In this second part of our interview with Jonathan Partridge, XJ40’s foibles come under the spotlight.
If Partridge views XJ40 with a degree of ambivalence today, it’s partly that his team dealt with the bulk of negative customer feedback firsthand, and on early cars, it didn’t always make for very edifying reading. “A lot of features were good, you know: corrosion protection, anti-lock braking yaw control, the rear suspension, [but] then the whole electrical thing with low current earth line switching and all the micro-computers was ambitious and at the end of the day I guess they over-stretched themselves.
The design issues were due to things like the single wiper not sweeping very well, the incomprehensible air conditioning with the strange little buttons that had teardrops above them which was meant to be humidity but nobody could understand what that was about.”
It’s quite possible that without a dedicated product planning function at the car’s scoping phase, Jaguar maybe hadn’t fully grasped the US customer’s wants or needs. “I think one of the issues was the company was almost UK-centric in the way it executed product features and so things that the American consumer wanted – if you’re driving in Nevada and you’re heading west, you need some serious sun visors with little extension pieces that block off the mirror. Bits you can pull down lower. We never did that.”
Even something as basic as central locking worked differently in the US, but here too Jaguar were behind the curve. “The norm in Europe was you turn the key and the whole car unlocks, but in America that wasn’t the convention at all. They always just had: turn the key and only the driver’s door unlocks and then there’s a power unlock button on the inside of the door which unlocks the rest of the car. That was all to do with carjacking and people jumping in from the other side.”
XJ40’s low slung body style did also lead to some low-level niggles – one being that of luggage space. “I guess it ranged from the poor layout of the boot to the strange business of the spare wheel – not very luggage friendly [and] some issues with the rear passenger space not being as good as the competition. This was the era when the trim shop was still running. The hides were cut in house, that was all done in the Jaguar trim shop in those days.”
One issue in particular however proved a good deal more serious – particularly for Jaguar’s most crucial market. “We had a lot flack for the Dunlop Michelin TD tyre, because when people had a puncture, it was a completely unique size and rim configuration and okay, it had this one attribute – if your tyre let go in some difficult place, it gave you 50 miles run-flat capability, but unfortunately there was no availability. So we had customers whose car was off the road for more than a week because they had a puncture – unforgivable stuff! I do remember having a little bit of a difficult conversation with Jim [Randle] when he asked why the marketing team was pushing to move away from the TD wheels and tyres, and I told him; ‘I’m surprised you’re asking that.'”
Many of XJ40’s innovations had been created to alleviate known issues with previous Jaguars, and part of the difficulty was one of unfamiliarity – Jaguar was attempting to break new ground. “I think that was the issue with quite a lot of the features. Although I guess people learned to live with them, like the J-Gate – the execution wasn’t brilliant – a bit imprecise feeling especially once you went across the bottom of the gate. The detents were pretty sloppy – I think that caused a certain amount of negative feedback as well.”
“[The] Vehicle condition monitor was another we had to unscramble at the first available opportunity, although a lot of that was due to the false warning issue. Of course the Achilles heel of the car was that big wretched VF warning display was constantly barking at people the whole time for some minor thing – you know spurious warnings… on today’s Jaguar’s if a warning comes up in the message centre, once you’ve absorbed it you press an okay button and you can get rid of the thing in your eyeball. On the 40 you couldn’t, so that was an issue.”
Given that XJ40 was essentially complete by the time the marketing team had arrived at Browns Lane, they were presented with what amounted to a fait accompli; one created almost entirely by an engineering department which had previously made all key decisions around product planning, styling as well as the functionality of the car. It was a situation where strong differences of opinion were perhaps inevitable. “Engineering widely despised central marketing as a bunch of gin and tonic drinking flower arrangers who didn’t really understand what it was all about. The dialogue wasn’t that great. They were in this sort of ethereal world of highbrow engineering, exploring new concepts – maybe setting unrealistic goals for themselves in terms of latest technology trends, ultimate refinement of suspension systems, a huge mass of stuff they barely had the resources to do, but without any real interest or understanding of the sharp end of the business.”
But if early editions of XJ40 fell short of the rounded product Partridge and his Product Strategy colleagues hoped for, there was one significant elephant in the room which may have explained why. “I think the main issues were unreliable bought in components (particularly electrical), and poor overall build quality. The design issues were more of a contributor to customer dissatisfaction. One of the key strengths our competitors had during the difficult years at Jaguar was they had lots of money”
Partridge recently attended the 30th anniversary celebrations marking XJ40’s launch in the Scottish Highlands at the wheel of the Heritage collection’s cars. Asked how he would define the core of the ’40s appeal now, his ambivalence over its foibles melt away. “One of the big surprises was what a wonderful suspension setup XJ40 has. I had forgotten this but getting back into the XJ40’s after a long period of driving modern Jaguars (mostly XF) was like a step back into a different era, when life was somehow more relaxed and unhurried. The cosseting ride and high refinement levels were one of XJ40’s key strengths and something which has sadly rather been lost on the modern cars.”
Viewing XJ40 thirty years on from its euphoric launch in October 1986 then, I ask Partridge to sum up the car’s significance in the broader Jaguar narrative. His reply is unequivocal. “It’s significant for two main reasons; firstly it was a very impressive product for a company as small as Jaguar to engineer and produce – it was one of the key factors that persuaded Ford to pay $1.6 billion to acquire Jaguar in 1989. Secondly, it remains the highest selling XJ model of all time and was the mainstay of the business through the latter PLC years from 1986-89 and then for the first seven years of Ford ownership. It was a luxury car at an executive car price!”
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