The Quintessence : (Part Three)

In 1968, Jaguar put all its saloon car eggs in one decidedly comely basket. We examine the likely causes.

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In 1964, a series of factors led Sir William Lyons to take the momentous decision to replace Jaguar’s multiplicity of saloon models with a single car line, betting the entire enterprise upon its success. Retrospectively of course, one could say he needn’t have worried, but at the time, it must have been a deeply anxious moment.

How did this state of affairs come to pass? To answer this, we must examine the company’s fortunes throughout the 1960s, which were a good deal more torturous than some might believe.

XJ4 was initiated in 1961/2, but owing to Lyons’ uncertainty over the project’s viability, a firm decision to proceed was delayed a further two years. According to former senior experimental engineer, Tom Jones, Sir William demanded assurances Jaguar could sell 1000 a week, before going ahead with the programme.

A sizeable proportion of Lyons’ qualms were product-related, the most obvious being the commercial failure of the Mark Ten saloon. It had been a huge investment for such a comparatively small company and its lack of sales success was a massive blow, one which meant the perennially debt-shy Jaguar Chairman had far less to invest in new model lines than anticipated.

It is possible with hindsight to deduce that the Jaguar founder’s previously unerring product and stylistic judgement had temporarily deserted him during this period. A matter former engineering chief, Jim Randle latterly expanded upon with this author. “Right up until XJ6, we produced things like the 420G (sic) and whatever, which were really not very nice cars. I think he [Lyons] was not particularly confident about XJ6 to start with. This is observing from a very minor position in the company – I only joined in 1965. But equally he was the key driver and he probably didn’t have people around him who had the sort of vision he had.

Sir William’s policy had been to pay tooling costs upfront, amortising them over lengthy production runs, a good example being the compact saloon range, which originated in 1955, before lending itself to a succession of model variants until the final derivation ceased production in 1969. This policy served Lyons well, but the motor industry was becoming far more competitive and specialists like Jaguar were having to renew their offerings more frequently to stay abreast.

Jaguar’s fortunes in the US market too were nosediving, with growing competition from the likes of Mercedes-Benz and domestic carmakers, who could produce faster, better equipped cars in greater volumes, at much lower cost. Furthermore, Jaguar’s US customer base had decisively fallen out of love with the saloon models being sent their way.

Meanwhile, the commercial situation in the UK market remained volatile. Government policy throughout the decade had been to employ credit controls as a means of either stimulating or cooling down the economy as they saw fit. This had a devastating impact upon the domestic motor industry, making production planning almost impossible. Locked into a constantly reactive cycle, carmakers were endlessly hiring and laying off workers, forging an adversarial culture which would come disastrously home to roost in the following decade.

It has frequently been stated that Lyons, unable to fund the development of the XJ4 programme (said to have been in the region of £10 million), therefore had no choice but to seek a wealthy benefactor. This however bears further scrutiny. Lyons may not have got everything right, but in broader business terms, he was largely ahead of the game.

Clear-sighted enough to realise that Jaguar would not survive into the 1970s as an independent, Sir William firmly believed that the UK industry would be forced to consolidate, both to survive at all or to avoid being swallowed by US corporate raiders. By 1964, he had concluded a tie-up with another UK motor business was not only desirable, but necessary.

While it’s likely he lacked the capital to fulfil all of his product ambitions, Lyons elected to press ahead with XJ4, having reasoned that a single model line could underpin a series of models created off its platform. According to biographers, Jaguar paid the entirety of XJ4’s tooling costs up-front from their somewhat meagre coffers.

Jaguar’s ongoing relationship with Pressed Steel Fisher (PSF) was vital to its survival, and it was clear to Sir William that BMC’s acquisition of PSF in 1965 was nothing short of an existential threat. Losing access to PSF, would not only see Browns Lane forego its all-important body supply, but also the detailed production engineering and technical support provided by Joe Edwardes’ metal stamping colossus. Without that, Jaguar would be helpless.

A further conceivable factor was simply the huge leap Lyons was taking. Were XJ4 to fail, as the Mark Ten had, an independent Jaguar faced calamity. It’s entirely possible that having taken a daring gamble on an unproven new car (one he was basing Jaguar’s entire future upon), he believed having a stronger business behind him would provide a buffer against fate.

Having walked away from a merger offer with Leyland Motors in 1965, owing to his distrust of Donald Stokes, Sir William inked what he believed at the time to be an advantageous deal in July 1966 with Sir George Harriman at BMC, creating the British Motor Holdings combine. (A decision he would later regret.)

Lyons’ concern for Jaguar’s fortunes was far from unfounded. With XJ4 development facing endless delay, Browns Lane entered 1968 facing a sales meltdown. With no saloon model capable of passing stricter US emissions regulations, only the E-Type could be offered there. Meanwhile, production of the compact saloon ranges were in the process of being wound down in anticipation of the XJ4’s belated Autumn launch.

With Jaguar entering a new frontier within the politically charged creation of the sprawling BLMC empire which followed the 1967 collapse of the combined BMH business, it was insulated to some extent from the costs and inherent risks of transitioning to an entirely new and vitally important model. XJ4 was finally ready. But was Jaguar?

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Author: Eóin Doyle

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17 thoughts on “The Quintessence : (Part Three)”

    1. I seem to recall that the XJ’s bonnet contained at least five separate panels, welded and lead-loaded to mask the seams…

    2. Jaguars from that era were made from a large number of unusually small pressings. These were cheaper to make because they didn’t require large and costly press tools.
      The XJ Series III was a big improvement because its front wings were made from two rather than six pressings which could be made to much closer tolerances.

