A (modest) commercial success, but ultimately a creative failure, the 2007 XF opened Jaguar up to a non-traditional audience, but in the final analysis, probably cast too many values on the fire.
By 2005, Ford’s ambitious growth strategy for Jaguar lay in tatters following a series of misguided creative decisions based on a discredited retro aesthetic. As Ford’s Premier Automotive Group began its slow dissolve, the storied luxury car maker’s consistent inability to turn a profit became intolerable to the cost accountants at Dearborn, while simultaneously, the realisation that senior management’s stewardship of the marque was also partly to blame began to dawn. Something clearly needed to be done.
Two things occurred. Firstly, Ford quietly erected a for sale sign outside Browns Lane (while officially denying all such notions) and secondly, they released the creative thumbscrews. However, following a decade and a half of direct rule, Jaguar management had become paralysed – hostages to a past they both revered and now feared – incapable of taking a much-needed creative leap. Having assumed leadership of Jaguar’s styling function in 1999, Ian Callum had been agitating for a stylistic revolution for almost half a decade. Now with the slow-selling and discredited S-Type in need of replacement, Callum seized his chance to permanently change the conversation.
A major barrier lay with the difficulty of bridging a four decade long stylistic block, one which amounted as much to forensics as creativity. This would involve the production of up to thirty different full size styling models, largely intended to eliminate the cosy and the familiar. Starting with designs which referenced the well-regarded 2001 R-Coupe concept, Callum’s senior design team of Julian Thomson, Wayne Burgess and Alister Whealan began moving towards a more decisive formal departure.
The fundamentals of X250’s styling lay with a coupe-esque roofline, featuring steeply raked front and rear screens, with the waistline rising to meet the roof. The nose would be dominated by a new ovoid countersunk grille, which would echo that of the original 1968 XJ6. Lines and surfaces would be kept relatively unadorned, but would be in what would soon become time-honoured Callum parlance, “incredibly disciplined”. Classic Jaguar proportions of short nose and elongated rear were retained, but in a more contemporary, more technical, more muscular manner.
But as the definitive X250 style took shape, team-Callum discovered the most strident resistance to this design shift came from within Jaguar itself, with few in senior management in favour of the new style; Callum subsequently stating that he struggled to explain the car to his bosses and that this impasse would be “the brink of my career”. With few internal allies, getting X250 sanctioned would prove daunting. Interestingly, there was less resistance from Detroit, where Ford’s J Mays became a powerful ally. Still, with Jaguar so heavily indebted, Henry’s beancounters were justifiably reluctant to stump up for a new car.
Originally intended to have a new aluminium bodyshell, Callum told chroniclers; “It was a huge investment and Jim Padilla came over to say no to the money.” Callum and Senior Project Engineer, Mick Mohan pushed for a compromise X250 on a heavily modified DEW98 S-Type platform instead, but even Mohan’s engineering colleagues proved sceptical. Callum assured them once the car was on the roads for three years, they’d recognise it as a Jaguar, but it proved touch and go. “It was the biggest hurdle of my life, getting that car through”, Callum stated.
The break with tradition would continue inside with Jaguar’s traditional interior ambience replaced with a more contemporary aesthetic. Cool blue instrument backlighting married with large swathes of brushed aluminium, and while wood was still used liberally – (in fact in greater quantities than before), it was treated very differently. It was a refreshing break from the expected, but as with the exterior style, there was little here for traditionalists.
A further novelty was the ‘handshake’ – a feature driven by Project Engineer, Mick Mohan, encompassing the rotary gear selector which automatically rose from the centre console, while dash-mounted air vents rotated to the open position as the ignition was engaged. It was a nice piece of theatre and one which lent the interior a touch of delight.
The car’s critical reception was modestly upbeat, the balance of opinion being that Jaguar had successfully reinvented its mid-liner. However, had team-Callum not shown the C-XF concept the previous January, it’s likely the production model’s reception would have been more impactful. Allegedly designed after X250 was signed off, C-XF looked more akin to what Callum wanted to produce, but clearly wasn’t allowed to; the most obvious difference being the production car’s headlamp treatment, which gave XF a slightly startled appearance.
Another departure occurred dynamically and would be one which would have perhaps the most far-ranging repercussions for the marque. Using suspension design from the S-Type (front) and X150 XK (rear), the XF’s combination of quick-ratio (if entirely artificial) steering, firm damping and stout anti-roll bars lent the driving experience a decidedly Germanic dimension. Gone were any vestiges of Jaguar’s supremacy in suspension isolation and NVH suppression – largely it seems at the altar of marketing. Retrospectively, it was a huge error.
The car’s launch coincided with Jaguar’s sale becoming official and the following year, the business (along with Land Rover) was sold to Tata, (the same year the Browns Lane facility was torn down) lending the Indian multinational credit for a model which was bankrolled and supported by Ford; a matter which isn’t adequately acknowledged in the latterday rush to laud the ‘JLR miracle.’
Once on sale, in Callum’s words, XF sales ‘never faltered’. In fact, they would probably have been stronger still in the early years had the attractive Sportbrake estate and a wider range of engine choices been made available from launch, but especially following the successful 2011 facelift, the model established itself as Jaguar’s mainstay, with total sales of the X250-series of over 200,000.
The XF was conceived as an evolution of the ‘Lyons Line’, a gestational step towards a new Jaguar visual identity and clearly one which team-Callum intended to develop further. But owing as much perhaps to corporate cowardice as much as the relative success of the model line, it instead became Jaguar’s styling touchstone – in saloon terms at least.
X250 was intended to be the first 21st Century Jaguar – a thoroughly modern reimaging of a classic template. While proving a modest critical and sales success, it however changed Jaguar beyond recognition, failing to take the marque’s more traditional-minded customers along with it. By ditching the more romantic aspects of the Jaguar ‘experience’, JLR were left with very little to differentiate from their German rivals; a matter they have only compounded since. Because if anything, Jaguar’s current lords and masters have been even more risk-averse than their Ford-ruled forebears.
If one characteristic characterises Sir William Lyons at Jaguar, it was his embrace of risk. He accepted that the only way to survive against far better funded opposition was to take product chances his rivals wouldn’t countenance. It was a strategy which largely succeeded, but in his wake, it was one which was beaten out of successive Jaguar management either through attrition, privation or simply a lack of nerve.
So while the XF was a bold step in 2007, it was perhaps in retrospect too big a leap, while ironically its more recent replacement suffers from quite the opposite problem, shedding sales now in a truly alarming fashion. But as the brand-Jaguar looks set to embrace an electrified future, perhaps there is one final opportunity for the ‘big cat’ to regain its audacity.
Sources: Autocar / Jaguar World