Phase Three – 1981-1986: Picking Up the Pieces.
The early phases of XJ40 development centred around the battles played out to retain Jaguar’s identity. The third phase would be dominated by efforts to remove themselves from BL’s influence entirely. For John Egan, the first eighteen months at Browns Lane proved something of a high wire act. With morale in tatters, and unfinished cars piling up, Egan initially believed that Jaguar’s problems were marketing rather than production based, a notion he was swiftly disabused of.
Realising that quality had to be tackled in order to survive, senior management were press-ganged into a task force to deal with the numerous faults identified in quality audits. Egan moved into Sir William’s old office and ensured everyone knew who was in charge. As an insider later observed, he ‘galvanised the place’. But the struggle to stay in business would prove precarious.
An early skirmish involved obtaining approval for revisions to Jaguar’s poorly selling XJ-S, incorporating the ‘High Efficiency’ cylinder head which promised to secure the V12’s viability. But Egan faced the assertion by BL planners that the market for the V12 and the XJ-S was gone, suggesting they be axed. Sales Director, John Morgan recalled his new boss in combat mode, noting that ‘he tore a number of them to shreds.‘
Egan’s more robust style saw him winning more battles then he lost, the principal victory being the initial £100m funding to develop XJ40. By the summer of 1981, it looked as though Egan’s policies were showing results and the turn-around had begun. Jaguar was in profit from that point and would remain so.
The sticking point remained the project deadline. Both Egan and Jim Randle knew it was frighteningly short, but went along with the deception in the knowledge that a more realistic time frame would not be accepted. BL bosses, familiar with developing volume cars seemed unable to grasp the notion that XJ40 – a vastly more complex machine – required a more lengthy gestation, especially given the 6 to 8 years Mercedes-Benz habitually allowed.
Jim Randle was the man upon whose shoulders the bulk of XJ40’s development would now rest. Having joined Jaguar in 1965 as a project engineer, he rose to Bob Knight’s deputy in 1972 before being assuming full control of vehicle engineering in 1980. Randle was quiet spoken, dogged, extremely clever and well-taught, both in craft and in political terms by his predecessor.
Certainly, it was difficult to imagine a more qualified man for the job of making XJ40 a reality. But resources were tiny, Randle telling this author, “We had such a tiny group of people to do the job. I worked out that I needed 480 people to do XJ40 and the other work we’d got and I had 176!” For the first year of development he could only put thirteen engineers on the car.
With XJ40’s technical specification codified, the experimental department began running prototype components in simulators – mostly modified XJ saloons stripped out to replicate XJ40’s target weight. Brakes were powered by engine-driven hydraulics, rather than the more normal vacuum servo and an anti-lock system was in development. Rear suspension design went through several iterations before Randle was satisfied, but the end result would represent the bedrock of XJ40’s road behaviour.
It consisted of a floating lower wishbone hung on a pendulum plate, with a duplex mounting at the rear to give it attenuation. Painstakingly mounted, it incorporated longitudinal compliance to prevent torque reaction and parasitic roll, while ensuring accurate wheel location. Top-level models would also benefit from self-levelling.
In time-honoured fashion, drive-shafts would form the upper wishbone link, Randle telling this author; “… it was very specifically designed to have a lot of compliance at hub height, without any compliance in the yaw sense. That’s why you’ve got the frame in front of the differential – and that’s what made it so good.”
July 1981 saw the press launch of the revised XJ-S HE, but behind the scenes, a more auspicious event took place. The very first running XJ40 prototype emerged from the experimental workshops with Jim Randle at the wheel. That first drive demonstrated he had the basics right. But more to the point, it embodied something else – it made XJ40 real.
As quality improved, Jaguar customers could appreciate the cars’ elegant lines and refined character anew, and sales rose sharply. Despite a continuing sales depression in the US market, 21,632 cars were sold worldwide in 1982 – up from 15,640 the previous year. For Egan however, exit from the BL straitjacket became his primary focus.
Amongst discussions held was the serious prospect of a tie-up with BMW.
According to Car Magazine’s Georg Kacher, Egan and BMW’s Eberhard Von Kuenheim discussed a deal as early as 1982, with Jim Randle and BMW’s Hans Hagen determining a common components concept. However, before the deal was signed it was allegedly vetoed by Secretary for Industry, Norman Tebbit. Egan remained undaunted however and continued to push for independence.
Meanwhile, Randle’s engineering team struggled on with a headcount a fraction of his rivals. While Mercedes-Benz had over 8000 engineers to call upon, allowing nearly 200 engineers per model line, Jaguar had to stretch a fraction of that number a very long way. An early setback saw him working over Christmas to redesign XJ40’s front crush tubes, which had performed poorly in early crash testing.
