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