In the second of our postscripts to the XJ40 story, we profile its architect.
“To meet Jim Randle and to talk to him is to go into a quiet and refined world. Randle is a precise, immaculately tailored executive, whose voice is pitched so low you immediately know why an XJ12 is so refined.” (Motor historian, Graham Robson)
When auto journalists profiled Jim Randle, the same adjective just kept cropping up. Following the dapper and avuncular William Heynes and the professorial Bob Knight, Randle was an engineering chief from Jaguar central casting. Quiet spoken, brilliantly clever and refreshingly free of ego, Randle was the engineer’s engineer. Autocar’s Michael Scarlett said this; “The manner is diffident, the speech soft… but there is a wicked sense of humour which surfaces in quiet ironies and occasional boisterous amusement”. Quiet and likeable then, but where does James Neville Randle stand in the pantheon of former Jaguar Engineering greats?
Apprenticed at Rover, Randle’s career began in earnest at Solihull developing the ground breaking P6 saloon before joining Jaguar in 1965 as development engineer on the XJ saloon project. By the age of 35 he was Bob Knight’s deputy and protégé, by 1980 succeeding him as director of vehicle engineering. As one of the most formidable engineering brains in the UK motor industry, it was from Knight that Randle was inculcated into the thoughtful scholarly approach, as he recounted to Andrew Whyte in 1981. “Motor cars always respond to good scientific logic: my predecessor always used to say ‘one looks at a problem, breaks it down into its component parts and then applies logic’. There’s no brilliance, just careful attention to detail”.
Working closely with Knight certainly benefited the quality and depth of his learning but perhaps also fed a sense of deadlines being somewhat arbitrary concepts. Knight was a notorious perfectionist who, left to his own devices, would finesse until doomsday. Jaguars were habitually late to market – in no small part to Knight’s perfectionism. Randle also saw first hand as his boss worked himself into the ground on the nascent XJ40 project while simultaneously trying to keep BL from subsuming what was left of Jaguar’s engineering nerve centre; events that must have had a profound affect on the younger man. After Knight’s sudden departure in 1980, Randle took responsibility for XJ40 and became its chief custodian. Randle lived and breathed the car over the six years it took to bring the project to market. His stamp was all over the car, an insider once commenting; ‘XJ40 is Jim’.
Another legacy of his years with Knight was a somewhat anarchic disposition; of rules being there to be broken. Describing himself as something of a maverick, he frequently commissioned pieces of work and often entire car programmes without official sanction. The XJ41 (F-Type) was one such – tacked on at the last minute to the official 1980 XJ40 proposal. Sir Michael Edwardes reportedly so smitten by Keith Helfet’s renders, he sanctioned the car on the spot. Similarly, XJ220 began as a secret weekend project called ‘The Saturday Club’.
“Funny thing is every time I bring up a new programme, all my people say; ‘it can’t be done, we haven’t enough people’ and I say if I believed that, we wouldn’t have XJ40 and you’d be out of a Job. I’m afraid blind optimism can be quite useful at times.” Jim Randle
Certainly, following the acclaimed launch of the ’40, his stock was never higher. But as difficulties arose with the the car, doubts crept in. There is reason to suspect once Randle and his engineering team moved to the state of the art engineering centre at Whitley, an over-emphasis on CAD and the politics involved in managing a vastly larger team meant Randle’s hands-on role became muddied. It remains difficult to ascertain precisely transpired during this period, but once Ford took over and realised what how much sizzle and how little steak they had bought, there was little mood for Randle’s subtle, almost anarchic style, which was always going to be at odds with Bill Hayden’s rule-by-fear approach.
Shunted sideways in Hayden’s schisms, Randle had enough and resigned, with little by way of recompense for the years of struggle and sacrifice. Following a period developing a gas turbine hybrid project for Volvo, he moved into academia, heading Birmingham University’s Automotive Engineering faculty; gaining a reputation for innovation and future thinking. More recent projects have included innovative aluminium structures for Morgan and Lea Francis. Highly respected within the UK engineering universe, Randle was latterly described by Garel Rhys, Professor of motor industry economics at Cardiff University as ‘a visionary engineer’; something which appears in shorter supply with each passing year.
Like his mentor, Bob Knight, Jim Randle was a quiet and studious man; an intellectual in an environment where such qualities were not always appreciated. Both men shunned the limelight and the media’s glare. Both engendered respect and affection amongst their contemporaries. Both also left Jaguar under a cloud, with little recognition for their long careers and fierce loyalty. Both deserved better.
Sadly, Randle is at best remembered for a car that is only now gaining respectability after years in the wilderness. Most of his later work at Jaguar never saw the light of day – even the signature XJ220 project was significantly watered down. Given his passion and genuine love for the marque, not to mention his enormous contribution to its engineering reputation, it’s high time James Neville Randle was given due prominence within Jaguar’s iconography.
Does he stand shoulder to shoulder with engineering giants like Bill Haynes or Bob Knight? Unquestionably.
Driven to Write also recommends this extensive interview with Jim Randle.
Sources: The Times/Motor/Autocar/Thoroughbred & Classic Cars.
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