Saving Grace – Part Three

For a ‘hapeth of tar… (or in this case, paint).

As you know, the quality of a car really starts with the body. Get the body right and you get the paint right. Get the body and the paint right and everything fits.” [John Egan – Motor, August 1980].

What would become the epicentre of Series III’s existential maladies lay North West of Browns Lane, opposite the Grade A listed Fort Dunlop tyre factory in the district of Erdington, on the outskirts of Birmingham. The Castle Bromwich facility, built by William Morris, was completed in 1940 as a wartime shadow factory for large-scale manufacture of Spitfire fighter aircraft. Over half of the total compliment of Spitfires flown were constructed there.

Post-War, it was purchased by Pressed Steel Fisher as a ‘jobbing shop’ producing bodies in white (unpainted shells) to highly variable standards for a number of domestic manufacturers, Jaguar included. It was entirely reasonable for BL to site their new paint plant (which was after all intended to serve the so-called ‘specialist’ brands) at Castle Bromwich, despite Browns Lane’s objections at the time. After all, Jaguar’s volumes were the least of the three marques, although their need was greater. But it was, as with most BL decisions which went against Jaguar’s interests, a matter of trust; one which merely inflamed a burning sense of betrayal which was felt right across the employee spectrum at Allesley.

The new paint process, known as Thermo-Plastic Acrylic (TPA), was allegedly pioneered by General Motors, and worked by a process of ‘re-flowing’ the final paint coat in an oven for about 30 minutes at temperatures of over 154° Celsius to achieve a durable, high-gloss finish. It was a controversial system, largely discredited across the industry by then and had rather notably been abandoned by GM themselves. So strong was the level of feeling against it that Jaguar’s unions took strike action in protest.

(c) Jaguar Cars

One of the many ways in which Jaguar maintained rigorous control of cost during the Lyons-era was to skimp on the intangibles; for instance the quality of bought-in components and body tooling, all of which helped maintain Jaguar’s competitive pricing. Bodyshells were crudely and inaccurately welded together, employing quantities of lead filler to achieve an acceptable finish for painting. Jaguars had also become notorious for the weakness of their paint finish, which dulled and chipped easily.

Within Browns Lane’s antiquated paint plant, these issues could be largely side-stepped. However, once the Series III shells were exposed to the new TPA process, it was discovered that the oven temperatures coincided with the melting point of the lead filler, resulting in catastrophic paint contamination. Both sides blamed the other, but the upshot was Jaguar rejecting every body they received.

Having already delayed the Series III launch from the previous autumn, Browns Lane management could no longer hold off – formally announcing the car on March 31st 1979. Brave faces were presented to the press but behind the scenes, affairs were unravelling in an alarming fashion. Colour availability was limited to three unappealing non-metallic shades – Tudor White, Damson Red and Cotswold Yellow.

Any colour you like… (c) Autocar

The background behind this was straightforward enough. When changing to a new paint process it’s standard practice for carmakers to initially limit the number of colours – the rationale being that the fewer finishes, the less potential for problems. However, while this would normally only last a number of days as new colours were introduced, the situation at Castle Bromwich persisted for 18 months.

The result was chaos. The condemned Browns Lane paint plant was hastily reanimated, with almost every bodyshell received from Castle Bromwich requiring a full bare metal repaint. With the TPA system at virtual standstill, Jaguar began accepting only primered shells for painting at Allesley. At one point, the purchase of the unused Triumph paint plant at Speke was investigated. But in addition to this, production of the Series III became further mired in delay owing to component shortages and problems on the build tracks owing to changes incorporated into the revised car.

What all this meant in reality was that comparatively few completed Series IIIs left the factory during 1979. But the following year, as deliveries to customers began to take place, a truer picture of the crisis began to emerge. The losses in rectification, warranty and lost orders was of an order of magnitude to render Jaguar insolvent. But while BL’s Sir Michael Edwardes was quick to apportion blame where it didn’t necessarily reside (making Jaguar’s Bob Knight a marked man), he also was of the belief that Jaguar could survive if it could be turned around quickly enough – appointing John Egan in April 1980 with a kill or cure brief.

However, it was Triumph which would inadvertently become key to Jaguar’s salvation. In 1980, production of Triumph TR7 bodyshells at Castle Bromwich was stopped, pending its move to Rover’s Solihull plant. The Rover SD1 body was already being built and painted in Cowley, so the vast and under-utilised Castle Bromwich plant now only served Jaguar – and this in name only. As matters deteriorated, BL proposed shutting it entirely.

