Britain’s richest man will build a rival to Land Rover’s Defender SUV in Wales, creating hundreds of jobs at a time when the UK auto industry is in retreat amid falling sales and uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
Billionaire Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos Group will assemble the Grenadier model in Bridgend, near an engine plant earmarked for closure by Ford Motor Co., while building the frame and body in Estarejja, Portugal, the company said Wednesday. The vehicle will go on sale in 2021.
Ratcliffe, an outspoken proponent of Brexit with a $19 billion fortune, is committing to the plan barely a week after Jaguar Land Rover unveiled a revamped version of the 70-year-old Defender.
Ineos, petrochemicals company, is betting that the back-to-basics Grenadier will appeal to the iconic Defender’s original core market who view the sleeker new Defender unveiled at the Frankfurt auto show this month as unpractical and pricey.
“We don’t see the new Defender as being in the same space,” Mark Tennant, commercial director at Ineos Automotive, said in an interview. “What we’re doing is a bit utilitarian.”
The factory will aim to take on skilled workers from the Ford site, which employs about 1,700 people and is set to shut by September 2020. Ineos is investing 600 million pounds ($747 million) in the project, and expects to create as many as 500 jobs in Bridgend.
Ratcliffe devised the new car after failing in a bid to bring back the original Defender when stricter emissions rules prompted JLR to end production in 2016. Ineos Automotive said in March it had selected BMW to supply gasoline and diesel engines to the vehicle.
Ineos Automotive CEO Dirk Heilmann said the car is also likely to be offered with alternative propulsion at some point, though a conventional battery-electric setup wouldn’t be very practical in some locations where the vehicle might be used, making fuel cells and hydrogen more attractive.
The Grenadier is named after the public house in London where Ratcliffe has said the idea for a new go-anywhere offroader was hashed out, and is expected to sell from 25,000 pounds ($31,000). Tennant declined to comment on the price point, saying it would be “affordable.”
Two-thirds of sales are likely to be in Europe and the U.S., with the rest in Asia, Africa and the rest of the world.
JLR will offer the new Defender in the U.K. from 35,000 pounds ($44,000) for the commercial version, plus sales tax, with a longer-wheelbase model starting at 45,000 pounds ($56,000). While the latest Defender retains many traditional design elements and claims industry-leading off-road capabilities, it comes with modern twists such as a plug-in electric option, retractable sun roof and an infotainment system.
That may mean it appeals more to drivers who occasionally go off-road rather a clientele spanning farmers, gamekeepers, explorers, game wardens and aid workers. Ineos believes that it can target this niche, and says it aims to sell as many as 25,000 vehicles a year.
Developed in Gaydon, England, the new Defender will be produced at Land Rover’s lower-cost plant in Slovakia. JLR, now owned by India’s Tata Motors, grappled for a couple of years with whether to build a new Defender and was persuaded partly by the global following for a car of which more than 2 million have been built, with around 70 percent thought to survive today.
Ratcliffe, 66, a former Exxon Mobil executive, built Ineos by acquiring unwanted petrochemical assets from major oil companies.
The group has also dipped its toes in fashion with the acquisition of motorcycle-wear label Belstaff, soccer through the purchase of French team Nice and Switzerland’s Lausanne, and cycling via the purchase of Tour de France-winning Team Sky, now Team Ineos.