The 2003 X350-series marked the point where Jaguar’s retro styling path met its maker. We examine its failure.
Had Sir William Lyons been working in the current era, it’s likely he’d have continued to plough his own stylistic furrow. Many have speculated on how Jaguar’s founder might have evolved the ‘Lyons line’, but in his wake, all we have is a subsequent body of work that amounts to studied guesswork on the part of the old master’s successors.
The quality of Jaguar’s stylistic output in recent decades can best be described as patchy; certainly few could reasonably argue that anything produced in recent decades matches that of Lyons at his apex.
The Ford era has justifiably been viewed as one where issues around production engineering, build, material quality and durability were largely solved. Ford’s grasp of the essentials ensured Jaguars produced in the last 15 years achieved parity with German prestige rivals. This is not an achievement to be taken lightly. Without it, Jaguar would not currently be in the same room, let alone the same table.
Ford’s management and manufacturing processes allowed Jaguar modernise following decades of underinvestment, but when it came to styling, Uncle Henry’s aesthetic preferences were a good deal less forward thinking.
There were two compelling reasons for this. Ford’s product planners were repeatedly told by customers that they loved the traditional style and would resist attempts at modernisation. Coupled to this intelligence was the fact that Dearborn grandee, William Clay Ford Snr also favoured a style more redolent of old Albion. Evaluating styling, Ford’s éminence grise was apt to choose one he could envisage parked outside his country estate. As custodians of Jaguar’s styling heritage therefore, Ford’s vision can be best described as one of embalment.
But while it’s comforting to lay the responsibility for Jaguar’s lurch solely at Ford’s door, Geoff Lawson’s styling team at Browns Lane were also looking in the rearview mirror. Lawson was appointed styling director in 1984 and arguably there really wasn’t a tougher brief to be found. Although he spent his early months being inculcated in the nuances of Jaguar style by its venerable founder, Sir William’s failing health is likely to have prevented much useful cross-pollination taking place.
Lawson seemed under few illusions, adopting a retrospective design ethos as a matter of course. So while the standard of presentation became commendably high under his tutelage, completed designs emerging from his studio seemed at best, inferior cover versions of Lyons’ back catalogue. Some have asserted this stemmed from a lack of talent, but that sells several skilled stylists short.
There is evidence to suggest that left to his own devices, Lawson might have favoured a more progressive look. However, once Ford took control, US tastes would over-rule all considerations, Lawson once telling a journalist; “Designing cars is like making a film, most of it ends up on the cutting-room floor”. Either way, Geoff Lawson’s legacy is a family of cars that embody a lost generation.
In 2003, Jaguar announced their seventh generation XJ saloon, on an all-new platform, codenamed X350. Ford’s inability to amortise the development costs of this car and its X-Type sibling were at root of Jaguar’s catastrophic losses later in the decade, both proving hugely expensive market failures. X350’s gestation was fraught with technical problems, delaying its introduction by as much as a year. Its predecessor’s styling had been widely regarded as a success, and this factor played no small part in the decision to continue with a well-established theme.
The decision to retain the long-running XJ style came about after a number of alternative schemes were explored, which of course is standard industry practice. As can be seen from images shown above, the four alternate proposals share similar styling motifs, cleaving to themes already established by the 1998 S-type and 2001 X-Type models. And while one can understand the desire to establish a family look, one is struck by a paucity of vision.
Is the adoption of the lesser of several evils sufficient justification for proceeding with such a disappointingly narrow execution? Because if we agree that the original 1968 XJ can be lauded as the most elegant four door saloon ever – (and I think we can) – X350 stands as the most tepid of re-imaginings.
Geoff Lawson suffered a stroke in the autumn of 1999, and died aged 54. Ian Callum was appointed as his successor. X350’s style had gelled by this point, and he was informed no alteration would be possible. It can be gleaned from Callum’s utterances on the subject that his enthusiasm for the car is less than stellar, but the Scotsman undoubtedly understands better than most the nuances that lurk beneath simplistic expressions of blame.
What he did say at the time was characteristically diplomatic. “It is more important that something is right than it is different. Other proposals were not conceptually elegant solutions. Jaguar, quite rightly, chose the elegant route.”
Looking at the proposals again, Callum is of course factually correct, but it’s tempting to imagine just how clenched his jaw must have been when he uttered those words. More recently, he was somewhat more forthcoming, telling Jaguar World magazine, “I did protest slightly about that car, but was told categorically there would be no change. I really had no idea how to behave so I did as I was told… I should have been more outspoken and could have changed it.”
With the design for X350 in aspic, two significant launches took place, both of which had a profound effect upon the XJ’s ongoing prospects. The 2001 announcement of the E65-series BMW 7-Series reconfigured the design conversation for the sector overnight. Developed within the same timescale as Jaguar’s flagship by a team intent on pushing boundaries, both aesthetically and creatively they were from different eras.
A year later, Porsche stunned the market with the announcement of the Cayenne. This car, in conjunction with the L322 Range Rover would elevate the luxury SUV to hitherto unimaginable heights; hastening the decline of the luxury saloon itself. Into this environment, Jaguar’s new flagship made its entrance in 2003, and its reception was far from rapturous.
Despite car designers being better placed to critique their peers’ work than some self-appointed online know-all, public displays of criticism tend to be swerved. Porsche design director, Michael Mauer however wasn’t exactly holding back when he told the New York Times; “When I first saw the photos I had to look at the text to understand this is the new car. It’s not even evolutionary”.
Former Jaguar stylist, Mark Lloyd, (now at Citroën), suggested; “They are prisoners of the magic of the Jaguar experience”. Martin Smith, (then working at Opel), urged Jaguar to evolve with the times, saying: “Jaguar is still in Savile Row, but it needs to move to the more fashionable end of the business, to Oswald Boateng and Richard James”. Peter Horbury, (former Volvo designer), was also less than impressed, lamenting; “The British car industry seems to insist its cars are from a 1950’s theme park”.
To have inspired the disdain of the automotive design world was one thing, to be rejected by the very customer base the car was aimed at, something else again. X350 came at the point when Jaguar customers fell out of love with a romantically themed interpretation of the past. In a post 9/11 world, buyers wanted something less cosy, more weapon-like.
While its (X308) predecessor sold in excess of 126,000* units over a five year lifespan, total X350 production amounted to just over 85,500 over seven. Not entirely a disgrace but an overall drop of 32%. Run the numbers as an average, and they make even less comfortable reading.
X308 averaged over 25,000 units per annum, while its successor managed just over 12,000 units; making it the slowest-selling XJ series of all. Bernstein Research extrapolated that Ford lost in excess of $2.36bn** over the life of the concurrent X-Type model and while similar figures for X350 remain unavailable, given its development costs, the numbers can only be guessed at.
The critical drubbing Jaguar received at the XJ’s launch and its subsequent commercial failure led to a belated realisation by Ford that their interference was central to Jaguar’s decline. “Maybe we’re coddling it” a senior Ford director told Car magazine in 2004. Hindsight illustrates that entrenched creative decisions made during the scoping phase of X350’s development doomed the car.
You can say that Jaguar and Ford were victims of circumstance, not seeing the oncoming post-millennium shift. But slice it any way you like, their customer data was wrong. Senior management elected to evolve a style that not only struggled to support the expensively developed (and larger) aluminium architecture beneath, but in pursuing a traditional theme, devalued it. In hindsight, X350 can be seen for what it was – a bankrupt formula whose time had passed.
For Ford, it marked a point when they realised they were not cut out for the slings, arrows and vast expense of second-guessing the prestige car market. Within three more years, they would abandon it (and Jaguar) entirely. X350 cost Uncle Henry dear, but the cost to Jaguar would prove far greater.
First published 14 April 2014