Tuesday, 28 September 2010

All That You Left Behind?

As Jaguar drive more deeply into their Brave New World, let's take a minute to reflect on their recent past.

 I spent some time today in the company of a 2003 XKR Convertible. A car not without its flaws, and with an underlying architecture dating back decades, but a Jaguar nonetheless. A charming, likable piece of machinery, and one with a personality quite different to how Jaguar want to be perceived going forwards.

For many, a Jag is, was, the very embodiment of Englishness. An elder statesman of the car industry, they were there long before those funny foreigners came along. Back to the Forties they were considered junior automotive nobility, subservient only to Bentley and Rolls Royce. None of this was actually to do with any inherent quality in their cars, more their way of doing things.

The legend lived on but eventually there were signs that the emotional baggage was getting in the way of the future. Lambswool, walnut and leather are no longer sufficient to carry a brand, now everybody has suddenly realised that cars are for driving, not just polishing and wearing tweed in. Engineering was always a strong point, the oily bits out of view were always world class, and when the cars were driven the way William Lyons would have wanted, this excellence shone through. But there was always a plan to escape from that slightly staid, Pipe Smoker Of The Year image.

They tried to make a break with tradition in '75 with the launch of the XJS which was a bit of a shock to the system at a time that they were still producing the ministerial DS420 Limo. It was viewed as almost arrogant, belligerent that they should tear up their book of convention and release a car which, compared with its illustrious forebear the E-Type, displayed none of that cars delicate beauty. There was no wood inside, either, just yards of black plastic. Unfortunately the public didn't see this as progress, nor modern. Just cheap.

It was a pity, Jaguar were forced to backtrack with their tail between their legs and admit walnut back inside the cockpit. The public were placated, and given time the XJS was seen as what it actually was; a superbly proportioned and astonishingly refined GT.

The outcry had been so formidable that Jaguar seemed to sulk for the next thirty years, sticking to the old wood 'n leather formula of the fifties and sixties. Truth was, it worked well, people liked it, but it was starting to feel more like Premium Rover rather than Junior Bentley.

There was never much wrong with the faster models, though, and when in 1994 Jaguar rediscovered supercharging, all hell broke loose and suddenly Jaguars were among the fastest things on the road. At a stroke they gained a new image of discrete power. The first XJR was championed by one Jeremy Clarkson, who ran one himself for a while, and the "R" line really came on song when V8s were reintroduced for the first time since the Turner designed 2.5 from the '50s.

My XKR has that engine. Unlike European rivals, and indeed its later replacement, it starts with a muted growl rather than a flamboyant roar. It carries a big stick, too. Well, a kaiber, actually. Big enough to see it hit sixty from a standstill in a shade over five seconds.

On the inside it wears all the traditional accouterments, walnut varnished so deeply you could swim in it, that old faithful "J" gate gear selector. And best of all, the Toad of Toad Hall view down that improbably long bonnet.

If you fast-forward to where Jaguar are today, and where they are headed, you do have to hope they won't erase all these familiar quirks. We all have to move on, but it's good to remember where you came from. Early signs are good, the XF was successful as a statement of intent, even if most of its drama has evaporated by now and it no longer looks half as interesting as it did three years ago. Even so, it has been warmly embraced by myriad middle managers, beloved for it's faint whiff of Aston-Martin glamour while still being real-world realistic in whole-life costs.

The new XJ is should be broadly praised, it is by some margin the bravest reinvention of an established model undertaken by anybody in this sector of the market. Hugely successful it is too, it manages to evoke some of the proportions of the original XJ6 while staying utterly contemporary. Only the rear lamps are slightly irksome, but even they look terrific at night. And if magazine previews are anything to go by, the next small Jag should be something special as well, repaying several times over everything owed by the disappointing X-Type.

So we wave a fond farewell to the dark days of piped leather and fluted grilles, and we shake the new, strong, confident Jaguar warmly by the hand. Please feel free to develop, but don't forget who you are.