But in the late spring of 1980, newly appointed Jaguar CEO, John Egan successfully negotiated for Castle Bromwich to come under his purview and having gained the support of the workforce, senior management, notably David Fielden and Mike Beasley slowly and painfully came to grips with the TPA process. Body tooling was improved for greater accuracy, (therefore requiring less lead-loading), better quality sheet steel was employed, the paint formulation was altered and the TPA temperature was more finely controlled – enough to flow the paint, but not melt the lead.

But while Jaguar struggled to restart production at Castle Bromwich, the Series III was dying in the marketplace. Customers were unimpressed with the colour choice (Cotswold Yellow being especially ill-favoured), nor were they particularly pleased with the finish once their car was delivered, to say nothing of its reliability. Jaguar’s 1979 sales collapsed with a mere 12,500 cars leaving the Allesley plant, a figure which represented only half of the business’ break-even point.

The picture facing Egan and his management team was grim. While the basic product was outstanding, Jaguar’s utter inability to build it to an acceptable standard had brought the business to the very brink of disaster.

Compounding matters further was the fact that with XJ-S production at a standstill (owing to lack of demand and similar paint-related maladies), Jaguar was now wholly dependent on Series III. The battle to remain in business would be fought day by day, week by week, but by Autumn 1980, the paint crisis had been brought to a successful conclusion with cars reaching customers in much better shape and in a broader range of colour finishes.

However, the TPA debacle cemented Jaguar’s antipathy towards BL, fuelling John Egan’s resolve to press for full independence. It also precipitated the decision to abandon the paint process entirely, adapting the industry-normative ‘clear over base’ system; this however would have to await better times. After all, there were larger fish to fry – salvaging Series III’s reputation being of course the most pressing.

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Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

10 thoughts on “Saving Grace – Part Three”

  1. I recall loading Jags for export to Australia in the early 70s while serving on a 1948 built ship in her dying days. As they were lifted aboard by derrick we could all see that the underneath of the Jags was rustier than the ship

  2. I well remember that Autocar photo from 1979 but had no idea that the colour choice was so limited (and unappealing) for a prolonged period after the launch of the Series III. They might have got away with it on, say, the Metro, but it was commercial suicide even back in 1979 to launch a luxury car without the choice of dark (ideally,metallic) colours.

    What was it about that horrible mustard colour that appealed so much to those at BL who chose it? It is the colour I associate most closely with the dreary Maxi, Marina and Allegro. I know tastes were very different in the 70’s (and have the embarrassing photos to prove it!) but if you had to limit your range to three colours, how on earth did it make the cut? I would have instead have chosen black and dark blue alongside the red. (White only becomes appealing when the car is sold on after a few years into the wedding hire business.)

  3. Surely, the most critical task for any car manufacturer is to work out how to build multiple copies of their car in an effective and efficient way. Otherwise, you are just a creator of one-off, bespoke vehicles: exciting and highly skilled work, but not a viable business.

    It is simply astonishing that these issues continue to this day – yesterday, Autocar carried a story about protests outside Jaguar Land Rover’s China HQ because customers are upset at the low quality of the cars.

    Why is this so hard to get right?

  4. I see there was never a Lead Balloon colour option or “Sink Like A” Stone shade which would have been fitting.
    As for poor quality, as jacamo clearly asks, how difficult can getting the quality correct, be? Whenever I’ve been in a factory, and I’ve seen the JLR lines several times, there appear to be armies of Quality Control and checking ants. Is it so hard? It must be.

    1. It’s hard if you don’t consider the requirements of series production when you design the car in the first place. Even back in the late 70’s, lead loading was a rather anachronistic process to find on a production line, being far too fiddly and time consuming, and difficult to repeat with the required consistency. Jaguar’s production methods were fine when the company was a relatively small-scale manufacturer, but it didn’t adapt quickly enough to the requirements of mass production when the XJ turned out to be such a success. Malign interference from BL undoubtedly exacerbated the problems.

    2. I feel I must offer a little clarification regarding Hilton Holloway’s Autocar piece, but before doing so, I acknowledge JLR’s latterday durability issues. I put them to an insider last year and received an admission that there had been a drop in quality with the recent cars and that the Ford-developed models had been better in this regard. This suggests that the quality systems Ford put in place during the PAG era might no longer be sufficient in this current generation, which is of course far more electronically advanced, not to mention wholly developed at Gaydon. Either way however, it’s a lapse and a serious one.

      However the original Automotive News report, as referred to by Mr. Holloway in his Autocar piece cites JLR’s issues in China as being almost entirely related to vehicles built there with their domestic partner, Chery. Quality appears to be a huge issue right across the board amongst cars built on the Chinese mainland, and not confined to JLR alone – although theirs appear to more grievous than others.

