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The Lightweight at the End of the Tunnel

Paul Dean

These may well be the best of times for Bibiana Boerio, the well-credentialed, tough, and spirited Pennsylvania accountant who has inherited a crumbling chunk of British history and been told to fix it.

These also may be the worst of times for her new charge, Jaguar Cars, a 70-year-old company that is one of those rare automotive marques to have evolved into a religion. But it is also a marque whose sales lately have been mostly heading downhill, particularly in the United States, its largest market by far. European and Asian competition continues to be relentless, a historic assembly plant has been shut down—costing hundreds of workers their jobs—a new and technologically correct flagship has met with customer indifference, unfavorable exchange rates are crippling profits within the U.S. market, and buyers continue to clamor for luxury SUVs, a vehicle that Jaguar does not build. The de-clawing of Jaguar seems imminent, almost complete.

"I didn’t come back here to hang crepe,” says Boerio, the new managing director of Jaguar Cars who is now serving her second tour of duty with the firm. “Recovering Jaguar is a matter of marshalling people in the right direction, picking the right priorities, not trying to be a million-unit company, and not trying to do everything at once. People feel passionate about [Jaguars] around the world—the owners, the employees, the dealers. And when you have a good team and a fundamentally good product, they are goddamned not going to let it go away.”

Her comments are more than pep talk. She knows that public perception typically lags the corporate reality, and that small signs of a strong pulse are often ignored by business critics and pallbearers. Jaguar’s European business was up 25 percent in 2004, Asian-Pacific sales improved by 13 percent, and U.K. deliveries increased by 11 percent. Globally, deliveries declined only a tick, from 120,000 in 2003 to 119,000 last year.

Radical changes based on honest realizations are certainly in the wind at the company. At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, Jaguar showed its Advanced Lightweight Coupe Concept, which fooled no one. It clearly is the proposed shape of the new XK8 and represents an extreme makeover for the sports car that replaced the classic E-Type almost a decade ago. At the New York International Auto Show in March, Jaguar announced the arrival of an expensive, ultraluxurious, limited edition limousine. A more contemporary restyling of the flagship XJ8 is on the design boards; can a new, smaller, less expensive roadster be far behind?

These plans, Boerio explains to a group at Jaguar’s corporate headquarters at Gaydon, Warwickshire, mark a continuance of the Jaguar ideal “to do beautiful, fast cars that are relevant to their buyers at that particular time. We are going to build Jaguars. That’s why I don’t care when people start talking about SUVs and crossover vehicles.”

On the other hand, that inescapable bottom line continues to bleed. Jaguar’s losses were close to $1 billion in 2003, U.S. sales were down by 16 percent, and Ford has yet to recover one pound of the $2.5 billion it paid for Jaguar 15 years ago.

since the first SS100s of the 1930s, Jaguars have been embedded in Britain’s psyche. They are the take-home cars of prime ministers and their cabinets, have been collected by tennis aces and driven by movie stars, have beaten the world’s best at Le Mans, have been enshrined in modern art museums, and even have been chronicled by Madison Avenue’s persuaders as aspirational objects, items for the upper middle class to yearn for, save for, and finally earn as a symbol of a life’s achievement. Two Jaguars are better than one Rolls-Royce, wrote Sunday Times motoring correspondent Eric Dymock, because the extra Jag “implied cash to spare for living it up.”

That, however, was the past. Today, the once seductive silhouettes of Jaguar’s coupes and sedans, large cars and little ones, even its famed sports roadster, stand criticized, often condemned as dated and face-lifted, stretched, supercharged, and upgraded about as far as any designer or engineer can take them.

Classic Cats E-Type
Introduced at the Geneva Auto Show in 1961, the Jaguar E-Type became an icon of the Swinging Sixties, was campaigned by Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori, and decades later emerged from a cryogenic state as the Shaguar, Austin Powers’ revered chariot of choice. E-Types were powered by a 265 hp inline-six, and their popularity, according to Jaguar historians, was tied to their status as “more attainable than a Ferrari, more charismatic than a Rolls-Royce, racier than a Mercedes-Benz.”

In September—ironically, perversely, just three days before J.D. Power and Associates proclaimed that Jaguar had overtaken Mercedes, Audi, and BMW to become the highest-ranking European nameplate for initial quality—the company announced its plans to mothball assembly operations at Browns Lane, Coventry, a converted World War I munitions factory that had served as Jaguar’s headquarters since 1928, when the company was known only for building motorcycle sidecars. The plant closing would lead to a flurry of job rotations, voluntary buyouts, and involuntary layoffs involving 1,150 employees. Also, Jaguar’s horribly expensive and embarrassingly unsuccessful F/1 racing team was about to be sold; Jaguar Racing is now Red Bull Racing.

These developments have had obituarists licking their pencils. “They [Jaguar] need to get their product house in line,” commented Rebecca Lindland of the Boston-based business analysis firm Global Insight, “as long as they’re the right products.” Echoed John Casesa, an auto industry analyst with Merrill Lynch, “Jaguar has a long road back to health.” Potential remains, he said, but only “with the right execution and sufficient investment.”

