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Jaguar: The Past
When the British car industry does well, so does Jaguar.
Both are doing well right now: UK car exports are at record levels, and since the financial crisis eased the Jaguar-Land Rover group has posted a series of billion-pound profits and set new sales records every year. But Jaguar’s fortunes have never just been part of the bigger picture. Jaguar helps make the weather for the British car industry.
When Jaguar’s cars are good – and there have been times in its history when they have been the best in the world – their grace and pace and glamour reflect well on everything else Britain makes. When they are bad – and there have been times when they have been embarrassingly bad – the public, even fiery failure of cars that were once among the best in the world reflects poorly on everything else from this island.
They’re good now. Great, in some cases. And there have been points in Jaguar’s history where a single achievement or new model has delivered an adrenaline shot to British car making.
Sir William Lyons founded the Swallow Sidecar Company 91 years ago, but his company really hit its stride after the war. Its first transformative act was the launch of the XK120 sports car at the Earl’s Court Motor Show of 1948, a streak of Technicolor glamour in the grey, austere aftermath of war. Suddenly, British cars were sexy, and when, in 1952, Sir Stirling Moss and others drove one for seven days and nights for over 10,000 miles averaging over 100mph Jaguar proved that its car – and by extension, all British cars – were fast and well-engineered too.
There followed a boom for British car making and exports: Jaguar can’t take all the credit, but it deserves plenty. Its ‘50s Le Mans wins with the D-types and its introduction of disc brakes further polished that reputation. And it was ready to cash in on the thirst it helped create for British cars with arguably the most beautiful sports and saloon cars ever made; the E-type of 1961 and the first XJ of 1968.
Where, then, did it all go wrong? Same way as the rest of the industry. In the late sixties and into the seventies and even the eighties, poor cars were the result of bad quality, poor management and woeful labour relations. Cars like the XJS of the and the XJ40 saloon are not fondly remembered, (though I think the XJS is due a reappraisal, and an early one in period brown or primrose yellow is quite a cool thing).
Ford bought Jaguar in ’89, and its attempt to reboot it as a BMW competitor with the 3-series-rivalling X-type was a bust. Ford sold to the Indian Tata group in 2008 in order to concentrate on troubles at home. But it was just starting to ‘get’ Jaguar, and had funded the development of the XF saloon, which really is a BMW rival, and often a BMW beater. Launched just before the financial crisis struck, without the XF Jaguar may well have perished. Instead Tata’s purchase, which looked spectacularly mistimed, now looks like a stroke of genius, returning as much or more than the billion pounds Tata bought it for in profits for each of the last three years.
Jaguar still has problems – it wouldn’t be a true British carmaker without them – but with those profits being reinvested in some properly brave new products, it looks healthier now than it ever has, and every other British carmaker will be pleased.
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