Driven to Write meets an industry high flyer.
Speaking with engineer, Steve Randle these two words crop up a good deal, but if ‘brave and interesting’ describe the vehicles and engineering solutions that inspire him, it’s also a fairly accurate description of the man. With a career encompassing Jaguar, McLaren Cars – where he was responsible for the suspension, engine mounting system and dynamic package for the legendary F1 supercar – through to projects at his own engineering consultancy with clients as diverse as Bentley, JCB, Tata Motors, and the Ministry of Defence, Randle’s bushel has up to now been well hidden, to say nothing of the light therein.
While it’s obvious he’s brilliantly clever, Randle conducts himself with an air of quiet amusement, an eloquent turn of phrase and a devastatingly dry humour, which frequently bursts forth into infectious mirth. Given his father is eminent former Jaguar engineer, Jim Randle, the intelligence and wit is perhaps a given, but while the elder Randle’s head is more often in the clouds nowadays, (a keen pilot he), Steve’s interests lie on a more earthbound plane, as he explains. “I like aeroplanes, I just don’t like being in them. You go through most of them and the technology isn’t really that great and the execution isn’t either.”
So there’s a certain delicious irony in that one of Randle Engineering Solution’s current projects is with AeroMobil, a consortium currently doing the hitherto impossible: creating a commercially viable flying car. “A lot of people have tried and there’s a good reason why a lot of people have failed because it is tough. Mix anything with a car and it’s notoriously difficult. It isn’t that nobody wants one, it’s just really, really hard to do!”
There have been several quite heroic attempts at flying cars since the 1950’s, but nobody’s quite managed to make it work. If like me, you had visions of AMC Matador’s strapped to a pair of Cessna Skymaster wings, then you’re probably in for a bit of a surprise. “This is going to be a high ticket, exotic item; you’re not going to buy one of these or a Polo.” Rather than simply another vulgar toy, then, Steve assures me AeroMobil is more of a cerebral choice.
“It’s something that’s really thought through and technically fascinating and it’s turning into a surprisingly good looking thing too. [But] while there’s styling and design involved, it has to work as an aeroplane.” Which must come with its own set of challenges, I suggest. “The conflicts of what we have to achieve in terms of weight, performance… you can build a duff car and it’s still a car. A duff aeroplane simply isn’t an aeroplane at all.”
Surely an aircraft’s biggest enemy anything that affects that all-important rate of climb? “The weight distribution is interesting. If the weight gets out of shape, you’ve lost the project. For a car it’s going to be unusually nose heavy [owing to the position of the centre of mass], but that’s not the end of the world, you just have to be careful to get it right.”
What areas of the vehicle has Randle Engineering been primarily involved with, I ask? “We’re responsible for suspension systems, brakes, steering, wheels and tyres. There are other areas of the vehicle we have helped with, particularly the driver environment where we’ve made contributions and we’ll continue to do so. A fascinating challenge and a small team of good people. I think this will happen; yeah, we have hopes for that one.”
Not all of Randle’s current clients are comfortable in the limelight however, so getting an in-depth understanding of what they’re working on elicits something of a resigned shrug. “I can tell you about some of them, I can hint at others. We do some lovely stuff but a lot ends up on the cutting room floor, while some will appear some point in the future.”
By illustration, he points to an elegant multi-link suspension unit on the floor next to his desk. “Not bad for a prototype is it? That’s a true five link. The level of refinement that gives you, the isolation is just brilliant. The client loved it, but the bean counters said you have to do carry-over, so it never went on. Shame really.”
I put it to him that working with major OEM manufacturers must be fraught with frustrations, disappointments, and reversals but his tone is conciliatory. “Sometimes there are internal struggles. Sometimes things get changed part way from political or commercial imperatives and suddenly things are not viable, or change entirely. You get a company that suddenly falls on difficult times and the r&d budget is the first thing to go.”
Given this to be the case, what gets the Steve Randle’s of this world out of bed in the morning? “The best possible thing is when a customer brings you his problem without a fixed idea of how to solve it. That’s the perfect scenario for me. It’s like: ‘This is the what, we’ve got no idea of the how’. That’s brilliant!” But surely sometimes having a narrow brief can lead to interesting creative solutions? “If you have a short timescale or a limited budget you can come up with things you’re really quite proud of despite the fact there wasn’t an awful lot of wriggle room. It’s just a different end of the compromise scale. I’m very pleased with some of the work we’ve done for Tata. We’ve helped them develop their Zest and Bolt models and now they’re being compared favourably with the Polo and Ford Fusion.” Tata’s home market competitors are now represented by all the big names, so as Steve points out, there’s really no hiding place. “But we’re enjoying working with them very much, that’s been a real pleasure.”
Another of Randle’s core clients has been JCB, another business Randle holds in high esteem. “It’s interesting, McLaren and JCB: two British companies we’ve done a lot of work for are privately held, doing something important in this country and despite the fact their products are entirely dissimilar, there are parallels in the mentality and can-do approach. We’ve loved working with them.” Amongst his favourite projects was the High Mobility Engineering Excavator programme (HMEE ) – a military version of JCB’s civilian earthmover. With gas hydraulic suspension, armour plating, and capable of carrying two and a half tonnes of material at a top speed of 55 mph across a ploughed field, it’s pretty much an unstoppable force.
“That’s something we’re really proud of, and of course the airdrop programme from altitude was quite a piece of engineering as well. The vehicle sits on a big aluminium platform in the back of a C17 [military transport plane] stacked on tubes of corrugated cardboard all parcel-bound together underneath. That gives you the last 18 inches of crush when it lands – [at about 12 mph]. It puts out seven thirty metre diameter parachutes in order to get to ground without destroying itself and you can imagine the work that went into getting that and the slinging right. It’s an expensive mistake if that goes wrong.” Steve laughs at the recollection of sending one of the team to a test landing during the programme. “We did joke that if he was that confident we’d put him in the digger – a bit of a ‘Doctor Strangelove’ kind of thing but we didn’t in the end… We loved that!”
Projects like this do make for strange bedfellows, but he has nothing but positive things to say about working with both US and British military. “They were great, really nice people. It’s odd, the people who are involved in engineering for this state of affairs are often the nicest people to work with. It’s really quite strange…”
Part two here
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