Lynn Calder has registered for this year’s Comrades Marathon, a gruelling near 90km run in eastern South Africa that must be completed within 12 hours. She has an injury and is unsure if she will make it.

But tenacity and grit are the 45-year-old Scot’s strengths and she has a track record of finding ways to accomplish seemingly improbable tasks.

Calder was hand-picked to helm Ineos Automotive – what has been described as the passion project of Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the self-made billionaire and founder of global chemicals and energy behemoth Ineos Group – in late 2022.

Building a car from scratch is one of the hardest jobs going around. Few countries – including Australia, which stopped making cars in 2017 – have the capacity to design a vehicle let alone steer it through production.

What’s more, Calder previously had no experience in the motor industry, with a background in private equity and petrochemicals.

But 15 months into her gig running Ineos Automotive, she not only has one car in production but an entire line-up that’s available in more than 40 countries. Ineos also has several powertrains, including an electric vehicle with a petrol range extender, the Fusilier, which launched last week. It has even built a hydrogen-powered demonstrator to prove its commitment to net zero – which Calder has strong views on.

She is not to be underestimated and likens the process to running marathons. “It’s just the breadth of it and the complexity of it. We recognise, as Ineos now, why people don’t do it,” Calder tells The Australian from Ineos’s office in Monaco.

“Generally, if they have the idea they don’t often get to the manufacturing phase because each phase of it is an ultra-marathon in its own right and you’ve got to have a certain screw loose in your brain probably to want to keep going.”

Ineos Automotive was formed in 2017 from Ratcliffe’s desire to build a straightforward 4×4 after the demise of the original Land Rover Defender. He wanted a car that could truly go off road, not a plush “Toorak tractor” that pandered to the needs of city drivers.

Ratcliffe – who has a net worth of about $US16.3bn ($25bn) and two of his mates hatched their plan in the London pub, The Grenadier – which they named their first vehicle after when it rolled off production lines five years later and after investing €1.5bn ($2.5bn).

It would be easy to dismiss Ineos Automotive as a billionaire’s folly. But Calder says people who think that are just as easily mistaken.

“The joy I get out of people who still think that is when I go into our factory at Hambach (in Germany) and see the extent of our operation there – 350 robots in the body shop, building 120 vehicles a day. “Then I go out into the regions and meet our quite large global network in the 44 countries that we have launched the Grenadier in, and now the launch of our third car line in the Fusilier. Everything that we are doing is screaming that we are here to stay and that we are working really hard to make an enterprise out of it.

“And while Jim came up with the initial idea and it sounds a bit like a vanity project, he also hasn’t got to where he’s got to with the other two owners of Ineos without making decisions that are rooted in business. His view wasn’t just ‘oh, let’s build a car’. His view was there’s a gap in the market.”

That gap is a car that is analogue heavy – so it can be repaired relatively quickly in remote areas, taking on Toyota’s LandCruiser – but one that doesn’t sacrifice too much in driver comfort. Its range includes the Grenadier, Fusilier and Quartermaster ute.

“We brought the US on at the back end of last year and we opened the order books in the US and it went straight to being our top market more than pretty much all the other markets put together,” Calder says.

“We’ve always known that it (Australia) is such a Toyota heartland, particularly for that in the middle of nowhere, fix it anywhere type of vehicle. We’re really in that space. And probably for some of those people, we are still a little bit too modern and too electronic and maybe a bit too much comfort. But what we tried to bring to market was something that was as capable as the best off roader that’s existed – whether it’s the old Defender, the old (Mercedes-Benz) G-Wagen or LandCruiser 70 … but make it a bit more of a comfortable, modern, refined version.”

This modern take also extends to achieving net zero targets and having a variety of powertrains. But Calder says too many governments have placed all efforts on decarbonising roads on electric vehicles, when instead a mix of powertrains is needed.

Indeed, Australia’s federal transport department has predicted fewer than a third of new car sales would be battery-operated by 2030, casting doubt on the Albanese government’s EV strategy.

That’s why Ineos launched the Fusilier. It’s an electric vehicle but is equipped with what is basically a petrol generator that can charge the battery, doubling the range of the vehicle, which Calder says takes the stress out of driving to say Melbourne to Sydney.

Then there is the hydrogen vehicle, which Ineos has proven it can build, but the alternative fuel – which emits only water – is yet to get the backing of many governments.

“The main challenge is infrastructure and provision of hydrogen to transmit it and use it to fill up vehicles. That’s a complete net zero solution and we apply that to our thinking in the Grenadier. The Fusilier is a smaller car and still an extremely capable vehicle … we’ve worked really hard on that.

“But we recognise that probably a lot more lifestyle drivers will drive it, whereas the Grenadier with its really strong, robust off road capability, it doesn’t work for electric at all, so hydrogen gives the Grenadier specifically everything that people would want to do with it, be it in the middle of nowhere doing really arduous things.

“So hydrogen definitely works. The challenge is governments and regulators have almost said ‘right, OK, electrification, done’. But you can’t just have one solution. It does need multipolarity because it’s a bit like saying ‘we’ve got to get off fossil fuels, so we’re going to be 100 per cent on wind by 2030’. It’s just irrational, you’ve got to have a mix.”

Then there is ensuring net zero strategies don’t alienate customers and ensuring that the whole life cycle of a vehicle is considered in ensuring it delivers on its green credentials. To this end, Calder likens some electric cars to fast fashion, given most manufacturers guarantee batteries for about eight years.

“You buy something that feels like you’re doing the right thing but actually it’s just disposable. You just throw it away and it’s going to be a million times worse for the environment.

“So whether its hydrogen, combustion, range extender … we’re really trying to kind of get to the forefront of that technology, efficiency and sustainability … and we’re hoping to have the choice right for our drivers.

“You could even take the combustion engine and say ‘OK, you’ve got a vehicle that’s built to last, probably withstand the apocalypse’. We’ve worked pretty hard on that. And combustion engines today are I think a third of the CO2 emissions of combustion engines from 10, 15, 20 years ago, so you can see that actually that is more environmentally friendly running that car that you buy today, taking into account the whole life cycle.

“But it’s a complex topic. I don’t think we could have joined the automotive industry at a more complex time.”

As for the Comrades Marathon, which is scheduled for early June, with participants running uphill from the coastal city of Durban to Pietermaritzburg, Calder remains hopeful of completing it.

“I’ve been injured but it’s actually getting better and I think I’m going to be fine. But I’ve got to do a marathon in the next month to qualify, so I think I might have to postpone it to next year.”

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