Ghosts of Browns Lane.
Today, Jaguar’s Heritage collection is in safer hands but in the closing months of 2011 the future looked a good deal more uncertain. We take a look back at Jaguar’s former museum prior to its demolition.
You can tell a good deal about the ethos of a car company by how it views its past. Enzo Ferrari was notorious for his callous attitude to last season’s race car; many simply destroyed, since in his view the only good car was the next one. Such views were not uncommon amidst the grand marques, resulting in vast sums being spent buying back significant cars once they realised exactly what a well curated museum would do for their image. So while it remains fairly unlikely that Ssangyong has seen fit to lay up a pristine Rexton for posterity, anyone with an image to project and a heritage to exploit either already has or really ought to.
Porsche spent millions on the ‘Monolith’; the futuristic Delugan Meissl-designed architectural marvel of a museum in Stuttgart. Mercedes and BMW’s museums are also tourist destinations in themselves – attracting both the petrolhead and long-suffering in equal measure. All elicit a clear, somewhat Pavlovian response from the enthusiast.
Over time certain place names attain a certain resonance. Maranello, Sant’Agata Bolognese or Zuffenhausen are names that conjure up all manner of images depending on how much petrol vapour you’ve been inhaling. But some are by turn prosaic, nondescript. Take Browns Lane – part of a Coventry suburb called Allesley – it really is nowheresville CV5. However this quiet residential road once transcended its drab West Midlands aspect, placing it firmly into the realm of the sublime. Because for almost 50 years it was the spiritual home of Jaguar Cars.
Now don‘t misunderstand me, the Browns Lane factory was no architectural marvel; instead a somewhat mouldering mid-20th Century collection of factory buildings, but in these offices and outhouses some of the most exquisite cars of the last 75 years took shape. Keen to expand following the marque’s sales success in the US, Jaguar founder, Sir William Lyons moved the company to this former wartime Daimler ‘Shadow Factory’ in 1951. Legends were born here. Until 1999 all Jaguar cars were built on this site.
But time and fortunes change. Faced with huge losses, Jaguar’s Ford masters took the decision to cease production here in 2005, selling the site to property developers. The main production halls were demolished in 2008. Only the pilot production area remains. Developers are currently creating ‘Lyons Park‘, a new Industrial/business complex; among the new residents will be Peugeot, set to open a distribution centre in 2012. Nice to see one Lion going from strength to strength. But although we can confirm the presence of Lions, I am unable to quantify either giraffes or wildebeest. To say nothing about tigers and bears. Lyons Park – I ask you?
Since it was clearly too late to visit the famous factory the only Browns Lane option left open was Jaguar’s Heritage Museum, a collection of historic cars ranging from the marque’s Swallow Sidecar days right up to the current day. So better late than never I battled torrential rain up the M40, arriving at Jaguar’s former home just as the clouds were parting. In the afternoon drizzle I struggled to picture this quiet suburban road resounding to the throb of engines as some prototype was eased out the factory gates by proving engineer, Norman Dewis. It’s all so blandly suburban. Just faceless housing estates on which I was told had once been fields and farmland. The Taylor Wimpey Sales Information Centre marks the spot where the factory entrance once stood, with new developments sprouting up with names like The Swallow‘s Nest or Sayer Road in a vain attempt to evoke already fading memories.
The Jaguar Heritage building looks forlorn and vulnerable amidst the rapidly encroaching suburban sprawl. Modest is another adjective that springs to mind – Norman Foster it is not. No, instead it sits on a rather isolated corner of what was once the factory site. The wooden façade from the Old Browns Lane office block through which William Lyons would have entered on his way into work now sits somewhat incongruously over the garage entrance, the veneer looking faded and worn. Ford didn’t exactly push the boat out when (Sir) Nick Scheele opened the museum in 1998, but at least they made the effort.
Framed in the garage entrance is the tail of the mythical XJ13 prototype. The throttle blips several times as the 5.0 four cam V12 aggressively slashes the air – a glorious sound. The attendants cut the engine and begin pushing the legendary racer back inside, having cleared the V12‘s lungs, following a 12-plug change. I follow the famous rump inside, drinking in one of the most evocative shapes ever to clothe a racing car. Centrepiece of the collection this has to be – the mid-engined Le Mans contender never turned a wheel in anger owing to management inertia and changes in racing regulations that rendered it obsolete before it could do battle with the P4’s and GT40‘s. It remains a staggeringly beautiful shape – a final flowering before air dams and spoilers changed everything irrevocably. Malcolm Sayer was a genius all right.
The collection also houses several famous production and racing models. The Alpine Rally Gold Cup winning XK120 (NUB 120) is perhaps the most famous of all; this legendary old warhorse, still scuffed and worn from its rallying heyday sits in company with the Bronze XK120 Coupe that averaged 100.31 mph for 7 days and 7 nights at Montlhery in 1952. Naturally, the racing machinery gets the lions share of the attention, so both C and D-Types are present and correct, as is the Touring Championship winning XJ-S, the ill-stared F1 car and a modern GT-3 XK Coupe. The Le-Mans winning XJR-9 was clearly tucked up in bed along with a good 50% of the collection. (Because of space issues, only a fraction of the 120 car collection is on display at any given time, sad to say) Most of the cars are fully operational – the D-Type was just back from the Mille Miglia and the XJ13 had been a star turn at this June’s Festival of Speed at Goodwood.
Apart from a solitary MKII there were few saloon cars from their ‘60’s heyday, although Lady Lyons’ post-War SS Jaguar saloon was in elegant attendance. The Ford years were represented by XJ220, the Daimler Corsica convertible (based on the X300 XJ and a bit of a visual near miss if you ask me), the retro XK180 concept and two more recent Callum-era show cars; the R-Coupe and R-D6. Both look superb in three dimensions and demonstrate vividly just how well Jaguar’s current design director understands form and line. Every inch of available space is occupied with cars, engines and display cases filled with memorabilia, including the stillborn 4 cylinder version of the XK engine. The staff are deeply knowledgeable, mostly ex-Jaguar hands who are happy to pass the time, inform or educate. So yes, several notable cars were absent, but to anyone with a passing interest in the marque, this collection is essential viewing and is all the better for being refreshingly unpretentious.
So happy endings all round then? Well, no, not really. You see, another batch of Wimpey homes is set to be built on site, so Jaguar Heritage must vacate by September 2012 when the museum building is to be torn down. At present, the staff, many of whom have worked for Jaguar all their lives, have no idea where it will be relocating to or indeed whether the museum will remain in Coventry at all. Chatting to several staff who care for the cars one gets the sense that they are anxious and uncertain for the future.
This situation in some ways sums up Ford’s somewhat tainted legacy to Jaguar. “No one is more aware of Brown’s Lane’s fantastic heritage than me, but we are confronted by harsh economic realities” Ford’s Joe Greenwell told Car magazine in 2004 when the Blue Oval announced the factory’s closure, “and if we don’t act, the very future of Jaguar is under threat”. After Uncle Henry’s expansionist dreams, the brash promises, the doomed Formula One campaign, it ends here. Ford squandered $billions on Jaguar and all they have to show for it is a collection of priceless motor cars in a condemned building. Where they will end up appears hostage to an even more depressing set of harsh economic realities.
Later, I drove down a side road past yet another themed housing development to view the enormous mound of earth, all that now remained of Jaguar’s spiritual home. It was overcast and desolate as I stood, looking across the wasteland and pondering the fleeting nature of empires. Sir William Lyons was a colossus in his day but both he and the company he built are gone, prey to the vicissitudes of fortune and the roll of time‘s dice. True, Jaguar lives on in more enlightened hands, but I can’t help feeling that with it’s nerve centre demolished, a little part of Jaguar’s soul has departed forever as well. I suppose it is a bit pointless becoming dewy-eyed about a factory but you take your icons where you find them. Soon the only trace of Jaguar’s presence here will be an X-Type parked outside someone’s starter home.
Strip away the nostalgia and what’s left? Ghosts and faded black & white images. Driving towards Coventry in the evening rush hour, it occurred to me it I’d probably never set foot on Browns Lane again. After all, what would be the point?
(Author’s note: a version of this piece originally appeared in 2011 on the online edition of Car Magazine).