With Semi-Engineered Prototypes now hitting the roads, failures were legion. Jaguar was attempting something genuinely new – creating a lightweight car. With weight comes strength, but once you remove it, problems inevitably occur. The proving team had the job of putting development miles into the cars, but keeping the cars running was proving an onerous task. When failures occurred, delays would eat into proving time which had the effect of increasing the pressure upon the experimental team, who had to repair the cars even if it meant working round the clock.
The powertrain team, now led by Trevor Crisp, also battled enormous difficulty. Not only was reliability an issue, they also discovered just how detrimental the installation an alloy-blocked multi-valve in-line six could be to the cause of mechanical refinement. Finding a solution took time and very clever engine mounting. AJ6 development alone would ultimately absorb up to half of XJ40’s budget.
Another major innovation was the car’s electronics. Previously Jaguar’s Achilles heel, the new system aimed to eradicate the electrical maladies that had long bedevilled the marque. Randle enlisted the help of 20 other firms (in addition to the Ministry of Defence) to develop the low-earth switching system, which if not full-blown multiplexing, went a good way towards it. Enormous amounts of time and effort was spent, with entire test programmes reportedly being ditched in order to get it right.
Central to the system was the car’s diagnostic brain, which could inform a Jaguar technician of faults, saving on incorrect diagnosis. This was to be the central theme of XJ40 – electrical faults were to be a thing of the distant, unpleasant past.
Norman Dewis was something of a Jaguar legend, having tested and signed off every Jaguar road and racing model from 1951. A staunch marque loyalist, he was accustomed to direct contact with senior management. But now, as Jaguar’s engineering headcount crept upwards, Dewis found himself reporting to the newly created Head of Experimental, a development that didn’t sit at all well with the veteran proving engineer. With tensions mounting, relations between proving staff and engineering became frayed.
1983’s general election saw Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government re-elected with a landslide, clearing the way for them to pursue their policy of wholesale privatisation. The feeling within government was to dip their toe in the water with a small-scale floatation before attempting anything more ambitious. This put Jaguar at the forefront of Conservative thinking. Surely the icing on top of Jaguar’s successful floatation to the private sector would be the launch of their anticipated new car?
With Jaguar heading for privatisation, internal BL politics once again reared their head. Sir Micheal Edwardes’ successor, Ray Horrocks was opposed to Jaguar’s independence, lobbying to prevent Egan successfully manoeuvring towards BLexit. With BL at work on an executive saloon to be launched in 1986, Horrocks also moved to ensure there would be no encroachment into Rover’s market. Unsurprisingly, Jaguar’s Chairman had other ideas.
Egan would later tell journalists that XJ40 was initiated in 1980 as “a four year crash programme to try to save the company”. Bearing in mind the problems management faced building existing models to a satisfactory standard, this was a breathtakingly short gestation. But despite ever-increasing sales and revenue figures, Egan’s concern was that should the success of Series III falter, there was no fallback position. By consequence, he appeared to favour an early launch, giving him a new model to underpin Jaguar’s independent future outside BL’s influence – assuming of course it was ready.
1983’s appointment of Derek Waelend as XJ40 project director upped the ante further. Egan gave him power to approve or halt any specification change on any vehicle programme. One of the first things initiated was the provision of a pilot production line, allowing prototypes to be built on production tools, meaning problems could be identified and remedied before production began in earnest.
By September 1983, the first pilot-build XJ40 emerged amid the clinking of champagne glasses. All appeared to be set fair, former Jaguar Product Strategy Manager, Jonathan Partridge telling this author, “Ordinarily if you’d got to that stage, you’d expect to be launching in about a year’s time.”
More problems were to beset the project however. When XJ40 was conceived, the belief was the traditional Jaguar wood and leather interior was outdated. The car’s cabin was to be hi-tech, featuring digital instrumentation. What Jaguar found once they began to submit the car to extensive customer clinics both in Europe and the United States was that potential customers found the new style unattractive. The XJ40 interior was losing out to one car in particular – the Series III, which in the words of Jonathan Partridge, caused senior management “a sharp intake of breath”.
This made the 1984 appointment of Geoff Lawson as Jaguar’s Design Director highly significant; his first task being to enact a trim enhancement programme to put traditional materials back into XJ40’s cabin. With lengthy lead-times from component suppliers, it was to be an especially difficult task for Lawson and his team. Randle later told journalists the development of the interior styling as possibly the most difficult process of the entire project.
The XJ40’s launch was postponed, and in this, Egan appears to have swerved a bullet. Of course releasing the car in an unready state would have sunk the model and Jaguar with it. Instead, with a revised project deadline, Jim Randle sanctioned a new technical outpost in Arizona with XJ40 proving sessions extended to the Australian outback, the Gulf state of Oman and the Nardo high speed test facility in Southern Italy. Time had been bought, but would it be enough?
