Immediately upon entering the building, our cameras and phones are confiscated and sealed. Jaguar Land Rover is justifiably proud of its new facility here just off Oxford Road, but this is also a place of secrets. A receptionist swipes a keycard. A featureless section of glossy white wall swings silently inward. This is the inner sanctum of the Special Vehicle Operations department, where many things are bespoke, but not everything is spoken of.
There was a time when every great British mechanical engineer needed little more than a spanner, a shed and a grubby mug of tea. Cranking speed out of a race-spec E-Type lightweight was a game of intimacy and genius, a dab hand on tuning the carburetors and a devil-may-care attitude toward hearing protection.
But these days, you can’t run a skunkworks operation without being measured up against the efforts of the Germans. Mercedes-Benz’s AMG and BMW’s M division aren’t just the racing-specialist sidelines they once were; each is a fully fledged operation with marketing departments, vast research and development budgets, and (most importantly) sales targets to hit. It’s not good enough for JLR to cram a bigger supercharger on its ubiquitous 5.0-litre V-8 and hope for the best.
Thus, the new 20,000-square-metre facility at Oxford Road gleams with spotless brightness. There’s a bit of showmanship going in the front door – as you’d expect from a company that makes a starter button that pulses red like a heartbeat – but once inside, it’s more surgical bay than theatre.
Some of SVO’s most famous creations are tucked in one corner, almost as an afterthought. One flight of fancy is the bright orange C-X75 concept, star of the Bond film Spectre. Jaguars have always had an air of menace about them, especially when set up against the more genteel Aston-Martin. In the film, the C-X75 was the bad guy’s ride. Here, it marks just how far SVO’s team of genius supervillains can go.
The rest of the bays are occupied with SVO’s current roster of specialized machines. From Land Rover, there’s the Range Rover Sport SVR and the Autobiography versions of the full-sized Range Rover. For the latter, you can either get the standard wheelbase in Dynamic form or the limousine-like long-wheelbase version.
SVO also builds the lunatic F-Type SVR, a 575-horsepower hurricane that can run past 320 kilometres an hour. That’s the fastest current product from JLR’s specialists and there’s more speed rumoured to be on the way.
Also against the far wall is SVO’s other line of ultracapable vehicles: its armoured SUVs. Several examples of the Sentinel version of the Discovery 4 stand in partial assembly, with the team attaching fire-suppression systems to pair with their bulletproof skin. These are intended for government use, with a Sentinel version of the full-size Range Rover being made ready for a private buyer. These last few models are among the most expensive Range Rover products on offer, costing an average of £300,000 ($489,000).
Adjoining the assembly facility is SVO’s development centre, which was firmly closed off – evidence of new products under development. While no hints were given, JLR has often indicated that there’s a missing third leg of its performance tripod. SVR represents tarmac performance, the Autobiography versions represent ultimate luxury, and there’s an SVX nameplate yet to be attached to a model. This last one is meant to be reserved for ultimate offroad capability and might be saved for specialized versions of the replacement for the Defender.
The rest of the facility and, in fact the bulk of the place, is devoted to an enormous paint bay. Encompassing more than 12,000 square metres, the line is capable of creating a near-infinite combination of colours, of which many are frankly questionable.
In order to prevent building an SV-eyesore, part of SVO’s customer experience is the Commissioning Centre. Built around a digital screen, the centre allows customers to mix interior appointments and exterior trims; if the combinations are overwhelming, SVO’s design department can offer direction and advice where needed.
Beyond colour choices, SVO’s bespoke operations extend to all manner of items. From heraldic crests secreted inside the door jams to fold-out rear rumble seats for picnic lunches at equestrian events, the technical centre creates some truly unique Range Rover products. Leather choice extends beyond the usual colour range and interior woods trim can be selected from a single book-matched set.
Only the SVO mothership has a Commissioning Centre, but further outposts will be launched as demand rises. As the vehicles are all hand-assembled, there’s a cap to maximum production, one that’s far lower than AMG or M.
However, that grants the SVO products an element of exclusivity. The expansion has allowed the team to grow to 1,000 employees, with a projected goal of developing one new SVO product every year over the next half-decade or so. Each one will no doubt be something special.
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.
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