Tragedy, Loss, Redemption? Driven to Write brings its XJ40 epic to a close and asks, can Jaguar ever truly escape its past?
Apparently, Sir John Egan considered cancelling XJ40 in 1984 and starting the programme afresh, claiming he was talked out of it, not only by his management board, but by Sir William Lyons. This remains one of the great unknowns regarding the car, as it remains unclear what such a decision could have realistically achieved.
Looking at it objectively, the biggest enemy Jaguar faced, especially in the early stages of the car’s development was resource and quite obviously time. Decisions made to press ahead pull pelt in 1981 were made on the basis that the new car was vital to Jaguar’s survival and perhaps with half an eye on BL suddenly pulling the rug from under them. Both turned out to be phantoms.
Certainly in the spring of ’81, when work began in earnest, Jim Randle’s engineering function hadn’t anything like the resources to bring such a complex programme to fruition. This was after all, a business decimated by a generation of neglect, having to relearn as it went. So were there fatal compromises buried within the car from its initiation that a ‘hard reboot’ would have addressed? If so, there is no smoking gun.
Because, if anything scuppered XJ40, it was that the development process wasn’t quite complete by Autumn 1986, that neither Jaguar’s manufacturing function (led by Mike Beasley and Derek Welend) nor many of Jaguar’s tier one suppliers were capable of delivering the quality its customers were promised and what its German rivals were routinely delivering.
Jim Randle and his engineers worked themselves into the ground to banish the old troublesome Jag stereotype once and for all, and although the level of complexity incorporated into the car has been dismissed as over ambitious, it was an attempt to bridge a twenty year gap. Technically brave the ’40 may have been, but at its core the car was durable and robust. However the model’s early maladies could be said to have belied and negated their efforts, damaging both their and Jaguar’s reputation at the very point its rivals accelerated in terms of sophistication and perceived desirability.
An irrefutable fact remains: despite selling in excess of 208,000 units, XJ40 made less of a breakthrough than perhaps it should have, damaging an unspoken covenant between them, the media and in particular their US customers. Once they defected to the security of the German marques – (and Lexus) – they didn’t return. But as much as these multiple factors contributed to Jaguar’s structural vulnerabilities, external pressures played perhaps a greater role, particularly the 1987 US recession which had such a catastrophic effect on their finances, leaving them vulnerable to multinational predators.
The pressure on Egan to get the car to market was immense – from within BL, from Jaguar themselves and from the UK media, and a case can be made in retrospect for him to have delayed further. But it’s difficult to see how he could have justified it to a media who held him as tantamount to a messiah and jittery shareholders who wanted a quick return.
Very little was made to go a long way, and tremendous credit is due to the doggedness of Egan’s leadership, and especially Bob Knight and Jim Randle’s immense contributions. Without their efforts XJ40 would undoubtedly have remained a tantalising what might have been. As the first Egan-Jaguar, XJ40 marked the beginning of a new era. Its fall from grace therefore should have been synonymous with him, yet Jaguar’s charismatic leader emerged from this period with his reputation intact, whereas for Knight and Randle, the outcome was a good deal more stark.
XJ40 also marked an ending of a styling tradition that stretched back to William Lyons’ Swallow Sidecar beginnings; the last saloon design to be stylistically approved by Jaguar’s founder and styling progenitor, drawing a close to an era of unparalleled visual elegance. Conversely, XJ40 could also be said to have marked the beginnings of Jaguar’s creative atrophy, heralding a retreat into a self-referential form language that was subsequently fossilized once Ford took over. It took a further 16 years for it to be seen as the creative cul-de-sac it was.
XJ40 may not be as loved as its predecessors then, but it was anything but the dud detractors claim it to be. Technically, it embodied the collective experience of some of the finest engineering minds of the era, many of whom were close to the pinnacle of their careers. Stylistically, it successfully modernised the classic Lyons line while retaining its more nebulous, indefinable charms. While rivals proved superior consumer durables, XJ40 provided a warmer, more charming, somewhat richer experience to its more tech-laden, coldly competent antagonists. In fact, some (including this author) have come to view XJ40 as no less than the last true Jaguar.
2003: Under Ford’s stewardship and by then what amounted to a heritage brand, Jaguar launched its clean-sheet XJ, the aluminium bodied X350 series. Developed at vast expense, its commercial failure would come at a crucial period, precipitating another reversal of fortune, a further change of ownership and an entirely new styling direction. To little avail, because with the current model now stalling in the marketplace, the long-term future for the XJ model line has never looked more troubled.
A well known academic once declared; “History is just one bloody thing after another”, a statement that appears to aptly sum up Jaguar’s post-Lyons past. Because as Jaguar’s current masters can attest, how is it possible to forge a future when the past keeps returning to haunt you?
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We recommend this excellent XJ40 review on Auto-Didakt here
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