There’s a tendency in America to fantasize that blue-blooded British cars—Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Aston Martins, Jaguars, Range Rovers—are still being banged out, one at a time, by whiskered craftsmen in coal-heated barns in the countryside. This sort of manufacturing survives in Olde Englandshire, but not in the global auto trade.
Imagine, instead, a secure 350-acre campus, most of it under roofing (and much of that covered by solar panels), that rocks around the clock, five days a week, to the stomp of giant hydraulic presses and the whirr of multi-axis milling machines, above a backbeat of forklifts and punctuated by the pop of robotic rivet guns. And, oddly, the occasional snatch of fairgrounds music. (More on this later.)
Close to a thousand vehicles a day roll out of this plant, most of them Range Rovers. Gleaming rolls of virgin aluminum sheet go in one end; many furlongs away, gleaming new vehicles emerge from the other end. What goes on in between nearly defies imagination.
The small city of Solihull, in the English Midlands, sits just south of industrial Birmingham and a hundred miles up the M40 from glamorous London. A lifetime ago, the Rover company built Bristol Hercules engines here, massive 14-cylinder radials for Royal Air Force bombers. After Europe had been pacified, Rover returned to making cars—and then, in 1948, a compact, dirt-simple 4x4 that was patterned after the US Army’s widely admired Jeep: the Land Rover.
Steel was scarce in post-war Britain, so body panels for the new vehicle were stamped out of rust-proof aluminum instead.
Twenty-two years later, the utilitarian Land Rover begat the luxurious Range Rover, the first posh 4x4. It turned out to be “just the thing,” one early reviewer wrote, “for when conditions outside Harrods are particularly dicey.” Soon, no manor house was complete without a Range Rover in the garage, alongside the gamekeeper’s Land Rover.
But then the British motor industry went into its near death spiral. Through the following decades of turmoil, Land and Range Rover production stayed at Solihull while ownership passed from British Leyland to British Aerospace to BMW to Ford and, finally, in 2008, to Tata Motors Ltd. The Indian juggernaut also bought Jaguar from Ford and created one unit, Jaguar Land Rover. The Great Financial Contraction began just a few weeks later.
Today, employees at Jaguar Land Rover fall to their knees and thank one deity or another for the stability conferred by the cash and patience of the Indians. Tata is happy too. JLR now is not only profitable, it’s keeping the parent company upright as Tata sales sag at home.
Lesser brands might not have survived this corporate crack-the-whip, but through it all demand for Land Rovers and Range Rovers never faded. The parade of failed proprietorships even left behind some benefits: The crew at Solihull (and other JLR plants) learned more about advanced car-making from each of its owners, particularly BMW and Ford.
One of Ford’s legacies, for example, is that DHL, the global shipping company, manages the internal logistics at Solihull. Whether it’s transporting building materials to a construction site or moving car parts from one assembly area to another, the forklifts, dollies, and handling crews wear the DHL logo. This frees up Rover line workers—about 3,000 of them there—to do more fabricating, assembling, monitoring, and thinking, and less schlepping.
Like an overnight package, every vehicle built at Solihull has a bar-coded tag. Along with the buyer, the tag details the exact specifications of the vehicle from among more than 5,000 combinations of engines, interiors, features, options, and colors—and whether the steering wheel is on the right or the left. (Today, about 80 percent of Range Rovers and Land Rovers are shipped outside the UK.) There’s no batch-processing; vehicles are built as the orders come in, and no two in final assembly are alike. Mike Bishop, my guide, reads off their destinations as Rovers-in-progress stream by: “Russia, Australia, Germany, the US . . .”
JLR also has forged ahead with its own technology. The Jaguar F-Type (made nearby in Coventry) and Range Rovers both use aluminum in new ways, part of what Range Rover calls PLA, Premium Lightweight Architecture. The result is enormous weight savings—as much as 900 pounds in a Range Rover—with greater strength and rigidity, as well as shapes and joints that were impossible before in aluminum. The first thing a visitor to Solihull sees is one of the largest gang presses in the world stamping out, stage by stage, the intricate alloy sections of a Range Rover body. Eyeballed by lasers and humans at every stage, these are bonded and riveted together so that gaps between finished panels are less than a millimeter and a half.
At a part of the factory where sub-assembly lines come together like the spaghettied motorway junction in nearby Birmingham, trimmed and finished bodies are married to their drivetrains and suspensions, and here things get especially interesting.
Every few minutes, a snatch of music blares through the vast space, and Mike Bishop smiles. Someone has spotted something less than perfect and pulled an Andon cord, which cues up the music. Then an assembly team swoops into action to set right whatever triggered the alert.
Teammates take turns being the “window” person, who stands back to eyeball every step of every process for problems and solutions that the computers might have missed. Overhead is a huge electronic sign, the Yamazumi Board, that keeps score: So many vehicles built versus cycle (“takt”) time, downtime, and disruptions. These are all parts of the factory’s Kaizen program of continuous monitoring and improvement.
Today’s Range Rovers are designed and engineered by Brits, made of panels formed on a German press and put together by Swiss-Swedish robots, and built with Japanese-American quality-control and just-in-time manufacturing practices for global distribution by an Indian conglomerate. They are no mere posers, either. In June, a 5-liter supercharged V-8 Range Rover Sport—its luxury compromised only by the addition of a roll cage around the driver, just in case—set the Pikes Peak Hill Climb record for production SUVs; in November, another one made the fastest recorded crossing of the Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter of the Arabian desert.
With its exceptional résumé of on- and off-road abilities and creature comforts, the new Range Rover Sport ($64,000–$100,000) may be the most versatile vehicle on earth. Singlehandedly, it can free up the other four slots in a 5-car garage. You’ll no longer need the sports sedan, the limo, the enclosed all-terrain vehicle for five, or your old daily errand-runner. Makes the price seem almost reasonable, doesn’t it?Silvio Calabi is a member of NEMPA and IMPA, the New England and International motor press associations. His car review column, “Silvio’s Ride,” appears weekly across the country.