Codenamed X200, the Jaguar S-Type was intended to spearhead Ford’s growth plans for the leaping cat. That didn’t quite work out.
Now is the winter of our discontent: In November 2004, Ford Motor Company representative Joe Greenwell faced a stony-faced panel of UK parliamentarians at the Trade and Industry select committee in Whitehall, seeking explanations for his parent company’s decision to close Jaguar’s spiritual Browns Lane home and primary carmaking site.
Outside of any residual concerns MPs may have had regarding the loss of jobs or the broader industry fallout, the UK government also maintained a vested interest, having sanctioned grants in the region of £80m towards the £400m redevelopment of the former Pressed Steel Fisher plant at Castle Bromwich as part of the Jaguar X200 Programme.
Nine years prior to Greenwell’s Westminster grilling, Dearborn had played it tough, warning the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry that should governmental assistance not be forthcoming, X200, then in development, would be built in the United States. Keen to safeguard jobs, the ideologically non-interventionist Conservative administration caved. Now their cross-party equivalents wanted answers.
A humbled Greenwell spoke of a failed growth strategy, admitting that his Ford masters had been over-optimistic and had underestimated the opposition. By then, the New Jag Generation had not only failed to achieve anything close to its sales projections, but had been critically and commercially eviscerated by the German opposition.
Making its world debut in the autumn of 1998, the S-Type was to be posterchild to Ford’s ambitions for its leaping cat brand. But in time-honoured Jaguar fashion, the story begins much earlier. Over a decade earlier in fact, while Jaguar was an independent entity. With development progressing on the XJ40 saloon, stylists and engineers were examining the prospect of a more compact sports saloon, dubbed XJ80.
It’s believed that little existed apart from a few stylistic renders and quarter-scale models, but as Jaguar entered serious talks with General Motors in 1989 over a 25% stake in the business, exploratory work was carried out between Browns Lane and Opel engineers upon an Omega platform based, Jaguar model, which would theoretically have been built in Rüsselsheim.
Ford won the bidding war for Jaguar in the winter of 1989 but with the carmaker haemorrhaging $millions, nothing further would be done about a midline saloon until around 1994, when the X200 programme was initiated under CEO, (Sir) Nick Scheele. However, despite Jaguar’s fortunes having been turned around on the back of renewed product lines, funding remained tightly controlled.
Speaking to this author in 2016, former head of product strategy for the X200 programme, Jonathan Partridge, told us, “Because they wanted to keep the investment in the programme to a sensible level and look at parts sharing within the wider Ford empire, we ended up jointly developing it with the Lincoln DEW98 [LS]. That led to a lot of compromises in the engineering of the vehicle.” This would encompass aspects such as the V6 engines and suspensions, to gearboxes and electrical hardware. “That 5R55 Ford Explorer gearbox was a dreadful thing,” he recalled.
By the time X200 was initiated, Jaguar were already well on course in pursuing a rear-glancing styling aesthetic, buoyed by customer data which backed this approach, and the keen support of the man with his name on the door – William Clay Ford. However, even prior to Ford’s takeover, the view within Jaguar was for a spiritual successor for the classic Mark 2 model, even if the proposed styling at the time bore little resemblance.
By the time X200 was initiated, the Jaguar Mark 2, having been for a time the darling of the classic auto market, became a TV star in its own right, courtesy of ITV series, Inspector Morse. Shown worldwide, its bucolic scenes of Oxford’s dreaming spires, rolling countryside, and of course, Endeavour’s motor, helped fuel a strong desire for a modern equivalent, not only in the public’s mind, but those within Jaguar itself. Certainly, within Browns Lane’s product strategy function, the mood regarding X200’s style was upbeat. “I was on board with the sort of Mark 2 look-back”, Jonathan Partridge stated. “We were comfortable with the heritage”.
