CAR Inquisition: ‘There aren’t many niches left. A Project i SUV? That’s interesting…’, CAR+ November 2015

Published: 05 October 2015

► We interview the Sales Chief of BMW
► Ian Robertson discusses future BMW plans
► Curveball questions only we would ask 

Meet the man whose job it is to sell BMWs in all shapes and sizes – Ian Robertson, the company’s global sales and marketing hotshot in Munich. And those shapes and sizes have become increasingly diverse in recent years, as Beemers have been twisted into swollen crossover forms, forced to play Golf and distorted into that last bastion of fecund family chariots: the mumsy MPV. How can the man sleep at night, facing the bitter opprobrium of enthusiast chatrooms around the world?

Robertson brushes aside such criticism. He’s proud of the transformation underway at BMW and provides hard evidence to prove the expansion is working. The group flogged a record
1.1 million cars in the first half of this year – underlining the futility of complaining about front-wheel drive BMWs and the genetic modification wrought upon the kidney grille’s sporting DNA. It’s hard to argue with €5 billion of pre-tax profit in just six months, after all.

‘We’re selling 10,000 front-wheel-drive cars a month,’ he counters, ‘and we’re seeing 70-80% conquest sales – so these are people who are new to the BMW brand. Trust me, it’s good business.’

But will BMW continue to shock and surprise us with distinctly unsporting mainstream fare? ‘The chequerboard of segments and bodystyles is a little full,’ admits Robertson. ‘There are still some blank spaces, but not many. The rate of change we’ve seen in the past decade is unlikely to continue.’

In an age when even Volkswagen is trimming its model line-up, could BMW be forced to row back from less popular segments? ‘I wouldn’t rule that out. There’s no plan at the moment, but some segments are tough. The roadster isn’t really recovering – it started to go down in 2008 and it’s now actually even lower. If we can’t find ways of bridging the gap for the investment required, then that’s a tough segment.’

A BMW range without a sports car sounds like anathema to us, but they’re an inventive bunch in Munich and the new trick to achieve the impossible is to collaborate. Witness last month’s exposé in CAR, where we revealed the secret BMW supercar which could be built in association with McLaren of England. Robertson laughs off our scoop when we plonk the magazine on the table and claims ‘he is not aware of this plan,’ as his PR minders splutter into their mineral water. But he is prepared to go on record about the new sports car being scamped out with Toyota. 

‘The sports car project is progressing,’ he tells us. ‘The roadster segment is still challenging around the world so we haven’t pressed the button on development yet. We have a couple of designs that we have said, “yes, these are separate enough for two brands.” Our engineers have agreed on the hard points. We are waiting for the right timing – so it is still a few years away yet.’

Like many senior execs in the motor industry, Robertson really is car-mad (witness the hunt to buy his own 3.0 CSL, see CAR’s Curveballs, left) and you can palpably sense the internal tug-of-war between the professional pragmatist and personal petrolhead in such conversations. The steady flow of go-faster M division products and the sci-fi fast-future i8 prove that BMW still has the appetite to deliver a thrilling sports car, yet there’s the nagging fear that commercial realities have diluted the essence of the brand.

2-series Active Tourer: if you’re going to do a mumsy MPV, make it the ultimate mumsy MPV

A special birthday looming on 7 March 2016 could go some way to redressing the balance. It’s BMW’s centenary. ‘There will be some reflection on the milestones of the last 100 years but we will be very clear on where we see things going in the future,’ says Robertson. Will we see any mega concept cars to mark the centenary? ‘There will be a little bit of that. You will see some products that are exciting, yes.’ 

An electric SUV to give the Project i a new lease of muddy life? ‘That’s an interesting question,’ he smiles. BMW minibuses or commercial vehicles? Nope, nothing so radical. But he does commit to yet more 4x4s – from the X7 coming in 2016, topping Munich’s mushrooming SUV family, to the newly supersized Mini Clubman and Rolls-Royce coming later this decade. 

Even if the Chinese car market is cooling, the SUV remains at the heart of BMW’s future. Seems shape-shifting is here to stay.

CAR's curveballs: six questions only we would ask…

Tells us about your first car…

‘It was a 1965 Singer Chamois registration KPT 68C – I bought it for £80 and rebuilt it from the ground up when I was 17. I sold it eight months later for £190!’

Which achievement makes you proud?

‘I’ve had numerous high points – and challenging times too. When I was CEO of BMW South Africa we started the company’s first export programme to supply cars to North America. And playing a part in the resurgence of Rolls-Royce, at a price point higher than any predecessor or rival, was special.’

What’s the best thing you’ve done in a car? 

‘One of the best experiences of recent times is doing the Mille Miglia. It’s a country which has a long history of the event and a deep love of the car. I’ve done it four times in a 1938 Berlin-Rome roadster. It’s brilliant but totally exhausting...’ 

Tell us how you screwed up…

‘You can always look back and say we could have done something better. One of the great things about BMW is that it moves so quickly. As a company we are never really satisfied with what we have achieved. We tend to move quickly over the successes and challenge ourselves to ask what we could have done better. We don’t want to reflect on our successes for too long. That’s at the heart of our energy moving forwards: we’re always hungry for more.’

Supercar or classic?

‘Both. The two can go together, I believe. I’ve been looking around for a 3.0 CSL – I want to acquire one this year. There are only 500 right-hand drive ones in the world, but a nice one is on my radar…’ 

Company curveball… what did the Queen say to you when you went to Buckingham Palace to receive your gong? [Robertson was awarded the Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George]?

‘That’s private! But she was very well briefed when we had a two-minute conversation. She was quite charming.’

By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet