Payne Q&Auto: Bigland’s big Alfa startup

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Suddenly, automotive startups are all the rage. Fresh luxury names like Tesla and Fisker have made headlines rekindling the century-old competition between battery and gas power. But an Old World, 105 year-old brand is also starting with a clean sheet against icons like Mercedes, BMW, and Cadillac using the tried-and-true gas engine.

Say hello to Alfa Romeo, America’s newest luxury badge.

Like Tesla’s Roadster, Alfa begins with a tiny sports car, the sexy 4C. Now comes the hard part with last month’s Alfa Giulia unveil kicking off eight new products by 2018. Oh, is that all?

Fiat Chrysler has put this formidable task on the broad shoulders of Reid Bigland, 48, a straight-shooting Canuck with a physique right out of a Mr. Universe contest. At a June 4C introduction, I half expected him to come out with one under each arm. “You don’t want to mess with this guy,” laughs Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne about Bigland.

Bigland’s swift rise at FCA – since 2006 he’s run Dodge, RAM trucks, and now juggles Alfa, North America sales and CEO of FCA Canada — has landed him on the short list of names to succeed Marchionne. I sat down with the ex-hockey player to talk Alfas, muscle cars, and Powerhouse Gym.

Q: You cut one of the most recognizable profiles in this business. You were an athlete?

Bigland: I grew up in Canada. I played a lot of junior hockey. I was lacking one necessary ingredient to play pro which was talent. Today I just try to keep fit by going to the gym.

Q: What gyms do you use in Detroit?

Bigland: Lifetime Fitness in Auburn Hills and . . . Powerhouse Gym in Detroit. That’s one of the old bodybuilder gyms left in this country and I usually hit that on the way to Canada.

Q: What was your first car?

Bigland: A 1979 Chevy Impala. I thought I was stylin’. It was up in the Toronto area . . . and the floorboards started to rust out and you could see the pavement.

Q: Do Canadians covet Detroit muscle cars?

Bigland: Absolutely. Growing up I had a soft spot for Corvettes. I’m very excited about our Hellcat with 707 horsepower. The question is who wants to drive a 707-horsepower car? Well, me.

Q: What’s in your garage?

Bigland: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Jeep Wrangler, and a Dodge Charger Hellcat.

Q: What excites you about FCA?

Bigland: It’s an honor to be working for Sergio Marchionne. I’ve learned a lot working for him the last six years. I’m a competitive guy – I like to compete in all things – and in the United States marketplace we’ve had 62 consecutive months of sales growth which is a significant source of pride, and in Canada . . . we’re the #1 selling vehicle manufacturer in the country. If I were to tell you that back in 2009 — which I did — you would have put me in a rubber room.

Q: Why the 4C to launch Alfa?

Bigland: The 4C represents what all of the great Alfas represented in the past and what all of the Alfas going forward will represent from a technological, style, and performance perspective. The car is truly unique: Carbon fiber chassis, aluminum sub-frame, mid-engine setup. There are only five other cars in the world like it – and most are north of a million dollars.

Q: The 4C comes out of FCA’s sports car toolbox. But Alfa has been a small, economy car brand in Europe. How do you make Alfa a global luxury brand?

Bigland: Alfa has been a lot of things over its 105 years. Some of the greats have been performance cars with outstanding style. We’re looking to re-recreate what the great Alfas were. We are currently in the process of investing over $6 billion to make sure these Alfa products . . . are consistent with those key attributes of technology, performance, and style. We have segregated a team of 1,000 people in Europe led by two senior engineers from Ferrari uncontaminated by the mass market.

Q: You’re starting from scratch?

Bigland: To be a credible, luxury player you cannot be tempted into dipping into the mass market parts bin. We’ve got great mass market cars, but to be true to the knitting in the luxury performance segment you’ve got to be authentic. As far as any leveraging of the FCA family it’s more along the lines of Ferrari and Maserati. Rebadging of a mass market car has shown time and time again that it doesn’t work.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com