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Why a Jaguar is not a Ford

THE NEW Jaguar XJ6 marks a turning point in the turbulent history of Britain's best-loved car-maker. The first Jaguar in which Ford has had a hand, it will be the last not to use Ford parts: from the late Nineties, models will be developed, at least initially, by Ford and some may even be built by Ford either in the US or on the Continent.

Jaguar today is hardly recognisable from the company Sir John Egan sold in 1990. Far fewer workers now make slightly fewer cars, but they make them much more efficiently. 'Apart from some Soviet factories in the Russian city of Gorky,' Ford's first Jaguar boss, Bill Hayden, told me soon after he replaced Sir John, 'Jaguar's British factory was the worst I'd seen. The labour practices, demarcation lines and general untidiness were unacceptable.'

Despite what Sir John and his PR machine said at the time, Jaguar continued to be a relic of Britain's industrial past. It had many talented engineers, as British car companies always have had, but their engineering was divorced from the manufacturing. Their ideas may have been brilliant, but they were not much good to the consumer if they could not be properly executed.

Sir John's skill was in persuading people to believe in Jaguar. He did improve the cars from the appallingly unreliable products handed to him by British Leyland. But he did not improve them by anything like the extent he implied.

Without him, however, Jaguar would almost certainly have perished. Even Ford men, who inherited the company in a much worse state than they expected (they, too, fell for the PR) admit that history will rate two Jaguar bosses above all others: Sir William Lyons, who founded the company, and Sir John Egan, who saved it.

Ford did not take long to put its own men in charge. What is extraordinary is how they have absorbed the special Jaguar culture. Chairman and chief executive Nick Scheele, a naturalised American but a Briton by birth, joined Jaguar from Ford Mexico as a young man, and says he wants to stay as long as possible in Coventry. 'There's something special about this place,' he said after taking over in 1992. 'Foreign visitors turn up in coaches to look around. That doesn't happen at Dagenham.'

One of Ford's first tasks was to improve the integration of the manufacturing and engineering operations, so that good ideas on paper could become good ideas in production. Engineering and manufacturing operations now have a single director, American Jim Padilla, who the Jaguar engineers say is the real 'father' of the new XJ6.

Mr Padilla is about to return to Ford headquarters in Dearborn, near Detroit, to head Ford's new world luxury and performance car division, which includes Jaguar.

All new Ford-Jaguars will be based on Ford platforms. The first, due to appear at the end of the decade, is likely to be Project X200, a rival for the BMW 5-Series. This car will share a platform with an upcoming new American Ford, and will use a Ford engine block. Though the styling, suspension, cabin and internal engine components will be bespoke Jaguar, many hidden parts, particularly electrical components, are certain to be pure Ford.

'That will make for a cheaper and a more reliable car,' says Mr Scheele. 'I just don't see the problem in using Ford components, as long as they're of sufficient quality and are hidden from view. It's the tangibles - the styling, the cabin, the ride and the performance - that must be pure Jaguar.'

There is no doubt now that Jaguars are better built than ever, and more professionally engineered. The company is healthier than it has been for years. But, like all special cultures taken over by corporate giants, Jaguar is in danger of being neutered, its cars no more than stylish Fords wearing better badges. Ford's challenge is to ensure that the best-loved name in British motoring continues to produce distinctive, slightly quirky, stylish cars that could never be mistaken for a Ford.