Making his marque

With a lifetime’s experience in the development of quality cars, Tony Gott is on a mission to bring to fruition BMW’s ambitious plans for Rolls-Royce. David Fowler talks to him.

Little more than a year ago it was a greenfield site, and by next spring it will be again – to all appearances. Looking across the Goodwood estate from the South Downs, the new Rolls-Royce car factory and headquarters will betray no hint of its existence.

The Nicholas Grimshaw-designed building will be further camouflaged by planting the roof with sedum, which by next spring will complete the disguise.

BMW’s plans for Rolls-Royce are ambitious. The factory was designed to make a strong statement. If the new model makes an equally strong statement Rolls-Royce will have nothing to worry about.

The man charged with bringing those plans to fruition is Tony Gott. He began his career at TI and then Lotus, joining Rolls-Royce and Bentley in 1984. By the time of the sale to BMW in June 1998 he was director of engineering, becoming chief executive a year later. This put him in charge of VW’s plans to introduce the new Bentley Continental GT coupé, launched at last week’s Paris motor show as a step on the way to increasing production to 9,000 cars a year. Then, in a surprise move last year, he left. Gott won’t be drawn on the reasons, but speculation put it down to an impending reorganisation under new VW chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder.

Shortly afterwards Gott joined BMW as director of Project Rolls-Royce. When the newly constituted Rolls-Royce Ltd comes into being as a standalone company within the BMW Group on 1 January, Gott will be chief executive. Within the next few days, the first of the new models, codenamed RR01, is scheduled to be delivered to its buyer.

At Lotus Gott worked as a development engineer on the US version of the Espirit and the De Lorean project. ‘It was exhilarating for a car person,’ he says. ‘Lotus was one of the most exciting companies at that time in terms of its innovations, and offered responsibility at a young age for quite a wide range of engineering disciplines. I was surrounded by enthusiasts, all of whom were committed to making Lotus a good company.’

After five years he moved to Rolls-Royce and Bentley which, with all its heritage and tradition, he admits, was quite a change. ‘Rolls-Royce was steeped in process. It had very strict rules about the demarcation between design and development, and approval systems were rigid. The standard of engineers was similar; it was just the way the company worked which was different.’

The pace of change speeded up when the 1989-90 recession hit: ‘Many things happened in the fall-out of the crisis when sales dropped by about half. A huge restructure happened within the business. New systems and processes were put in place at Crewe which made it more vibrant and more project based.’

Work began for the new Silver Seraph and Arnage models, which when they were launched in 1998 were the first all-new models for over 30 years. In 1994 there was also the first mid-sized Bentley project, the Java concept, a joint venture with BMW. Gott was central to both.

‘The team I led to take Java forward was multidisciplinary. I was in Munich for six months on a joint team of Rolls-Royce and Bentley engineers and BMW engineers.’ When the partners decided not to pursue the project Gott returned to Crewe as project director for the Seraph and Arnage, becoming director of engineering a year before the 1998 sale of the company, months after the launch of the new models.Since then Bentley and Rolls-Royce, under new owners VW and BMW, have gone their separate ways after 70 years. How does he feel about that?

‘I think at the time I felt like everybody else that this was a shame because they’d been together a long time and there are a number of synergies with working together. However, in essence Rolls-Royce and Bentley are different products, coming from different roots. now with the concentration of VW on Bentley and BMW on Rolls-Royce, I think you’ll see some astonishing products from both marques which will more precisely fit their brand image.’

Gott doesn’t think that Rolls-Royce has suffered from being in a period of limbo since 1998. He says: ‘Everybody knows there’s the new Rolls-Royce and a new company being born next January, so there’s a huge expectation. There is a real interest in what is going to happen. I think that BMW’s track record with the BMW and Mini brands is so good that there are rightfully high expectations that it’s going to be an astonishing product.’

Under their new owners the firms are taking very different directions, with VW having much greater ambitions to increase the number of Bentleys it makes. Gott is one of the few people to have been closely involved in the strategy of both. ‘There is an undoubted opportunity for a smaller Bentley and there’s a lot of market research to suggest that the Bentley marque, if moved down in price, could benefit substantially.

