Cars, Bikes & Boats

The return of top cat

Jaguar used to be the coolest marque in the UK. Can its latest concept car and trio of new models bring back its glory days? Simon de Burton reports.

November 11 2010
Simon de Burton

The year 2010 has been significant for Jaguar Cars. It was 75 years ago that the motor-industry visionary Sir William Lyons first used Jaguar as a model name for a saloon made by Swallow Sidecars – the company he founded in 1922 and later renamed Jaguar to clearly distinguish it from the Nazi “SchutzStaffel” that shared the same initials. The anniversary was marked in mid-September when a convoy of 75 “heritage” Jaguars travelled from the firm’s Coventry HQ to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, stopping en route at London’s May Fair Hotel, where Lyons unveiled the first SS Jaguar saloon back in 1935. All eras of production were represented, but the drivers were almost exclusively of the “vintage” variety – ie, around the same age as Jaguar itself.

That is not intended as an insult. I state the fact merely to illustrate the point that most people who really appreciate the significance of Jaguar’s place in the motoring hall of fame are inevitably getting on a bit. In order to remember Jag’s true glory years, you need to be 60 at the very least.

It was between 1951 and 1957, for example, that the marque won the Le Mans 24 Hours race no fewer than five times; it was in 1959 that the Jaguar MK II, arguably the world’s first true “sports” saloon, was launched; it was two years later that the now-iconic E-Type appeared.

As a result, Jaguars were driven by only the coolest cats during the Swinging Sixties. E-Types were owned by stars such as Peter Sellers and George Harrison, the Great Train Robbers chose a MK II saloon as their getaway car (the police probably chased them in one, too) and, in early 1959, F1 champion Mike Hawthorn died in a souped-up 3.4 litre MK I after losing control at high speed on the Guildford bypass.

By 1975, however, Jaguar’s place as the leading maker of cars for dashing blades was severely on the wane. E-Type production came to an end, with the model being replaced by the equally-fast-yet-far-less-raffish XJS, which was more tourer than sports. The saloon side of things, meanwhile, was addressed by the fabulously comfortable, uncannily quiet XJ6. It was groundbreaking at the beginning, but retained almost the same appearance for a staggering 40 years after its 1968 introduction.

This inevitably led to a degree of stagnation that was not helped by the fact that, during the years when Jaguar was owned by Ford, it lost its way with the S-Type of 1998 (an unsuccessful attempt to blend heritage with modernity) and the smaller X-Type that was built on humble Ford Mondeo underpinnings in a bid to capture a share of the volume sales market.

Earlier, glimmers of inspiration had appeared in the form of two more Le Mans wins (1988 and 1990) and the £400,000, 200mph-plus XJ220 that was launched in 1992, during the depths of the last recession. However, by and large, the one unifying feature of the standard production models prior to 2009 was that they had become firmly associated with the trilby-and-camel-coat style of motoring.

But now things are looking up. In October Jaguar eclipsed the competition at the Paris Motor Show by pulling the wraps off its stunning C-X75 supercar that combines four electric motors and two micro gas turbines to provide 780 horsepower and a 205mph top speed. The car is very much at the “concept” stage – but the latest model line-up clearly demonstrates that the marque is forging ahead in the present too.

The new-generation XJ is related to the previous version in nothing but name. The XK sports model can lay legitimate claim to being a 21st-century E-Type and the medium-sized XF saloon can be likened to a modern-day MKII. Suddenly, Jaguar has woken up to the fact that it needs to attract a younger audience and get itself back where it belongs, as the maker of motors for the in-crowd.

“The fact is, you can sell a young car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old car to a young one,” says Ian Callum, Jaguar’s design director since 1999 and the man largely responsible for the dramatic makeover that the brand has been subjected to in recent times, starting with the replacement in 2008 of the entirely pensionable S-Type with the far-sleeker XF saloon.

“We clearly needed to return Jaguar to the position it held during the 1960s, when it was just about the coolest brand in the UK, and to do that we went back to the basic values of the cars as they were then – in other words, thoroughly modern, stunning looking and with huge street presence. We also recognised that the dynamics of the car had to be extremely sporty, so that it could be driven very quickly.

“Even though this might never happen, buyers want to know that the performance is there,” says Callum. (And I can vouch for the fact that it is, having enjoyed some laps of Germany’s Nürburgring GP circuit in an XJ Supersport at speeds that would certainly have had any of its predecessors tied up in knots.)

The first hint that Jags were becoming more youthful came with the introduction of the second series XK and XKR sports models, which were the first to be fitted with 007-like gadgetry such as the “Jaguar drive selector” – a knurled aluminium gear control that rises automatically from the centre console.

It’s a feature that has been carried through to the all-new XJ saloon, which (save for the C-X75) is the most technically advanced Jaguar ever created. The body is made from aerospace-style aluminium, and the V8 engine in the top-of-the-range Supersport model produces more than 500 horsepower, with a top speed limited to 155mph.

But it is on the inside that Callum and his team have really gone to town, not least with funky, phosphor blue “ambient lighting” and a cutting-edge “virtual” instrument display. Activate the keyless ignition system and, as the “drive selector” appears from the console, the virtual instruments build before your very eyes on a 12.3in, high-definition screen.

A “spotlight” system highlights the most vital gauges and, to add to the sense of theatre, the background illumination assumes an urgent red hue when the XJ is snicked into its sporting “dynamic” mode.

The car also features a “dual-view” display in the centre console, from which audio, communication, climate control and “infotainment” systems can be managed through either voice recognition or a touch screen that keeps conventional switchgear to a minimum – and, ingeniously, the driver and front-seat passenger can look at totally different content.

Sounds, meanwhile, come from a Bowers & Wilkins audio unit designed specifically for the XJ that can be specified with up to 1,200 watts of power, delivered through as many as 20 strategically positioned speakers. With all this going for it, it is little wonder that the Supersport has been compared with – and tested against – Aston Martin’s four-door supercar, the considerably more expensive Rapide.

“The idea is that new Jaguars should appeal as much to 15-year-olds as they do to adults,” says Callum. “Fathers listen to their children when it comes to choosing a new vehicle, and that’s why my ambition is to get posters of Jags back on teenagers’ bedroom walls, in the way that they were 40 or 50 years ago. It is also important that everybody who buys one gets the feeling that they are building the car to their own taste. As a result, we now offer the largest range of body and interior options in the marque’s history.” Indeed, the recently introduced “Speed Pack” (lower suspension, aerodynamic body fittings and the speed restrictor raised from 155mph to 174mph) and “Black Pack” (black wheels and exterior trim) for the XKR model will be of great appeal to budding boy racers. But is the new approach working – are Jaguar buyers getting younger?

One person who should know is John Murphy, head of sales at HA Fox (part of the Inchcape group) in Cheltenham, which has been a Jaguar dealer for 20 years. “There’s no doubt that the XF model, in particular, has reduced the age of Jaguar’s customer base, and extras such as the Black Pack and Speed Pack for the XKR really appeal to a younger crowd,” he says.

“Likewise, the technology incorporated into the XJ gives it great appeal to affluent buyers in their 30s and 40s, who also appreciate the high levels of finish that show how much time and effort is put into building these cars. But the older, more traditional Jaguar buyers seem to have mixed opinions. They want the latest car, but some think that the latest technology that goes with it might be a little beyond their requirements. Not many 75-year-old retired company directors are very interested in the fact that their car is equipped with wireless connectivity for an iPod and iPhone.

“Mind you,” adds Murphy, “I remember when a cigar lighter and a radio were considered avant-garde.”

See also

Jaguar