Phase One – 1972-1975: Jaguar Year Zero. The Autumn of 1974 marked a point when the sky fell in at Jaguar.
Government appointee, Sir Don Ryder’s report into BLMC’s collapse was published in April 1975 and its findings were greeted with horror at Browns Lane. Ryder recommended British Leyland should henceforth operate as a ‘single integrated car business’. As such, marque identities would be subsumed into centralised BL business units. Jaguar would cease to exist, with its two plants now managed by separate Leyland Car divisions. The effects of rationalisation would go to ludicrous extremes, but with the UK government picking up the bill, there was little room for sentimentality.
Another casualty of the post-Ryder schisms was Geoffrey Robinson. Viewed by many as Stokes’ man, Robinson was accused of over-ambition, which does him some disservice. He saw the key to prosperity in growth and investment. Jaguar’s factories were woefully outdated and his plans involved overhauling plant and productivity. He untangled production bottlenecks and rebuilt bridges with an increasingly militant and disaffected workforce, fostering a spirit of co-operation and consultation. His attitudes to labour relations meant that in 1974, despite the oil crisis and BLMC’s collapse, Jaguar produced 32,000 cars; a figure that wouldn’t be bettered until 1985.
Increased production came at a price; build quality sank to new lows and as the energy crisis bit hard, sales collapsed, dealers went bust and the carefully nurtured trust between them and the factory was lost. Yet Robinson gained several key allies, not least in Bob Knight and Sales & Marketing chief, Bob Berry who later stated that Robinson was the first Jaguar boss to properly understand manufacturing.
Two weeks after the Ryder report was published and following impassioned attempts to persuade Ryder to change his mind, Robinson resigned, denouncing the whole thing as madness. For decades, his contribution has been dismissed, but this belies the efforts he made to get to grips with the legacy issues of the Lyons era. Fundamentally, he appeared to be on the right track, but he became a hostage to BLMC’s fortunes.
Rudderless and in disarray, Robinson’s departure left Jaguar with Bob Knight as the last man standing. Thrust again into a role for which he was unprepared, Knight was probably the most unlikely rebel leader imaginable. A profound thinker, prone to legendary degrees of procrastination, he was known to inform subordinates that an engineer never makes a decision, he arrives at a conclusion. Notorious for a perfectionism which both infuriated and perplexed in equal measure, his fierce drive would almost single-handedly maintain progress as the sky fell in during 1975. Knight assumed a small measure of control and proceeded to batten down hatches against the ‘Leylandisation’ that was taking place across the organisation.
He quickly grasped the key to survival lay in the retention of Jaguar’s Engineering autonomy. Thus began a subtle campaign of non-co-operation and stubborn defiance which would confuse and repel successive BL operating committees. For the next five years, all resistance was co-ordinated from Bob Knight’s technical bunker. Having completed their day’s work both he and deputy, Jim Randle would spend hours working out what Randle later described as ‘the politics of keeping us free‘, telling this author: “People very rarely give Bob the credit he deserves. He did all sorts to upset things, but he kept us free – he kept us alive!”
His adversaries had little hope against Knight’s keenly analytical brain, but if all else failed, he employed a swiftly gained political nous and filibustered. A chain-smoker, Knight would sit there smiling amiably through clouds of smoke, lecturing his interrogators on a given subject until they slowly lost the will to live. Thanks to these efforts, as well as some cunning deception in the loan of an XJ12 to Lord Ryder, the integration of Jaguar engineering was the only Ryder recommendation never implemented.
The collapse of BLMC and its fallout saw the first phase of the XJ40 saga to a close. But it would only be Knight’s “sheer determination to fight the battle and to continue to fight the battle” that saw any progress at all.
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