Phase Two – 1975-1980: Knight Falls. The disastrous 1979 launch of Series III almost sinks Jaguar entirely, indirectly precipitating Bob Knight’s downfall.
1978 saw a brief reprieve in Jaguar’s fortunes. Under Sir Michael Edwardes, interference eased sufficiently to finally allow a consensus to emerge on XJ40’s style. Customer research backed the assertion that a strong family resemblance was required. The revitalised styling of the Series III XJ also cast a mighty shadow, because despite its age, Pininfarina’s revisions combined to create a sleeker, more modern car.
The result was to silence the more progressive elements within Jaguar’s styling team – the traditionalists had won the argument. During 1978, XJ40’s styling entered its final phase, resembling a more angular, less voluptuous version of the outgoing car. During 1978/9, a double sided and heavily Series III-influenced styling concept took shape featuring the familiar four-light glasshouse and graphics of the outgoing model, with an alternative six-light treatment and reverse fold lower body crease on the reverse. After so many false avenues, XJ40 was starting to gel.
Despite Knight’s accession, a sense of unease permeated Browns Lane about his peculiar style of management. A member of Norman Dewis’ experimental team was also a talented cartoonist and portrayed Knight in characteristic pose, leaning on the rear deck of an XJ40 styling buck, cigarette in mouth with an ashtray full of stubs beside him, bearing the legend; “All decisions come with a government health warning.” Edwardes too had begun to wonder if he too had made the correct choice.
Meanwhile, the priority was to bring Series III to market, but doing so would nearly finish Jaguar off entirely. Scheduled for an autumn 1978 launch, it was delayed because manufacturing was not ready. As early as 1973, Robinson and Knight had agitated for a modern paint plant at Browns Lane to supplant the antiquated facilities there. Due to its age, Jaguar could only offer a very limited range of colours. Paint quality and durability was poor and rust-proofing rudimentary.
In 1976, BL finally agreed to invest in a modern plant, but built it miles away at the Pressed Steel Fisher facility at Castle Bromwich, to serve both Rover and Jaguar. Worse still, despite lobbying from Jaguar and the unions, BL pressed ahead with a new thermoplastic paint process. Jaguar bodies were made from hundreds of small pressings, mash-welded together, meaning a typical shell would require significant lead-loading to achieve an acceptable finish. Subjected to this new high temperature paint process, the lead melted, with catastrophic results.
As newly painted Series III bodies started to arrive at Browns Lane, management quickly realised how much trouble they were in. The situation remained a full-blown crisis for well over a year as they grappled with the appalling finish from the Castle Bromwich plant. Knight ended up taking anything vaguely acceptable, rectifying as necessary at Browns Lane. In desperation, he even tried to negotiate the purchase of the shuttered Triumph paint plant at Canley, but the situation spiralled out of control. The delays, lost orders and warranty costs were said to have resulted in losses of over £35m.
Series III was met with warm praise from the UK press and interest in the new model was high, but with only three non-metallic shades available – (red, yellow or white) – lengthening delivery times and woeful finish, customers melted away. Management desperately tried to get to grips with the situation but the quality issues were now too acute. The bitter struggle between Jaguar’s embattled engineers and BL’s ineptitude paralysed decision making to the point where the business had virtually ceased to function.
Worse followed, as a second oil crisis pummelled the motor industry through 1979. Furthermore, the newly installed Conservative Government’s monetary policies crippled exporters. Jaguar’s sales, already dropping alarmingly, nosedived. The business had entered its death throes. As losses piled up, Edwardes came under increasing pressure from the government to close Jaguar entirely. He reportedly came close to acceding, but had one more card to play. So although this would be Jaguar’s nadir, it is only when rock-bottom is reached that it’s possible to start afresh.
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