When John Egan made contact with Sir William Lyons in 1981 to sound out the Jaguar founder for the role of company President, he was taken aback by his response. ‘I already am, lad!’, Lyons informed him. Amid the turmoil of the previous eight years everyone appeared to have forgotten. Lyons warmly embraced the new incumbent, believing the Lancastrian was the man to reconstruct Jaguar after the disastrous Ryder years. The two men quickly developed a rapport and Egan became a regular visitor to his Wappenbury Hall home where he would take advice from Jaguar’s venerable founder.
Once Jaguar became independent, he became a regular visitor to Browns Lane, casting a still-astute eye over styling studies for forthcoming models. Lyons contributed to the detail styling of both XJ40 and the stillborn XJ41 (F-Type). By now elderly and quite frail, but in business and especially in stylistic terms, Lyons remained as sharp as a tack.
Meanwhile, Egan never lost an opportunity to tell the press that nothing short of full independence would suffice, later telling chroniclers, without it, Jaguar ‘would have sunk without trace’. Fortunately, his ambitions neatly dovetailed with a Conservative government ideologically committed to removing the massive drain the nationalised BL had become upon the public finances. Prior to this they had been thwarted by the formidable arguments of BL’s Sir Michael Edwardes, but with Ray Horrocks now in charge, and Jaguar’s miraculous turn-around grabbing the headlines, the Coventry cat’s future rapidly became the subject of feverish speculation.
Egan worried that Horrocks would grab Jaguar’s hard-earned profits to prop-up his ailing volume car division, as BL had done in the past. This was in fact what opposition MPs argued should take place – debates in both houses of parliament illustrating bitter divisions over the planned floatation. Horrocks tried a different tack, convincing the Department of Trade and Industry that BL should be allowed to retain a 25% stake in Jaguar. But following a fractious cabinet debate over the matter, Secretary of State Norman Tebbit was overruled by Mrs. Thatcher who recognised the political kudos in Jaguar’s complete severance.
The deal was a poor one for Horrocks, since BL had invested over £150m in Jaguar from 1979 to ’81, but it could be argued it was justice for a decade of chronic neglect and interference. The summer of 1984 saw Jaguar prepared for floatation on the UK stock market. The work involved was forensic, their accounts having to be recreated in entirety from BL’s balance sheet. The work of disentangling the Jaguar business took months of fevered legal and accountancy work. Once free, Jaguar found they were saving money in virtually every area, largely because BL had become such an inefficient business.
The agreement entailed that Jaguar would have six years of government protection before having to stand or fall on its share value. This would take the form of a Golden Share retained by the Secretary of State. John Egan’s love-in with the conservative government meanwhile came to its peak that year with a Knighthood.
Jaguar’s new knight-gaffer didn’t lose sight of commercial realities however. Central to his plans was the ability to invest and play the financial markets. It’s worth pointing out that Egan was fortunate in that the turnaround coincided with a global spending spree. Luxury car sales boomed on the back of market highs – particularly in the US. Had this not occurred, Jaguar’s position would have remained a good deal weaker.
For Sir William, privatisation was the best possible outcome and those close to him confirmed his delight that the company he founded was free of malign influence. However, his health was rapidly failing and in February 1985, this enigmatic genius passed away. Jaguar lost more than their spiritual leader in Lyons’ passing. Something more intangible was also irrevocably gone.
The autumn of 1983 saw Jaguar offer an AJ6-engined car to the public. The 3.6 litre XJ-S was launched in the familiar coupé bodyshell with the added novelty of a drophead two-seater version. Both were powered by the new AJ6 unit in 225 bhp 24-valve form. The British motoring press devoted pages of copy to the introduction, this being the first all-new Jaguar engine since the V12 of 1971. Expectations were high, given the peerless refinement of the larger-displacement unit. The fact that this engine would become the mainstay power unit for XJ40 only added to its significance.
UK journal, Motor gave the 3.6 a decidedly lacklustre review which must have caused some alarm at Browns Lane, stating; “the engine is afflicted by an underlying roughness present throughout the rev range, which isn’t only heard but felt through the toe board”. While weekly rival, Autocar was less overt in its criticism, both journals noted the installation needed further development. Refinement fell below expectations and reviewers suffered notable driveline shunt on the over-run, largely because the bulk of AJ6 development was carried out with automatic transmission. The Getrag gearbox was also criticised for its notchy and stiff action. None of which augured particularly well for XJ40 and confirm that significant aspects of the car were not ready.
With the launch date being continually revised it became common practice to sneer at Egan’s vacillation. Journalists and union representatives claimed Egan was merely playing games, guessing when to launch. As the whispers grew louder, Egan retaliated, stating; “you don’t become number one by taking short cuts”. There was some truth in this assertion, especially now Series III was selling so well. Perhaps they didn’t really need XJ40 so badly after all. With speculation running rife, calls from the press to launch the car grew more virulent. Motor’s Howard Walker sniped at Egan’s earlier assertion, noting; “you don’t become number one either by launching a new car that is already becoming dated”.
