The feline E-Type and classic Jaguar saloons set a high standard - a long time ago. But a radical new approach may be needed for the iPod generation, says Stephen Bayley

Jaguar is a glorious backlist of expressive shapes. From the inimitable handwriting of founder Sir William Lyons to the ravishing empiricism of aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer (the man in a lab coat with a slide rule who drew the D-Type and E-Type) to the present day, curves have defined Jaguar. And Jaguar designers have to learn to work with them. Shortly before his death in 1999, Geoff Lawson, who had just done the S-Type, explained that he wanted "surfaces with a lot of visual activity". That activity has an almost erotic character: never mind the inevitable phallic associations of the E-Type, aesthetically, the Jaguar effect is based on a subtle tension between feminine form and masculine presence.

Jaguar is a glorious backlist of expressive shapes. From the inimitable handwriting of founder Sir William Lyons to the ravishing empiricism of aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer (the man in a lab coat with a slide rule who drew the D-Type and E-Type) to the present day, curves have defined Jaguar. And Jaguar designers have to learn to work with them. Shortly before his death in 1999, Geoff Lawson, who had just done the S-Type, explained that he wanted "surfaces with a lot of visual activity". That activity has an almost erotic character: never mind the inevitable phallic associations of the E-Type, aesthetically, the Jaguar effect is based on a subtle tension between feminine form and masculine presence.

Lawson understood curves and angles: his Coventry office had, for inspirational rather than musical or disciplinary purposes, a luscious Fender Stratocaster and a machine-gun. But those curves were the real preoccupation. "There are," Lawson said, "fat, rounded cars and thin, rounded cars: the difference between a curve that is muscular and one that is anorexic is about 3mm." Today, Jaguar design is in the hands of Ian Callum, the man who drew the exquisite Aston-Martin DB7. It's his job to know just where those three millimetres begin and end to find what his predecessor called "the optimum expression of steel".

Callum has one of the most interesting and difficult jobs in the world, since that Jaguar backlist is full of daunting precedents. No mass market manufacturer has better credentials in expressive form. For instance, the 1961 E-Type is regularly voted the most beautiful car ever made. Its feline presence in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art makes the gallery sculpture of the 1960s look ham-fisted. The 1968 Jaguar XJ6 was a car of astonishing elegance whose signature motif was the glorious detail of the sculpted eyebrows above the headlights: these subtle, but psychologically significant, effects lent the whole car a sense of design-in-depth, of lapidary strength, but its vast bonnet was made of 17 separate pieces of steel, was filled with lead and had to be finished off by a man in a leather apron wielding a file.

Jaguar is now owned by Ford, so those days have gone, but the memory remains. It is Callum's job to create a future for Jaguar that will be as exalting as its past. He also has to fit Jaguar into the complicated brandscape of Ford. Here values and meaning are volatile and fugitive. When the BMW 3 series outsells the Mondeo, what does "mass market" mean? Especially when the most pricey Mondeo costs more than the least expensive Jaguar. Ford also owns Volvo and Land-Rover, two makes that present their own clear proposition to the consumer, leaving Jaguar to define territory of its own. The best designers interrogate objects. Callum and his colleague Julian Thompson are spending time in the motor industry's equivalent of a harshly lit, white-tiled room.

Results of the interrogation are mixed, but some things are clear. One is that Jaguar's established visual language is a shorthand for English values as a whole. Not as technical as a BMW, not as arrogant as Mercedes-Benz, less austere than Audi, more credible than Lexus, Jaguar is more charming and more refined than all of them. Thanks to images deeply etched in collective memory, Jaguar is Le Mans and Goodwood: which means it is Duncan Hamilton and Graham Hill, not Pedro Gonzalez and Nino Vaccarella. Jaguar is elegant, sophisticated and just a weeny bit raffish.

But while modern Jaguars evoke a mythic English past, the customer and his circumstances have changed beyond recognition. Prototype Jaguar Man had a clear specification, loosely based on popular perceptions of that very same Graham Hill: sheepskin coat, flat cap, tight trousers, gin and tonic, Battle of Britain twinkle, bottom-pinching. Just as advanced technology and sophisticated production processes have taken the wheezes, rattles and anachronisms out of the cars, and bonnets are no longer made out of 17 different pressings, so Darwinian processes have hastened the evolution of Jaguar Man and his world. A 1962 Jaguar 3.8 Mark II with its chrome wire wheels and handlebar moustache was well suited to the deserted and unrestricted Kingston By-Pass of its day, but more pertinent solutions are required in the CPZ that is the UK.

Jaguar's current product range is mixed. An audit goes like this. In an enigmatic footnote to the history of consumerism, the X-Type is built in the same factory that once made the lumpen Ford Escort. It is irresistible to suspect that a proletarian infection has leeched through the factory floor. Sales of the X-Type have been a disappointment. It is not a bad car, but just not special enough in a very competitive market. Significantly, the best X-Type of all is the diesel estate, the first Jaguar with Callum's handwriting. And it is the least likely Jaguar seen from the perspective of, say, Kingston in 1962. Cue men in bars spluttering through gins, but they are the wrong sort of history. They are myth. For all its coloratura curves, the S-Type is not a beautiful car: proportions are awkward, the pastiche is too literal. The interior, even after recent improvements, does not excite mass hysteria. In standard form, it rides a little too high. "God wanted the S-Type to have 18in wheels," Ford's senior vice-president for design (Callum's boss), J Mays, told me. Well, God is infallible, but there is excellence too. The XK sportscar is deservedly a success, offering 80 per cent Bentley Continental comfort, presence and performance at 50 per cent of the price. Everyone is excited at the prospect of the long-promised and oft-delayed small F-Type roadster. On the other hand, the new aluminium XJ is available now: a superb car, technically at least the match of the equivalent rival Germans, although its style is a disappointment, a too timid evolution of tradition. So whither? I am sympathetic to Jaguar. As a child, my world was framed by the chrome "D" of a Jag's rear window while my bottom was schmoozed by gorgeous pleated grey leather upholstery. Picnics never took place on those glossy folding walnut tables built into the back of the seats, but they were, none the less, objects of veneration to me. And so much more romantic than today's utilitarian cupholders. The engine I recall as well: it was mechanical architecture, a big upright block with two polished cam boxes and expressive carburettors, a child's diagram of what a motor should be.

Well, I'm sorry, but that has all gone the way of the 17-piece bonnet and the sheepskin coat. The essence of Jaguar is an idea, not a shape. If Sir William Lyons were here now, he would not - narcissistic as Jaguar Man may be - dwell on reflections of the past. Callum knows the creative task is imaginative interpretation, not timorous evolution. Recent Jaguar concept cars have been impressive, but at this stage are still working an old language with its assumptions about "performance" and "status". There's an entire species barrier to leap. The diesel estate is a good starting point: Jaguar should abandon the unloved X-Type saloon and confidently work this groove. And then, why not a Jaguar city car, something as functional as a Smart, but with better ride, more performance, better looks, more English credentials? You could call it a Jaguar London and create a phenomenon. Why not a Focus-sized Jaguar for an iPod generation, with an interior that re-interprets luxury without lazy recourse to wood and leather?

Again, the Porsche Cayenne may be an aesthetic and social atrocity, but it is cruelly accurate marketwise. Jaguar should be so bold. The optimum expression of steel will be surprising ... socially as well as artistically.

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