Now that Ford has rid itself of Jaguar, along with its Land Rover stable-mate, having sold them to the Indian conglomerate Tata, one wonders what the grand marque’s future holds in store.
While it has certainly suffered through troubling times, both before and after being acquired by Ford, few automakers can match the heritage and cachet of the Jaguar brand – and fewer still have endured such a checkered history and survived.
Like many of its contemporaries, the car company was built primarily on the dreams and dedication of one man – William Lyons. Along with fellow motorcycle enthusiast William Walmsley, Lyons founded the Swallow Sidecar Company in 1922 to build motorcycle sidecars.
By 1927, the company was building special-bodied cars, and in 1931 it launched the now legendary SS1, the forerunner of the first true Jaguar, which appeared in 1935. In 1945, the Jaguar name was applied to the entire company, and its modern history began.
That history can be traced by a few key models that shaped its destiny right up to today.
While the company's first postwar car was the Mark V sedan, it was the closed-fendered XK120 sports car, first shown in 1948, that put the Jaguar name on the map. Low, sleek and fast, it became the archetypal modern sports car – the one emulated by all the others.
The XK120 featured a brand-new, 3.5 L double-overhead-camshaft, in-line six-cylinder engine with hemispherical combustion chambers. It was the most advanced engine of its day.
Originally intended for a short production run of about 200 vehicles (effectively a test bed for the engine), early models also featured hand-formed aluminum bodywork. It was received so well that steel quickly replaced the aluminum so production could be increased. It was built until 1954.
It was followed by the XK140 and XK150, which were evolutions of that original sports car.
C-type / D-type
If the XK120 established Jaguar's sports-car credentials, the C-type and its successor, the D-type, validated them with a total of five overall victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.
Encouraged by the production XK's performance in the 1950 race, Lyons returned to the Sarthe in 1951 with three purpose-built racers called the C-type, and came away with a victory on the car's racing debut.
The company returned in 1953 with a new secret weapon – disc brakes – which allowed the C-type's drivers to brake later than their rivals, and with confidence that the brakes would not fade. The result, as the company described it, was "a complete walkover" against one of the strongest fields the race had ever seen, with the Jaguars finishing first, second and fourth.
The C-types were followed by the distinctively mono-finned D-types, which went on to achieve three more Le Mans victories before the end of the decade – thus establishing the racing heritage the brand has flaunted ever since.
The marque has claimed only two Le Mans victories since – in 1988 and 1990.
In 1959, Jaguar introduced the Mark II saloon, which was perhaps the quintessential Jaguar sedan. Its design continued to influence the brand's look right up to the S-Type, which was only recently replaced by the XF.
Small, light, classically styled and exceptionally nimble, the Mark II introduced the idea that luxury was not restricted to cars of ponderous dimensions.
Because of its small size and sports-car-like performance, it became popular with British police forces, further enhancing its stature.
Of all the Jaguars ever built, the E-Type, introduced in 1961, is arguably the most iconic. No sports car form before or since has been quite so distinctive or its shape so closely identified with the brand.
Transferring the streamlined shape of the C- and D-type racers to road-going form, it was a radical departure from anything then available, reflecting the ebullient spirit of its time. It is one of just a handful of cars to be displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art.
The E-Type continued in production, in both coupe and roadster form, for 13 years, adding a V12 engine and selling 70,000 units along the way.
The XJ6 sedan, which arrived in 1968, was the last model designed solely under the control of Lyons, and it was another visual tour de force.
Clearly a descendant of the Mark 2, it successfully interpreted that car's character in a modern idiom that won critical acclaim, and kept the brand at the forefront of the luxury-performance market.
In 1972, at age 71, Lyons retired, and the firm's history took a different turn. A series of less-than-trend-setting models, including the XJ-S, kept the company more or less afloat until the next-generation XJ6 arrived in 1986, albeit in marginal financial condition.
Sir Wiliam Lyons died in 1985.
After being taken over by Ford in 1989, the company carried on with the addition of V8 and V12 powerplants to the XJ line and further variants of the aging XJ-S, subsequently replacing it with the svelte new XK models.
A new, mid-range S-Type (sharing engineering with a Lincoln) was added as well, but it was the arrival of the X-Type in 2001 that diverted the course of Jaguar history once again – and not for the better.
Ford's vision was to turn Jaguar into a high-volume producer to make it profitable. The X-Type was the tool intended to achieve that end, with projected volumes of 150,000 per year.
Derived from a front-wheel-drive Ford Mondeo, with all-wheel-drive grafted on, it was an adequate car, but one that aficionados derided as less than a real Jaguar.
Rather than bridging the gap to the mainstream, it was seen as degrading the brand. Consequently, sales numbers never achieved half their intended level – and profitability remained elusive.
While the company has since introduced some attractive models, and has more in the planning stages, it is that ongoing lack of profitability that prompted Ford to give up on its prospects.
Can Tata turn the tide of red ink into black? Or will the big cat finally come to the end of its nine lives? Let’s hope for the former.