Insider Insight: JLR – Free from the shackles.

James Godwin:

James thinks JLR are in catch up mode with more to come!
James thinks JLR is in catch up mode with more to come!

 

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“Over my dead body!” spat a high-ranking Ford Exec when Autocar’s amiable Steve Cropley politely enquired as to whether the replacement for the X-Type Jaguar would be made in aluminium. That was around the 2002, and my, how things have changed. Little did we know that there would be no replacement for the unloved cloyingly-retro and plasticky baby-Jag. In fact so empty were Ford’s coffers that it had to pull the plug on the mid-engined X600 F-Type and instead focus resources on engineering the installation of a Peugeot diesel engine in the large saloons, and a reworked Transit unit in the X-Type. No wonder ex-BMW product guru Wolfgang Reitzle resigned a few years earlier – his ideas and investment requirements would have had Ford’s money men reaching for the beta-blockers.

Now male pride is a funny thing. Why admit defeat when you can forge ahead relentlessly? I must admit that I rarely ask for directions, and my driving is perfect thank you very much. A similar ‘British Leyland’ style myopia had beset the guys in Detroit. Thankfully a new set of eyes arrived at Ford in 2006. Alan Mullally added simplicity and subtracted the poisonous internal politics that had plagued the blue-oval’s executive boardroom and brands for decades. Mullally discovered that meetings were festooned with many a proud executive who refused to believe anything was wrong and resisted change. “Well how’s it working for you now?” thought Mullally. After slashing time spent in meetings and devoting his hours to overseeing the business, his grim verdict was that Ford couldn’t afford to maintain its own house, let alone repair the roofs or replace the boilers at its British mansions. All it could do was parachute in another suit from the executive rotation and task them with another restructure. Once the dust would died down the exec would return to Detroit, maybe leaving just enough funds in the British Midlands for a patio, or in the case of the S-Type, stone-cladding.

“Do not sell,” advised one of Mullally’s reports in 2006 when plans were revealed to sell the luxury European brands. “JLR has had enough of the medicine,” was the somewhat arrogant assumption that the diagnosis was sickness as opposed to starvation. Ford swallowed its pride, sold up and re mortgaged its assets to stave off bankruptcy and federal help. Fast forward to now and I hear that both JLR and Ford product development teams are like pigs in sh*t. Ford is a happier place because it can respond quicker to market demands: it’s merged with itself after all and nobody is afraid to speak up or admit a mistake. JLR meanwhile has Indian funding, ex-BMW/Porsche product-savvy management and carte Blanche to conceive the cars to succeed. No more “over my dead body” PR blunders then… Now JLR is still in catch-up mode, aside from the headline stealing F-Type and latest Range-Rover trio, the bread and butter cars are older than you think. The 2001 Ford Explorer T5-platform related Discovery is nine, while Jaguar’s XK is following up close behind. The XF is still an S-Type underneath, although the final X204 iteration was a fantastic car – no doubt in small part due to the 1984 Ford Granada electric wing mirror switch steering column adjuster.

The misunderstood S Type forms the underpinnings for the superb XF. To drive, you really wouldn't know.
The misunderstood S Type forms the underpinnings for the superb XF. To drive, you really wouldn’t know.

To keep above water in the development stakes JLR is recruiting engineers en masse, with herds of them (what is the collective noun for an engineer? post your comments below) returning home after a decade spent in Germany helping Mercedes develop an alphabet and Volkswagen take over the world. So busy is the Midlands now that Jaguar has revealed a new aluminium platform, an architecture that’ll allow proper BMW E36 like proportions due to a longitudinally mounted engine, short front overhangs and a long bonnet for a range of new non-Ford engines. So what if Jaguar has been doing radical things? Four cylinder XFs and XJs are a necessity, while the production edition of the Jaguar CX-17 study will be a very welcome and voluptuous (check out that back end, with the haunches over the rear wheels!) latecomer to battle Alfa Romeos, Porsches and Maseratis of all things. The SUV ranges fielded (pardon the pun) by BMW, Audi and Mercedes are now on their third generations, proving that the niches and radical departures of yore are now the staple offerings, complete with siblings appearing above and below, and mutant Coupe SUVs sprouting from the sides. And why not? The German clan left behind its 3-tier ranges long ago, while the Range Rover Evoque is to all intents and purposes a Coupe.

Which brings me to mud-plugging Land Rover and its nice-to-have challenge: how on earth do you replace the Discovery? Its only bête noir is its weight and some interior fitting quality gripes. Rumours have it that the Freelander will move up a notch to join the next Discovery family, which will probably leave some space and profit margin below for the new Defender. Let’s hope the Defender gets another engine: the latest Transit TDCi engine is a nail of a device. I know it’s a workhorse but having tried a similar engine in the Ford Ranger my ears needed a break from the knock-n-boom. The suede-trimmed double sun visors on the new Range Rover do indicate that JLR is about to move beyond ‘catch-up’ mode and into ‘anticipate and act’ mode. Why? The news stands are awash with car magazines speculating as to whether Bentley, Lamborghini and Rolls-Royce will develop their own ‘sit high and go anywhere’ Rangey wannabes. I have also spotted a Rolls-Royce Ghost in the car park at Gaydon, no doubt for benchmarking purposes…

Another one to watch is Tesla. The current buzzwords ‘autonomous vehicles’ and ‘electrification’ have neatly featured in recent reports from Tesla, the stateside upstart whose glamorous Model S has raised the odd eyebrow. Thankfully it seems JLR now has the budget, nous and clout to anticipate and act. Freed from the shackles, we ain’t seen nothing from JLR yet.

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