Phase Two – 1976-1980: Egan Takes Knight. As XJ40 vaults its final hurdles, John Egan arrives at Browns Lane.
Throughout 1979, Sir Michael Edwardes began talking to the man he believed could pull Jaguar out of the abyss. Having previously revived the ailing Unipart business before quitting in the post-Ryder schisms, John Egan had all the right credentials. The only problem was convincing him to take the job. Central to Edwardes’ desire to recruit Egan was a mounting belief that he had made a misjudgement in Bob Knight’s appointment.
Edwardes had become increasingly frustrated with the almost daily deterioration in Jaguar’s fortunes, believing Knight was too focused upon XJ40 to the detriment of the business. But Jaguar’s MD lacked the managerial experience to handle the multiple crises facing the company, much of which lay beyond his control. Negotiations between Egan and Edwardes continued through the spring of 1980, with Egan demanding full control. Sir Michael hedged his bets, offering only as much autonomy as could be earned. Also on the table was the prospect of XJ40 – seen as Jaguar’s lifeline.
While the scorpion dance continued, XJ40 edged towards some highly significant milestones. Jaguar’s styling team (now reporting to Jim Randle) continued refining 1978/9’s styling theme and having rejected the four-light proposal, the alternative six-light variant was favoured to go forward to BL for approval.
The overall execution was crisper and more contemporary, but the low roofline and sloping tail were a clear homage to the previous car. After eight painful years and innumerable styling schemes, XJ40 had come full circle. With the project gaining momentum, BL approved development of the AJ6 engine that January, with the Government rubber-stamping it in March.
With the ink still drying on his contract, John Egan spent his first weekend on the job locked in negotiations with union officials over a crippling strike that threatened to close Jaguar for good. At the eleventh hour, the dispute was resolved and oblivion averted. Now the tough part would begin – pulling Jaguar’s reputation out of the scrapyard.
With XJ40’s styling frozen, it was presented to the BL board that July. Bob Knight subsequently expressed some ambivalence about the final styling scheme to chroniclers, suggesting he would have preferred to develop it further; (a view Jim Randle shared with this author), but there was no going back now.
Winning approval from the BL board however was one thing, obtaining funding from the government would be the final hurdle. Despite their differing political views, it appears Mrs. Thatcher was susceptible to Sir Michael Edwardes’ charms, enabling him to wheedle vast sums of money out of a vehemently non-interventionist Prime Minister. The sweetener was the long-term potential of a revitalised Jaguar being sold off, gaining XJ40 serious traction. Things were looking up, especially when it was announced the company would once again be known as Jaguar Cars, a separate independent entity within BL.
But for Managing Director, Bob Knight, it was a different matter. With Egan installed as Chairman, his position became untenable. It remains a matter of conjecture as to whether he left or was pushed but that July, Knight cleared his desk and walked out of the company for whom he had sacrificed so much. Certainly, the description of his departure – on foot, carrying two plastic carrier bags of personal effects to the bus stop on Browns Lane is almost unbearably poignant.
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Bob Knight – not only to XJ40, but to Jaguar’s very survival. Without his subtle and sophisticated campaign to protect the marque’s autonomy through the 1970’s, Jaguar would have been yet another sorry statistic of the Ryder years.
Perhaps he was a little too fixated on XJ40 to the detriment of other more pressing concerns, but it is equally possible that without the galvanising effect of the project, Jaguar would have completely lost the will to resist. In the arena of chassis development, Knight was probably unsurpassed. His almost pathological obsession with refinement ensured successive Jaguars were world leaders in noise suppression and ride comfort. His loss would be felt keenly, but his engineering successor would prove a worthy one. Meanwhile, Knight’s departure would see act two of XJ40’s opera to a close.
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