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Land Rover - where the robots haven't taken over

 

There’s another Land Rover Defender due out this year. It’s not all-new; the Defender’s success lies in part because it never is. It’s grandpa’s axe on four wheels – almost every part is different to the original yet, overall the Defender remains defiantly the same – basic, tough, and very, very competent.

It’s built in almost the same way it’s always been too – which makes Land Rover’s Solihull factory especially interesting.

For on one side there are robots and conveyors constructing high-tech Discoverys and Range Rovers. And on the other, men with spanners bolting bits of body panel to a chassis that looks strong enough to carry a Mack truck.

So it’s lucky I’ve got a retired engineer as my guide when I visit the factory.
Graham Silvers is clearly pretty keen on Land Rovers – and endlessly knowledgeable. So much so that we’re joined by a marketing lady who tells him when he shouldn’t answer a question...

He’s enthused before we’ve even reached the factory buildings, for we’re passing the living wall that blocks industrial sound from nearby houses.

A massive dyke of willow, soil and densely growing shrubbery, it’s a kind of multi-storey apartment block for a wide range of animals now making Land Rover their home.

This 308-acre site was once two farms, then bought by the Ministry of Defence to make a World War II shadow factory. Aero engines were built here, but the site was managed by Rover and after the war – with its own premises in Coventry bombed out – it took the place on.

Land Rovers didn’t exist back then, but Rover needed an export market. Not just to sell more vehicles but because, just after the war, to get steel to build cars you had to export them.

So a go-anywhere vehicle was decided on, developed and built within a year. That was it for Land Rover for 20 years or so – until Range Rover joined the fray in 1970.

The Discovery followed in 1989, and the Freelander eight years later. Including updates, the company has launched just seven vehicles in 52 years.

Though the Freelander wrought a revolution – 100,000 are sold each year, more than half the brand’s total sales – Land Rover is still a small-volume manufacturer in world terms.

The Range-Rover day shift will make 77 cars – the night shift taking the tally to 150 – all of which are sold before they’re built.

Since neither the Rangie nor the Discovery is a mass-market car, there are very few robots – at least compared to larger factories – with manpower very visible.

Still, computers keep track. What with different specifications and trim, some 1600 Rangie variants are possible, and each part of each correct set of components must arrive on the line at just the right time.

Some of it’s built off-site; Rangie’s fascia – the dash including its component parts – is built by Siemens and the whole plot, including wood, trim, components and electrics, is owned by Siemens until the moment it slots into the car.

The whole manufacturing process is more-or-less familiar. Body pressings are welded or bonded together, and everything else is fitted on to or within them – either by robot, or human hands.

But round a corner and you’ve gone back in time. For here, massive-looking chassis rails slide along on trolleys, with busy men – and it still is mainly men – adding components to them, starting with the cradle for the fuel tank.

Behind us, a trolley with a frame carries individual Defender panels, waiting their moment.

There are no robots here – it’s like a big Meccano set – a modeller’s dream.

By now we’re scurrying; past the massive new 5500-tonne press sitting atop a four-metre-thick reinforced seismic block; the Ranger Rover’s master samples; past the paint block – we’re too dust-laden to go in – and back to base. It’s time to go four-wheel driving.

Yes, you can bush-bash in the middle of a factory site, in the middle of a city. Before Land Rover opened its off-site engineering facility at Gaydon all its products were tested here.

Now it’s used to entertain and educate visitors – check out www.landroverexperience.com.

Pay enough and you, too, can tour the factory, drive or be driven round the tracks -– or experience some of Land Rover’s historic vehicles.

It’s a canny way to advertise the product, for it’s hard not to be impressed when you’ve got a Range Rover waving a wheel in the air, yet you can still open its doors.
Or you’ve climbed the stairs in an old Defender, or driven down a river so deep the water’s well over your Rangie’s sills.

But more impressive than this is how the Jungle, Adventure and Land tracks slotted into the factory environment.

Scramble up muddy slopes through bramble tangles and you burst into the open – to look down on a carpark.

Or plough down a river bed, flushing herons and churning mud – before skirting the factory wall.

It’s very bizarre, but very effective, for it underlines that “performance is at the heart of what we do” feeling which every manufacturer strives for, but few really manage to impart.

And the new Defender? I went, I saw, but I didn’t conquer – they wouldn’t let me drive one.


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