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Jaguar’s Storied Past and Recent Resurgence

 

 

 

A few years ago, on a sleepy Los Angeles Monday night, a college buddy and I made our way down La Cienega Blvd after dinner at Koi Restaurant. As we chatted about our misspent college days in San Diego, I happened to glance to my right through the passenger window and for a spit second I spotted a flash of silver out of the corner of my eye. Miraculously my sake-doused brain instantly cleared up and within five more seconds we were making a U-Turn back towards the Black Horse Motor Sports display window. The lights were on and there was an amalgam of various mid-seventies Ferrari’s strewn around the dealership floor. Most were red and wore their war wounds with honor but towards the fringes of Maranello’s more pedestrian stood a shining silver sword of a car. With a body as if folded by an origami master, it stood our like the Last Mohican among the sea of red.  As we approached I recognized it immediately but for the life of me couldn’t remember what it was. It was parked in such a way that the front grill and headlights remained hidden and the only hint to its provenance was the word Pirana scrawled in cursive below the rear deck-lid on either back wing of the car. Bertone’s brand adorned the front wings just before the doors. Then suddenly it hit us both at the same time; a story we had both read years ago of a Jaguar E Type modified and re-bodied as a publicity stunt by London’s Daily Telegraph for the 1967 London Motor Show.

 

Many years have passed since the Daily Telegraph had the humor, chutzpah and money to commission a bespoke Jaguar by Marcello Gandini just for gawks. But recently, the launch of the F-Type in 2014 and the F-Pace crossover this year seem to have propelled Jaguar on a roll. Slowly it is shaking its storied but recently staid image, replaced by the style and innovation that once gained Sir William Lyons and his engineering visionaries access to the pantheon of automobile marques.

From its inception as the Swallow Sidecar Company in 1922, the SS 90 and the SS100 established the company as a producer of high quality sporting cars with the SS100 a “mini-me” Bentley. While the Blitz put an end to car production and nearly wiped Coventry off the map, the engineers at SS Cars Limited (as the company was now called) were forced to spend long nights at the factory on fire watch.  They used their time wisely, continuing development of a double overhead cam in-line six engine and a super secret sports car to be used as a test bed.

 

After the war, in an attempt to shed the dark connotation now associated with his company’s initials, Lyons changed the company name to Jaguar Cars and launched the  test bed prototype called the XK 120 in 1949. Despite Sir William Lyons faith that high-speed saloons would be Jaguar’s bread and butter in the post-war world, the XK – 120 made it into series production with legendary results on both road and track.  Soon purpose-built cars like the C and D Type won the public’s adulation and introduced the world to game-changing technology such as disk-brakes, dry sump lubrication and monocoque construction.

 

The 1960’s brought much change to the company. Jaguar’s body suppler, Pressed Steel Company was bought by the British Motor Corporation in 1965 and Lyons began to fear for his supply. He was also without an heir and so in July 1965 BMC and Jaguar Cars merged taking the name British Motor Holdings (BMH). The merger was soon followed by another, this time with the Leyland Motor Corporation Limited and the resulting company was renamed British Leyland Motor Corporation (BMC). Unfortunately, the behemoth with the overly long name created by a government more bent on saving uncompetitive jobs than producing good products did not fare well and in 1975 the company was nationalized.

 

From the mid 70’s until 1984 Jaguar languished under the thumb of the over-bloated insult to British industry that British Leyland became. Apart from brief triumphs of traditional British engineering prowess over bureaucracy and labor unrest such as the iconic 1970 Range Rover, one-by-one British stalwarts such as Triumph and Morris fell into quasi-oblivion.

 

By 1980, the big cat was alive but barely breathing. Installed as chairman of the newly privatized company that same year, Sir John Egan began the hard work of returning Jaguar to profitability. By 1986 he had tackled the endemic quality control problems and aided by Prime Minister Thatcher’s labor reforms, laid off a sizeable portion of the company’s work force. The result became an attractive acquisition target for Ford in 1989, giving the brand a new lease on life.

 

The Blue Oval gave Jaguar much needed cash that was used to expand the brand down-market with the S and X Types. The former’s styling, reminiscent of the Mk2 and S Type of the 1960’s wasn’t bad but the low-rent embarrassment of an interior, pilfered hook line and sinker from the rather lackluster Lincoln LS, was an insult to Sir William Lyons. Luckily that horrendous dash was replaced with something much more worthy in the 2003 facelift. The car itself sold well but never managed to become a real contender against the BMW 5 series and Mercedes E Class.

 

The even smaller X Type became Jaguar’s sales champion but that said numbers remained far from what Ford had hoped for.  The chassis was pure Ford Mondeo and no matter how hard the designers tried, the car never quite felt like a “Jag”. Jeremy Clarkson, put it best saying: "…genetically, you are 98% identical to a halibut, but it's the 2% that makes the difference."[1]

 

 

This brings us to the present and Jaguar’s recent revival under the astute stewardship of Tata Motors. Ian Callum’s break with the past, starting with the 2009 XJ, was not for everyone but the F-Type, spiritual successor to the venerable E Type of the Sixties has proven to be very “shagadelic,” as Austin Powers would put it.