Meanwhile, XJ40’s bruising gestation gained another high profile casualty. By 1985 Norman Dewis had became disillusioned with what he saw as an increasingly politicised atmosphere within Browns Lane and retired. With him, one of the last of the Lyons-era stalwarts departed.
With autumn 1986 settled as the definitive launch date, further slippage would neither have been credible or expedient, after all, there was the share price to consider. The big question was despite having raked up millions of miles in all climatic conditions, was XJ40 ready? Jaguar hadn’t launched a new car utilising untried technology, a new platform and an all-new engine since 1950. Their German rivals were not standing still either – BMW soon to launch a high-tech 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz at work on a new S-Class.
Meanwhile, Series III continued selling strongly. By now the car, well made and reliable, was viewed with genuine affection, Jaguar’s US dealers in particular expressing concern that Series III was to be replaced by an untried design. But finally, after 18 years, three distinct series; having seen them through the best and worst of times, the car that saved Jaguar’s bacon was to (semi)-retire. It was a remarkable turnaround for a model that just six years previously had been a laughing stock. The Series III was one of the true greats and like Jaguar’s late founder, its passing would be marked with genuine sorrow.
Jaguar was gearing up for the launch of its life. In April 1986, 128 phase eight prototype’s were built – the final pre-production models. Throughout the month of September, Jaguar took over the Dunkeld House Hotel in the Scottish Highlands for the press and dealer launch. After 14 years, £200m and over 5 million miles of proving, the all-new XJ6 was finally revealed.
With Jaguar gearing up for their most important launch in generations, the company faced a vastly different landscape to the one that existed when XJ40 was initiated over a decade earlier. In 1972, Britain languished outside the Common Market, although Ted Heath’s government would take the UK into the EEC the following year. 1972 also saw Sir William Lyons’ retirement and Jaguar’s complete immersion into BLMC.
The same year also saw the final Apollo space mission take place, bookending an era of celestially-focused optimism. Between them, glam-rockers, Slade and T-Rex topped the UK singles charts for 10 weeks. Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ was the year’s top-grossing movie.
1986 by contrast sees the Thatcher government’s policy of ‘hands-off’ market economics reaching its apogee with the ‘Big Bang’ stock market deregulation and the public floatation of British Gas. Plans to build a channel tunnel herald a shift in the UK’s relationship with mainland Europe. British Leyland change their name to Rover Group.
1986 witnesses a more stark reversal in space exploration, the Challenger shuttle disaster bringing NASA to its knees. Cover versions spend 11 weeks at the top of the UK charts: The Communard’s version of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ being the top selling single of the year. ‘Top Gun’ is the year’s big hit film.
Presiding over record profitability, Sir John Egan remains the darling of the City – his opinion sought on matters both business and politic. By 1986 Jaguar are in vastly better financial shape than they had ever been in Sir William’s time. Profits are huge, buoyed by booming sales in the United States and Jaguar’s currency speculations.
In truth, the majority of the newly privatised company’s profits stem from this practice of forward buying, making Jaguar as much financial services company as car manufacturer. Nevertheless, investment remains low and with Jaguar’s facilities still archaic, much still needs to be done to bring its manufacturing facilities out of the dark ages.
Having been fast-tracked with a hopelessly unrealistic development schedule, engineers were gifted an additional two-year period to hone the car. But with component suppliers sitting on their hands until Jaguar was ready to launch, the question was whether the grace period had bought Jaguar time to adequately debug the car, or merely brought XJ40 late to market?
In keeping with the nation’s appetite for nostalgia, the new Jaguar was itself something of a cover version – certainly as far as exterior style was concerned. Overall, the shape was classy and feline. The frontal aspect was assertive and for a Jaguar, bold – especially when fitted with the striking rectangular headlamp units.
Much effort was made to ensure XJ40 closely resembled its predecessor but the result was a sometimes uncomfortable blend of old and new. So where the treatment of the side window trim and bumpers harked back to Series III, a more contemporary execution might have been preferable. By contrast, the single wiper – (which failed to park neatly), flush wheel trims, and Lucas high-contrast tail-lamp units looked like afterthoughts and jarred with the more traditional appearance elsewhere.
The discord continued inside. While the interior was well finished and luxurious, old and new collided uncomfortably. The vacuum fluorescent instruments, the last vestige of the original high-tech interior concept, were retained, which in conjunction with the dot matrix Vehicle Condition Monitor gave XJ40 a distinctly ‘Blake’s Seven’ ambience.
In mitigation, the J-Gate quadrant gear selector cleverly solved the much-publicised selector issues of older models. Perfect the XJ40 was not, but it was good. How good would now be up to press and customers to decide.
[Author’s note: Blake’s Seven was a popular 1980’s low-budget BBC science fiction series]
Phase Four – 1986-1994: A short honeymoon
It even made the TV news. On the 8th October 1986, Jaguar finally revealed their long-anticipated XJ6 and the UK media went nuts. There wasn’t this much excitement since the Austin Metro launch, six years previously. Car, devoted 28 editorial pages to the new Jag, describing it as a triumph of engineering against overwhelming odds, which to some extent it was.
Veteran pundit LJK Setright summed up the magazine’s position in characteristic fashion, “…to recognise the Jaguar as a fact of engineering could not mean as much as to realise it as a feat of poetry: to drive the car will eventually be enough”. LJKS was enraptured by the XJ6’s engineering integrity and would remain a vocal proponent of XJ40 and of Jaguar’s chief engineer in the years to follow. Fellow Car journalist, Gavin Green added, “Jaguar has just announced what we and plenty of others say is the world’s finest saloon car.”
Car wasn’t alone in its praise. Performance Car‘s Jeff Daniels returned from the Dunkeld press launch with few doubts, telling readers, “Does it succeed? Of course it does. If one could sum it up in a rather oblique way, don’t imagine Sir John Egan is joking when he talks of 100,000 cars a year from Browns Lane in the foreseeable future. There is that kind of market for a car that sets these standards.”
In fact, the entire UK press corps were as one about what was by all accounts a tremendously accomplished motor car. The XJ40’s road behaviour was singled out for most plaudits – Jaguar once again setting a new benchmark in suspension compliance and ride quality, just as its predecessor had 18 years previously.
Motor described it as “one of the most remarkable cars we’ve tested for a long time”, lauding the car’s high-speed ride comfort as ‘astounding’ and the 2.9 model as being ‘stupendously good value for money’. They hailed its ride, handling and refinement as having ‘no equal’. Weekly rivals, Autocar, were equally smitten, Mark Gillies describing the Jaguar as, “a superb car… a lesson to those who think that excellence is dead in the British car industry.”
It was a personal triumph for Jim Randle, a man who personified the term modest, and having seen XJ40 through all manner of turmoil, his stock was never higher. Another highlight was Randle’s presentation to the prestigious Institute of Mechanical Engineers in London – the task of manoeuvring an XJ40 into the historic building proving almost as challenging as developing the car itself.
John Egan too was refreshingly honest about the risks of replacing an icon, admitting to Car’s Steve Cropley, “I have been worried whether XJ40 is sufficiently different from Series III. I’ve also worried whether it’s too different”. Sleepless nights no doubt, because XJ40 would now make up over 60% of Jaguar’s volume. The car simply had to be right.
Derek Waeland pointed out the gulf Jaguar was trying to bridge; one example being when XJ40 was conceived, door gaps of six mm were not uncommon, however by 1986, four mm had become the norm. With first-hand knowledge of the location of the bodies buried in order to make the launch date, he went on to admit, “There are lots of compromises in the car of course, but we think it works”.
Quickly, demand for the new model outstripped supply. Jaguar astutely priced the entry level 2.9 model to undercut executive favourites like the Granada Scorpio and Rover Sterling, the very thing former BL Chairman Ray Horrocks had been desperate to avoid. Jaguar’s advertising stating that for the price of an ‘executive car’, buyers could have a genuine luxury vehicle.
For many, there could only be one choice and by December, XJ40’s were selling at significant premiums as customers clamoured to be the first with Jaguar’s new star. It was all just a little history repeating.
Because the press had given Sir John Egan the benefit of the doubt, there was bound to be a backlash at some point. Sure enough, words like dated soon started to appear in relation to XJ40’s styling, particularly criticism over the headlight and tail lamp treatments. Moreover, the press were of one mind regarding the instrument display and minor controls – they hated them.
Motor magazine tested a manual 2.9 model in December 1986, finding performance and fuel economy to be poor. Although Jaguar admitted the 2.9 unit was more of an economy engine in terms of production costs than from a fuel consumption standpoint, one can’t help but wonder why such an underpowered engine was sanctioned in the first place.
They also reported an “ever-present tingling sensation felt through the pedals and gearlever”, suggesting refinement remained an issue with the AJ6 engine. They were unhappy with the instruments too, complaining the fluorescent tubes for the minor gauges were too bright and difficult to read quickly, saying; “The overall effect is disappointingly downmarket and can’t be regarded as a success”. In addition, Motor’s testers flagged up a vagueness in the steering around the straight-ahead, observing; “…the car’s natural tendency is to wander and it is more easily blown off course by gusting side winds than Jaguar might like to believe”.
