Gavin Green on why Geely should be good for Volvo

Published: 16 August 2010

Almost 10 years ago, at a press conference at the Los Angeles auto show, Dr Wolfgang Reitzle – head of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group alliance of luxury car brands – outlined a boldly plausible future for Aston Martin, Land Rover, Jaguar and Volvo. By sticking to their own niches and specialities, but working collaboratively inside the rich protective yoke of Ford, they would overtake the single-brand luxury behemoths such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Things, of course, didn’t work out quite as the good doctor had planned. But could even the most deranged fantasist in Hollywood have guessed that Aston Martin would end up being partly bought by Middle Eastern investors, Land Rover and Jaguar would be sold to Indian industrialists (Tata is now, incongruously, Britain’s biggest manufacturing employer) and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, Volvo has been sold to the Chinese? Truth can indeed be stranger than fiction.

Aston Martin goes to the Kuwaitis, JLR to the Indians and now Volvo to the Chinese. Who would have thought it!

What’s more, the future of all four brands looks bright. Tata has given Land Rover and Jaguar crucial financial clout (as Ford did) but has also given them a healthy level of managerial independence. (Like Ford, Tata knows nothing about premium cars. Unlike Ford, it knows it.)

Aston Martin’s investors probably expected a quick return on investment – soon scuppered by the financial crisis – after its takeover in 2007 and, going forward, its scant resources gives it little chance to compete technologically against in-form Ferrari and Porsche. Yet it has found an appealing niche, with its handsome (and very British) meaty motors. Aston Martin has a sense of purpose and confidence not seen since the ‘60s. I sense a bright future, no matter if the Middle Eastern moneymen hang on or not. Someone else will buy Aston Martin and love it.

Volvo’s future, of course, is currently something of an unknown, not least because its sale to the Chinese has only just been consummated.

Geely: set to combine the best of Sweden and China

But I am optimistic. Geely is rich, ambitious and clever. As with Tata and JLR, it has sensibly pledged to magnify – not minimise – Volvo’s homegrown culture and quirks. (Volvo will stay staunchly Swedish, just as JLR stays resolutely English.) It will keep its own Gothenburg management team and its independent Nordic spirit. (The historic failure of most car company mergers and acquisitions is mostly because the purchaser has squashed the spirit, culture and independence of the purchased.)

In terms of product, the just-launched S60 is the Swede’s most impressive new saloon in generations, an appealing meld of distinctive Scandinavian-style, tasteful cabin, clever (and useful) safety tech and yet it’s a distinctively different drive – poised and fluid, if not as scalpel-sharp sporty as rival BMWs. The S60 offers something stand-alone, as the best Volvos have always done.

Just as important, Geely will provide inside-track access to the vast Chinese car market. One of Volvo’s historic sales limitations, as it has bravely sought to expand and export, has been the Lilliputian nature of the Swedish car market. Volvo could never rely on the protective bosom of vast home car sales. In global crises, domestic strength has provided important succour to the German giants. Now, thanks to Geely, Volvo’s ‘home’ car market is the world’s biggest.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience