Brave and Interesting – Steve Randle Interview Part Two

From Panhard to BMW’s i-Series, Steve Randle talks cars – and bikes. 

Steve Randle with his 1972 Citroen SM. Image: Steve Randle
Steve Randle with his 1972 Citroen SM. Image: Steve Randle

For a motor engineer constantly in pursuit of the next innovation, Steve Randle’s interest in older machinery proves a little disarming. These include a frankly enormous collection of road cycles.  “Bicycles are about as close to perfect as it gets, they’re such delightful, elegant things. You can get help for drugs and alcohol but for cycling, nothing can be done.” 

There is also a collection of what he describes as ‘four wheeled orphans’, which are required to meet certain key criteria. “They must have some kind of stand-out quality. Most of them are just recklessly, ruinously brave, hence commercial disasters.” Asked what would sit at the pinnacle of his ‘must have’ list, he replies; “Panhard Dyna Z – the lovable curvy shaped alloy bodied one, before the bean counters made it out of steel and spoiled everything. One of those has to be in there somewhere.”

Image: l'automobile-ancienne
Image: l’automobile-ancienne

It may not be too surprising then to discover that Randle finds the industry’s current direction of travel somewhat frustrating, given the rising conformity of modern vehicle design.  “My concern is that most of the guys running car companies are motivated above all else by the fear of failure, so they build something that’s almost the same as the one before, but really doesn’t achieve anything more. Yet as a consequence, it’s the riskiest thing you can do. Because you could very easily build a car that’s someone’s second or third favourite and then where are you?”

“You build a Golf and you have the best result in terms of a hatchback – (I don’t think anyone seriously argues with that) – and that’s great, you charge what you need to make a living out of it. But what happens if you build a Focus which is very nearly its equal but sells at a fraction because it doesn’t have that cachet? Or other perfectly satisfactory cars where the depreciation is going to be ruinous and people know that and won’t pay as much. What’s the point? Why don’t you strike out and try to do something bloody different?”

But surely some manufacturers appear to be breaking out lately?  “That’s why with this ‘i’ business, BMW just said, ‘sod this I’m off.’ Suddenly someone’s just broken ranks. That’s why I loved Citroën, they just did it their own way, whereas you take the clothes off all the current contenders and stick them side by side and you’ll not tell them apart. Struts and a twist beam, a transverse four and a hatchback and what colour grey do you fancy?”

Image: Innovation and Tech Today
Image: Innovation and Tech Today

 “The other day I drove a BMW i3. Obviously there are times when you want a car and not an O-level science project to get somewhere, but it’s brilliantly brave and different. It’s wilful the way it looks but I find it fascinating. I kind of really wanted one but goodness me it’s an expensive experiment isn’t it?”

Despite a growing adoption of electric propulsion by major manufacturers however, Steve remains a little unconvinced by EV’s in the short term.  “There are lots of people now working on improving the energy density, which is still pretty miserable, but it is getting better. Of course charging is still a big deal; that’s one almighty amount of energy you’re having to put down a cable.” Nevertheless, his admiration for the disruptors is obvious.  “Tesla has done something brave and wonderful there, but it’s always difficult being the first isn’t it? You want to be the Boeing 707 and not the De Havilland Comet, don’t you? [Elon Musk] has made a very positive impact. Frankly, the motor industry needed a toe up the backside and if it wasn’t for the likes of Tesla and BMW i, where’s that toe coming from?”

Randle also believes that future solutions around autonomous driving are likely to have positive outcomes, although not perhaps for reasons one might first imagine. “I’m quite keen on the advent of systems where you are driving the car but it will intervene if you’re about to do something ruinous. I’ll take that over most drivers all day and every day as a cyclist, thank you very much. Come and join me on a Saturday morning [bike ride] and I’ll show you what I mean. We have a brush with death every week. So intervention yes and ultimately full control. It’s going to do a better job than most people and even the most competent drivers will have an off day.”

But in addition to a lack of genuine innovation in the makeup of the modern car, the current mania for sportiness and over-assertive styling are areas he finds troubling.  “Cars are set up quite aggressively now, and I have to say, it’s starting to appear in the way that people drive. If people conducted themselves around a shopping centre they way they do in their cars, every Saturday would be a bloodbath. They feel isolated from the consequences and you look at the way cars are styled; in fact they’ll declare their styling to be aggressive in the brochure. There aren’t many cars with friendly little faces any more.”

I ask whether manufacturers’ priorities are becoming so skewed, it’s leading to the sort of catastrophic decision-making that allowed VW’s emissions cheating take place, but Steve won’t be drawn.  “I couldn’t possibly comment on that. It didn’t impact us directly but I pity the poor people it did. But frankly, it’s not just the manufacturers, it’s the people who conceive the tests that have to shoulder some of the responsibility. I mean when you studied for you O-levels, did you go and study the subjects in depth or did you work out the minimum you required to get the exam?”

I suggest that everybody knew diesel engines were nasty, noxious things but Randle won’t have that either. “You know that if you take a high performance petrol engine and use it at full tilt, it’s over-fuelling dramatically just to stop the exhaust valves from catching fire, so they’re pouring fuel in to keep them cool. A petrol engine at full tilt is a dirty thing, it throws a lot of unburnt hydrocarbons out but there’s no test for that. We have tests that are just daft really. They design these tests that aren’t very representative of how we drive and then get upset when manufacturers design for the test.”

