We profile a local lad who ‘done good’ – both for himself and the industry he served.
Tom Purves spent forty three years within the car industry; roughly half each for Rolls Royce and BMW, thus, in essence for a German carmaker. From his apprentice years though to management at Crewe, rising to become CEO and Head of the entire American division for BMW from the mid ‘80’s to concluding his career at the very top of Goodwood’s silently slick factory.
Proudly Scottish with twangs of American vernacular; through interviews made nearly twenty years ago, some just before his retirement in 2010, Mr Purves informs us of a world changed beyond recognition. Spoiler alert: there are no mentions of SUV’s.
Jumping ship from Crewe to Munich in 1985 was a bold move. He had been selling the Double R’s wares in the Middle East, heartland Europe and Africa when cash was easy. The Bavarian route would lead him of all places back to the UK initially as Sales Director for Great Britain before heading to the midlands and Rover. Here, Purves as a board member oversaw global Mini, Land Rover, MG, and Rover sales. By 1999, The America’s were calling as BMW CEO and chairman.
In an interview with motorsport.com from 2001, he defines the connection between motor racing and the showroom. “Anyone engaged in the car business with an aspirational brand containing sporting involvement has got to be interested in motor sport, or as I prefer, motoring competition. There’s so much technology and team development it’s far more than one man against the other.
With BMW building the ultimate driving machine, this is a great symbolism of our business. By having racing and testing on the track, all that engineering into your 3 series helps build a truthfully satisfying drive. M cars will always be, coupes, sedans, roadsters. Our Valvetronic 4 cylinder engines do away with throttle bodied butterfly valves, increasing performance and efficiency. Your M car today has that adjustable inlet manifold system that comes straight out of racing.”
At this time, BMW were highly involved with American Le Mans Series in the GT Racing class. Successful too, even against the likes of Porsche and the homegrown Corvette.
On sales in America, “We are as near to pure, as malt whiskey, for example and people search for purity. Fun to drive, connecting with the customer. Our North American sales are only 150,000 cars; we can afford to steer away from compromising issues that make us look ordinary. We will tune things to suit; Latin America wants sequential gearboxes like in Formula 1. Canadian thinking is similar to Europe. American’s want an M3 with a stick shift. Nuances. Little differences for bigger pictures.”
Moving on to his captaincy of Rolls Royce eight years on. “Waftability means quiet perfection, bags of torque, acceleration without fuss.” A completely different world from the cut and thrust of the racetrack to one where a rapper, footballer or entrepreneur can specify one of 44,000 different hues and invest in a minimum of 700 hours per car. The only tenths here are the microns of paint depth.
“We have one foot in the jewellery business and one with cars. Our competition tends to be with property or boats or aircraft rather than another car. Our customers frequently have many other cars in the garage. If property markets alter for the worst, our business can suffer accordingly.”
Since 2003, the Phantom sales growth was steady with 1212 finding homes in 2009. Some 1200 more had either deposited hard-earned or shown interest in the then as new baby Rolls, the Ghost. Recession? Do the wealthy feel such maladies ? One utterly flamboyant anecdote being “someone couldn’t get finance, sold a Picasso and then came to us.” That person seriously wanted a Roller. My Rembrandt’s safe…
Mr Purves tells us the Ghost is “less expensive” and “more approachable” even at £165,000. Which when eyes fall on Rolls’ other models is indeed considerably less. On environmental matters, “We would not for a moment suggest that its extraordinarily environmentally friendly, but of its type, it’s the most friendly and we will improve on that performance with each new model.”
To arrive full circle, “A premium brand should always under-promise and over-deliver. Be consistent and gain people’s trust. The reason Rolls Royce is preeminent in its field is that people trust that double R and that is extremely important.”
Whilst no longer in the upper echelons of the industry, Tom manages to keep a keen interest in the classic side of cars. With his father’s input of establishing several dealerships in and around Edinburgh in the 1920’s with names such as Triumph, Humber and Riley, a deep longing for the vintage automobile has endured.
Whilst an apprentice, Tom tried motor racing using a rusty maroon and cream 4/68 Riley as his towing barge for his clubman car, rapidly understanding becoming a professional racing driver was not for him.
That last old name, Riley of Coventry holds a particularly fondness for Tom. Club members and fellow interested parties are attempting to construct a Riley archive to lend the Blue Diamond some gravitas. Back in the nineties, a Riley enthusiast named Bernd Pischetsrieder delved into Riley’s history delightedly reporting back to Tom that Riley and BMW had discussed cooperation in the late ‘30’s.
Sadly not to be, then or now. The Bavarians still own the Riley name rights though any sign of one of Coventry’s finest re-airing are beyond slight now that BP is long gone from the halls of the vierzylinder.
Business rhetoric may flow in a lot of these words as one would expect from a man in his position but Tom Purves does have a soul that is firmly pinned to the car. We perhaps need some more of his ilk in these disillusioned times.
Other interview excerpts from Leaders magazine 2009, volume 32 number 2 and The Independent 07/08/09.