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A raga of Tata, Land Rover and Jaguar, as British as Tetley’s Tea

December 18, 2008

Margaret Thatcher privatised Jaguar in 1984 to howls of protest from people who liked big rusty cars that broke down a lot. Ford bought the brand for $2.5 billion in 1990, to more howls from Bufton Tufton (67) stalwart of the Enoch Powell Golf Club, Jaguar’s only customer. Sales fell to around 15,000 units a year, 75 per cent of these to the USA, in the teeth of the 1992 recession. Rework – the percentage of cars requiring repair at the end of the assembly line – was running at 65%. Productivity and quality control was as bad as in the strange days when Jaguar was merged with British Leyland, a state-owned basket case whose models gave Lada a market opportunity in the UK. Ford invested heavily in reskinning the big Jaguar XJ series, replacing almost 2000 components with ones that worked and drove through innovations such as stopping the cars from leaking, locking the passengers inside against their will and not starting. Jaguar had borrowed heavily from the bank of goodwill during its dark years. Ford fixed the reliability problems but the marque was always running on empty – its core market was middle aged CEOs who played golf and sat in the back and racy middle-aged cads who bought its expensive XJS sports car. Jaguar needed mid- and entry level models to expand its demographic, as we marketing mavens tend to say.

Ford, exemplary owners, made good their promise to the Midlands carworkers who loved the brand they could never afford to own, invested heavily in retooling and added a midrange S Series car, a beautiful vehicle, reminiscent of the iconic Mark 2 Jaguars made famous by Inspector Morse, designed to compete with the BMW 5 series. They also, less successfully, designed an ‘affordable’ Jaguar, the X type, to compete with the BMW 3 series, and replaced the horrible but ferociously fast XJS sports car with the beautiful, (relatively) affordable XK series, designed to compete with Porsche.

The trouble was that they didn’t address the fuel economy issues or introduce diesel versions of these cars until too late, largely because the US still has an irrational aversion to diesel passenger cars and the Jaguar market didn’t care about gas guzzling. Thus the big Jags couldn’t compete with Mercedes (or Lexus), the middle sized Jags couldn’t match BMW (or Lexus) and the baby Jags couldn’t compete with anyone, because they were too dear, too thirsty and had an uneconomical and pesky 4 wheel drive powertrain borrowed from the Ford Sierra and other ‘platform-sharing’ features which seemed designed to cause trouble. Ford needed at least 200,000 sales for the marque to be viable and a much larger percentage of European buyers. They never really got consistently close. There was also a problem of perception. Although Ford hived its “premier brands” such as Jaguar, Lincoln, Volvo and even Aston Martin into supposedly autonomous units, brand afficionados found it incongruous that Jaguar was owned by the Great Satan of mass engineering and there was no real economy of scale or opportunity in cross-selling a Fiesta with an XKS. The marque made progress but never really capitalised on the $11 billion which Ford spent rejigging and making new models. The impressive new Jaguar XF emerged just as the global downturn was starting and Ford’s own core business was in terminal decline.

Tata, one of India’s top three agglomerates, if not its biggest, stepped in to buy Jaguar and Land Rover/Range Rover, owned for a time by BMW but sold in 2003 to Ford, for $2 billion, more than half the price that Ford paid for the two marques, not counting the estimated $11 billion which Ford invested: a bargain, in fact. The deal was formally announced in March 2008 and 16,000 jobs were said to be saved as a consequence.

So riddle me this riddle, Lord Mandelson of Hinduja: why should the British taxpayer step in to subsidise or part-nationalise a company owned by one of the world’s richest men and biggest agglomerates to the reputed tune of £1 billion – equivalent to the price Tata paid, in fact? Yes, we know about the 16,000 jobs, but Tata (company motto ‘Leadership with Trust’) is a global player, employing 350,000 people, bigger than any British manufacturing concern. Chairman Ratan Tata is a global philanthropist and the group is seen as a model of ethical manufacturing and corporate citizenship. 61% of its $62.5 billion revenues come from outside India. Tata should not need help from the British government. We would laugh if Honda, Nissan or Toyota, all undergoing severe problems and bigger UK employers than Jaguar, were to be proposed for state intervention. If Tata gets help then where does the government draw the line?

Moreover, they don’t appear to be that broke. Today, when even Honda is stepping down from toys for the boys stuff for reasons of cost, it was announced that Tata would sponsor Ferrari in Formula One Racing. (Tata have a joint venture with Fiat, which owns Ferrari, to make cars in India). The company has a long and largely well-deserved reputation for ethical practice and global citizenship (yes, I hate these terms too but I’m pretending to be a business analyst today) but threatening to move production of Land Rover and Jaguar away from Browns Lane and Solihull unless the increasingly bonkers Brown trousered brigade grant unfair subsidies will incur horrid karma in the next life – Mr Tata may come back as a broken-down Jaguar or a Solihull shopkeeper.

If the vehicles can be made cheaper and better in India – I’m sure the land Rovers could – then get on with it. (Land Rovers are already made in local markets). If moving the entire production away from Britain was what Tata had in mind all along, then ditto, but I doubt if cheap labour will necessarily make expensive, complex cars: BMW and Mercedes, the world’s most successful prestige auto brands, for example, operate in the world’s highest cost labour market. Also, if Ford found it difficult to sell a premium luxury brand under its umbrella, then the maker of the world’s cheapest car might find it even harder. For what it’s worth, my advice would be to leave the high end manufacturing where it is; the cars are good enough now, the market isn’t. Since Tata already makes the world’s cheapest car, the ‘Nano,’ however, invest in the development of electric vehicles for Europe here (not bloody Ferraris) and keep a respectable distance from Lord Mandelson, who has an unfortunate history when it comes to Indian oligarchs.

PS. Thus has an audacious plan to manufacture a hybrid version of the Sinclair C5 and the DeLorean. We’ll call it the DeCVe. We need a lot of cash or we’ll sack ourselves and move to Eastern Europe or India.