‘Rolls-Royce’s position in the world is not, however, a direct competitor of others. It really should stand alone as a unique piece of motoring design and engineering. It’s an exclusive brand, and there is something about the exclusivity of Rolls-Royce which makes it important in the motoring world.”

With a marque such as Rolls-Royce, how can you create a modern design at the same time as being true to the company’s vast heritage? ‘I think you can sum it up by saying: what would the founders of the company do if they had the technology and the knowhow and the experience and expertise we have today? How do we take that philosophy and use the environment we have today to create a modern authentic version of that?’

quoting Sir Henry Royce – ‘Take the best that exists and make it better; if it does not exist, design it’ – Gott says: ‘It’s not difficult: nobody wants to see brands such as these fossilised in some sort of nostalgic, caught-in-aspic type of product. That’s not a vibrant brand.

‘But that philosophy has to permeate right through the business. it’s very important to have all parts of the business thinking on the same lines.’ Not surprisingly, he adds that the Project Rolls-Royce team is a ‘fantastic’ example of that. ‘The team has taken advice from all possible corners about the heritage and the attributes that Rolls-Royce should have in today’s world and managed to produce an entity which combines all facets of that.’

Returning to Rolls-Royce last year he was faced with a substantial challenge. The design of the new car was signed off, but with little more than a year to launch there was not yet a factory and a workforce was still in the process of being recruited. ‘The design was basically completed, but there’s still a lot of finessing and smoothing out of everything before it comes to market. As a business challenge, as an engineer, it’s got almost every aspect that you could throw at one in this industry. There was still a lot of development work and prototype testing.’

How concerned is he about the intensity of competition in the luxury sector – with Bentley now arguably a competitor, and DaimlerChrysler about to revitalise an old name by reviving Maybach as a super-luxury model?

‘The potential market for products like these has always been larger than realised,’ he says. ‘With the new Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Mercedes we’re introducing a whole new set of cars which are very exciting. I think the mid-sized Bentley GT coupé is a different proposition from Rolls-Royce. The Maybach is a new entity – there’s a job to do to establish that brand.

‘In contrast, of course, Rolls-Royce is known throughout the world – that’s really the strength of the brand, it’s so powerful. People in the UK perhaps don’t fully realise.

‘The success of any of these companies depends on how well the product and service and experience fit the market’s expectations of the brand. We’re introducing a product which fits that template absolutely precisely so we have confidence that on top of a very strong brand we have a very very good product.’

Will the new car be instantly recognisable as a Rolls-Royce? ‘An obvious yes – it’s just obvious it’s a Rolls-Royce design.’

For the record

A veteran of 18 years with Rolls-Royce and Bentley under its several owners, Tony Gott is a lifelong car enthusiast who graduated in materials engineering at Loughborough University before gaining an MBA at Manchester Business School.

Before joining Rolls-Royce and Bentley Motor Cars in 1984 he worked as as development engineer for TI, followed by five years as a development engineer at Lotus, working on the US version of the Espirit and the De Lorean project – a period he describes as ‘tremendously exciting for a car person’.

When Rolls-Royce was sold to BMW in June 1998 he was director of engineering, becoming chief executive a year later. Then, in a surprise move last year, he left, joining BMW as director of Project Rolls-Royce shortly afterwards. When the newly constituted Rolls-Royce Ltd comes into being as a ‘standalone’ company within the BMW Group on 1 January next year, Gott will be chief executive.

As a standalone company within the BMW group, Rolls-Royce has all the functions of an independent company including engineering, but it can call upon the resources of BMW, or outside consultants, as necessary. BMW expertise helped design the new Rolls-Royce engine, for example, crafted to meet the Rolls-Royce requirements of effortless performance and very high torque. ‘It’s a unique engine which couldn’t ever be right for any other vehicle produced by BMW Group,’ says Gott.

Production began at the still unfinished factory in West Sussex in June, and 12 pre-production examples have been built so far. Few other details of the car have been released, beyond the fact that it will have an advanced aluminium space frame structure, the biggest car body to use this technology. Engines and bodies will be delivered complete to the Goodwood site where the cars will be painted in a state-of-the-art paint shop and assembled by a workforce of 350. Wood and leather trim will be manufactured there from scratch.

The logic of the decision to site the factory at Goodwood is now apparent. it has good transport links to airports and ports and is close to the world-famous motor racing circuit which can also be used as a test track.

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