Jaguar trying to recapture past glory

Jaguar has emerged from its stuffy, country-club period, the one that saw it essentially remake over and over and over again the original XJ for 41 years. Jaguar now wants to be sexy and modern. Founder Sir William Lyons would most certainly approve.

He was never a man to look backwards, to live in yesterday, endlessly reliving the great triumphs of the past. He was a forward-looking, innovative fellow. His cars of the 1950s and into the 1960s were cutting-edge and daring for their time.

That’s what Jaguar is trying to recapture.

“It’s about making Jaguars that are quintessentially Jaguars,” O’Driscoll said.

But this is a nervous business. Jaguar, now part of Tata’s integrated Jaguar Land Rover Group (JLR), is not swimming in dough. Far from it.

Tata Motors’ Indian business, which relies mostly on truck sales, made a profit for its last fiscal year, but the group as a whole was dragged into the red with a consolidated net loss of 25.1 billion rupees ($576-million). The problem was a 32-per-cent fall in sales volumes at Jaguar and Land Rover combined.

Land Rover has been the hardest hit by the global recession. Its sales fell 39 per cent to 120,000 units during the June, 2008, to March, 2009, period under Tata ownership. Jaguar sales fell only 4 per cent to 47,000 car.

But in the bad news there was something encouraging to be found. Jag’s XF mid-size sedan, launched last year, rescued the brand’s overall results. The car is a hit. And the design cues first shown in the XF are advanced much, much further in the new XJ. That has the Jag types feeling pretty hopeful.

They have some other cards to play, too. For nearly 20 years under Ford Motor Co. ownership, Jaguar was rebuilt entirely and that effort sucked up billions and billions of dollars. Ford had no choice. When the company arrived on the scene in 1989, Ford’s manufacturing experts were appalled. They said the only worse plants in the whole world were Lada factories in Moscow.

Ford’s investments never paid off in terms of profits for the Detroit auto maker, but they are a real asset for Tata. Jaguar’s plants are modern and efficient and they spin out some of the best-built cars in the world.

J.D. Power and Associates three-year Vehicle Dependability Study has Jaguar at the very top among brands, tied with Buick for the No. 1 spot.

That means that, in the latest study, Jag and Buick dethroned Lexus for the first time since the Japanese luxury brand has been a part of the survey. Alas, Land Rover is at the very bottom of that study.

Meanwhile, both Jag and Land Rover are baking in the types of features and designs that send owners swooning. In J.D. Power’s last APEAL study, released just last week, Jaguar was ranked second overall and Land Rover ninth.

The APEAL study, which stands for automotive performance execution and layout, is a so-called “things-gone-right” study. It asks owners to rank brands in terms of how pleased they are with their vehicles and the brand.

So Tata has something to work with here. But the Indian company and its British managers better work fast.

When Tata bought JLR last year from Ford for $2.3-billion (U.S.), most of the money was borrowed and that’s still the case today. JLR needs to make a success out of everything it does now; there is no margin for error.

At a recent press conference in India to announce the launch of JLR sales in Tata’s home market, Tata vice-chairman Ravi Kant predicted good things for JLR once new models like the XJ hit showrooms and this painful recession eases.

“We feel once we are able to get through this difficult and very, very challenging period, [JLR] has an extremely bright future,” Kant said. “The plans that have been made show that it will have a very good turnaround and it will be an extremely profitable company.”

Yet even as Kant was speaking, JLR was planning on finally ending production of the ill-conceived and poorly executed X-Type at the company’s Halewood plant in central England. The official announcement came last week, resulting in 300 jobs lost, on top of the more than 2,000 job cuts JLR has already made.

Those cuts, along with a proposed LRX “green” vehicle that has won a £27-million ($49-million Canadian) British government development grant, as well as a €340-million loan pledged by the European Investment Bank, are part of a package of moves being taken to keep JLR viable even as new models such as the 2010 XJ are developed and launched.

A lean JLR with sexy and desirable vehicles marketed in daring ways has given Ratan Tata the ammunition to defend the decision to take on billions in debt to buy the British brands.

“It was a terrific decision that we took to bid for these two brands and own them,” the chairman told reporters at a recent Nano event. “We are going through a downturn today that has unfortunately somewhat condemned Jaguar and Land Rover in perception, but that perception is very wrong.”

And perception is what the London party was absolutely all about. Jaguar will only succeed if it is perceived to be vibrant, not stuffy. The brand must be hip, not retro. The cars must be sleek and cool and daring, not understated and quietly elegant and utterly boring.

Ian Callum, the Scotsman who has been Jaguar’s design director for a decade, does suggest, however, that the new XJ is linked to the past, to the original XJ launched in 1968, a year before Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon.

“One of my greatest strengths, if I have any, is I understand the old XJ. You know what a beautiful car it is. You have to put that car in its place in 1968,” he said.

“It was a beautiful car and its proportions are fantastic. So logged in my mind is exactly what that car meant in 1968. I remember it so clearly. I learned a lot of my principles of design off that car.

“And being that familiar with it, knowing what made it so special, for me it was a very natural thing to do – to go into the 21st century and redo it, but in a 21st-century context. Not 1968 context. It was a very natural thing to do [the 2010 XJ].”

Jaguar and its partner Land Rover are hoping buyers will naturally gravitate to the new take on a storied brand.