Sir James Dyson’s announcement of his electric vehicle ambitions has been news across the world.
There’s been a surprising amount of antipathy among the public, mostly in his UK homeland. Perhaps that’s because his name is associated with vacuum cleaners.
Elsewhere, especially in the USA – which likes a start-up, preferably from a California garage – it’s being seen as a credible venture. Especially as it’s being supported by a £2bn war chest. That’s 80% of the £2.5bn investment plan already announced – a huge commitment. Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have all covered the story in a positive light. So has the FT.
Nevertheless, bringing a car to market by 2020 or even 2021 is extremely ambitious – that’s why Dyson has been keen to stress that the company has been at work on the project for years, and that it’s been in his mind for two decades. But this is a time for ambition, and once he has a product he can unleash a big advantage: growth in demand for Dyson’s consumer products, especially in Asia, which will drive the global EV market, has quadrupled group turnover in the past decade. If that brand traction can be coupled with product containing unique and relevant features – Sir James is betting on solid-state batteries for a start – Dyson has the capability of market success even if turning a profit will take many years.
Asia is key, so expect to see the vehicles being manufactured there. That may mean partnerships with Chinese businesses, which would reduce the huge financial risk. What that in turn means for the brand – British, daring, challenging, idiosyncratic, innovative – is another question.
But this news adds to the rapidly swelling tide of EV commitment and interest. It’s good for all of us in the EV business. We wish Sir James and his venture the best of British luck.
So the Bentley SUV will be made, and not in Bratislava alongside other VW Group cars. Bratislava’s an intriguing place. I first went there 20 years ago to launch the latest Toyota Corolla, when the ancient cobbled streets were still lined with lovely old Tatras and McDonald’s hadn’t arrived. It’s nicer than Crewe for sure, but Britain is where the car needs to come from. Otherwise it’s a German-owned, Czech-built car with shared VW Touareg, Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne underpinnings and a British badge.
The concept of a Bentley SUV has been much debated but it won’t be an issue if it’s seen as having a British, handcrafted core. Forget the SUV tag – Bentley surely won’t be letting this distinctly un-British acronym anywhere near the car. But a practical luxury car is part of the tradition of British motoring – think shooting brakes, plovers’ egg picnics and Pimms; Glyndebourne, Henley, country estates, polo and the grouse season. Putting a bespoke picnic hamper together with four-wheel-drive and a bootload of status makes complete sense. Historically Bentleys were used to pound around victoriously for 24 hours at Le Mans, to equip Fleming’s original James Bond, and to take gentlemen adventuring in dusty, far-off places. The new car is a far better brand fit than for Lamborghini, which has also shown an SUV prototype, or even Porsche, despite the fact that its fortunes have been transformed by the Cayenne. And it’s something the Rolls-Royce brand simply can’t stretch to.
But if this Bentley is to make complete sense it needs to express its Britishness clearly. Traditional British luxury design is understated, timeless, with simplicity of lines and natural materials. It has design honesty. From E-Types to Burberrys, the best British products have always had a functional beauty.
The market for the new Bentley will inevitably be primarily in Asia and the Middle-East, where luxury is designed to be displayed. It is gilded and gauche. Bentley needs the volumes these markets offer but if it designs the car specifically to appeal to their tastes it will undermine the brand. It must fundamentally appeal to British tastes even if UK sales are only a fraction of the total. When the production car is revealed, put it to this test – if you can’t think of a credible British celebrity ambassador for the car they won’t have got it right.
Designing this car is a difficult task. The EXP 9F concept shown last year to widespread disapproval was an exercise in seeing how far the expectations of Bentley styling themes could be pushed. Bentley got its answer but should not simply apply the existing DNA to an SUV-type body as Porsche did by bolting 911 features onto the original Cayenne. The new Bentley should be contemporary, daring even. But it should say ‘ British’. Effortlessly. The execution will be everything.