“We had a modern, world-class car before. All we had to do was to improve quality and reliability.” (John Egan – 1982).
It was dubbed ‘The Egan miracle’. The turnaround which saw Jaguar go from loss-making irrelevance (in the region of £20 million in 1979), ripe for closure, to media darling and example to all of how failing businesses could be transformed by effective management.
And Egan was effective. Aided by a store of goodwill that existed for the marque within the broader automotive industry, amid the car-buying public, from the workforce itself and within certain quarters of the unwieldy BL leviathan, the ambitious Lancastrian came with proven managerial qualities, enthusiasm and a burning drive to succeed.
But in 1980, the main order of business was survival. Only then, could the painful process of pulling Jaguar’s reputation out of the scrapyard begin. Egan and his management team identified 150 major faults with the cars, Jaguar’s CEO telling Motor magazine’s Anthony Curtis in 1983, “I didn’t have a saleable product until the quality was right”.
As much as 60% of these faults related to bought-in components, ranging from power steering and rear axle failures to minor gripes like the electric aerial. Assessed for severity, the most egregious were handled personally by Egan and his senior management team. Task forces within engineering, manufacturing and servicing worked closely with suppliers to identify and remedy problems, with the suppliers bearing the full warranty and shipping costs. Those who refused to comply had their contracts terminated.
One of key reasons that this initiative worked was the fact that not only had Jaguar regained control of its purchasing but also for the first time, components were purchased on quality as much as cost grounds. Significant efforts were also made on the production tracks to build the cars accurately and to a standard that befitted their market price. “I knew each car was going out the door and not making friends – until it made friends, nothing else was left”, Egan observed.
Change was enacted throughout the organisation, as more of Jaguar’s functions returned under Browns Lane control. In the US market, deliveries had become unpredictable, often late and frequently not to specification – to the consternation of customers. Also, Jaguar’s dealers were often not of the first order. This too would change.
Tarnished reputations however are slowly regained. Getting the message out was vital and while the UK press could be relied upon to lend a empathetic ear, the US remained a seemingly intractable obstacle. Then, during the spring of 1981, the BL board dropped a bombshell. Should Egan fail to break-even that year, and return to profitability in 1982 they would pull the plug entirely. There was only one way out of this impasse and that was to sell more cars.
But firefighting multiple crises at home, Egan and his team seemingly missed the boat to communicate positive change to its beleaguered US dealer base for the 1981 model year. Export Director, John Morgan however came up with an ambitious gambit, where they would skip the 1981 MY cars entirely and introduce the 1982 models – essentially a relaunched Series III and revised XJ-S HE at a specially erected canopy outside the Browns Lane offices that summer – there being no money for anything more elaborate.
The suave and multi-lingual Morgan was a battle-hardened Jaguar stalwart who had cut his teeth under Sir William and knew how to improvise. He also knew everybody. He wheedled the loan of Warwick Castle and the Lord Chancellor to preside over a lavish banquet for the visiting US dealer principals who were also treated to a VIP tour of a spruced-up Browns Lane production line and its slimmed-down, newly-motivated workforce.
That evening, Egan worked the room, passionately exhorting the visiting Americans to believe in Jaguar. The scene became akin to a Pentecostal revival meeting, as he urged the US dealers to revise their 1982 sales projections upwards by almost 50%. The energy in the room proved decisive. Egan and Jaguar, by the skin of their teeth were back in the game.
1982 marked a point where perceptions really began to shift. The cars were clearly better finished and durability had improved sufficiently that dealers were minded, not only to drive Jaguars themselves, but to sell them to their friends. Major changes to the ’82 Series III’s were largely confined to the V12 model, which received a reconfigured cylinder head design, precipitating economy gains of around 20% – one which would prove its lifeline.
However despite this, US market CAFE economy regulations which penalised ‘gas-guzzlers’ saw the XJ12 pulled from the US market entirely in 1983. A further change that year saw the first Jaguar model to be known by a name rather than an alphanumeric. In Europe and the US, confusion existed over the use of the Daimler nameplate, and the Jaguar Sovereign was offered in a similar specification and trim to that of the previous Daimler-badged version. In the US, it was known as the Jaguar Vanden Plas.
The Sovereign soon migrated home, ushering in a new style of roadwheel which would become defining – the Pepperpot. Apart from detail changes – a revised centre console and minor trim enhancements in 1985, the Series III remained largely unchanged. The truly dramatic alteration were the sales figures which just kept rising (over 26,700 Series IIIs that year alone), surprising everybody; not least Egan, who despite protestations to the contrary, didn’t quite believe the car’s success could last.
But the Series III was now making friends, so much so that in the US in particular, the feeling was that Jaguar might want to think twice about replacing it. Elsewhere however, perceptions were more nuanced. Former product strategist, Jonathan Partridge summed up the feeling by mid-decade within Browns Lane, telling this author, “I felt that it seemed quite an outdated car alongside the S-Class and 7-Series; you know, Jaguar’s lagged behind. I remember once describing a Series III; you felt like you were in a vehicle that was made of thousands of parts that were loosely joined together and moving roughly in the same direction. It seemed like a product from a previous generation.”
But a new generation was on the horizon and Jaguar was chomping at the bit to announce it. Twice delayed, Jaguar’s new-era XJ saloon was introduced in Autumn 1986, and ought to have marked the Series III’s immediate demise. But not so fast. Jaguar had very carefully drawn down production in the run up to XJ40’s launch, and this, combined with robust demand for what was seen as the last of the classic Jaguars, ensured that the transition was a smooth one.
In fact, six-cylinder SIII production continued for US and rest of the World markets until the Spring of 1987 as the new car was incrementally (and problematically) rolled out. It wasn’t to end there either; the V12 models being retained in production until such time as an equivalent XJ40 model could be developed.
It has been suggested that this model was subject to something of an internal struggle between engineering and sales and marketing as to its necessity. Either way, it too was repeatedly delayed, further lengthening Series III’s lifespan. In 1990, the latter received anti-lock brakes and catalysts, but this aside, for the final years of its life, it was largely hand-built to order on the former XJ40 pilot line, track six at Browns Lane.
The end came in late-1992, with the very last car, a Daimler Double Six coming off the tracks, while its replacement, the overshadowed and undercooked XJ81 limped onto the market for less than a year before it too was cast into the history books.
Coming within two years of outliving its intended replacement, the Series III became the Jaguar that steadfastly defied death’s scythe. But with its passing, the unfeigned sorrow amid the automotive universe was palpable. One of the true greats had gone and nothing would ever be quite the same again.
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