Ghosts of Browns Lane: a reader visits Jaguar's museum

Published: 03 October 2011

CAR reader Eoin Doyle takes a trip down memory lane when he visits Brown Lane. And he unearths a worrying threat to Jaguar's inhouse museum...

You can tell a good deal about the commercial state of a car company by visiting its museum. While it remains fairly likely that Ssangyong hasn’t yet seen fit to lay up a pristine Rodius or Rexton for posterity, anyone with an image to project and a heritage to exploit probably has.

Enzo Ferrari was notorious for his callous attitude to last season’s race car. Many were simply destroyed - the only good car after all was the next one. Such attitudes were not uncommon amidst the grand marques, resulting in many manufacturers having to spend vast sums buying back significant automobiles from collectors once they realised exactly what a well stocked, tastefully curated museum could do for their image.

Porsche spent millions on their architectural marvel of a museum in Stuttgart. Mercedes' and BMW’s museums are tourist destinations in themselves - attracting the petrolhead and long-suffering in equal measure. All elicit a clear, if somewhat Pavlovian response from the enthusiast.

Browns Lane: a very low-key motoring mecca

Of course some place names have attained an inherent resonance. Maranello, Sant’Agata Bolognese or Zuffenhausen are names that conjure up all manner of references depending on how much petrol vapour you’ve been inhaling of late. However, some are by turn prosaic, bland even. Take Browns Lane for example. If I told you it was in a Coventry suburb called Allesley you’d probably just nod weakly and continue with what you were doing. However, to some, this featureless place name had connotations that once transcended its drab West Midland aspect and placed it firmly within the realm of the sublime.

You see, this quiet road once resonated to the engines of industry because for almost 50 years it was home to Jaguar. Now don‘t misunderstand me, Browns Lane was no architectural marvel. It was in fact a relatively uninteresting mid-20th century collection of factory buildings, but in these offices and outbuildings some of the most memorable cars of the last 75 years took shape.
Sir William Lyons, anxious to expand following the post-War boom moved the company here in 1951. The Browns Lane factory was by then a disused ‘Shadow Factory’ built by Daimler for the war effort. Legends were born here. Until the 1990s all Jaguars were built on this site.

Browns Lane: Jaguar's ups and downs

Times and fortunes change. Ford took the decision to cease mainstream production at Browns Lane in 2005 and sold the site to property developers. The main production halls were demolished in 2008. Only the pilot production area remains now. The developers have christened ‘Lyons Park‘, a new Industrial/business park currently in development and among the new residents will be Peugeot, who are opening a distribution centre here in 2012. Nice to see one Lion going from strength to strength.

Anyway, I’d clearly left it too late to visit the famous factory but Browns Lane still houses Jaguar’s Museum, a collection of famous and significant cars that range from the early days of motoring right up to 2003’s R-D6 concept. So better late than never I battled up the M40, arriving at what was Jaguar’s nerve centre just as the clouds were beginning to part.

Jaguar museum on a rainy day

Standing on Browns Lane in the afternoon drizzle I struggled to imagine this quiet suburban road resounding to the throb of XK engines as some prototype was eased out the factory gates on test. It's all so ordinary here. Just faceless nondescript housing estates on which had apparently once been fields and farmland. The Taylor Wimpey Sales Information Centre now marks the spot where the factory entrance once stood. New developments have sprouted up sporting names like “The Swallow‘s Nest“, a vain attempt to evoke a faded memory few will grasp.

Set off the road, nestled amidst the recently completed housing estates, Jaguar Heritage looks forlorn amidst the rapidly encroaching suburban sprawl. It’s certainly no ‘Monolith’ as the futuristic Delugan Meissl-designed Porsche Museum is dubbed. No, instead Jaguar Heritage sits on a small rather isolated site housed in what could be realistically described as a car dealership building. Norman Foster it certainly is not.

The wooden façade from the Old Browns Lane office block through which William Lyons would have passed on his way in to work now sits uncomfortably over the garage entrance, looking faded and worn. Ford didn’t exactly push the boat out when Ford’s Nick Scheele opened the Heritage centre here in 1998, but it was better than nothing.

And there's a Jaguar XJ13 prototype...

As I Park up, framed in the vehicle entrance is the tail of the mythical XJ13 prototype. The throttle blips several times as the 5.0 four-cam V12 aggressively slashes the air. A glorious sound. The attendants cut the engine and begin pushing the legendary racer back inside, having just changed all 12 twelve plugs and cleared the V12‘s lungs.