Even Jaguar chairman Joe Greenwell was brutally honest when called before a British parliamentary committee last fall and asked to explain the demise of Browns Lane and the present state of his company. “We were overoptimistic and we underestimated the amount of competitive activity, which is a typical and dangerous assumption to make when you are in management,”

he told the committee, as reported by London’s Daily Telegraph. “We just never launched a range that was seen as the equivalent of Audi’s A4, BMW’s 3-Series, or Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class.”

enter bibiana boerio—“That’s Bibiana in print, ‘Bibie’ to her face,” advises one of her colleagues—as Jaguar’s new leader, a single and fiftyish former director of strategy and finance for Ford’s international operations, and onetime executive vice president and chief financial officer of Ford Motor Credit Co. On a cozier note, Boerio recently was  named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennyslvania by her home state. On a more ribald level, she was referred to as “Cat Woman” in a London tabloid headline.

Since her July appointment, Boerio, who previously lived and worked in England as Jaguar’s finance director from 1995 through 2000, has peered into all corners and closets at her old firm. These are hard times, she agrees, but they do not represent an unprecedented challenge. “I’ve looked at the history of Jaguar and there have been worse times,” she explains. “There was a period [1972–75] when Jaguar was part of British Leyland and had no brand identity. It was ‘Sell two Rovers and get a Jaguar free.’ During the early acquisition period [by Ford], the whole luxury car market collapsed. There were conversations about whether or not [Jaguar] would be kept open one more week.”

Not only did the company remain open under undaunted Ford management, but it entered a four-year period of record sales. By 2001 the company was selling more than 100,000 cars a year. Then, says Boerio, quoting from what she calls “Bibie’s Potted History,” Ford challenged Jaguar to grow its brand further—but before the company was ready to do so. This dictate, she says, required Jaguar to go nose to grille with smaller, less expensive cars—the 3-Series, E-Class, and A6 from BMW, Mercedes, and Audi, respectively—and to “pull introduction of the X-Type from 2004 to 2001 and the new XJ from ’03 to ’02,  when no advanced styling work had been done on either car.”

Classic Cats XK120
The world’s first aerodynamic production sports car, the XK120, in production from 1949 to 1954, held a world record for averaging 100 mph during an entire week of driving.

The X-Type compact ran into additional problems. Because of its small size, meager horsepower, downmarket positioning, and obvious sharing of parts with the European Ford Mondeo, it was damned as an insult to the luxury and sporting heritage of Jaguar. The car also was not available with a diesel engine, a feature traditionally vital to the success of any car in Europe, where gasoline now costs more than $8 a gallon. Similar issues earlier had saddled the midsize S-Type. Because it shared a chassis and power train with the Lincoln LS, the Jaguar was considered more of a white-bread American automobile than a fine and noble British motorcar.

The worst was still on its way. Since 2002, competition in the luxury segment has been crushing. World markets, particularly in the United States, have been demanding upmarket SUVs at a time when Jaguar builds only cars. Currency exchange rates—with the value of the dollar dipping as low as half that of the pound—have hit Jaguar particularly hard, because, unlike Mercedes and BMW, it does not have manufacturing plants in the United States, a hedge against a devalued dollar.

Boerio says little can be done to address currency fluctuations, except to sweat them out. However, Jaguar can control the type of products that it develops, and, she says, the company has placed an emphasis on “usable technology, being socially responsible, not simply [delivering] more horsepower and gadgets.”

Classic Cats Mark VII
Despite its size, glamour, luxury, and door count, the Mark VII, which was unveiled at the Earls Court Motor Show in London in 1950 and remained in production until 1956, had sufficient speed and handled well enough to win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1956.

Hence the XJ8, introduced in 2004, features all-aluminum construction that allows for a longer, wider, taller, roomier—yet considerably lighter and more fuel-efficient—car. Jaguar finally also is developing turbocharged diesel engines for its European X- and

S-Types. Even the large and lovely XJ8 has been fitted with a 2.7-liter, twin turbocharged diesel. “The growth of diesels moved in continental Europe and the U.K. faster than we anticipated,” explains Boerio. Jaguar had conducted its due diligence on diesels but was slowed “trying to find a powerplant that would work and fit the character of our engines.”

As for Browns Lane, Boerio says that reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. Although closed as an assembly plant, the facility remains open as Jaguar’s administrative headquarters, a wood veneer manufacturing center, and the company’s famed museum. Nearly 800 workers did lose their jobs, and the majority of the remaining work force was either reassigned to other facilities or offered voluntary separation packages. For a company with annual sales of 120,000 vehicles, she adds, three manufacturing plants were considered excessive. “At the end of the day,” says Boerio, “[the closure] was the thing that had to be done.”

She also notes that for the first time in its history, Jaguar has an “advanced design studio” and has hired “some of the best people in the world” under director Ian Callum, who sketched the Aston Martin DB9 and Vanquish.

