Andrew Everett realises how William Lyons got the magic formula just right…

Talking to someone the other day about old Jaguars, the subject turned to build quality. “Of course, the Series 2 XJ6 was never as good as the old stuff’ said matey and yes, the Series 2’s could be pretty grim. But talking to some of the old hands who were around in the 1960s and beyond educated me about Jaguar and just how well the old stuff was made. Or not, as it happens.

Jaguar was in the business of making money as are all car makers, and actually building cars is how they do it. The cheaper you can build a car, the more profit you will make and there was always a good reason why a Jag cost half as much as a Mercedes Benz.

William Lyons hit upon a magic formula, emulated by makers of other goods – if it looks good and doesn’t cost much, it’ll sell. So the MkVII Jaguar looked like a Bentley-class car, had wood and leather and was powered by an engine that looked shiny yet by the time the first MkIIs were coming out of the Browns Lane sweatshop, early high mileage multiple owner MkVIIs were already bangers. Same with the MkII – by the time of the 1973 fuel crises these, MkXs and others were being driven into scrapyards all over the UK.

If you remember the AA magazine called Drive, you may even recall an article about the scrap car epidemic – over the period of a week, an abandoned 3.4 S Type bearing the number plate KVX305C was gradually robbed of bits before the council took it away. In 1974, that S Type was just nine years old.

Jaguars were great looking cars. They were fast, plushly trimmed and at not much more than the cost of a Ford Zodiac represented great value for money. But they were cheaply made in a factory already outdated using secondhand machinery and used the cheapest bought in components. Reading period Road and Track magazine owner surveys says it all – rattles and squeaks, premature rusting of chrome and countless failures involving The Prince of Darkness. New cars all too often needed a day’s work on a PDI (pre delivery inspection) – rehanging doors, making all the electrical bits work, reshimming tappets, setting headlight alignment, wheel alignment, polishing out thumbprints in the woodwork and that’s before you got into warranty work where the Jaeger / Smiths instruments and various oil leaks would be top contenders.

Really, Jaguars were no better made than BMC or Vauxhall products and by the time your average example was a decade old with a high mileage under its belt, it would be a rough old thing and the low prices of new ones impacted on the values of secondhand ones so much that few owners really took care of them. Writer Roger Bell once got into trouble by describing the MkX as a car of ‘skin deep quality’ – but he was right.
By the time the XJ arrived, things were no better and a press car of all things was delivered to a major weekly with a windscreen so distorted you wonder how on earth it ever got past quality control. Yet the world was clamouring for this beautiful machine.

And here I have to recount an excellent story relayed to me a while back. A new E-Type owner of some standing rang the factory to complain about the poor panel fit, and managed to get through to The Old Man himself. “Now look here Lyons. The door gaps on this car are wider on the driver’s side than they are on the passenger side,” to which Sir William replied “I see, Can you see both doors at the same time?” ‘No” replied the owner. “Thankyou, Goodbye.”… click… BRRRRR…

But here’s the thing. Jaguars sold because they were cheap flash, a cut above the usual porridge of the era and a 2.4 MakII was a lovely thing for the paltry £1533 it cost in 1959 – that was a couple of hundred more than a MkII Zodiac and sitting in the aromatic leather interior, gazing at the row of dials and listening to the menacing purr of the twin cam straight six (it wasn’t much faster than the Ford, but it sounded it), you thought this was the high life. Look after it properly and it might do ten years as well. Now, had Jaguar bought new equipment at Browns Lane, paid the workers more than BMC, put an extra couple of coats of paint on and spent a couple of extra hours building each car to an altogether higher standard, then they would have been a much better long term proposition.

But they would have been dramatically more expensive. A MkII 3.8 would have been about the same price as a 300SE Mercedes. Sales would have slowed, unit costs would have gone up and the actual profit per car would have have been about the same. Less workers would have been employed and just like the Mercedes 300SE, it would have got old, gone rusty and have been consigned to the scrapyard or banger track eventually. Like Armstrong Siddlely and Alvis, they may even have folded.

So no, Jaguar had the formula about right. It built affordable sporting luxury cars and in pricing them as they did, gave the Jaguar that slightly raffish image and a reputation forged at Le Mans that the company seems to have forgotten. After all, the MkII, XK range and the E-Type were British products to show the world – and as pleasant as the XE, XF and F Types are, the Mercedes and BMW league prices don’t tug at the heartstrings in the same way and that’s why the XE is outsold by the C Class Merc four to one.

You can leave out that bit of underseal. I don’t care if the exhaust drops off after seven years or if it starts using oil after 90,000 miles. Because by then, it’ll be the problem of someone else in another part of town. Nobody buys cars to last anymore so Jaguar would do well to follow the example of Bill Lyons: cut costs, slash retail prices and get that factory humming even faster. A new six-cylinder petrol Jag with wood and leather for 18 grand? Where do I sign?