How Jaguar’s heritage millstone forced it to modernise

Published: 21 May 2010

Tradition is a marvellous quality and any car company that enjoys it, should value it. What Kia would give for an E-type in its past! How Geely would love to have a P1800 in its hall of fame! (So Geely did the next best thing and bought Volvo, the company that made the P1800.)

A rich heritage is one of Europe’s key advantages over emerging Asian makers; moving forward, we will have precious few others. The Continental GT owner gets a feel-good glow every time he takes the wheel: he knows deep-down that Bentley won Le Mans years ago in old green cars driven by brave men with improbably heroic names like Woolf Barnato. (Never mind that a Continental GT would now have as much chance of winning Le Mans as an oil tanker would of winning the America’s Cup.) I have a Rolex watch because it is the first-ever wristwatch to earn chronometer status, not because it keeps better time than a quartz Timex. (It doesn’t.)

The star cars of all recent Jaguar media launches were the old ones

But an obsession with history can ruin a company. It almost killed Jaguar.

All Jaguar press launches of the ’80s, ’90s and early Noughties featured a C-type, D-type or E-type prominently. Never mind that they had as much in common with the most of the new models as John Major had with Winston Churchill.

Tales of driving an XK120 in the Mille Miglia

I have benefited mightily from Jaguar’s ‘remembrance of things past’ and am grateful for the opportunity to have driven a D-type at Goodwood and, even more, NUB120 (the world’s most famous XK120) in the Mille Miglia a few years ago. (That was one of the great weekends of my life, and what a car!  If some recent Jaguars have looked 20 years out of date, the XK120 was 20 years ahead its time!).

But I know why Jaguar invested so much in its old-car PR. There really were very few interesting column inches in an X-type diesel.

Carriage clock style in a digital world

Even more worrying, this obsession with the past manifested itself in its cars. I partly blame old owner Ford, which thought it was buying a ‘classic British company’ renowned for its leather and wood cabins, and its time-honoured style. (In fact Jaguar had been a thoroughly modern car company up until the late ’80s.) The nadir was surely the X- and S-types: the latter even featured TV ads that reinforced its retro ’60s appeal. Jaguar was a bit like the Britain before the ‘Cool Britannia’ uprising: the golden days were long gone, and everyone knew it.

Jaguar was making fossils while BMW moved forward. They were making gramophones in an iPod world, celebrating the past when everyone else yearned for modernity. Even when they were genuinely progressive – take aluminium monocoque construction – they clothed such progressive thinking in an old tweed suit. The just-superseded XJ was lamb dressed as mutton.

Lessons from Aston Martin and Porsche

A successful company should be guided by its heritage but not be hamstrung by its history. It should always look forward, while being endlessly conscious of its past. Aston Martin – if we take away the daft Cygnet – gives a good idea of how it’s done. So does Porsche, which arguably knows what sort of car it should be making more than any other maker.

Ian Callum rides to the rescue

I am very pleased to report that Jaguar has now, quite suddenly, raced into the 21st century faster than Dr Who’s Tardis time-marching forward. I think design director Ian Callum – ex-Aston Martin – deserves much of the credit. His new XF and XJ are the most thoroughly modern cars in their classes: rival BMWs look old hat by comparison.

At the media launch of the latest XJ, in Paris, there was the usual collection of old Jags on hand (some things at Jaguar never change). I even had a go in the first-generation XJ6 (if only modern saloons rode as well!).

But suddenly, with a new XJ alongside, it did not look like a celebration of the golden years; a doleful reminder of the glory days gone by. Rather, it celebrated how very advanced – in style and substance – the XJ6 had been, back in 1968. Just as the new XJ is in 2010. It was a reminder of Jaguar’s noble history of modernizing, not its recent retro mistakes.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience