Jaguar, not to put too fine a point on it, is enjoying a purple patch. The plethora of new models may upset traditionalists with their radical looks, but the rest of the world can’t get enough of them.
It hasn’t always been thus. Here is my potted history of Jaguar in six bite-sized phases.
Birth & Rebirth
Jaguar wasn’t always Jaguar. At the start of things it was plain old Swallow Sidecars, making svelte bodies for humdrum Austins. Under the skilled stewardship of William Lyons, who also designed the cars, the range evolved into more complete models. The low-slung SS1 and the sporting SS100 were utterly beautiful but also affordable. This became the company’s calling card – grace and pace at a price well below expectations. Swallow Sidecars became SS and in 1945, when that wasn’t the best brand name out there, it morphed into Jaguar, after the name of one of its models.
Move to Coventry
The success of the pre-war models continued once hostilities had ended, enabling Jaguar to move to the much larger Browns Lane factory in Coventry. Jaguar began creating more complete models, rather than ones based on proprietary chassis. Working to the same principle as before, stylish cars at affordable prices, we got the superlative XK models and saloons such as the Mark 5 and Mark 7 that looked like Bentleys but cost much less. With the move to Coventry Jaguar had moved mainstream, fulfilling a slot in the post-war boom market similar to Audi and BMW today. But, arguably, much, much better.
By the late 1950s, Jaguar was at a crossroads. Two brilliant new models were on the way – the E Type and the Mk2 – but the company remained a minnow in manufacturing terms. It had all the hassle and overheads of a volume manufacturer, without the serious volume needed to sustain it. The commitment to value also meant that Jaguar didn’t earn the sort of profit per car that small volume premium makers would usually expect in order to counter this problem. All around the British car industry was consolidating and there was a risk that Pressed Steel, which made Jaguar bodies, might end up in the hands of a hostile competitor. Despite these problems Jaguar launched the two aforementioned cars whose legacy arguably kept it alive for the next 50 years. Then at the end of the decade came the superlative XJ, arguably the best saloon car ever made. Jaguar tried to counter the lack of volume by launching a plethora of half-baked models including the MkX and S-Type and buying Daimler. This slightly rudderless approach confused the market, added cost and complexity, failed to generate cash to invest in production efficiency and failed to solve the problem. Against this backdrop the decision towards the end of the decade to join BMC – subsequently British Leyland – seemed to make sense but in fact was disastrous.
The BL Years
On paper Jaguar’s merger with BL – Lyons was at pains to point out it wasn’t a takeover – made sense. It gave Jaguar access to a much wider distribution network, the presumed economies of scale and secured its supply chain, particularly Pressed Steel. In reality, of course, it was anything but positive. Under BL Jaguar wasn’t starved of investment, it was starved of the right sort of investment. It got new models like the XJS and improved existing ones in the form of the Series 2 XJ, but where it was most needed – production quality and efficiency – there was none. Jaguars had never been the last word in quality but under BL things got much worse, exacerbated by the influx of much better built foreign competition. Buying a 1970s Jaguar became an exercise in emotion over logic, reflected in Jaguar’s advertising which heavily pushed the ‘heritage’ angle.
BL’s woes gradually bit deeper into Jaguar’s fortunes, pushing much-needed new models into the distance as the 70s wore on. Poor quality affected sales, which in turn limited investment further. Jaguar’s management, however, did a remarkable job of keeping the company ‘independent’, retaining the essential ‘Jaguarness’ that has been so critical to its long term success.
The John Egan Years
After William Lyons’ retirement in the early 70s Jaguar lacked a strong leader until the arrival of Sir John Egan. Egan was lucky to join Jaguar at the same time as Michael Edwards who gave him the support and freedom to implement a much-needed improvement programme. By the late 70s Jaguar was in dire straits – XJS sales were almost non-existent and the XJ was an old car with a poor quality reputation.
Egan performed a miracle – he improved quality, relaunched the XJS with the ‘HE’ engine and created the XJ Series 3 makeover. These were clever, relatively low-cost relaunches that gave the company something new to sell under the heritage message that the North American market lapped up. The XJS convertible and the XJ40 finally gave Jaguar new models to promote, even if quality problems remained.
Egan’s goal was to tidy up Jaguar to enable it to be sold – it was demerged from BL in 1984 and purchased by Ford in 1989.
The Ford Era
When Ford bought Jaguar it got, on the face of it, a great company with a strong brand and new models. Jaguar, in turn, got a well-funded parent with access to its crucial North American market. In reality, things weren’t quite that rosy. By the late 80s the Jaguar brand was a byword for poor quality and models that were already dated – the warmed-over XJS was 15 years old and the XJ40 looked dated on the day it was launched – its gestation dated backl to the early 70s.
Under Ford, Jaguar was something of an outpost. Quality improved significantly and new engines came along but for the first decade of ownership the model range was simply reheated – the XJS was neatly facelifted and the XJ40 became the X300 and then X308, saloons that could trace their architecture back to the mid 60s. Ford’s approach was to hang everything new around ‘heritage’ – new models like the XK8, S-Type and X-Type harked back to the E Type, Mk2 and XJ were less designed than recycled. For purists the new models lacked ‘Jaguarness’, using Ford engines and architecture. It increasingly felt that in the drive for volume Jaguar was losing the plot.
Ta-ta Ford, Hello Tata
By the early 00s Jaguar once again appeared dead in the water. The latest XJ and XK models were very good but the relentless drive down the heritage design alley meant they mainly appealed to tweedy, retired stockbrokers. What was needed was a wholesale rethink. The X-Type and S-Type were jettisoned and in came the superlative XJ saloon, a big, beautiful saloon that took the fight to Mercedes and BMW. The new XJ may have upset purists but it definitely looked ‘Jaguar’ and set in train a plethora of new models including the XF, F-Type, F-Pace and XE, great cars that could easily compete with Audis and BMWs.
Whether the unavoidable pursuit of volume will eventually water down the essential components of ‘Jaguarness’ only time will tell,. But is hard to argue that these new cars aren’t consistent with the original ideas behind William Lyons’ original SS models – stylish, fast and distinctive. Ironically, by jettisoning the obsession with heritage, Jaguar has found its mojo and created cars fitting of that history.