Of the X- and S-Types, Boerio says that despite their false starts, the models have been heavily de-Americanized. The company even brought a contingent of Ford workers to Britain for assembly-line studies into the craftsmanship, unique care, and nuances of building a Jaguar. “So we’ve taken the [X- and S-Type] and moved [them] on, and we’re continuing to refine and improve both,” says Boerio.

Classic Cats C-Type
First built in 1951 to compete at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Jaguar C-Type was a heavily modified version of the XK120 street car, with an alloy body on a tubular frame, and powered by Jaguar’s famed inline-six engine good for 210 hp and a top speed of 158 mph. It won the 1951 Le Mans.

perhaps the brightest light at the end of Jaguar’s tunnel is the concept car that was revealed at Detroit and is obviously the shape of the XK8 to come.  Pub rumors are flying; design mules have been seen and photographed undergoing testing around the British Midlands, and no amount of funereal swaddling can disguise their similarity to the concept car. Designer Callum confirms only that the lines of the concept vehicle represent the future direction of Jaguar, including his replacement for the XK8 that has been around since 1996 and was “a tough act to follow.” But the XK8, adds Callum, was also “a little too gentle, and I wanted the [new] car to look less feminine. The XK120 and the XK140 [of the 1950s] were strong, masculine cars. I wanted that same strong, defining line through the doors and a car that made a strong statement with no apologies.”

The new car will be all-aluminum, in frame and paneling, which is in line with the lightweight, high-tech path established by the existing XJ8. Power likely will be from Jaguar’s well-proven 4.2-liter V-8, good for at least 320 hp. A convertible and supercharged XKR (rumored to develop 400-plus hp) will be poised in the wings. Target acceleration is sub-five seconds from zero to 60 mph. Distinguishing characteristics for the 2+2 will include cooling gills behind the front wheels, and pinched, tapered haunches surrounding a narrow rear cabin.

The coupe will be roomier than the existing XK8 and feature a longer wheelbase. The grille will be a pure, open oval, in deference to the front of the classic E-Types. From the E, it also will borrow a broad, deep glass hatchback.

If there is an overall resemblance—albeit mild, certainly admirable—to any contemporary models, it will be to Aston Martin’s current coupes.  But then, the same pen designed both. “In terms of profile and surface definition, it is another generation away from today’s XK8,” concludes Callum. “It is definitely a step forward. That’s what I want for all of our cars.”

Next up for Jaguar is a brave, brazen attempt to outmaneuver Bentley’s Mulliner custom coachworks and even tickle the aloof munificence of Maybach. The line will be known as the Super V-8 Portfolio of ultraluxurious, limited edition, largely handcrafted stretch sedans configured more as rolling resorts than workstations. Also coyly introduced as a concept—the Jaguar Concept Eight—at this year’s New York auto show, the portfolio cars will use the supercharged, 400 hp version of the XJ8 long-wheelbase sedan as their foundation.

Whereas most extended automobiles are aimed at the three-piece, pin-striped set and their addictions to laptops, Perrier, and Blackberries, the Super V-8, which is expected to sell for more than $110,000, will put personal pampering before business purpose: reclining rear lounge chairs, one-inch pile carpets, seat-back cabinets for multimedia equipment, a 14-speaker sound system, woods with a matte finish for greater warmth, and dark reddish, deep brown leathers in a Conker tone that recall a horse chestnut.

The Concept Eight show car displayed many additional intriguing features that will not make it into production. Among them was a tinted-glass moonroof running the length and width of this little limo; it was discarded after tests indicated that normal flexing of the car likely would pop the roof like a lens from a pair of sunglasses and create an instant convertible. Also denied were plans for a refrigerated center console sized for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot (with holders for a pair of Waterford crystal flutes), and cubbies for oils and perfumes and a digital camera, for whatever purpose such a combination might suggest.

Classic Cats XK140
In production from 1955 to 1958, the successor to the legendary Jaguar XK120 was roomier, heavier, a mite faster, and certainly better-handling than its antecedent. With that tried and trusted inline-six came an optional C-Type cylinder head, larger exhaust valves, and 15 more horsepower. Nevertheless, the XK140 always was considered a concession to comfort over performance.
Callum also proposed LED strip lighting that would glow vermouth red around the edges of that glass roof. It was decided, says a Ford spokesman, that strip lights might be seen as “a bit too loungy.” However, Callum has not entirely abandoned subtle interior illuminations, because, he says, “the way people have employed these lighting techniques in other modern venues—uplighting, diffused lighting, and so on—that is something I would like to have in our cars.” After all, he adds, “We haven’t built this car for work, but for luxurious entertaining on those long, late nights out.”

Of the new limo, Dermot Harkin, Jaguar’s U.K. operations director, says, “This certainly is not an exercise in how we can sell cars in volume. But it does show that we can sell a more expressive car to satisfy customers who want a little more.”

Although Harkin is speaking specifically of the Super V-8, he and colleagues no doubt would like to think that his comments concerning expressive cars and customer satisfaction will apply to Jaguar in general, just as they once would have. 

 

Jaguar, 800.452.4827, www.jaguarusa.com

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