75 years on, Jaguar comes to the end of its road in Coventry

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The Independent Online

Jaguar cars have been smooth, fast and glamorous ever since the evocative name was first introduced in 1935. If you're driving a Jaguar, then travelling has always been better than arriving.

The Jaguar factory is similar. The words "Browns Lane" have a suggestion of Mecca for aficionados. Contemplating it is great. Getting there is horrible. The Browns Lane plant is an unlovely spot, hemmed in by cheerless housing estates and with all the red-brick drabness of the Number Two Shadow Factory the government erected at the end of the 1930s.

Situated on the western outskirts of Coventry in the suburb of Allesley, Browns Lane was built to make tank engines. By 1950 it was idle, and Jaguar founder Williams Lyons was able to buy it, in a deal with Sir Archibald Rowland of the Ministry of Supply, on condition he continued to make Meteor tank engines there.

This mild-mannered entrepreneur kick-started his business life making motorcycle sidecars in Blackpool in 1922, moving his company to Foleshill in Coventry six years later and turning to car-making.

The popularity of his elegant Jaguar MkVII saloon and beautiful XK120 sports car made a new plant essential, and Browns Lane offered one million sq ft of manufacturing space tailor-made for expansion.

The move to the new site began in May 1951 and wasn't completed until 28 November 1952. Each weekend, an entire department - the machine shop went first, the paint shop last - would be moved, using lorries borrowed from all over the West Midlands.

It was at Browns Lane that the Jaguar Competitions Department was based. With the C- and D-type Jaguars it developed, Jaguar won the Le Mans 24-hour race five times in the 1950s. Lyons was knighted for his services to export in 1956, and the Queen and Prince Philip toured the factory.

But Browns Lanes hit the headlines for another reason in February 1957: in one of the most ferocious fires ever to rip through a car plant, Jaguar lost 270 cars. Despite this, the lines were humming again 36 hours later as the firm struggled to meet demand for cars like the XK140, as well as the MkII of 1961, and the iconic E-type two years later.

It was at this point Browns Lane proved incapable of handling Jaguar's burgeoning output. Jaguar bought Daimler in 1960 to get its hands on more factory space, and years later it acquired another plant at Castle Bromwich.

Between 1968 and 1984, Jaguar was submerged in British Leyland, and Browns Lane temporarily suffered the ignominy of being renamed 'BL Large/Specialist Vehicle Operations Plant'. The workers, many of whom had been there for decades, hated it.

After a successful privatisation and London Stock Exchange debut, Ford acquired Jaguar Cars in December 1989. Since then it seems to have killed Browns Lane with kindness, unpicking its manufacturing autonomy as it expanded Jaguar's range. Engine manufacture went to Bridgend in Wales, the S-type executive car was built at Castle Bromwich, and a new small Jaguar based on the X-type went into production on Merseyside.

Moreover, an efficiency-minded Ford put a stop to Jaguar's in-house expertise in making things like seats and dashboards, buying them in from outside suppliers instead.

A factory that had once been home to armies of Jaguar craftsmen, all half-moon glasses and pencils behind ears, became an assembly plant where cars were bolted together. The atmosphere of design and manufacturing excellence Lyons had imbued Browns Lane with was methodically dismantled.

Jaguar has also lost the innovative edge that made Browns Lane the birthplace of the E-typeand XJ6, Car of the Year in 1968.

Had the factory been making some kind of Jaguar sports-utility vehicle to really take on BMW and Lexus in the crucial US market, perhaps it wouldn't now be closing its doors on car-making after 52 glorious years.