A personal history of Jaguar

The Jaguar name dates back to 1922 when Sir William Lyons set up the Swallow motorcycle sidecar company in Blackpool with William Walmsley. He started making cars five years later in 1927, initially concentrating on stylish Swallow bodies for Austin Sevens.

After moving to Coventry in 1928 the company broadened its range of bodies and in 1931 created the ‘SS1’ to fit Standard chassis. The SS1 caused a sensation at the Olympia Motor Show and established Lyons’ reputation for producing very stylish designs at low prices.

Walmsley left the business in 1934 and in 1935 Lyons launched the SS90, the company’s first sports car. The gorgeous SS Jaguar 100 was launched a year later and was the first Lyons car to carry the Jaguar name. High quality SS100 replicas are still being made by Suffolk Sportscar Engineering (www.ss100.com).

After World War II Lyons wisely decided to drop the SS brand and renamed his company Jaguar Cars Ltd, initially selling mildly reworked versions of his pre-war cars. The modern company’s heritage really began in 1948 with the launch of the amazing XK120, which was followed a year later by the Mark V sports saloon.

Like the SS100, the XK120 was a revelation and established a tradition that has remained with Jaguar to the present. Its well-resolved, smooth-flowing styling was unlike anything else available at the time and it offered superb performance at a very low price. The company’s subsequent saloons and sports cars all adhered to its maxim – pace and grace.

During the 1950s and 60s Jaguar produced a succession of cars like the Mk2, Mk X, XJ and E-Type that set new standards in their class. Jaguars were aspirational cars for the newly rich and their relatively low prices made them even more accessible. While Midlands neighbour Rover produced durable but dowdy cars for bank managers, Jaguar busied itself with motors for bank robbers. No car epitomised this good-gone-bad attitude than the Mk2, the getaway car of choice. It became so popular with the criminal fraternity that the police had no choice but to get Mk2s of their own.

Lyons’ skill during this period was his ability to offer good-looking cars with great engines and then keep developing them. Although he tended to keep his cars in production for relatively long periods, he continuously improved them with new engines, gearboxes and other components.

When the British motor industry consolidated in the late 1960s Jaguar lost its source of body pressings overnight and was forced to join in. At the time the company was extremely healthy and considered a prize by the bosses of British Motor Holdings.

What happened next is a textbook lesson in how inept senior management can destroy an otherwise sound business. Under British Leyland Jaguar lost its autonomy and its business strategy was subordinated to the bigger BL vision of Marinas, Allegros and Princesses. With bigger fish to fry, Jaguar suffered from a total lack of product development between 1975 and 1986, when it launched the XJ40. The XJ6 and XJS were its sole models during this period and were both developed before BL took over.

BL’s sole contribution was to improve Jaguar product quality, which had always relied on customers to shake-down any problems. Series 2 XJ6s and later XJS’ are noticeably better cars than their earlier iterations.

Between 1975 and 1994, when Jaguar was sold to Ford, the company effectively threw away its market lead and opened the door to BMW and Mercedes, who offered cars that were better built and substantially more reliable.

The XJ40 offered something of a renaissance for Jaguar and was well-received when it was launched in 1986. In design terms it was evolutionary rather than revolutionary, ushering in a fussy obsession with heritage that had never been part of the Jaguar ethos under Lyons but which remained until the launch of the XF in 2008. The XJ40 was a good car but poorly built, a fact made worse by the decision to laden it with ground-breaking technology like LCD dashboards that the company could never hope to manufacture reliably.

When Ford bought Jaguar it took on an aging product range. But Ford’s marketing savvy and deep coffers quickly resulted in a very effective facelift for the XJS, the new X300 and development of the XK8. These cars, plus much-improved quality standards, returned Jaguar to the world stage and turned it into a credible, albeit niche, alternative to BMW, Mercedes and Audi.

But there were two fatal flaws in Jaguar’s game plan. Firstly, the company based its product development and marketing around the company’s admittedly illustrious heritage. This appears to have begun during the BL years when a lack of product development meant that the company had no option but to hark back to a rose-tinted view of better times. But with new products coming on stream, Jaguar didn’t need to keep looking backwards.

The result was a succession of capable but stylistically dull reworkings of tried and tested themes. The XK8 revisited the lines of the E-Type, but was flabbier and heavier. The X300 and XJ8 were yet another reworking of the XJ6. The S-Type, perhaps the second most dismal Jaguar of all time, was a US Lincoln clothed in a 90s interpretation of the iconic Mk2. The sound of Sir William spinning in his grave surely echoed around Browns Lane when it was launched in 1999.

A few short years later Jaguar hit the nadir with undenably the worst ‘Jaguar’ ever built. It must be some consolation to the loyal workers in Coventry and Gaydon that the X-Type wasn’t really a Jaguar at all. As most buyers in the premium compact car class quickly realised, this snub-nosed saloon was little more than a posh Ford Mondeo, built as it was on the rep-runarounds chassis and running gear. Standard four wheel drive, leather, wood and yet another rehash of the venerable XJ6 silhouette couldn’t convince choosy middle managers that this was a real Jaguar.

The X-Type was part of Jaguar’s strategy to become a volume player in the premium brand class. No doubt to remain valid and viable against its German rivals, this was necessary. But neither the S-Type or X-Type, which were actually good cars under the ill-conceived brightwork, made much of a dent in the premium compact and mid-size executive classes, either in Europe or the USA.

In the early years of the 21st century, Jaguar had become everything it stood against: it was traditional, staid, unimaginative and unstylish.

Fortunately, in the last few years Jaguar has realised the error of its ways and began developing cars that look forward rather than backwards and that appeal to traditional Jaguar buyers. The full size post-97 XJ8, with aluminium bodywork looks good and is genuinely inventive (even if it still harked back to the XJ6!). The new XK coupe and convertible is stunning and quite possibly one of the most beautiful Jaguars ever made. While the new XF mid-size saloon bridges Jaguar’s heritage and future within a stylish and distinctive body. These are cars to aspire to, which makes it particularly ironic that just as things are turning around, Ford has been forced to offload the company.

Jaguar’s future under Tata looks promising, so long as the Indian firm lets the company do what it does best – design and build stylish cars with pace and grace.

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