The highs and lows of the world's best known small car company
26 March 2008

Jaguar is probably the smallest car company that everybody has heard of.Even at its production peak a few years ago, the company produced fewer than 150,000 cars across four different model lines. Before the S-type was launched in 1998, the company was building just 50,000 XJ and XK8 models, no more than the supposedly strong year it had in 1987.Despite this, Jaguar has global name recognition, a rich history and a brand that represents pretty much the same values on all continents.So why is the company suffering falling sales (down around 50 per cent since 2003), huge losses and a change of ownership when the last decade and a half has seen most premium brands expand at an extraordinary rate? Jaguar made its reputation by building beautiful, fast cars that were often conspicuously good value.The unveiling of the rapid, stunning and technically advanced XK120 in 1948 was matched in impact by the E-Type, launched in 1961.Jaguar’s saloon cars were well respected, but the 1968 XJ saloon set standards of ride and refinement that few matched for the following two decades.Jaguar’s absorption into the BLMC conglomerate in 1968 didn't help its future prospects, especially after the group was nationalised as British Leyland in 1974. The rot started to set in with the XJ-S coupe, which showed Jaguar struggling to move convincingly into the future. Worse still, replacing the original XJ took well over a decade, during an era that saw British automotive engineering at its lowest ebb and Jaguar quality at a low point. The XJ40 arrived in 1986 and once again Jaguar showed it couldn't decide whether to celebrate its past or try to leap into the future. Floated as a separate company in 1984 and after a big quality blitz, it was sold to Ford in 1989. But the company’s facilities were ancient and its engineering base weak. Ford’s ownership fixed many flaws, and including moving some production to the fully refitted Halewood plant on Merseyside.Quality improved hugely, an excellent new V8 was designed and the XK8 coupe was a noticeable return to form. But poor decision-making, compromised engineering and a dash back to retro designs proved to be near fatal. The S-Type’s retro looks were ill conceived and the original Lincoln-sourced chassis inadequate.The compact X-Type was supposed to hit 100,000 units per year, but it never recovered from the Mk1 Mondeo chassis, front-drive architecture and old-world styling.At the end of the 1990s Jaguar took a huge leap forward and commissioned an innovative aluminium chassis for the all-new XJ. But the costs crippled the tiny company, and the finished car’s styling was decried as excessively retro – barely different from the 1968 original.Ford spent nearly $1 billion bailing Jaguar out in late 2006. Despite the impressive aluminium XK coupe and the promise of the first-rate XF saloon, Ford pulled the plug. Now Tata will find out whether company management has plotted a strategy that will finally break Jaguar out of its six-decade long slumber as a low-volume carmaker.

Hilton Holloway

Tata buys Jaguar and Land RoverHistory of TataJaguar: the futureLand Rover: the futureLand Rover: the world's most succesful 4x4 makerGeneva Show interview with Ratan Tata>br>Go to Chas Hallett's JLR blog

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