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