The Jaguar factory at Browns Lane, Coventry

It's hard to take a tour of a car factory without thinking of that Not The Nine O'Clock News spoof advertisement, with its slogan "designed by robots, driven by Italians", accompanied by spectacular footage of a high-speed crash. But there isn't a robot in sight at Browns Lane, the headquarters of Jaguar on the edge of Coventry. And while Italians do drive Jaguars, so do customers from 63 other countries.

A quick phone call to reserve a place is all that is required to see how a hunk of metal can evolve into a gleaming status symbol of the road. You are welcomed with a ghastly corporate video, but things take a turn for the better when you get to the hands-on gadget centre and learn about the history and the future of car production.

Then it's on to the business end of the trip, a guided tour back and forth along the assembly lines. Browns Lane produces 120 Jaguar and Daimler saloons a day, as well as a further 50 XK-series sports cars, and all are hand built. The whole process takes just seven hours. Everywhere, assembly line staff in matching Jaguar green outfits go methodically about their business, in a scene that resembles a Lowry painting, with forklift trucks and newly completed saloons nipping and zipping around the factory.

"We don't have automation because each car is built to a particular specification," explains Tony Redfern, our guide for the day. "People are a necessity. Jaguars are not mass-produced. We never produce a stock car."

The logistical dexterity that is required to produce so many customised cars is astonishing. That white car is designed for the United States (compulsory illuminated bumpers and the Jaguar statue on the bonnet); this topaz one is headed for Germany (bonnet statues are banned in the European Union). Somewhere, all this has been pre-programmed so that the correct parts arrive at the correct car at the correct time. Local furniture stores could learn a thing or two here.

Staff are not encouraged to switch jobs. After you have been hired, you are trained up for two weeks, and if your job is to insert a dashboard, that is what you do; the company will not invite you to swop to, say, windscreen installation, because it fears that quality of workmanship would suffer.

But how can people remain motivated? "By taking a pride in what they do," says Tony. "Look around and you see that most people stay with Jaguar a very long time." Tony is a case in point, having spent a total of 34 years on the assembly line and in development and engineering. In all, Jaguar employs 1,500 on the assembly lines at Browns Lane, 20 per cent of whom are women.

We moved on to the trimming and leather-cutting wing, where staff undergo lengthy apprenticeships to prepare covers for seats, gear-knob handles and dashboards. The leather comes from Argentina (because of the vast size of ranches on the pampas, the animals bear fewer barbed-wire scars). If you are lucky, you might even get a glimpse of the future: a group of men and women in white coats huddled over a car, like house doctors around a hospital patient. In fact, they are engineers inspecting a prospective new model.

The tour is great fun and staff are only too happy to break off and chat for a minute or two. At the end, after a short visit to the Jaguar Daimler heritage centre, full of vintage vehicles, you are directed to the company shop, where you can buy miniature models. If you are after the real thing, however, make sure you have £34,000-£64,000 to hand.

Browns Lane is located on the western edge of Coventry and is signposted off the A4114, close to the A45. Tours are free but must be booked in advance (024-7620 2058).