The book closes on one of the British car industry's most respected figures. PH went along to pay tribute
By Nic Cackett / Sunday, March 20, 2022 / Loading comments
Car companies rarely celebrate retirements publicly. For one thing, it is not in their nature. Product and brand positioning are the priority, and while both are obviously dependent on hard-working, talented people, it generally suits a manufacturer to make its workforce seem like an interchangeable commodity – not least because that’s what it is. Automotive executives, designers and engineers possess a highly covetable skillset, and in a digital age they tend to move around. Many if not most will talk privately about stints at rival firms, usually with great affection. But high-flying, veteran employees in the single-club Matt Le Tissier mould are usually thin on the ground.
Bucking all these trends makes Mike Cross not just an outlier, but also something of a legend – or at least as close to hallowed status as engineers get without winning things in motorsport or inventing something crucial. A lifer in the old-fashioned sense, he started his career as a lowly apprentice in 1984, and finally called it quits just last month as JLR’s Chief Engineer, Vehicle Integrity, a position he’d held since the brands came together in 2008. Officially the role entailed signing off the development of every new Jaguar and Land Rover model, but really Mike was the firm’s gatekeeper, charged with making sure that its heart and soul never vacated the building. Ralf Speth, JLR’s former CEO, called him ‘an absolutely integral part of the global success of Jaguar Land Rover’. For anyone who encountered him professionally, he is simply referred to as ‘Crossy’.
Mentioning the nickname in the company of veteran car hacks tends to result either in lengthy anecdotes or barely disguised reverence – a facet not just of his longevity or a lingering fondness for the press, but because the man drives with Le God-style panache, like it’s no big thing. Apparently Sir Jackie Stewart (a close friend and mentor) described him as ‘the best driver outside motor racing’, yet the truth is Crossy drives exactly how the rest of us would choose to if we were offered the skill at birth: not with knife-edge speed, necessarily, but artfully and joyfully, and seemingly without ever substantially drawing on a deep reservoir of talent.
Of course, that ability came hand-in-hand with several others. Speaking to PH the day before his retirement, Mike credits Richard Parry-Jones – Ford’s erstwhile Chief Technical Officer and virtually a deity in automotive engineering circles – with taking him under his wing. “I’ve never doubted what I was doing, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else actually. But I was really lucky in that I met Parry-Jones and he looked after me,” he explained. “Where Richard excelled was he was able to evaluate the car and interpret what he felt technically, and so would have a good idea of what you might do to resolve an issue. Because that’s the skill – in the car industry at least – it doesn’t matter if you’re not ultimately the fastest, you’ve got to be consistent and able to help the teams developing the car.”
It is this overseer function, empowered by an acute internal awareness of what a Jaguar or a Land Rover should drive like, that Mike turned into an art form. Every car to leave a JLR factory in the last 15 or so years has only done so with his blessing, a job not without its pressures. “Part of my role is deciding when cars are ready to launch, and often it’s a bit after everyone else thinks they’re ready – so that can cause some friction,” he noted with typical understatement. “You’ve got to understand the brand and then you’ve got to be really, really consistent in your evaluation, your approach, your feedback – and you’ve got to earn respect as well, because you’re often telling people their baby is ugly. That’s quite hard.”
Hard, perhaps, but the results have tended to speak for themselves. While JLR might have struggled in other areas, very rarely is concern voiced for the manner in which its cars go up the road. More often than not, the firm has provided its chosen segments with class leaders in the ride and handling department – no mean feat when its rivals almost always include BMW and Mercedes. Case in point, Mike’s favourite end product: the V8-powered Jaguar XFR. “Properly competitive, beat the BMW M5 in some group tests; I’ve always liked fast saloons and that was the high spot for me. Then more latterly, the Defender.”
