Steve Cropley: 2021's automotive heroes

Steve Cropley: 2021's automotive heroes

amy amy Frascella

Our man runs through the people he thinks have heavily impacted the motoring industry this year

The best car stories are about people. Sure, it’s a cliché, but it’s also true. It takes special characters to shape an industry that’s unique in the way that it forges such scale, such speed and so much front-line technology to make affordable, indispensable products.

Today the call for exceptional people is greater than ever. For 120 years, automotive progress had one simple driver: tough competition between rivals. Now it’s hugely more complex: the threatened crisis of pollution and resultant climate change is forcing car companies to prove, adopt and market new technologies much faster than ever before.

Not only that, but they’re also hounded by legislation, often poorly drafted, that places tough curbs on traditional technologies whose earnings they continue to need to fund all the new-era products. Inspiration and cool judgement have never been in greater demand. 

Of course, the call isn’t just for technical experts. Special people are needed to keep a sense of proportion; to collate history and learn from it; to educate; to manage; to understand the needs of consumers; and to help shape the industry for the future. Luckily, the UK has many such remarkable people, and Autocar has met its fair share, in the biggest arenas and the smallest ones. Here’s my highly personal view of some key players of 2021.

Gordan Murray

Never out of the news, Gordon Murray has had a huge year, launching his T50, which is the long-awaited descendant of his famed McLaren F1 and the first of a string of models that will soon spring from his new low-volume manufacturer, GMA. With its small, high-revving Cosworth V12 designed strictly to his own exacting specifications, the T50 will be, Murray promises, the last and best “analogue” supercar before the electric era begins in earnest. Only 100 road-going T50s will be built, costing just under £3 million each in the UK. Such is Murray’s reputation that the entire batch is already sold, mostly to buyers who haven’t even seen the car.

Jim Farley

Ford responds best to inspirational leaders, and youthful, unconventional Jim Farley, who has been in the job for about 14 months, is providing exactly the ebullient leadership the Blue Oval needs in challenging times. He follows several less engaging characters that succeeded Ford’s last great leader, Alan Mulally, who retired eight years ago. Under Farley, a car enthusiast who races on weekends, Ford’s share price has more than doubled in a year, and its annual turnover now exceeds General Motors’.

Farley has also made a number of optimistic and high-profile announcements on future electric products, among them the debut of the F-150 Lightning pick-up truck, and big plans to open all-new vehicle and battery manufacturing centres in Tennessee and Kentucky. “We’re trying to change the world like Henry Ford did with the Model T,” he recently told his local newspaper. “Why would we want to wait?”

Stephen Norman

Not content with bringing sales success back to Vauxhall after a decline of many years, Stephen Norman has since taken an even bigger job in Stellantis’s Opel-Vauxhall wing as senior vice-president in charge of sales, aftersales and marketing. Results are impressive: the Vauxhall Corsa is currently the best-selling car in Britain, the group’s EVs are selling strongly and Norman (as a lifelong lover of great cars) has brilliantly inspired a permanent move of Vauxhall’s 50-strong classic collection to the British Motor Museum at Gaydon, where it’s available for public viewing for the first time in many years.

Alan Lubinsky 

As of this year, South African- born Alan Lubinsky has owned and run AC Cars, Britain’s oldest car brand, for 25 years. The company has had its share of ups and downs, but Lubinsky continues successfully to build several different Cobra models, fights tigerishly to protect the authenticity of his AC-badged cars against imitators and is about to demonstrate his faith in the future by launching an impressive pure-electric Cobra that looks as good as ever.

Thierry Bollore

Jaguar Land Rover’s French-born CEO, a former Renault Group boss, has devised and is implementing diverse plans for his two marques that both embrace the challenges of the electrification era and have the approval of the parent company, India’s Tata Group. Although the task is far from complete, this is no small achievement. The most eye-catching part of Thierry Bolloré’s plan is a complete overhaul of Jaguar, which by 2025 will have dropped SUVs from its line-up, ditched most of its existing model names and launched three new high-value, all-electric, luxurious and sporting models. Bolloré urges us to “think Range Rover” for clues to Jaguar’s business case beyond 2025. It remains a huge gamble, but his manner is reassuringly steadyand confident and his plans are claimed to be “on track.”

