to meet demand (derived from the Japanese ‘takuto taimu’ which in turn borrowed from the German word ‘taktzeit’ or ‘cycle time’).

Inside the body shop you’ll find 256 robots, 173 steel welding guns, and 16 aluminium welding guns. Our guide here is manufacturing and engineering manager, Steve Wilkinson, an industry veteran whose most recent adventure was in Singapore setting up the production line for the Dyson car. At least the Grenadier is actually happening.

The whole area is currently in ‘ghost mode’, he explains, each of the 15 individual production cells debugging themselves before full production begins. “It’s a state-of-the-art facility designed for maximum repeatability,” he explains. “The machines operate to a + or -1mm tolerance and there are 600 geometric output points to ensure that that’s maintained.” This happens again when the roof is fitted, then the doors and tailgate. A final line inspection or ‘finesse’ is carried out to ensure ‘good closure loads’ before the body heads to the paint shop. Cell quality is checked on a daily basis using ultrasonic technology.

The paint shop really is something to behold: it’s hot, huge, and full of pipes, inter-connected vats, and multi-storey walkways. There are – deep breath – eight pre-treatment stages and four stages of e-coating, before the Grenadier body makes its way through the e-coat oven, the sealer (manual sealer and under-body), sealer oven, top coat preparation, top coat application, base coat, intermediate oven, clear coat oven, top coat oven and finishing phases. I think that’s everything. Twelve cars per hour can be cycled through, and it takes eight hours for each to be fully painted. It’s an extraordinary process to witness, although it’s pleasing to note that nothing has emerged that’s better at removing minute dust particles than emu feathers.

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“We’re building a Grenadier, but we’re also building a car company,” commercial director Mark Tennant says. “And there’s a lot of unsexy stuff that goes on in the background in order to make that happen. We have 15,000 reservations already, and I’m glad to say that we’re working with some of the biggest retailers in the car business. We’re also working with ‘agri’ specialists, looking to get a foothold in more rural areas which was always our intention. We’re looking for people who ‘get’ what we’re doing here. And we’re expanding the territories we plan to sell in. The demand in Australia, for example, has really blown us all away.”

The Ineos guys often paraphrase the ‘does what it says on the tin’ line. On this evidence, we might be looking at the world’s most over-engineered tin.

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