Jaguar’s arch-rivals also kept their enthusiasm in check. Mercedes-Benz engineers praised the AJ6 engine but little else. BMW’s Eberhard Von Kuhnheim, told Car that Jaguar, was simply not a rival. BMW had just launched a new (E32) 7-Series model and journalists clamoured to compare them. Needless to say, the Seven was a superb product, marrying tradition with modernity in a very pleasing manner. Many auto journalists concluded the BMW was superior, being palpably more accomplished – comfort, silence and ultimate handling finesse aside.
XJ40 gained one well placed defender however in Uwe Bahnsen, Ford’s eminent former European design chief. Discussing both models with Car‘s Geoffrey Howard, he observed; “In many ways Jaguar have moved much further forward because the uniqueness of their image and character was more than BMW’s and the task was much harder.”
In the US, Road & Track were generally positive in their 1987 review of the car, but also faulted the instrument layout, the quality of some interior fittings and its ‘sedate’ power delivery from standstill. But their sum-up got to the nub of America’s ambivalence towards XJ40, stating; “What we have here, meanwhile, is an excellent replacement for a car that turned out to be so desirable it didn’t really need to be replaced.” The US press as a whole were less effusive and it began to appear as though it would live in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor in American hearts and minds.
In addition to issues of finish, problems arose with the self-levelling rear suspension, brakes, rear axles and electrics, largely owing to inconsistent assembly and poor quality components, raising a serious question over whether the British motor industry could still operate at World class. Jaguar was breaking new ground and would pay a price for being first in the field. Problems were not entirely confined to the US, although there were climatic and use issues that were unique to the region. Either way, warranty costs began to escalate.
Car subjected a well-worn press car to a comparison test in November 1987. Against a Rover Sterling and a Vauxhall Senator, the XJ6 easily took the honours, but with this proviso; “If showroom cars are built like the one we were given, then we’re worried… there’s no doubt in our mind that this car won’t look good enough in a year or three”. The pre-production XJ rattled, had trim and panel fit issues and showed early signs of rust.
But you can’t un-launch a car, and with vultures circling, Egan and his team faced a new battle – to restore XJ40’s reputation.
With the British motoring press sharpening their quills, Car’s concluding long-term report on an early 3.6 Sovereign sounded a somewhat conciliatory note. “Because it did some things remarkably well, the contrast with the things it did badly was sharper. Mostly it was the detail design that gripped us with despair… It rings of the bells of time running out and shortcut solutions running freely.”
They went on to say, “It provided surprises and mysteries but never shocks. Beyond that our Jaguar proved the company has not stretched the truth unreasonably in their claims for the product. It was durable, reasonably reliable and driving it was always an event”.
But beneath the faint praise lay an undercurrent of disappointment in Jaguar’s claims. Car’s William Doyle suggested in June 1988 that part of the reason behind Jaguar’s quality problems lay in the necessity to constantly raise production in order to bolster Jaguar’s share price.
According to analysts, the only way Egan could prevent a hostile takeover once the Government waived its controlling golden share was to make the company too valuable to buy outright. Increased output meant improved profitability, but the large influx of inexperienced production line workers meant quality and productivity suffered. As Egan’s grace period evaporated, the balancing act looked ever more precarious.
In 1983, Egan is said to have considered relocating the entire production facility to a green field site, but following a revelatory visit to Porsche’s Weissach research facility, he elected to build a new engineering and design centre, acquiring the former Chrysler premises at Whitley. While the need was obvious, at over £55m when it opened in 1988, it appeared like a luxury Jaguar could ill afford.
All leaders need a monument to their ambitions and some commentators accused Whitley of being Egan’s edifice. Furthermore, despite Whitley’s glassy modernity, Jaguar’s stylists were already becoming enslaved by the past.
Behind the scenes, the engineering team were completing a series of improvements. When the AJ6 engine was schemed during the 1970’s, the view was it would deliver a satisfactory balance of performance and economy. Now as a power race developed, customers demanded more performance and more displacement.
Jim Randle had a twin-turbocharged AJ6 in hand but with Mercedes and BMW launching new twelve cylinder power units, it became a matter of prestige to retaliate with Jaguar’s own V12. But XJ40 couldn’t accommodate it. So not only would AJ6 require more power, the entire front structure of the car would also require extensive re-engineering.
Amongst various proposals considered to expand XJ40’s appeal was an elegant estate proposal, a weekend skunkworks project initiated by Randle which failed to find favour with Jaguar’s board.
A mild facelift was enacted in autumn 1989 to coincide with newly enlarged 4.0-litre AJ6 engines. The additional torque of the 4.0-litre unit was much appreciated, especially in Catalyst form. A twin-cam 3.2-litre unit would follow later, proving a notable improvement on the under-performing 2.9, despite the fact that it would now sit above the tax threshold in many European markets. The revised model’s restyled analogue instruments, trim enhancements and host of subtle changes successfully addressed many of XJ40’s faults.
But Jaguar now faced a new rival from Japan in the shape of the Lexus LS400. Developed without budgetary constraint, this car would utterly redefine the luxury car benchmark, especially in the US. Recalling the reception the LS400 received at Browns Lane, Former Product Strategy Manager Jonathan Partridge told this author, “That was a real wake up call. We got one fairly early on and it was chilling in every respect.”
Browns Lane’s response to Lexus appeared tentative and with the US market back in recession, their fortunes took a nosedive.
Jaguar’s rehabilitation was dubbed the Egan Miracle by a UK press charmed by a compelling narrative and the Lancastrian’s charisma. But by 1989, Sir John’s halo had slipped and the knives were out.
The clamour swiftly reached a pitch where few believed he could hold out, and with Jaguar’s financial prospects in retreat, journalists speculated over who would blink first once the Thatcher Government waived its controlling ‘Golden Share’. The cash-rich and acquisitive US automotive multinationals, smelling blood, began circling.
Most damaging was the effect of Sterling’s strength against the Dollar. Previously around $12k more expensive than a rival Cadillac, Jaguars now cost $20k more. Faced with a car less well liked than its predecessor, yet costing substantially more, the situation didn’t look good. Speaking in an interview with Performance Car in 1989, he stated; “Running this company at $1.20 [to the pound] is very easy, whereas running it at $1.80 is immensely difficult… a great mountain of money is lost on currency each year… in the region of £60m for the last two or three years”
Egan also faced XJ40 quality issues head on, declaring; “We discovered that it was much more difficult than we thought and we did take a backward step with the first year or so. It wasn’t because the car wasn’t very robust – it was. The problem was the creation of manufacturing processes to equal the design intent. I suppose it’s natural to say we were inexperienced”.
As usual, Egan talked a good fight, but beneath the veneer appeared a man growing somewhat weary of the struggle, adding; “I’ve often wondered what I’ve done to deserve all this… Every damn year has been very, very difficult”. Nevertheless, he reiterated his belief that Jaguar could maintain its independence, saying; “we’ve been approached over the years by most of the world’s car industry. And we explain why we want to remain independent and I must say a lot of very serious people have respected that. I also know we’re been offered tremendous help by some of the people we thought as competitors.”
Facing the prospect of a corporate raider taking control, Jim Randle told chronicler John Underwood, “I would feel that in some way I had failed… I feel a tremendous emotional interest in keeping the company independent.” Hampering matters was the fact that not only were Jaguar’s shareholders mostly speculators with little long-term loyalty, the UK Government were of an entirely non-interventionist bent.
Talks with General Motors were opened over an equity stake that would retain some autonomy and a jointly developed medium-sized car. Of all interested parties however, Ford was making the most noise. The summer of 1989 saw the sudden termination of the government’s Golden Share and this development, coupled with September’s half year profit collapse of £21m, prompted the Blue Oval’s offer to swallow the company entirely.
With GM appearing to prevaricate, Egan and his board viewed Ford’s offer as hostile, urging shareholders to reject the deal, but once it became apparent there was little alternative, they relented. Ford, in their eagerness to carry the day, paid over five-times Jaguar’s market value. With the deal done, Egan departed – the brief era of independence and hope was over.
Sir John Egan’s skills lay more with people and processes rather than design or engineering. However, his contribution to Jaguar’s survival was real and unquestionable. Without his efforts, Jaguar simply could not have been revived. During the boom years of the mid-1980’s, Egan and his finance director, John Edwardes wisely invested Jaguar’s profits; their policy of forward-buying US currency providing a vital buffer against the volatility of the money markets. It also provided them with massive profits, bolstering the business and his reputation for fiscal prudence.
But global economics and government policy conspired against them at the worst possible time. Had Egan found a safe berth before the government left him out to dry, things might have ended differently. However, it must also be argued that he never truly got a grip on manufacturing, failing to modernise Jaguar’s archaic Browns Lane plant.
Meanwhile, the close of 1990 saw another another giant leave the stage. Margaret Thatcher, the UK Prime Minister who presided over the economic conditions for Jaguar’s success, was ousted by elements within the Conservative party fed up with her arrogance and dogmatism. As the the cameras flashed and a tearful iron lady clambered into the official car that would carry her into the history books, it was perhaps appropriate that her chariot of exile should be an XJ40. It was after all, ‘Maggie’s motor‘…
Bent on beating General Motors to the punch, it appears the Blue Oval not only overpaid but failed to carry out a sufficiently thorough pre-purchase inspection. As the scale of Jaguar’s issues became clear, budgets and new car programmes were slashed. It didn’t take long for the briefings to start, the US giant unashamedly publicising their findings, seemingly oblivious to the negative PR this would engender – to say nothing about morale.
With Egan gone, hardnut manufacturing expert, Bill Hayden was drafted out of retirement. He made no bones about what he thought of the Browns Lane factory, telling the press the only worse facility he’d toured was in Soviet Russia. Hayden’s abrasive style put the fear of God into the workforce, allowing him to push through reforms Egan could never have envisaged.
Deputy Chairman, John Grant was more emollient however, telling journalists; “Jaguar’s efficiency is not good. The working practices are not modern and this will have to change”. He also pointed out that few of Jaguar’s suppliers met Ford’s Q1 quality standards, but that ‘Ford is helping’.
Manufacturing received the bulk of investment, while engineering bore the brunt of the cuts. Not only did Jim Randle lose much of his team, Hayden decreed that most of Geoff Lawson’s stylists would be outsourced across Ford’s studios. Desperate rearguard action saw William Clay Ford intervene, allowing a shrunken styling team to remain in place.
In 1991 Hayden acted against Jim Randle, shunting him into an advanced engineering backwater, a development the veteran Jaguar engineering chief saw for what it was. The architect of XJ40 walked out in despair, forging an esteemed career in academia and engineering consultancy.
Curiously, Randle’s arc matched that of his predecessor and mentor, Bob Knight. At the peak of their careers, both men’s positions were made untenable. Both chose to walk away rather than accept a diminished role. History repeats. Randle’s contribution to protecting the integrity of the marque, both politically and creatively was of immense importance, but his departure also marked the end of an entire engineering ethos. Because whatever one’s view of the Jaguars which followed, with Jim Randle’s departure something intangible went with him. Some might call it soul.
Replacement, Clive Ennos began a root and branch reorganisation, adopting Ford practices and procedures. The V12 engine installation for XJ40 was restarted with the aim of improving quality and to future-proof the platform for its impending replacement. Dubbed XJ81, it appeared in 1993, straight into the teeth of a global recession.
With an upgraded 6.0-litre version of the 12-cylinder unit, it was a fine motor car but refinement was said to have fallen below the stellar levels achieved by its predecessor and fuel consumption remained eye-watering. The same year saw a final round of improvements to the six-cylinder models, the most evident being a redesigned interior. At the very apogee of its lifespan, XJ40 was thoroughly debugged.
But time was running out. Car tested a Daimler Double Six model against formidable German opposition in July 1994. Holding true to the now ageing model, Car opined; “The first tendrils of old age may have stolen upon it, but this car still represents a magnificent achievement.”
They went on to laud it for; “the fabulous tranquillity of its cabin, its sensuous good looks, the effortless force of its engine and its sheer strength of character.” But in their summary, they were unequivocal about its shortcomings. Criticising the level of road and wind noise, the refinement of the V12 installation, the oddly placed interior controls and damningly, its build, they stated; “As a high-quality product, it is way off-target… its imminent facelift can’t come soon enough.”
A replacement was in hand, work starting on a successor dubbed XJ90 some time prior to Ford’s arrival. Randle latterly told this author, “[XJ90] was four inches longer in wheelbase than XJ40. It was taller, it had the styling that you see on X300, more or less. That styling had been around for quite a long time, by the way. It was one of the things that Ford found in our goodie bag. [It] was very well received by Bill Hayden, who notably said he was going to have an orgasm! All they did after that really was to take the front and rear of XJ90 and put it on XJ40.”
With Jaguar haemorrhaging millions, it was a case of make do and mend. With a more ambitious reskin ruled out, work progressed on a compromise solution dubbed X300 which would prove to be a notably better finished and refined product. Stylistically speaking, X300 harked unashamedly back to the much loved Series III, yet there was a slightly unhappy transatlantic element to it.
Either way, with its autumn 1994 launch, XJ40 was (outwardly at least) consigned to the history books. But its core lived on, forming the basis not only for X300, but also the revised X308 model which continued until 2002.
Sir John Egan considered cancelling the XJ40 programme in 1984 and starting afresh, stating he was talked out of it, not only by his board, but by Sir William Lyons. This remains one of the great unknowns regarding the car, as it’s 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 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 press who previously had accorded him messianic status 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 to 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, many (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 could attest, how is it possible to forge a future when the past keeps returning to haunt you?
©Driven to Write. All rights reserved. This article may not be copied, republished (in full or in part) or used in any form without the written permission of the author.
Sources / Credits / Further reading:
Project XJ40 – Philip Porter
XJ40- Evolution of the Species – Andrew Whyte
John Egan & The Will to Win – John Underwood
Norman Dewis – Developing the Legend – Paul Skilleter
Sir William Lyons The Authorised Biography – Philip Porter/Paul Skilleter
AROnline / Motor (11 Oct 1986) / Autocar (8 Oct/Oct 15 1986) / Car (November 1986/March 1986/Nov 1987)
Performance Car (November 1986)