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Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Friday, 28 March 2008

A very British luxury brand

The globally recognised symbol of Jaguar

By Amy Blackburn
BBC News

As Jaguar is taken over by an Indian car firm some fans of the big cat brand fear it will lose its identity. Yet the marque has maintained its intrinsically British feel through years of ups and downs.

"Think of James Bond and you think of Jaguar. Think of 60s London gangsters and you think of Jaguar. Recollect Inspector Morse - Jaguar..." - branding expert Jonathan Gabay sums up why one of Britain's best known brands is so inseparable from the country of its origin.

The sale of Jaguar this week to Indian car maker Tata has prompted some to question what this means for the motoring brand's rich associations with all things British. The concern, however, ignores the fact that for almost 20 years the pouncing big cat motif has been under the stewardship of American owners, Ford.

Jaguar started in the early 1920s, the brainchild of Blackpool-born William Lyons. He had originally intended to build sidecars for motorcycles, but soon began turning out the cars that famously promised "grace, space and pace".

E-type Jaguar in a car wash
The E-type captured the spirit of the early 1960s

With the launch of the XK120 in 1950, Jaguar began developing a reputation as a brand that spanned the competitive racing circuit and the elegant driveways of suburbia.

"They were very good looking cars, sold at quite an affordable price," says Paul Horrell, a contributor to the BBC's Top Gear magazine.

"The XK120 was the fastest car in the world, and it wasn't an insanely expensive specialist product. It was a car that got seen on the road - you never saw some of the more obscure cars, so most people didn't know about them."

Five racing victories at Le Mans in the 1950s cemented the firm's racing reputation, and Mr Lyons became Sir William in 1956 for his contribution to the British car industry.

This was the heyday of British motor manufacturing and with the launch of the E-type in 1961, it seemed as if the fleet-footed Jaguar couldn't put a paw wrong.

Designed by an aerodynamics engineer, the E-type was characterised by its smooth lines and lack of ornamentation.

Enduring E-type

The model both built on the successes of its predecessor, the D-type, and captured the spirit of the dawning 60s. Almost 50 years on its charm still prevails - this month the E-type was voted the most beautiful car of all time in a Daily Telegraph poll, receiving four times more votes than any other car.

In 12th place was Jaguar's MkII saloon - made famous by the Inspector Morse TV series - proving that the brand's aesthetic appeal extends beyond its sports cars.

Lyons had a knack for designing cars that were both terrific to drive and beautiful
Top Gear magazine contributor Paul Horrell

"The E-type was without a doubt the most beautiful car ever made at the time," Horrell says. "Again, it wasn't a vastly expensive car, so you saw them on the roads. It wasn't known as a special thing for people who know about cars, but something for everybody.

"Lyons had a knack for designing cars that were both terrific to drive and beautiful. Hardly a car was made when he owned the company that wasn't beautiful. You can't underestimate the power of this in making the company successful."

British icon

As well as aesthetics and affordability, the brand's quintessentially British image also contributed to its success, says Mr Gabay.

"Over the years, like the animal, the brand was marketed as being sleek, sophisticated and nimble. It became synonymous with a Great Britain of elegance, adventure and cheeky get up and go.

Logos of Jaguar and Ford
Jaguar's image improved after it was purchased by Ford in 1989

By the 70s though, Jaguar's fortunes mirrored those of the troubled British motoring industry. By then in the ownership of British Leyland, the brand's reputation dipped markedly.

"Under BL, the quality of the cars was extremely poor. They kept breaking down and so on. Jaguars became known as down-at-heel, slightly shabby cars," Horrell says.

But a brighter future lay around the next bend, with two further Le Mans victories in the 1980s. Then, in 1989, came a foreign takeover - by American car giant Ford.

Ironically, the British brand began to thrive in the hands of its overseas owners. Quality improved says Horrell, who sees Jags today as "reliable and nicely made".

'Old man's car'

But while engineering standards got better in the hands of the Americans, Jaguar's heritage image began to work against it.

"The trouble with Ford was, around the Millennium, it became very fashionable to build retro looking cars. A policy of building modern cars that looked like old cars developed. The Jaguar gradually became known as basically an old man's car."

Jaguar XK8
New models such as the XK8 have been well-received

Once this ethos was abandoned, Jaguar's luck improved once again. Cars such as the KXF and XK8 are "very modern and well-received", Horrell says.

Ford's decision to sell Jaguar after almost two decades of ownership has brought the beleaguered luxury brand into the news again this week, as a deal has been finalised with Indian car manufacturers Tata.

The remaining question is how a brand that has been owned by an American company since 1989, and has just been sold to an Indian firm, still manages to produce cars that are perceived as so intrinsically British.

"Although there have always been cars that go faster, perhaps are built better or have a better image, Jaguar fit everything into one package," says Nigel Thorley.

"Although a child of the 1950s I was at the right age for the swinging sixties so the successes of cars like the E-type sports car and the Mk2 saloon were very much to the fore and I was captivated by them.

"I have owned all manner of cars from Bentleys to BMWs, but I always come back to a Jaguar. They epitomise the best of British."

Car firms welcome Tata takeover
27 Mar 08 |  Coventry/Warwickshire
Bye bye, brands
26 Dec 07 |  Magazine

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