The Quintessence : (Part Five)

Manufacturing was Jaguar’s fatal weakness. It would become XJ6’s undoing.

Browns Lane production tracks. (c) curbside Classic

Through a combination of genius, skill, misfortune and at times, sheer good luck, the Jaguar XJ6 proved to be precisely what the market realised it wanted. Offering all the glamour and visual allure of the E-Type in a four-door package, customers quickly discovered it fitted their needs very nicely indeed. The trouble was obtaining one.

When Lyons sanctioned the model, he set production targets of a thousand cars a week. This would have amounted to slightly over 50,000 cars per annum, a figure Jaguar wouldn’t meet until the 1990s, and certainly one the XJ-series never came close to meeting – for a whole host of reasons.

The first of these manifested itself as Jaguar struggled to ramp up XJ6 production in the advent of the car’s launch. The XJ bodyshell was built at PSF in Castle Bromwich. Made up of hundreds of small pressings, the XJ shells were designed this way, firstly to keep tooling costs to a minimum, and secondly because PSF probably wasn’t a world-class supplier.

Therefore building the XJ6 shell was a labour-intensive process which involved a good deal of lead-loading and hand-finishing in order to obtain a smooth surface for painting. Unpainted (wax coated) shells were then transported to Browns Lane, where they were stored in partly open galleries.

(c) Coventry Evening Telegraph

By September 1968, neither the quality nor the quantity of bodies arriving at Jaguar’s Allesley plant was deemed acceptable, meaning the stock of models prior to launch was a fraction of what was required. The huge demand for XJ6 was testament to its conceptual excellence, but partly owing to the failure, both of suppliers to deliver, and Jaguar to maintain peace with its shop stewards, they couldn’t come close to satisfying it.

Strikes at suppliers saw a shortage of grilles and glass which necessitated some early cars going out to customers with rudimentary arrangements in their stead. Unrest at Leyland, who supplied the XK engine blocks to varying levels of quality, led to further production delays. By 1969, a night shift had been instigated, which was to increase volumes to over 800 cars per week, still some way short of projections. Despite this, the waiting list stretched out to well over a year.

Such was the level of feeling that in 1970, a delegation of Swiss customers, furious at the inability of Jaguar to deliver, staged a protest outside BMLC’s London headquarters, a matter which was allegedly laughed off by Donald Stokes. But the joke really was on him. Preoccupied by the troubled build-up to the launch of the volume division’s Austin Maxi, he appeared to lose sight of what was almost certainly BLMC’s biggest profit-earner, especially when despairing customers shopped elsewhere.

As an independent, Jaguar’s penny-pinching regarding bought-in components had become legendary, both in price and in some cases, quality. It was this level of economy which kept Jaguar’s costs down and allowed them to price their cars so competitively. Yet with the leaping cat still being run as Sir William saw fit, and Lord Stokes attempting to keep his multiplicity of newly inherited satellites aloft, no attempt was made to alter this somewhat dated policy.

Received wisdom on Lyons was that he was a notorious tightwad, but Jim Randle latterly took issue with that shibboleth, telling DTW, “He was a good man! I liked Sir William very much. Although it was a funny place, I think Jaguar was an honest place. I always thought I was reasonably rewarded for what I did. In fact at times I felt I was over-rewarded.

But while Jaguar’s engineers seemed content with their lot, life on the production tracks was a good deal less amenable. Although generally well regarded by union leaders for being honourable and fair-minded, Lyons took a hard line in labour disputes, and while Jaguar’s assembly-line issues were not as severe as at other BLMC plants, stoppages were frequent, and by the decade’s end, growing in virulence.

It’s worth recalling that the Browns Lane plant dated back to the 1930s, as indeed did much of the work practices, not to mention facilities for the track workers. Work was insecure and while a majority of Jaguar line workers viewed themselves as an elite, production engineers did not design XJ6 for ease (or accuracy) of assembly, so it wasn’t always the line worker’s fault that they didn’t go together that readily.

