Jaguar Land Rover's chief executive, Ralf Speth, was in jubilant form when he met The Independent at the Paris Motor Show yesterday. Five decades after the launch of the era-defining E-Type sports car in 1961, Jaguar has finally got round to a follow-up: the F-Type.
In the pre-electronic age of motoring, all that mattered was how the car looked, felt and accelerated – and the E-type excelled in every department.
Mindful of the history, Mr Speth said the group had been "determined not to look too hard in the rear-view mirror, to design a car for tomorrow" when creating a successor. "Modern legislation wouldn't allow a copy-and-paste job anyway," he said. "Take passenger protection. Back then it was something nobody thought about – now we have two airbags under the bonnet in case of a crash. We wouldn't be able to use the old emission technology – there were no catalysts then. No navigation systems, no screens."
However, Mr Speth acknowledged the importance of "history and heritage" and is confident that the F-Type is true to the DNA of its predecessor. It will be made at Castle Bromwich, creating 1,000 jobs, and be available from the spring, backed by Jaguar's biggest ever promotional campaign.
But while the F-Type represents a milestone for JLR, it is only one of the developments Mr Speth is working on.
This month Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) launched its new Range Rover, only the third time the brand has been updated since it was introduced as a luxury version of the Land Rover in 1970. It will be the first SUV (sports utility vehicle) to have a lightweight, all-aluminium body. It will be built in Solihull, and is expected to be available early next year. There will be an electric-diesel hybrid version, another first for the group. JLR's parent group, the Indian conglomerate Tata, is investing £370m to prepare the Solihull plant to make the new vehicle.
Elsewhere in the UK, JLR has introduced 24-hour shifts at its Halewood plant on Merseyside to keep up with demand and has plans to open an engine plant in Wolverhampton.
Overseas, Mr Speth is working on a Chinese joint venture with the local firm Chery Automotive, which would see JLR making a new model in Shanghai. Last year, sales to China jumped by 76 per cent to more than 50,000 vehicles, making the country JLR's third biggest market behind the UK and US.
Talk about manufacturing overseas has raised fears of job cuts in the UK, although JLR's growth has added 8,000 jobs at its three British factories in the past two and a half years. The group now employs about 25,000 in the UK.
"We are absolutely committed to the UK," Mr Seth said. "Jobs will not be going to China. But we have to be in China, it is such a massive market, we would really struggle if we were not there."
JLR has begun doing some assembly work in Pune, India, and is in talks to assemble Freelander four-by-fours in Brazil as a step towards full local production in South America's largest economy – although progress has been held up by regulatory concerns.
JLR's health today is a far cry from when Mr Speth, 54, took the top job in February 2010, 18 months after Tata had bought from Ford a company that was barely breaking even. The group reported a record £1.5bn profit for the year to 31 March 2012.
Mr Speth, a German who spent 20 years at BMW and two years as Ford's director of production before joining JLR, has harnessed the changes in the global economy by taking the company upmarket. He has tapped into the growing demand for luxury goods in emerging markets such as China, Russia and India, as their growth creates legions of newly wealthy business people, says the IHS Automotive analyst Ian Fletcher.
JLR has upgraded its models to make them more glamorous, for example by adding chrome and improving engine efficiency, Mr Fletcher says. This has enabled prices to be raised. New models have been introduced: the "baby" Epoque Range Rover, launched just over a year ago, has brought new customers to the brand. The F-Type, meanwhile, is likely to bring in younger, cooler, customers, while the fourth-generation Range Rover continues JLR's quest to produce more glamorous, expensive models.
JLR's recent performance has been remarkable. Having notched up a 35 per cent jump in pre-tax profits in the year to 31 March, the group posted year-on-year increases of 35 per cent in May, 39 per cent in June and 41 per cent in July. However, sales growth slumped to just 13 per cent in August compared to the same month a year earlier, as the Chinese economy slowed and fears about the global economy rose.
The UK market – still JLR's biggest – is stagnant, with Paul Everitt, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, cautioning this month that "the economic outlook remains challenging".
Mr Speth shrugged off August's sale growth decline, pointing out that you can't read too much into one month's data, and that sales growth was still in double digits.
Some analysts believe the luxury goods market that JLR occupies is in for a rough ride. The Bernstein analyst Max Warburton said yesterday: "The Chinese have over-consumed premium cars in recent years. Right now, we see a number of risks to sustained high profits from China."
Declaring himself to be "cautiously optimistic", even Mr Speth was forced to concede: "I can't predict the future overall. I can't predict the economy in Europe next week or next month."
With genuine and widespread concerns that the Chinese economy is running out of steam and continuing problems in Europe, JLR's growth looks set to slow in the coming months.
But the group is much better prepared for the slowdown than most of its competitors in the manufacturing sector – and in the long term, its future looks promising.
Looks good, sounds good
The F-type's launch in Paris this week was accompanied by Lana Del Rey, dedicating her new serenade, "Burning Desire", to the car, with even her lipstick matched to the Jaguar's red paintwork. The song, and seven other tracks on her latest album, will be used as the soundtrack to a 15-minute promo directed by Ridley Scott.Reuse content