Saving Jaguar
Jaguar World Monthly|January 2020
On the brink of the abyss in the early Eighties, Jaguar saw its fortunes turned around by a new chairman, John Egan. We meet up with him at the Jaguar Heritage Trust at Gaydon to talk about his strategies for the company’s recovery
Ray Hutton

FOR JAGUAR, it was the ultimate indignity. The British Leyland Motor Corporation renamed its Browns Lane factory: Large Car Assembly Plant No2. The marque that Sir William Lyons had created and nurtured was in danger of becoming simply a model line in a range of Leyland cars.

When British Leyland came into being in 1968 it brought together the brands of the former British Motor Corporation with Jaguar, Daimler and Leyland’s Triumph and Rover. In a message to employees, BLMC chairman Lord Stokes said, “Jaguar will be able to pursue its own course, within the overall policy of the group.” When Sir William Lyons retired in 1972, his long-standing lieutenant FRW ‘Lofty’ England became managing director. A year later, British Leyland replaced him with 34-year-old Geoffrey Robinson. Backed by Lord Stokes’ assurances, Robinson announced a £60million investment in Jaguar and a plan to double production from 30,000 to 60,000 cars a year.

The next year, 1974, Robinson’s big idea itself faced the abyss as Sir Don Ryder, of the Government’s National Enterprise Board, prepared a ‘rescue plan’ for the unwieldy and heavily loss-making Leyland conglomerate. The Ryder Report called for a rationalisation of marques and models, grouping them all together as one profit (or loss…) centre, pooling all resources and facilities, and relegating the identities of individual brands to little more than badges.

As a result, British Leyland was effectively nationalised. Lord Stokes stood down. Jaguar would no longer have its own CEO, and Robinson and his ambitious plans were ousted.

Unless you were there, it is hard to imagine the turmoil in Seventies Britain. The Swinging Sixties, with its promise of a bright new future emerging from post-war austerity, was over. Social divisions and industrial unrest set the tone; a miners’ strike brought blackouts and a three-day working week to conserve fuel supplies. Inflation was rampant – nine percent in 1973, 24 percent by 1975. And the winter of 1973 brought the first Oil Crisis, when, following the Arab/Israeli war, oil producers in the Middle East increased the barrel price by 70 percent.

The British motor industry was in decline, at least in part because of management complacency and lack of investment. Many of its products were of poor quality and unreliable and consumers began to look at imports, encouraged to some degree by the UK joining the EEC (CommonMarket) in 1973. British Leyland led the UK new-car market in 1971 with a 41 percent share, but, by the end of the decade, it had just 23 percent.

Although Jaguar had still been profitable in 1974, after nationalisation its profits were subsumed by the losses at Austin-Morris. The Ryder plan turned out to be hopelessly unrealistic about British Leyland’s prospects and did nothing to address chronic over-manning and the union shop stewards’ ability to call damaging strikes at a moment’s notice.

Somehow – and largely to the credit of its engineering chief, Bob Knight – Jaguar engineering managed to remain separate from the Group amalgamation of design and development, centred at Rover, in Solihull.

Jaguar introduced the XJ-S at this time as a controversial replacement for the much-loved, but 15-year-old E-type. Marque loyalists were dismayed to find it hidden among the Austins, Morrises, Triumphs and Rovers on a corporate British Leyland stand at the 1975 Earls Court Motor Show. Jaguar also had in preparation the XJ40 – a successor for the XJ saloon – and the new AJ6 straight-six engine, but was not able to get the green light from the BL board to proceed to production. Instead, it had to carry on with the existing XJ, freshened up with some neat re-styling by Pininfarina.

In 1977, Prime Minister James Callaghan appointed South African Michael Edwardes as chairman and CEO of British Leyland on a five-year contract. As well as taking a hard line with the unions – BL lost 32 million man-hours to strikes in 1977 – the no-nonsense Edwardes recognised that the Group’s marques needed to be cherished, not diminished, and quickly re-instated a Jaguar board (with Bob Knight as managing director). A specialist cars sub-group, Jaguar Rover Triumph (JRT) was established and Edwardes asked a young man who had reorganised BL’s parts business to run it. That young man was John Egan, who had since left BL for Massey Ferguson in Canada. He turned the JRT job down, as he saw no future for Triumph and thought he would not be able to secure the funds that Jaguar and Rover needed in competition with other, larger, parts of the group.

JRT lasted only a couple of years before Rover and Triumph joined with the mass-market division. Edwardes, now Sir Michael, identified Jaguar and Land Rover as the luxury brands of the re-named BL Cars. He approached Egan once again. This time, the proposition was that he would be chief executive of Jaguar Cars, as a separate entity within the Group – and with a free hand to turn the business around. Egan, who had just turned 40, accepted the challenge.

He took up his new appointment at Jaguar’s Browns Lane headquarters in April 1980. It was the start of a new era for Jaguar, which brought it back from the brink of closure and onto profitable independence, very much in the style of Sir William Lyons’ original company. Sir William could be proud to be acknowledged as Jaguar’s honorary Life President.

Sir John Egan was, like Sir William, born in Lancashire, and his family moved to Coventry when he was a child. He trained as a petroleum engineer at the Imperial College London and worked for Shell in the Middle East before joining AC Delco, a division of General Motors. He was head-hunted to join British Leyland’s central staff in 1971 and brought together the company’s parts business under the Unipart brand, ending up as the group’s parts and service director.

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