I follow the famous rump inside, drinking in one of the most evocative shapes ever to clothe a racing car. Centrepiece of the collection this has to be the mid-engined (would-be) Le Mans contender never turned a wheel in anger owing to management inertia and changes in racing regulations that rendered it obsolete before it could do battle with the Ferrari P4s and GT40s. It remains a staggeringly beautiful shape however; the final flowering of the sports racing car before air dams and spoilers changed everything irrevocably.

The collection also houses several famous production and racing models. The Alpine Rally Gold Cup winning XK120 (NUB 120) is perhaps the most famous of all; this legendary old warhorse, still scuffed and worn from its rallying heyday sits in company with the Bronze XK120 Coupe that averaged 100.31 mph for 7 days and 7 nights at Montlhery in 1952.

Race Jaguars

Naturally, the racing machinery gets the lion's share of the attention, so both C and D-Types are present and correct, as is the Touring Championship winning XJ-S, the ill-stared F1 car and a modern GT-3 XK Coupe. The Le-Mans winning XJR-9 was clearly tucked up in bed along with a good 50% of the collection. (Because of space issues, only a fraction of the 120-car collection is on display at any given time, sad to say). Most of the cars are fully operational - the D-Type was just back from the Mille Miglia and the XJ13 had been a star turn at this year‘s Festival of Speed.

Every inch of available space is occupied with cars, engines and display cases filled with memorabilia, including the stillborn four-cylinder version of the famous XK engine. The staff are deeply knowledgeable, mostly ex-employees who are very happy to pass the time or inform and educate. So yes, several notable cars were absent, but to anyone with a passing interest in the marque, this collection is essential viewing and all the better for being refreshingly unpretentious.

So happy endings all round then? Well, no actually. You see, another batch of Wimpey Homes is set to be built on the site, so Jaguar Heritage must vacate by September 2012 when the museum building is to be torn down. At present, the staff, many of whom have worked for Jaguar all their lives, have no idea where it will be relocating to or indeed whether the museum will remain in Coventry at all. Chatting to several of the old hands who care for the cars one gets the sense that they are anxious for the future and uncertain whether they will have jobs in 12 months' time.

Jaguar museum: an uncertain future

In many ways this situation sums up Ford’s somewhat tainted legacy to Jaguar. 'No one is more aware of Brown’s Lane’s fantastic heritage than me, but we are confronted by harsh economic realities,' said Ford’s Joe Greenwell in 2004 when the Blue Oval announced the factory’s closure. 'If we don’t act, the very future of Jaguar is under threat'. After all of Uncle Henry’s expansionist dreams, the doomed Formula One campaign, the brash promises it ends here in ignominy. Ford squandered billions on Jaguar and all they have to show for it now is a collection of priceless motor cars in a condemned building. Where Jaguar’s collection will end up now is really hostage to an even more depressing set of ‘harsh economic realities‘.

Later that afternoon, I drove down a side road past yet another recent Swallow Themed housing development to view the enormous mound of earth, all that now remains of Jaguar’s spiritual home. It was overcast and desolate as I stood, looking out across the wasteland pondering the fleeting nature of empires. Sir William Lyons was a colossus in his day but the company he built is gone, fallen prey to the vicissitudes of fortune and the roll of time‘s dice.

True, Jaguar lives on in more enlightened hands; but I can’t help feeling that with its nerve centre demolished, a little part of Jaguar’s soul has departed forever as well. I suppose it is a bit pointless becoming dewy-eyed about a factory but you take your icons where you find them. Soon the only trace of Jaguar‘s presence on Browns Lane will be a couple of cynically named suburban streets and the odd second hand X-type parked outside someone‘s starter home.

Getting back in the car, a thought occurred to me: in the year when the E-Type and the Mini Cooper are being commemorated, the places where they were designed and built are no more than rubble. A neatly omitted fact amidst all the self-congratulation and chest beating. Strip away the self regarding nostalgia and what is left? Ghosts and faded black and white images.
I felt profoundly sad.

Driving back towards Coventry in the evening rush hour, I realised it would be extremely unlikely I’d ever set foot on Browns Lane again. After all, what now would be the point?

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Reader's article

By Eoin Doyle