The XJ6 was the most complex car Jaguar had yet produced, and this complexity brought new problems, exposing the limits of Jaguar’s curious collection of self contained fiefdoms – the biggest of all being their massively outdated plant and assembly procedures.

In addition to manufacturing, there was also a fundamental issue with Jaguar’s paint process. Browns Lane’s paint plant was if anything, more antiquated than its assembly lines, parts of it dating back to the 1930s. This meant that Jaguar could offer only a limited number of non-metallic colours, while rustproofing was rudimentary at best.

Browns Lane’s antiquated plant was in desperate need of replacement in order to raise production volumes, but owing to government intransigence in insisting on relocation to a ‘development region’ and BLMC management’s apparent inability to recognise the urgency of Jaguar’s need, funding was not sanctioned until 1973, at the very cusp of the fuel crisis.

(c) Coventry Telegraph

Meanwhile, year on year, Jaguar’s not insignificant profits were syphoned off and poured into BLMC’s struggling volume car business. Historian and author, Chris Cowin, made the following withering observation. “What happened at Jaguar during the period of British Leyland stewardship was a national scandal.

It’s likely that Sir William Lyons agreed to surrender his company’s independence in 1966 for reasons of security: security of body supply, security of inward-investment and security against corporate predators. With Jaguar now a small but still shining satellite of the vast BLMC planetary system, the signs that some of these rationales were being reneged upon were growing.

Jaguar’s assumption into, firstly BMC and later the BLMC organisation was at best, a disappointing reversal of its original promise, but at worst a stark betrayal. Certainly, it was, by the early 1970s a very poor deal for Jaguar, who were starved of investment, let down by suppliers and haemorrhaged by their BLMC masters. As Sir William Lyons moved towards retirement, it must have been with a heavy heart. The safe harbour he had sought had turned out to be mined.

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Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

19 thoughts on “The Quintessence : (Part Five)”

  1. Excellent article as always. There is still a perception by many (influenced by the corporate media and their flunkies like Jeremy Clarkson) that the British motor industry was somehow destroyed by “Marxist” militant unions. The fact that BLMC was headed by someone who prefixed their name with the word “lord” while Jaguar was headed by someone who prefixed their name with the word “sir” tells us all we need to know.

    1. As I have said here before, the British car industry was the site of a low-grade class conflict. Yes, there were restive unions but there was also a dreadful management. I would point out how in Germany the management and unions have been much more cooperative with what many would regard as succesful results. The BL case might also have the dimension of peculiar local conditions aside from general-level social unrest. Car production outside the Midlands seems today to be quite succesful and that in part is to do with a different population doing the work.

    2. When workers at Triumph motorcycle works finally got rid of their inept management (Google: Lionel Jofeh) and founded the Labour pet project of a workers’ co-operative they still didn’t manage to produce enough motorcycles to satisfy demand because of permanent internal unrest between workers. Only when they hired Sir Geoffrey Robinson as a CEO did they manage to establish something remotely similar to a regular production schedule but then it was too late because demand had dwindled away.

    3. I agree. You only have to look at the British motorcycle industry to see an example where there was very little union unrest, yet the outcome was worse than the car industry. Inept management, poor product planning, bad design, insufficient investment and arrogance in the face of overseas competition were the issues that did for that industry. Sounds familiar.

  2. Imagine someone prioritising the Austin Maxi over the XJ. I know it would not have been as simple as that, but there are times when, as a manager, you have to take a big step back and give yourself a reality check about the path onto which you have set yourself.

    1. Prioritising a volume model for the middle of the market over an expensive frippery doesn’t seem the worst idea to me. That the Maxi wasn’t up to its task is a different story, of course.

    2. The problem statement would have been – do I focus on fixing manufacturing issues for a high margin product for which I have massive demand and am losing sales and goodwill over a lack of a fix, OR, do I focus on quick fixes for a lower margin, higher volume product for which demand is poor due to numerous design, engineering and marketing issues? A quick investigation of risk vs. reward on those issues is likely to tell you that the former is a lower risk higher reward problem than the latter. The fact that the former looks like and drives like an XJ and the latter a Maxi should just provide more subjective justification for focusing on the Jag’s supply and manufacturing issues, IMHO.

