A test drive with Lothar Schneider

President KSPG (China) Investment Ltd.

It proved to be an unusual test drive. For one thing, it didn’t take place on asphalt, but instead in a forest deeply furrowed by tank tracks – the tough terrain of Rheinmetall’s proving ground on the Lueneburg Heath in Lower Saxony, Germany. Here, in an expanse of territory measuring some 50 square kilometers, the Group possesses full range possibilities for testing its systems. Even in the easier stretches, a normal car could never hope to make it through. But the vehicle being tested was no ordinary one.

For Lothar Schneider, this wasn’t an entirely new territory, though it was certainly a break from his daily routine. The man in charge of Rheinmetall Automotive’s activities in China has had a license to drive a truck ever since serving in the Bundes-wehr, where, as a driver in a supply unit, he put in plenty of time behind the wheel of the German Army’s old MAN trucks. These days, driving for him is more likely to mean the daily “urban combat” of commuting on the highways of sprawling Shanghai in a hybrid-powered limousine. 

The vehicle he took for a test drive was a truly awesome giant tractor, fitted with an armored cab by Rheinmetall Waffe und Munition and agricultural vehicle specialist Rebo Landmaschinen in a joint project. Why the elaborate protect features when the roar of the engine alone would send a pack of wolves scurrying for cover – and even the civilian version of the tractor would smash the tusks of a fully-grown wild boar? The ReboRack is intended for use in major training areas to churn up unexploded ordnance, for instance, as well as well for reclaiming farmland in former combat zones or on stretches of coastline where munitions dumped into the sea decades ago could wash ashore. 

A true heavyweight

Keeping the driver safe is the top priority here. The fact that the driver’s door alone weighs 170 kilograms says it all. (It’s electrically operated by the way, opening and closing at the press of a button.) Moreover, the 6 cm-thick armored glass windows weigh 135 kilograms per square meter, which makes them twice as heavy as the steel armor used in hardening the tractor. All of this means that the tractor, based on a John Deere model, weighs in at a thousand kilos more than the standard version of the vehicle. 

Climbing up the five-step ladder to the cab, Schneider is struck first of all by the good all-round visibility. Apart from the angular design, reflecting the emphasis of driver safety, the interior of the vehicle is just as comfortable as in the standard tractor. On the road, the ReboRack – like its civilian counterparts – has an authorized top speed of 50 km/h, and comfortably seats two persons.  Once the door is closed and locked in place, the feeling of “splendid isolation” akin to that of an exclusive English marque. Indeed, with an extra 110,000 euros tacked to the price, it ranks right up there with a Rolls Royce. In any case, the vehicle features the same protection level as an armored limousine. 

After just a few meters, Schneider steers the tractor with masterful aplomb, instinctively aware of the vehicle’s handling characteristics. Owner of an impressive collection of vintage vehicles, he makes no bones about what a pleasure it is being behind the wheel of the ReboRack: “It’s just plain fun to drive, and the way the axles interoperate is amazing.” But he’s quick to add that “driving a vehicle like this demands respect”. Despite the cool morning temperature, there’s no condensation on the armored  glass windows, which are heated by a dense network of embedded filament wires. 

Globetrotter and China expert

Schneider was born in Bonn in 1957, and studied mechanical engineering at the Rheinisch-Westfaelische Technische Hochschule, or RWTH, in Aachen, which is one of Germany’s top science and research schools. After earning his interim diploma, he turned his attention – no surprise here – to automotive technology. Nor was it just his time in the military that dictated his choice. Even as a high school student, he repaired and then resold motorbikes, displaying an entrepreneurial streak even as a teenager. After completing university, he embarked on a trainee program at Allianz, one of Germany’s leading insurers.

He was clearly delighted to have the chance to tool around in a vehicle like this 

After that, he spent nearly eight years with DuPont, then an equal number of years with Dynamit Nobel, travelling and working around the world. His connection to Shanghai didn’t begin until early 2001, when he joined Rheinmetall Automotive, which had been searching for a manager for a second joint venture with an SAIC subsidiary, the company destined to become HUAYU Automotive Systems. Responsibility for Kolbenschmidt Pierburg Shanghai Non-ferrous Components, officially known today as HASCO KSPG Nonferrous Components (Shanghai) Co., Ltd., brought him back partly to Germany in 2013 and the casting plant in Neckarsulm. Schneider’s wife is from China. She studied engineering at Shanghai’s prestigious Tongji University as well as in Berlin and Erlangen in Bavaria, and acquired German citizenship years ago. Since 2016, Schneider has been in charge of all Rheinmetall Automotive activities in China as well as for the Group’s global casting operations. He’s currently on one of his many business trips to Germany. Over the decades, frequent travel has become second nature to him: “I don’t even suffer from jetlag these days!”

And how does life in Germany and China compare? “I enjoy living in China very much. Obviously, it’s not the adventure it was twenty years ago. Today, a city like Shanghai probably offers everything that other global metropolises like New York do. But life still poses plenty of challenges in China.” Looking back, however, he notes that the Chinese mentality has changed over the years. “The Chinese have a perfect right to feel more self-confident these days. After all, they’ve made huge strides in the meantime.” He cites an example from the automotive industry to underscore his point: “Even in purely Chinese vehicle brands, gap dimensions are no longer an issue. Everything’s tip-top. They deserve respect, and they’ve certainly earned mine. I’ve never encountered a nation that’s so hard working, so ambitious, so determined to reach a goal, so eager to succeed. And I don’t just mean senior management types when I say this, but the man on the street, too. Everybody puts in a huge effort!” 

Schneider has been in charge of all Rheinmetall Automotive activities in China since 2016

Having said his piece, he presses down on the ReboRack’s bright-orange accelerator again, always with one eye on the fuel consumption display. At the moment, this comes to 6.8 liters per hour. Considering the tractor’s tremendous power, this is a surprisingly good figure. Summing up his impressions after two hours in the saddle, Schneider quips that “it’s too bad that it’s not cut out to be a company car – it only has one door.”