He then goes on to make an insightful observation about the motor industry at large, or any business for that matter.  “I do wonder though how much of this stems from an internal culture? When you push your people really hard and their jobs are at stake, what will they do? We’re all guilty of it; we all have to be careful we don’t expect unreasonable performance. We pay for it you know; we can thump the desk and make demands and you might get results short-term, but in the long run it’ll come back and bite you.”

There’s only one problem talking to a man like Steve Randle. You end up covering so much ground, and there simply isn’t enough hours in the day. I ask him if there’s any aspect of a vehicle’s design or concept where he’d say, ‘no, not my area’?  “Marketing – I don’t do powerpoint! I’ve been involved in all sorts of bits and pieces; cars, commercial vehicles, engines. Even things like sorting out the header tank to redesigning the way the steering column absorbs energy in a crash. It’s all engineering.”

So, given his forty-odd years experience of the motor industry, from Browns Lane, Woking and everywhere in between, I ask him to define the Steve Randle engineering ethos. He sits back in his chair and smiles broadly.  “French cars, steel bikes and wooden boats…”


©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.

Click here for part one

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

4 thoughts on “Brave and Interesting – Steve Randle Interview Part Two”

  1. It’s heartening to hear that there’s still people of some influence in this business with a broader perspective on things. Ideally, Steve would be given a substantial budget by some kind of internet entrepreneur to come up with a novel car for our times and just be let loose.

  2. Obviously Mr Randle is a man of both taste and wisdom – though I would say that, wouldn’t I?

    As he points out, there are few visionaries left in the industry. Marchionne might exert a strong hold but he could equally be selling phones or high-end knitwear. There are few people like Herbert Austin, who had not the strength of character and vision to push through the Austin 7 against his board’s wishes.

    And, as is also implied in what Steve says, even Sergio is just an employee at the end of the day – aware if he makes a wrong step he’ll be clearing all of his many desks.

    Actually, even many of the great cars that got made, could well not have happened. Steve mentions the Dyna Z’s aluminium construction, but that was a fortuitous thing because, for a few years, there was a glut of aluminium and a dearth of steel in France.

    Also, there is a question I have asked before here. Had Andre Citroen lived, and kept control of his Company, would he have ever made another ground breaking car like the Traction Avant? There is the distinct possibility that he would have felt his fingers had been burnt, and would have reverted to more conventional cars.

  3. I was immediately reminded of Mr Randle’s paragraph on the Golf and the Focus when I drove a Citroën C5 saloon yesterday as a courtesy car. Its 2-litre petrol unit was less than inspiring and lacked a sixth gear even at moderate Swiss Autobahn speeds. The steel suspension was capable and certainly among the better half in this segment, but not more. Its base spec interior still looked OK (minus some scratches) after eight years and 90’000 km, but incredibly bland and just like every other interior. So, there’s a car that doesn’t do anything that a Passat can’t do – while lacking its interior space and residuals. Who would buy something like this…?

  4. Well, in a way Randle is my hero for mentioning the old Panhard Dyna in its aluminium days. The engine is what fascinated me. I confess that five years ago, I hung around a French online forum where people rebuild these beasts from the ground up, some with amazing photo essays.

    The BMW i3, on the other hand, has been an abject failure here. You can get DEALs on leftover 2016 models, but nobody bites. Its regenerative system applies a rather large amount of braking when the throttle is lifted. If you do that on an icy snowy road, the back wheels lock and the thing is going whichever way nature and physics intends. There is at least one hilarious account online of how “exciting” this behaviour is. Just buy the best in this field if you must go EV range extending, the Gen 2 Chevy Volt, where the nuances have been thoroughly thought out, the shape not trying so hard to be fey. And it’s just as nippy without rear-engine rear-drive histrionics at extremis, and a Vespa like performance level when the two cylinder comes on line, it’s 10 litre tank a joke.

    Furthermore, the full-throttle behaviour of gasoline engines with fuel injection has been under strong development these past five years. No longer do they over-fuel the way they did just a few years ago – the Honda and Toyota engines stand out in this regard at least in published papers. Nor do many of them spend much time at full-throttle and high revs in any case, whereas the diesel blips extra NOx at every small squeeze on the throttle, and has about a half a dozen modes where pollution control is abandoned completely. As in when it’s less than 10C outside or more than 26C and in cases where engine damage “might” result, whatever that might be.

    So I find Randle’s observations really quite disappointing on this front. Perhaps suspension is his forte and we can leave it at that. I really cannot be impressed with a person who tries to excuse diesel manufacturer’s shortcomings in such a cavalier manner. They cheated, maybe not the EU’s excuses for a test (and the nudge, nudge, wink, wink Type Approvals wherein you don’t diss your own countrymen’s efforts) but most certainly the US’s. VW has admitted such guilt and is paying the price. FCA is next up.

    Mind you, in grandstanding Trumpian fashion, the man hisself has shut down the US EPA’s staff from issuing news bulletins or even talking to the press. When in doubt, why not rape the Earth’s resources in an even more in a frenzied rush to create extra wealth and more chicken mcnuggets for an over-populated world? The logic is astounding, but predictable, as the elites are feeling a bit short in the wallet department.

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