Claire Williams

The daughter of the founder of the Williams Formula 1 team, Claire Williams boldly took on the task of running the family business in 2013, when it became clear that it needed her to do so. She only ever took the title of deputy team principal out of deference to her father, Sir Frank Williams, who died recently. However, it was just over a year ago that Claire displayed her greatest reserves of courage and poise when the team was sold and she faced the media to end a 43-year family connection with grand prix racing. “I’ve loved every minute and will be forever grateful for the opportunities it has given me,” she declared. “But it’s also incredibly challenging, and I now want to see what else the world holds for me.”

Toby Ecuyer

Toby Ecuyer has become abruptly famous in automotive circles as the designer of the Grenadier, the tough-as-nails 4×4 that Ineos boss Sir Jim Ratcliffe decided to build when he failed to buy the rights to the discontinued Land Rover Defender from JLR. Although it’s clearly influenced by the Defender, the completeness and clever execution of the Grenadier has taken pundits – even the most rabid Land Rover faithful – by surprise. The result is more than 20,000 serious expressions of interest in a model that will enter production in 2022. Ecuyer had never designed a car before, but he confesses an abiding love for classics and drives a Jaguar E-Type. He trained as an architect, started his career as a designer of superyachts (building several of those for Ratcliffe) and these days works full time for Ineos running a variety of design projects.

Baron Montague of Beaulieu 

After taking the reins in 2015, Ralph Douglas-Scott-Montagu has brought new energy to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, which his late father, Edward, established in the early 1950s. He has appointed an energetic new trustee board and greatly increased the number and appeal of Beaulieu events. In our picture above, appropriately attired, he plays a typically proactive role in opening a new James Bond exhibition to coincide with the launch of the film No Time to Die a few months ago.

Alison Jones

The recent announcement of Alison Jones’ appointment as president of the SMMT confirmed her status as this country’s highest-flying car industry executive. Three years ago, she was MD of serially successful Volkswagen UK – an unthreatening sort of job. Then she was headhunted to become a senior vice-president of the PSA Group, and after that firm merged with FCA to become Stellantis was appointed its UK group MD and senior vice-president. That brought responsibility for the Abarth, Alfa Romeo, Citroën, DS, Fiat, Jeep and Peugeot brands that together account for 10% of UK car sales – and surely put auto diversity on a whole new plane.

Jones has always impressed with a clear, practical managerial style and a rather selfless willingness to empower colleagues. But as she told Autocar earlier in the year, she now has a particular mission: “Our products are stronger than our brands are known for, so we have a challenge to improve our image.” Jones particularly likes quick results. Her own LinkedIn profile states that she’s “known for fast delivery of ambitious results in a wide range of business situations”. No hiding place there, then.

Robin Wells

When Robin Wells (left) set out to buy his ideal British sports car seven or eight years ago, he couldn’t find anything that met his recipe for simple driving pleasure and easy ownership. A well-heeled businessman with thriving interests in the Middle East, he decided to build a car of his own design, carrying his own name. The Wells Vertige is the result. He first created a beautiful gullwing sports car design and (undaunted by several blind alleys) went on to find his ideal partner in Robin Hall, a highly experienced and capable consultant engineer. The Vertige, which is due to start production soon, will only ever be built at a rate of about 25 cars a year. Where it differs completely from other one-man enterprises is that it aims squarely at mass- production-car levels of sophistication and quality. So far, all indications are positive.

Steve Clarke

For the past seven years, Steve Clarke (left) has organised and fronted talks, shows, events and displays for the Brooklands Museum Members organisation. His 140 events have attracted more than 17,000 people and raised around £100,000 for the museum at the famous old banked circuit, a national heritage icon that between 1907 and 1939 provided a launch pad for the British car and aircraft industries. Largely because of Clarke, the organisation continues to thrive with a large and loyal membership.

Amy Frascella

In the car-design business, colour and material specialists usually give ground to those who shape vehicles, but Amy Frascella’s intuition and clear view of the future have brought an entirely new range of durable, recyclable new-era textiles to Land Rovers. They’re seen by many as classier than leather – at a time when some buyers are reluctant to specify animal hides in cars. In particular, Frascella has championed a collaboration between Land Rover and Kvadrat, a Danish manufacturer of innovative, sustainable textiles, that seems certain to influence JLR cars of the future.