      *iirc* BL introduced a new paint shop that used thermoplastic paint that had to be cured at much higher temperatures than the old tyoe of paint. In Jaguar bodies the lead fillings melted at these temperatures leading to lots of remedial work at Browns Lane…

    3. Dave,

      the story about the use of thermoplastic paint is true. Just have a look at early XJ Series 3 brochures, where you’ll see the initial choice of available colours consisting of white, yellow and red – arguably the worst colour palette imaginable for the car. This was due to ‘issues’ regarding the thermoplastic paint.

      Over the course of the past decade, I’ve come across exactly one early (pre-’82) S3 – these are truly horrid cars neither facilitated nor deserved preservation.

  1. I’ve always seen Lyons as an artist first, car designer second. He’s an artist, and there’s much sculpting in his work, and a sense of fashion and flair immediately from the Seven Swallow days, like he was a couturier designing haute couture. And if you want to expand on that gestalt theory there’s much foreground/background going on here.

    I’ve always loved the front of the XJ6 for how much is going on in the background. If you take away the sculpting of the lights, the horisontal bonnet meets the vertical front in a well defined cliff face. I mean it works so well because the lights aren’t sculpted from an arbitrarily rounded landscape, they are sculpted from something that was already there before it.

    The lights are literally formed to be the all seeing eye of the face coming out of that cliff face, like a hawk looking for prey. That cat isn’t just any old cat, it’s a predator out on a kill. Just Imagine how much actual sculpting in clay must’ve been going on to get that facial expression *just so* right. That is the work of a true artist, that is literally the work of the artists touch.

    1. As I said recently, Lyons had the chance to explore his themes over several decades, something between an artist and film director. If there are other figures in the car industry who had one firm, a single vision and the power to exercise it. That photo is exemplifies this.

    2. A minor correction Ingvar. Lyons never worked in clay. He usually went from wooden quarter scale models, straight to full size. His bodyshop technicians (who were exceptionally talented) worked in wood and metal. For XJ4, once the centre section of the car had been largely fixed, alternative pre-formed front and rear end sections were offered up to it for Lyons to review, often outside his stately Wappenbury Hall home. It made for a great deal of trial and error, especially when changes were necessary, which may be why the styling took some time to get right. All Jaguar body styling up to the XJ-S was created using this method.

      XJ40 marked Jaguar’s first attempts at clay modelling – one which took the design team some time to master.

      Nonetheless, there is no argument as regards Lyons’ artistry. (Although the largely uncredited backroom boys like Fred Gardiner and Bob Blake deserve a mention too).

    3. Whatever the material, I just get the impression of a very literal hands on approach. Those kind of forms aren’t something found on paper, it needs a tactile medium like clay, or in this case wood. It needs feel and touch and a lot of sanding or applying of material, and then sanding and feeling until it feels just right. That front is a sculpture, it is a very sculptural form, and they worked on it like a sculpture.

    4. Could it be that the pictured car is a US export version with equal size headlights? The outer lamps on non-US cars are larger with slimmer chrome trim that looks even better.

  2. Eóin, glad you pointed out the Lyons method of design.
    Damn, the S1 XJ is BEAUTIFUL. Pub landlords the length and breadth of Britain had it SO good while they were cheap. Now a kidney sale is necessary to finance a restoration project of one of these. Those tiny bits of metal stitched together in Coventry do rust in a most exquisite manner.
    The Italians had a lot of success using advanced blacksmithery too. Artisans working with a master stylist using their hands to work materials in to what are now considered pinnacles of styling excellence. On the home front, check out the work of Mo Gomm and Williams and Pritchard too. Amazing.
    Full-size models that allow “editing” allow commitees to wreak their havoc.
    What is the collective noun for a group of car designers anyway? A window basket of stylists perhaps?
    Don’t get me started on CAD processes..

    1. My pleasure Rob.

      Sir William didn’t say much about his methodology, but he is credited with saying this….

      “…The lines of our cars are arrived at by the direct shaping of panels until they become pleasing to the eye. I have a fairly clear idea of what I want to see and I get best results working in full size and assessing the effects and the car itself in its natural environment. Only then can the proportions and detail of the car be determined exactly and these, to me are of paramount importance…”

    2. CAD, ideally is a help to speed things along. Less than ideally it is used a s short-cut where there is less time to evaluate the shapes in 3D in real lighting conditions.

  3. A short paragraph that is most instructive.
    Thank you for sharing it.
    Sir William used Wappenbury hall as a suitable environment for viewing future models. The house is also a prominent feature of many a Jaguar publicity image. Elegant surroundings for elegant automobiles.
    No wonder most press images of current Mercedes depict cars surrounded by very little.

    1. Further to that, Lyons always insisted upon styling models being painted in gloss black, which he believed was what a former insider described as being ‘hardest on the style’. Most Jaguar bodies were reviewed and evaluated at Wappenbury, up to and including XJ40 and the stillborn F-Type (XJ41). Both of which he contributed to on a consultative basis, prior to his death in 1985.

    2. I have a thing about the current style of press imagery. It is explained by the exigencies of security. You can plop a new car into a simple concrete/brick/gravel driveway with a simple modern house more easily than take the real car somewhere nice and risk a spy-shot. A test of this hypothesis might be that bare driveway/modern house images are more prevalent for launch photos wherease later in the lifecycle the car can be photographed in real settings. Then again, Photoshop is cheaper than taking a car to a location.

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