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.
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.
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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