    3. If the cars were already on the market (and their relative demand visible), then you’re absolutely right, of course. Normally, the large volume and more conventional technology of a volume model should be the safer bet. I rather thought of prioritisation before launch, but apparently I misread that.

  3. Eóin, a fascinating history, and very well told, thank you. One conclusion I would draw from the tale is that,while the xJ4 was undoubtedly a brilliant and innovative design, not enough attention was paid during the design stage to the potential difficulties of getting such a complex car into series production. One of the problems of being at the cutting edge of invention is that you (and your customers) become the “crash test dummy” for the new design, usually with painful consequences. Time and again, BMC and its successors launched innovative new models that were insufficiently well developed and difficult to manufacture consistently and reliably. Add in a restive and uncooperative workforce and militant unions fighting the class war on the shop floor and the outcome was inevitable. Meanwhile, Ford was turning out resolutely conventional and carefully costed vehicles that were lapped up by customers who were happy to trade innovation for (relative) reliability.

    1. Jaguar’s production equipment was bought used from Standard Motors Co. in 1938 for very little money. Much of this machinery was still in use when Ford bought Jaguar, the most prominent example being a machine tool which after being damaged by German bombardment and being welded up was still in use in the Eighties when its welding seam was proudly presented to visitors of the facilities. After the acquisition, Ford was shocked by the condition of the Jaguar works where there was very little light and water dripping from the roof.
      If I understood ARonline’s XJ story correctly, the cars were painted after their mechanicals had been assembled and a test drive was passed, incredible as an actual production process. Designing cars for production wasn’t BLMCARover (or whatever their name was that week) engineers’ biggest strength with the SD 1 suffering particularly badly.

      The art of desining cars for production was perfected by Japanese manufacturers with European car makers catching up in the early Eighties. Methods like kanban, ‘right first time’ and stopping the whole production line when a fault had appeared were all invented in Japan and learning these was probably the biggest profit Rover had from their Hondy cooperation.

  4. Dear mr. Doyle, I enjoy so much this series of articles, thank you. As I am more interested in the technical site of things, I would so much appreciated it if you could elaborate on: “the limits of Jaguar’s curious collection of self contained fiefdoms – the biggest of all being their massively outdated plant and assembly procedures.”. Was it: dated machinery, unskilled workers, assembly lines with too many tasks at each hault…? In short, what did others do so much better, at the time?

    1. By ‘self contained fiefdoms’ I was referring to how various functions within Jaguar seemingly acted largely independently of one another. For instance within the umbrella of ‘engineering’, there were innumerable small ‘shops’ each run by a head man who only reported into engineering chief, Bill Heynes. Many of these ‘heads’ guarded their areas of influence with bared teeth, which was hardly conducive to intelligence sharing or teamwork.

      Jaguar ran in this rather chaotic, disjointed fashion with innumerable small chiefs, presided over by the distant, benevolent dictatorship of Sir William for years and while it worked reasonably well when they were a smaller business, by the time the XJ was being developed, the whole process really needed a total rethink.

      Similarly, manufacturing was hopelessly out of date. Not only the machinery, which was primitive, but working practices, the manner in which the cars were assembled, the amount of space around the cars – even down to the degree of body damage which was incurred during assembly. Furthermore, the facilities for the line workers was pretty rudimentary as well.

      There was no pilot line to enable correct assembly procedures to be established, prior to launch, so plant managers were learning how to build them as they went down the tracks. The amount of rectification work was high – particularly air conditioning units which had to be tested in-situ. If there was a fault, the whole thing had to be ripped out again.

      The XJ was a gamechanger for Jaguar in terms of ambition, complexity and sophistication. A former insider recently stated that it was very sensitive to build variations and that not every XJ that left the factory was as good as it ought to have been. It’s too easy to blame the workforce – most of whom did their best – the car was not sufficiently production-engineered to build accurately, nor it seems was Browns Lane adequately geared up for it.