During this period, management is alleged to have commissioned a styling handbook – a ‘holy writ’ for Jaguar designers. In it, a list of seemingly inviolate styling cues were set out. This tick-box approach may go some way to explain X200’s unhappy appearance, because stylistically, the S-Type was a textbook committee design. 
But if the bodyshape elicited mixed feelings, the cabin represented an altogether different level of incredulity. While it is clear that the budget for X200 was tight – nothing visible apart from some switchgear (and the nav-screen where fitted) was shared – which makes the decision to sign off on perhaps the cheapest and nastiest Jaguar interior in history even more astonishing. Most glaring was the centre stack, a semi-circular shaped moulding appropriately dubbed “the urinal of technology” by certain Browns Lane wags.
Launched amid fevered anticipation, the S-Type received a broadly positive critical reception, although its drivetrain refinement was criticised, not to mention the uncharacteristically uninviting interior ambience. Certainly, against BMW’s masterfully honed E39 5-Series or the cool Dieter Rams sheen of Audi’s C5 A6, the new contender from Castle Bromwich fell embarrassingly short. Only the equally dowdy-looking Mercedes W210 E-Class could offer much solace.
Nevertheless, early sales were strong, but it quickly became apparent that the S-Type, far from gaining conquests from its German rivals, was actually taking customers from the more expensive XJ-Series, a matter compounded by the cars’ relative dimensions. Because while X200 was marginally more compact, internally, there was little between them.
With the arrival of former BMW product supremo, Wolfgang Reitzle to lead Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, one of the earliest decisions the patrician German made was to order a major re-engineering upgrade for X200. Changes were made to the DEW98 platform, a state of the art ZF gearbox transformed the drivetrain, while suspension revisions markedly improved both ride and handling.
Inside, the dashboard was revised, losing the woefully downmarket treatment of the first-series cars, while externally, the grille was redesigned, while the removal of the side rubbing strips decluttered the flanks. The party line was that customers liked the styling, but the truth was that there simply wasn’t enough of them – a direct consequence of the way the S-Type both looked and felt.
A lack of engine choice proved another failing; for the first three years of the car’s career, the smallest engine available was the Duratec-based AJV6 3.0 litre unit. Not so much of an issue in the land of the gas guzzler, but in Europe, rivals offered big-selling 2.0-litre petrol and compression-ignition alternatives. A lack of body styles was also cited. An estate model was rumoured to have been considered, but nothing came of it.
A major restyle occurred in 2004, which addressed many of the original car’s most egregious stylistic sins, and offered a far more convincing cabin ambience. This revision saw the S-Type achieve maturity but it came too late to save the model, which had lost its appeal to all but a diehard contingent. The end came, barely a moment too soon in 2007, its XF successor illustrating that a market existed for a progressive Jaguar product.
The X300 XJ series is believed to have saved the business in 1994, while the X100 XK8 lent the new Jag generation some much needed credibility two years later, X200 however was intended to catapult the leaping cat into the big league. Instead, a half-baked and underfunded programme saw two flawed model lines being offered, ensuring neither came close, either to meeting performance targets or adhering to their relative marque values.
Today, the S-Type represents Jaguar’s creative nadir. Developed at huge expense and a store of good intentions – the factory alone cost almost half a £billion – an over-confident strategy assumed customers would accept a flawed product by dint of its heritage and some cosily nostalgic styling.
Had Jaguar got that element right, the S-Type might have stood a chance, but instead it committed the most unpardonable sin of all. After all, a Jaguar that lacks style really is no Jaguar at all. In the end, X200 became something of a laughing stock. But if the joke was on Browns Lane, the bitter irony is that the blue oval was perhaps the biggest loser. To some extent, they’re still paying the price.
 From the few photos in the public domain, XJ80 was not an overtly retro design, more a close-coupled sports saloon.
 X200 is not a car Jaguar’s former stylists are particularly keen to discuss, and in the absence of a name, the stylistic attribution has been laid at the feet of the late styling director, Geoff Lawson, who we know never drew a line of it. Let’s call it for Alan Smithee.