Mention of the Defender in this context reveals an obvious truth: while the fate of Jaguar lies closest to his heart, it is Land Rover that has registered the vast majority of JLR’s significant triumphs in the last fifteen years. Mike talks about exploiting ‘white spaces’ – those untapped niches between existing segments – as a JLR strong suit, but really it is Land Rover which has proved itself adept at unearthing new opportunities. He recalls the Evoque’s development with fondness chiefly because that car had no precedent. “How should that car be? Should it be a little Range Rover? Should it be like a Mini or an Audi TT?” By helping to plot an intriguing (and hyper-successful) line between all three, you could argue that Mike has done as much to define the way premium compact SUVs (i.e., the cars that half the world now buys) drive as anyone. Not a legacy he’d ever willingly claim – but a notable one.
His influence on SUVs doesn’t stop there either. “When Jaguar and Land Rover came together, it was quite interesting and satisfying working with the Land Rover guys to make those cars better to drive on-road.” The first model he worked on? Discovery 3. Another hugely influential car, thanks to its Integrated Body Frame construction and cross-linked air suspension – and for a time one of the benchmarks for what Land Rover did as it undertook its transformation from Rover Group leftover to upper middle class dream factory.
The latest Defender gets special affection for good reason. “With a car like the Defender you’ve got a blank sheet of paper. Because it could’ve driven like a Range Rover, it could’ve driven like a sports SUV, but I wanted it to feel a bit like it looked: honest, rugged. Because we started off and it was a bit like the Discovery and it didn’t feel right so made it feel a bit more connected to the road, a bit more connected to the driver and a little bit tougher – and it seems to have hit the spot.” It speaks volumes about Mike’s approach to development that his preferred version is not the quickest: “I quite like the four-cylinders, because they were a bit lighter on the front axle. I’ve got a V8 at the moment, but in some ways it’s not as nice as the four-cylinder. Because I always thought the four-cylinder exceeded expectations, which is a big thing with cars.”
Exceeding expectations is a theme Mike returns to when asked about standout models from other manufacturers. “The original Lexus LS, because it was so quiet, and that set a new benchmark. And I think latterly the Porsche Taycan, because it’s a great car – and it’s a Porsche as well.” Special consideration – and no little respect – is paid to Jaguar’s Stuttgart-based rival, not least for its uncanny gift regarding market position. “Porsche has done very well, and they’ve been really consistent throughout. They’re an SUV company really, but you perceive them as a sports car brand.” Chief among his shortlist of regrets is Jaguar’s failure to follow-up the venerable F-Type with a sports car that might alter customer perception in a similar way: “not necessarily a really fast car or a really big car, but an agile, fun car.”
Jaguar’s transition from premium mass market manufacturer to an all-electric, luxury car maker – encapsulated in the ‘Reimagine’ plan revealed by JLR’s incoming CEO, Thierry Bollore, last year – isn’t among the reasons for Mike’s departure, but he concedes that the timing is favourable. Jaguar is perhaps two or three years away from fully realising its new objective; a long haul for anyone, and emphatically too much of a stretch for a man who just celebrated his 65th birthday. “I think it’s the right direction – especially a focus on design,” he comments on the changes. “You’ve got to make sure everything you do is competitive. And I think being great to drive will always be a part of Jaguar and Land Rover.”
While that is obviously his principal legacy, Mike proposes no special advice for the man tasked with the job of replacing him (albeit in a slightly different role), Matt Becker. “I hope he takes the time to understand the brand,” he muses – although you’d like to think there’s precious little chance of Becker missing the mark following acclaimed stints at Lotus and Aston Martin. Plus, of course, the cord won’t be completely cut. While Mike is clearly relishing the idea of having some additional time to “fanny about on bikes”, JLR is obviously keen to have him at the end of a phone. Some consultancy work beckons “with respect to vehicle development and maybe evaluator training,” he confesses. “And that’ll be easier to do once I’ve gone, because you don’t have to be deferential to anybody.” Not that Jaguar’s original straight shooter spent much time worrying about that. He was far too busy having the time of his life.
- Matt Becker to replace Mike Cross at JLR
- Jaguar primed to become all-electric luxury brand
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