      I do not point this out to absolve JLR of any responsibility in this matter – that would be foolish – more that bashing Jaguar Land-Rover seems to have become as popular a national sport as hammering BL used to be and we all know what that led to. But equally, I don’t hold with the Steve Cropley doctrine of stating that everything is ‘Brilliant’, like some ‘Fast Show’ character of yore.

      JLR need to urgently get to grips with a number of existential threats, amongst which are perceptions (real or otherwise) because the lessons of BL (and Jaguar too) have a nasty habit of repeating.

      As I’m fond of reiterating…

    3. Eoin,

      Thank you for the additional background.

      However, you do not have to look hard for customer complaints about UK-made JLR products.

      How this compares with competitors I do not know… the big three Germans all have their quality woes as well. But it still seems crazy to piss off your customers like that.

  5. Closer to home, JLR might also want to take a look at the dealership experience. A couple of years ago I bought a nearly new F-Type convertible for £45k from a dealership in the East Midlands. The sales treatment was far too spivvish and matey for my taste and, when the car was delivered (at my expense) the two minor jobs I asked them to take care of (a paint chip on the A-pillar and misaligned bonnet over the nearside wheelarch) had not been done. When I challenged the sales guy on this, he (and the Sales Manager) swore blind that they had been done, despite my supplying photographic evidence to the contrary!

    I fixed the misaligned bonnet in five minutes with a 13mm spanner, and the dealer graciously agreed to send me a touch-up paint stick. Both issues were trivial, but completely soured my perception of Jaguar. I know it was a single experience and possibly atypical, but that’s all I have to make a judgement.

    Interestingly, I never received any communication from Jaguar asking me to rate my experience with this dealer. This was very odd because even a single phone conversation with other dealerships when I was looking for a car prompted such communications. You can draw your own conclusions about this, as I have.

  6. This article is a reasonable history of automotive paint:

    https://www.paint.org/article/brief-history-automotive-coatings-technology/

    TPA was indeed virtually passe by 1980, mostly due to paint fade after only a few years.

    Quality control with armies of inspectors was a reactive system which the Japanese had essentially overcome with quality assurance systems by the 1980s. Essentially QA is control of process so that no bad parts are made, with continuous statistical sampling of output to gauge whether a particular process is still operating within parameters. Mercedes were caught out by this paradigm shift and came off looking very poorly in the book The Machine That Changed The World in 1990. They reacted like a scalded cat to implement the new systems which probably didn’t help actual quality for the first half of the 1990s. The Americans adapted the purer Japanese systems to their own interpretations during the same time period. I was involved in such a change to a system where I worked almost thirty years ago, where the result was guaranteeing quality to random audit by government. If your process is under control, random third-party audit holds no terrors.

    So one hopes that JLR don’t have that many roving inspectors these days – there really should be essentially none if their processes are under control. It’s not 196 any more. Fiat took over Chrysler only a decade ago, and from reports I read were firmly stuck in the old QC mode, while Chrysler had advanced to better QA by themselves and under Daimler. It caused conflict when Italian engineers lorded it over Americans while pushing more their primitive processes as more advanced. Chrysler is still at the bottom of the quality pile with the other two major suspects, JLR and Volvo. It’s been this way for a decade or more. Oh, and Tesla seems stuck in antiquated production processes because you cannot tell Elon Musk anything – ask him if he’s a genius and he’ll agree. He was going to pop out product like bars of chocolate and drown established industry “stuck in old ways” without having a clue about process control, and ended assembling Tesla 3’s in a tent under primitive conditions. The full Dorkus Maximus. He did not and does not understand what he did and does not comprehend, which is why I’d personally stay well away from his product.

    Goodness knows if JLR in China are anywhere near up to production scratch. I mentioned their China problems here in DTW comments a month ago, far earlier than Hilton Holloway’s revelations! Nothing I read suggested that their imported vehicles were any better than the Chinese-made units. But it’s typical for Westerners to dun the Chinese for poor quality in jointly-owned factories, because it makes us feel superior. GM exports vehicles from China to North America and nobody has really noticed anything. We got Chinese Honda Fits (Jazz) for several years here in Canada. The sky did not fall.

    No, if Chinese-made JLR cars are badly-enough made to cause riots, JLR itself is to blame. Are similar riots taking place outside other manufacturers there over bad quality? I think not.

    1. Thanks for that generally but also bringing the nice and underused word “dun” out into the sun for us to enjoy. Super. It´s like hearing your favourite song played on the radio. Even if you own a recording, hearing a radio station play it makes it even more enjoyable to hear. Ditto these underused words.

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