      I suspect Lyons felt, having got away with spending so little up to then, he could continue to wing it. The XJ illustrated the limits to that methodology.

  5. Following the fourth instalment, I decided to reread Nicholl’s history on AROnline. Perhaps it would be instructive for others as well since it is complete and in greater detail.

  6. And thanks Doyle for the info! Even today, with so much gained knowledge about production lines and assembly procedures, getting things working right is not an easy task! Tesla run into a lot of difficulties albeit in a very modern plant!

  7. I don’t think Jaguar had a worse time than any of the other marques under BLMC. At least they saw the XJ6 and XJS reach production, with no models cancelled. Rover had the P8 and P9 cancelled, with only the Range Rover and (eventually) SD1 moving forwards. Triumph was only given the TR7 (but worked on the SD1). Morris was only given the Marina. MG nothing. Then there’s Wolseley and Riley that disappeared completely.

  8. It’s a difficult balancing act to critique the Lyons-era Jaguar without prejudice, but it is of course necessary to do so. I agree that the AROnline piece is very thorough and a fine piece of research in its own right, but (with the greatest respect) as a historical document, I do feel the views of the author shine through a little too clearly at times.

    In the reading and research I have carried out, I have not seen an allusion to the cars receiving a final paint coat post-assembly. The Vanden Plas cars were, as they were sent to Kingsbury in a partially painted and untrimmed state. However, were this the case at Browns Lane, why were so many cars’ paintwork damaged on the tracks and why was the level of post-build rectification so high? I am not doubting the AROnline author on this, I might add, merely querying the source. It’s not one I have come across, which is why I have not alluded to it here.

    I freely admit to approaching this series (and all of the historical Jaguar-related material I write here) from the position of a marque aficionado, but I endeavour to tell these stories in a balanced (I hope), concise (well, reasonably), and engrossing (again, I hope) manner.

    A recent publication tells the story of Jaguar from the production lines. It’s a fascinating document. From the author’s perspective, it was not the unions themselves, but individual shop stewards (who had an inordinate amount of power) who were often the most disruptive influence. The line workers themselves, while treated to hopelessly primitive conditions and smeared by the populist press, were for the most part, simply trying to earn a crust. Individual managers and those in charge of the aforementioned fiefdoms also come out of this poorly, while Lyons appears a distant, forbidding, yet largely benevolent presence.

    The wonder of it all, was how Sir William kept the whole thing together for so long, given the threadbare nature of the operation. I suppose the ultimate answer to that one was some quite exceptional people.

    Regarding Ford’s ‘shock’ at the state of Browns Lane in 1990. I rather think that strains credibility. Their representatives had toured the plant prior to purchase and were fully cognisant of what they were getting, down to seeing the forward product plan. John Egan, having allegedly sold Uncle Henry the ‘sizzle’, most likely prompted Dearborn to embark on a little PR barbequing of their own.

    1. “it was not the unions themselves, but individual shop stewards (who had an inordinate amount of power) who were often the most disruptive influence.” I have read this elsewhere, and it makes a great deal of sense. Strikes were often called very quickly, which makes it doubtful union leaders were consulted. Many of the union leaders themselves were very close to politicians, so would have been very aware of the damage these stoppages were causing.

      It has become standard-practice to blame ‘the unions’, but it is managements job to manage their workforce. That this was never effectively tackled was a collective failure by many players, not one side or another.

  9. My family was employed in the auto production business as assembly line workers at the General Motors assembly plant in Fremont California. My Father and uncles employment started in the late 1950s and extended in to the 1980s. I was employed there for several years as a production worker and later as a supervisor trainee. During the late 1970s I felt that the mechanical aspects were quite good, the body and trim especially were designed to be installed with a lot of fitter latitude. As workers and even as a supervisor complaints about the poor design fell upon deaf ears and we just did he best that we could. Sometimes tolerances fell upon the right side and other times it fell on other side. My familiarity with the production systems makes this article even more revealing. It’s something of a miracle that Jaguar survived since even an industrial giant like GM had a brush with death.

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