‘There’s a segment of the population that still wants Jaguars to have barrel sides and droopy boots’

JLR is reinventing Jaguar. Porter doesn’t underestimate the scale of the task

Richard Porter opinion

Somewhere within a bunker, deep inside the West Midlands, a crack team is wrestling with a tricky question: how do you solve a problem like Jaguar? It’s probably not a bunker, I just put that to make it sound more dramatic. More likely it’s a room in an R&D centre called something unsexy like J65/6-339 but the rest of the above is true. Whisper is that JLR has formed a special ‘cell’ isolated from the rest of the company so that the people within it can work on the next generation of Jaguars without anyone overhearing their meetings and then accidentally repeating the good bits to a stranger in a BMW jacket outside a Leamington boozer. 

What’s not a secret is that Jaguar’s future is pure electric. Ex-JLR boss Thierry Bolloré confirmed as much when he said he was looking for a partner with which to develop a brand new EV platform, though he later decided that Jag would go it alone on the project, which has been codenamed Panthera. This might sound like an ’80s aftershave, but it’s also the genus to which the jaguar (animal) belongs. Given the secrecy around the project, it’s not clear how deep the cat puns run, but if the bog in the J456/5664-B3 bunker is labelled ‘the litter box’ it’s already dangerously out of hand.

Terry Bolero’s insistence that this is a solo project has been slightly undermined by a recent online job ad that suggested that Panthera was in fact a collab with Magna, the gun-for-hire Austro-Canadian engineering and assembly outfit. Magna has an existing relationship with Jag because it builds the I-Pace and E-Pace. What Magna also has is a proprietary electric car kit of parts, one which is about to see production under the Fisker Ocean SUV. 

> Jaguar Land Rover boss Thierry Bolloré resigns for personal reasons

Will this be the basis of Panthera? I don’t know. Maybe Jaguar doesn’t know either. Never underestimate the ability of car companies of all sizes and stripes to gaze so intently at their own navels that they eventually topple forward into a coffee table. After all, Jaguar has already spent a load of cash on two bespoke EV platforms. The one under the current I-Pace, which seems destined to be used for nothing else. And the unrelated one that was meant for the next XJ and which was almost ready for production when the whole thing was chucked in the bin, or at least the Gaydon scrapyard.

Let’s hope Panthera’s engineering fundamentals are settled soon because they’ll have a knock-on effect to something very important: the looks. This is the issue that would keep me awake at night if I worked on the New Jag project. 

Once Jaguars were modern, especially so in the case of the 1968 XJ6. Then the wind changed and they stuck like that, which led inexorably to the retro fugliness of the late ’90s S-type and no one wanted a re-run of that atrocity, least of all incoming design boss Ian Callum who finally managed to yank Jag design out of its 20-year National Trust funk.

I-Pace

On paper, this worked well. The second-gen XK and the F-type were especially handsome cars. The first XF remains a fine-looking machine and, to my eyes, the current XE is one of the most underrated designs on the road. But none of these cars created a well-scuffed path to the door of every Jag showroom, and among the many reasons for this was the inertia of public opinion. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t matter how pert and pretty an XE gets, there’s a segment of the population that still wants Jags to have barrel sides, droopy boots and four round headlights. 

So what does Team Panthera do about this? Kick against it, as Callum did? Or act like that Big Train sketch in which Ralph McTell is forced to appease an angry live audience by aborting a new song and playing Streets of London for the second time in a row?

There’s a third path here, which is to embrace the spirit of the XJ-S, make something so nuts and unexpected that it takes a good 40 years for people to come around to realising it’s actually quite good. Unfortunately, Jaguar doesn’t have that luxury. Terrence Solero has said he wants the company to push upmarket and challenge Bentley, which sounds like a tall order and a move they won’t get to try twice. 

In fact, I fear Jaguar won’t get to try anything twice. This is the last roll of the dice, whether it’s steadfastly forward-looking, as you might expect from an EV, or drenched in nods to the past, as a noisy mob seems to demand from Jag. It’s a knotty problem for the Jaguar design team, now under the watch of fop-collared mirth vacuum Gerry McGovern, and one it’ll be fascinating to see them solve. In the meantime, I imagine some long nights in room J6434/994/7/R-9868.

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