So the new Defender has finally been unveiled and, surprise surprise, it's not an old Defender. While it may be as rugged and capable and durable as the public will ever need it to be, it has also adopted the demeanour of a very modern SUV, leaving a boxy gap in the market when it comes to those for whom go-anywhere dependability isn't merely a lifestyle choice, but integral to making a living.
Enter Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Britain's richest man. His Projekt Grenadier concept - first mooted within the walls of The Grenadier pub in Knightsbridge, hence the name - was to be founded on the same principles as the outgoing Defender, continuing its legacy even when Land Rover had laid it to rest. Spun off from his existing chemical empire, the newly formed INEOS Automotive quickly got to work realising that vision.
Today it has announced several notable steps on the path to series production. Firstly a name, decided following an online poll; secondly a home, which has now been confirmed as Bridgend, bringing some much-needed good news to the Welsh town's manufacturing industry; and finally, a plan.
We'll begin in South Wales, where construction of INEOS' new facility is already underway. It sits in the shadow of Ford's beleaguered engine plant and, while its arrival is undoubtedly good news for the area, it shouldn't be viewed as a solution to the Blue Oval's departure. Around 1,700 people will be made redundant when the Ford facility closes next year, with only 200 jobs initially being created by INEOS. That number could rise to a possible 500 if everything pans out the way the company hopes, though, providing a source of well-paid jobs to the town.
While INEOS refers to its Bridgend site as a manufacturing one, in truth is sounds as though it will be mostly dedicated to assembly; a separate facility in Portugal (also announced) will be responsible for actually producing the car's component parts. It "reflects the company's pan-European supply chain" and will employ a similar number of people to its Bridgend location, where those globally-sourced elements will be turned into completed vehicles.
One of those parts will be the car's BMW straight-six. Available in both petrol and diesel variants, it is said to be a "great canvas" on top of which INEOS will apply its own layer of tuning to end up with a reliable, torquey unit best suited to its workhorse duties. A low range 'box will be present as well, although its exact form remains unclear, as will other off-road focussed design features including a body on frame construction with a ladder chassis, beam axles and locking diffs. A one-ton payload, 3.5-ton braked trailer weight, eventual pick-up variant and the ability to be hosed out complete the utilitarian bingo card. "Taking the S out of SUV" is how INEOS describes it.
Those expecting a modern Series I should temper their expectations now, however. Present day regulations make the series production of such a car an impossibility, and have already caused the INEOS team several headaches in getting where they want to go. To that end the finished product will feature technology like a reversing camera (necessitated by US rules) and driver assist systems (set to become mandatory under EU law in 2022) as well as Bluetooth connectivity and USB ports (demanded by 21st century consumers).
The aim though is still to build a car which can "work for the world'', offering a 4x4 that will be as useful to a European farmer as it will be to an African NGO. It should be able to run on lower quality fuels, for example, and is being designed to encourage aftermarket development, allowing accessories suited to all manner of applications to be developed by third party suppliers. Reliability is an obvious focus but when the need for maintenance inevitably arrives, will you be able to fix it by the side of the road with a hammer? "A 21st century hammer" smiles INEOS Automotive CEO, Dirk Heilmann, including empowering owners to understand diagnostic fault codes on their own. "But if it doesn't break you don't have to fix it."
With £600 million committed to the venture so far, this is far from a pet project for Ratcliffe, the billionaire expecting to see a healthy return on his investment. Hitting the target of selling as many as 25,000 cars a year by 2023 would result in "a very profitable business" and, though it's apparently too soon to attach a specific RRP to the car, "within 10-15 per cent" of the current best-selling premium pick up on the European market has been identified as a goal. With a Ford Ranger Wildtrack starting at £28,795 that'd suggest a price tag slightly north of £30,000.
Vehicles will be sold "as directly as we are able" with a recognition that buyers will want to kick the tyres and test the new vehicle preventing an online-only approach. The sales model will vary by market, but in the UK buyers could well find themselves heading to farm machinery suppliers, or even to the factory itself, to take a look at the car. That won't be until at least 2021, though, when production is supposed to begin, with a full reveal of the car's final form not expected until October next year.
Beyond that INEOS Automotive will look to grow both the model range and its wider offerings. A pick up is in the pipeline, and the company is already working on a hydrogen fuel cell feasibility study, jointly funded by the UK government. The fuel is favoured over pure EV power thanks to the avoidance of additional battery weight - although its investment should come as no surprise when you consider that INEOS is also Europe's largest hydrogen producer...
Oh, and the name? Well, following an online contest to decide on a permanent replacement for the Grenadier placeholder, the winner was... Grenadier. Sometimes sticking with what's tried and tested is the best way forward. A sentiment INEOS is heavily banking on across the board.