GOLDING’S TAKE: The challenged man handling Fiat, Alfa, Lancia, Chrysler and Jeep

By Rob Golding | 20 December 2010

Redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee will be flagship of new Fiat-Chrysler UK range

Redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee will be flagship of new Fiat-Chrysler UK range

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Imagine you are Andrew Humberstone.  There you are minding your own business in the Gulf states, happily wholesaling Ferrari and Maserati for the Fiat Group and playing polo with the rich and famous, when Sergio Marchionne himself no less, rings and tells you to catch a flight to the UK and  take charge of Fiat over there.

This is not like selling supercars to the super-rich. This is a poisoned chalice. Accounts for Fiat UK were showing the – and still show now - that it routinely lost hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

So in he comes, and latches on to the lucky break that is the arrival of the Fiat 500 in the UK which goes rather well. Life suddenly does not look quite so tough.

Then the bearer of bad news from Turin comes on the phone again. “Oh, eh, Andrew: we’ve bought Chrysler? Could you just sell a few of those in the UK as well, please?”

Now you are in charge of Fiat and Chrysler in the UK market. That’s a double helping of troubled brands. But there’s more. “Andrew,” says the bearer of good tidings. There are to be some small Chryslers to make it a full-range provider.” 

“Don’t tell me,” says Humberstone, by now giggling hysterically. “They are going to be built by Lancia?”

Those with long memories will recall that when Lancia withdrew from the UK in 1995 it did so within a context of press pictures showing fields full of Lancia stock, with grass growing through rusting wheels.

It was Humberstone who had to do the analysis when he then was asked by HQ to decide whether the UK should have Lancia back. “The clinics and feedback were poor.” He said no.

So the UK is to have the curious phenomena of Chryslers being sold in mainland Europe as Lancias, and Lancias being sold in the UK as Chryslers - but not until the current range is replaced.

At lunchtime last Friday, Humberstone hired The Brewery in London’s Chiswell Street and showed off the two young Turks whose job it will be to wave a wand and make a success of Chrysler/Lancia and its sister brand, Jeep. They are Steve Mirfin, the Chrysler Jeep product manager, and his boss Nigel Land who is brand director for Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge. It then transpires that Dodge deserves the full stop after its name. It will be sold out in the UK at the end of December and will not be restocked.

Humberstone concedes that some funny things have already gone before in trying to position Fiat in the UK. At one time of day the Grand Punto was being marketed hard without the Fiat prefix, and the point was reached where the model name became stronger than the maker’s name – not something that he could allow to happen. The 500 was going the same way until he interfered and insisted that it always be referred to as the Fiat 500.

It seems that Fiat, Alfa and Chrysler/Jeep will become a bit like Opel, Vauxhall and Chevrolet. Is Chrysler to be a value brand, comes the question. “Yes” is the first answer. “Not completely” is the after-thought. The description of the positioning sways around a bit when discussing the imminent new Jeep Grand Cherokee which will have high quality fit and finished leeched from the recent Mercedes relationship, but pricing “far below the main competitors”.

At the other end of the range will be the Chrysler Delta and Ypsilon which will have half the CO2 emissions and twice the mpg of every other UK Chrysler. Might it not be better to ditch the Delta name altogether and have uniformly America branding across the whole line-up? Maybe. But there is a small technical issue: the Delta name is stitched into the leather of the interior trim, and it’s just too hard to get it out for the remaining two years of the Delta’s life.

But there is more. Marchionne is never short of acquisitive ideas – believing that there is only room in the world for six companies making 6m cars a year as a minimum. The Seat brand, VW’s Spanish subsidiary, is a persistent loss-maker. Marchionne seems to believe that if he acquired it and changed the product name to Alfa, he could get his volume up and get his average Alfa unit marketing cost down. Volkswagen is committed to becoming the world’s largest maker by volume and is therefore reluctant to sell.

You might think that Humberstone would prefer VW to hold its position. Imagine a UK import business that has to sell cars from Fiat, Alfa, Lancia, Chrysler, Jeep and Seat.

One of Marchionne’s favoured hired hands he may be; super-human he is not.