 

Now that Sergio Marchione has decreed gas prices low forever, the era of full CUVification is upon us. Jaguar too has jumped into the fray with the new F-Pace. I just tested the big feline at Hornburg Jaguar/Land Rover of Santa Monica http://www.hornburgjaguarsm.com and was more than impressed. I’d like to thank sales advisor Goran Kodzic for his eternal patience and congratulate him on his in-depth knowledge of the product.

 

From the moment I sat in the car the seating position felt perfect. A few electronic adjustments of seat and steering wheel and I felt as if the car was an extension of my body. You sit low which is all the better for “feeling” the car, something which is an afterthought in most CUV’s. Maybe even more remarkable is that even with the front seat adjusted for my tall frame there is still ample knee-space in the rear seat for a six-footer. The electronically reclining backrest takes care of headroom. The space story gets even better in the trunk, which is cavernous for this class of CUV and puts both the Porsche Macan and even the Cayenne to shame.

 

Jaguar, like most other British luxury cars used to be swathed in pungent hides by Conolly Leather Ltd. Unfortunately, the distinctive smell disappeared with the company in the early 2000’s but other brands have managed to find suitable replacements that retain much of the olfactory pleasure. In the case of Ferrari and Maserati it is Poltrona Frau which explains why the interior of the rather mid-range Maserati Ghibli smells like a luxury leather goods store. Unfortunately Jaguar and Land Rover have dropped the ball in this respect as their current products smell nothing close to as good as they used to. Furthermore, wood veneer, once a hallmark of all British cars was also conspicuously absent in the F-Pace. Maybe to make up for these two omissions the headliner and A,B and C pillars were covered in more Alcantara than one might find at a Lancia Owners Club Reunion.

 

 

On the plus side, Jaguar’s infotainment systems have finally joined the 21st century. Encompassing everything from an adjustable Heads-Up display showing speed and navigation info to the multi-function TFT display in front of the driver capable of displaying everything from Google maps info, news items and a traditional two dial speedometer and tachometer, it is finally comparable to Audi’s benchmark unit. The view through the 360 degree camera displayed on the center console screen is equally impressive.

 

The button behind the gear selector for driving modes: NORMAL, DYNAMIC and SPORT affecting throttle response, steering, shift points and suspension damping as well as engine sound is also becoming a must have in this class and Jaguar’s version is simple to use without having to dig into various infotainment menus. Of course all the usual electronic nannies like blind spot and rear traffic-detection are also part of the package.

 

The F-Pace uses the Jaguar/Land Rover V6 in 340 or 380hp form and there are rumors swirling that the venerable supercharged 5.0 litre V8 mill will one day grace an SVR version. We’ll just have to keep praying. What few people however know is that the engine block of the six-cylinders is the same as the 5 liter V’s. To create the V6 two pistons are removed and the holes plugged. While the resulting engine is a bit heavier compared to a similar conventional V6 the development cost-savings far outweigh the added porky-ness which is not noticeable. 

 

As we eased out of the dealer lot onto Santa Monica Blvd afternoon traffic, throttle response was almost instant with the revs rising fast in the very low ratio first gear. In the past, combined with drive-by-wire throttles, such low gearing made tip-in abrupt and smooth accelerating from a stop an art. (Those of you who owned first generation VW Touaregs V8’s know what I mean.)   However, the F-Pace’s ZF 8 speed shifted smoothly and almost without hesitation and it seems Jaguar has managed to make throttle and transmission work in almost perfect harmony.

 

Only adding to that general feeling of harmony was the CUV’s incredibly smooth but controlled ride, a characteristic that has distinguished Jaguars for decades. In this case it is achieved via steel springs and adaptive dynamic dampers that felt almost as effective as the air suspension systems found in most German luxury cars. The magic-carpet ride accompanied by a truly melodious engine note and highly progressive and effective brakes, resulted in a car that felt light on its feet and nimble in LA traffic. This is underscored by the fact that it surpasses its closest rival (Porsche Macan) in almost every dimension. It is longer, much wider and higher, with a cargo area almost twice the size of the Porsche CUV. But even with the overweight engine mentioned earlier it still manages to remain 229 lbs. lighter than the Macan Turbo. There are few car nuts out there that don’t love that solid feeling of carved-from-granite that the VW group has done such a good job of copying from classic Mercedes, however it comes at a price in weight that Jaguar believes is not always worth paying.

 

The F-Pace is a tour de force for the legendary company from Coventry that designed the XK120 and its engine in the midst of the Blitz. Lets hope that together with the F – Type and XE “BMW 3 Series killer”, the F-Pace leads Jaguar on a new and lasting revival to make Sir William Lyons proud.

 

 

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguar_X-Type

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