There are some things a writer never wishes to put to paper, so I write these words today with a heavy heart.
In the summer of 2016, I did what one should never do and met a personal hero, fulfilling a long-held ambition by interviewing former Jaguar Director of Vehicle Engineering, Jim Randle. At the time, he had been out of the public gaze for some time and was perhaps understandably wary of this pair of interlopers from afar asking him questions about a past he had largely put behind him.
Yet as he warmed to his interrogators, the memories of people, places, events and of course, the vehicles he helped create flooded back and between the quiet ironies and the uproarious laughter, he not only lent us almost five hours of his time but for myself, memories that I treasure.
And now he is gone. Sadly, Jim Randle passed away last weekend. It has been said that when someone of this stature is taken from us, the sense of loss is akin to that of a library burning down. In this instance, it feels especially true, Randle being the last surviving former Jaguar Director who could trace his lineage back to the Sir William Lyons era.
We can trace it further still. Apprenticed at Rover in the late 1950s, his automotive career began at Lode Lane when he was selected by senior engineer, Spen King to lead development of the 2000 TC and six-cylinder (P7) versions of the acclaimed P6 saloon before accepting an offer at Jaguar in 1965 as development engineer on the nascent XJ4 saloon project, prior to leading the subsequent XJ12 programme.
By the age of 35 his talents had seem him elevated to deputy and protégé to engineering chief, Bob Knight, by 1980 succeeding him as director of vehicle engineering. As one of the most formidable engineering brains in the UK industry, it was from his erstwhile boss that Randle was inculcated to the methodical, scientific approach.
He also witnessed first hand as Knight employed every ounce of intellect to successfully subvert British Leyland’s plans to subsume Jaguar’s engineering nerve centre as the nationalised car giant slowly engulfed the leaping cat. Following Knight’s departure in 1980, Randle took on the mantle of keeper of the Jaguar flame, living and breathing the marque – often risking personal censure to further its cause.
The Jim Randle skunkworks became legendary within Browns Lane and from here several production designs along with innumerable clever concepts and innovations which never saw the light of day were created with a small cohort of dedicated engineers, stylists and artisans – all of whom worked out of hours – Randle inspiring this level of loyalty and devotion to task.
A subtle, quietly spoken and brilliantly clever man, the cars he became most associated with also met this description – the 1986 XJ40 being perhaps the most ambitious Jaguar saloon of all, definitely the most technically interesting and certainly the least understood. The 1988 XJ220 became watered down to an almost unrecognisable degree from the advanced concept he created and perhaps most significantly, the ambitious XJ41/42 sportscar fell victim to product strategy miscalculations and it would seem, political skulduggery.
It was the political environment in the febrile post-Ford takeover period which precipitated his departure from Jaguar, a matter which caused him considerable personal pain – especially as it coincided with the illness and subsequent death of his wife, Jean – who had been such a support to him throughout his years at Allesley.
Following a period during the early ’90s developing advanced gas turbine hybrid vehicles for Volvo with fellow Rover alumnus, Noel Penny, (another subsequent victim of Ford’s cost accountants) he moved into academia, becoming professor at Birmingham University’s Automotive Engineering faculty, investigating alternative modes of propulsion and advanced vehicle architectures. Later side projects included innovative high-strength aluminium structures for MG/Rover, Morgan and Lea Francis, amongst others.
But while his wife maintained he had Jaguar running through him, like a stick of Blackpool rock, his abiding passion was aviation. A qualified and enthusiastic pilot of his single engined B.125 Bulldog, he also lectured novice pilots on the principles of flight and basic aerodynamic theory, which he enjoyed greatly. I can vividly recall his delight in recalling the experience of flying a WW2 Supermarine Spitfire for the first time in 1988 – reward for Jaguar’s victory at Le Mans that year.
It’s ironic that Randle’s career arc so closely matched that of his mentor and former boss, Bob Knight – even in retirement. Both men chose to avoid the public eye, living out their time quietly, modestly and without rancour towards a past which had left some scars. Latterly, Jim rekindled his enthusiasm for the leaping cat, becoming more involved in historical events – with XJ40 but particularly with XJ220, a project that he maintained particular affection for.
He is survived by his son, Steve, himself an engineer of considerable note, and daughter, Sally. To Steve and the Randle family we extend our sincere condolences.
Leonard Setright, a writer who rarely struggled with the written word once spoke of eminent Fiat engineer, Ettore Cordiano, defining him as, “A man of quiet reserve, cool reason, graceful manner and firm principle.” I borrow these words today because I simply cannot find any of my own.
James Neville Randle: 1938 – 2019 RIP.
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