They say only those you love can truly hurt you.
So let’s talk about Jaguar.
There are two realities Jaguar inhabits, both alike in dignity. On the one side, Jaguar. It’s the household name, the very essence of British racing heritage: youthful, dynamic, daring. It is grainy film reel and clipped RP voiceover, leaded petrol and racing oil; a world of chrome spokes, racing green, fine leather and bad teeth somewhere in the region of Le Mans. The mere name touches a dark, exciting place in the imagination. Jaguar. Pronounce it like you’re twiddling your moustache while giving the BBC a little something for the folks back home – with the a folding almost into an e, the uar an exclamation of comfortable superiority. Djeg-whar. Each car is a picture of effortless elegance, and the embodiment of the famous slogan: Grace, Space, Pace…
But that was a long time ago. Today, there’s the Jag. You’ll find Jags parked in odd places. Like outside an accountant’s shop of horrors, or scowling in front of mock-Tudor mansions on the edges of suburbia. They are the car of the semi-respectable male of middle England. For the dentist who changes every desktop background in his surgery to a picture of his Jag; for the thrusting deputy head who cuts you up while plotting revenge for petty slights. There’s no romance to a Jag, just a slightly smug status play that nobody asked for.
Unsurprisingly they are very popular in the business world. Take an A-road out of town and you’ll see Jags for miles, company car parks littered with sullen XJs, S-Types, and X-Types. Even the more daring iterations of these corporate chariots still have a gamey tang to them. The XJ-S was a gloriously crusty Jag from inception in 1975, a grand tourer adorned with flying buttresses. The sportier Jags of the 1990s still carry a whiff of mid-life crisis. Maybe that’s why, despite their current affordability and decent performance, you very rarely see any millennials in a modern classic XK. That’s the thing about Jags today. They are not in any way cool. That PCP lunchbox from Japan you share with your mum is, at the very least, less offensive to the general public than a priapic little bonnet leaper thrusting un-gently into the good night.
This cad/dad duality has always sat quite oddly with historic Jaguar advertising. For a long time, the cars were not sold purely off the back of an appeal to racing heritage or as a status symbol on four wheels. Instead Jaguar have always lured customers with a curious (and uniquely British) mix of pride, winking rebelliousness, sublimated sexuality and getting your money’s worth. These are the cars which promise to take you somewhere special for a price which remains in reach. Look back through the last half-century of adverts and it’s clear Jaguar know which buttons to press; you’ll get a tone which shames (‘isn’t it time you were seen in one?’, XJ12L, 1975), titillates (‘XKE Topless’ in 1969; ‘Nobody’s pussycat’ for the 1974 E-Type) and goads (‘the year’s most significant economic development’, 1991 XJ6).
The XK8 campaigns of the mid-2000s were dry ice and opera. In the 2010s, Jaguar creatives turned to Hollywood and the music world. Lana Del Rey smouldered as promo reels echoed with her track Burning Desire, and in 2014 a playfully evil Tom Hiddleston channelled his inner Bond villain to reassure us that ‘it’s good to be bad’.
More recently, Eva Green and a host of actual CGI jaguars were sent to prowl around fancy European locations to convince you that Jaguar’s cars and customers are, in their words, a breed apart. All you have to do is indulge your instincts a bit and buy into the Jaguar fantasy – it’s not Ferrari or Aston money, is it?
It’s easy to understand, therefore, why getting behind the wheel of a Jaguar is a bit fraught. There’s the sober appreciation that it’s just a car, and a secret hope that you’ve been very clever, very suave, and bought into not just a car but a new personal reality. And beyond that is the feeling of really not wanting to be disappointed. Welcome to Jaguar the brand: a strange and delicious gumbo of fact, fiction and emotion.
The gumbo boils over in the case of the F-Type. Launched in 2013, Jaguar had not attempted anything like it in 50 years. A pure-bred two seater sports car which, it was promised, would capture the spirit of Jaguar like nothing since Malcolm Sayer’s original 1961 E-Type. Various prototypes for a similar project had been around since at least the early 2000s, but it was accomplished design director Ian Callum (previously responsible for the Aston Martin DB7 and Vanquish) who would be responsible for delivering the F-Type to the public; a car unburdened by Jaguar’s past, but drawing on all the best of its heritage.
In front of me was the 2019 AWD V6 P380 coupe, done up in grey-on-black with rather fetching bare wheel rivets. While the recent 2020 update to the model has crushed the aesthetics of the front end into anonymity, the pre-facelift F-Type is still a triumph. It is a car whose shape flows naturally with a vivid elegance, designed not just to be driven, but admired at rest. It’s fun spotting hints of past Jaguars in the design – the open mouth of the original E-Type, the cat-like eyes of the XKR, the curves of the XKSS and the XK150. However the greatest trick of the previous generation of F-Type is how well it plays off against the cheap, needlessly aggressive masculinity of contemporary performance cars. The design skews towards the feline and elegant; it suggests power and performance in a fluid and minimal way. It is the opposite of the modern performance aesthetic – a brutal, jagged mess of contorted body panels and carbon thrashing around in search of a customer.
Under the bonnet of the F-Type, a 3.0 litre V6 – supercharged and theatrical. Press the starter button and it announces itself with a knowing and throaty roar. The sound is not entirely natural – the exhaust system has been meticulously crafted with the help of sound booths and algorithms to flatter the natural tones of the six-cylinder engine. You don’t mind however as you glide around town, admiring yourself in shop windows to a chorus of purrs and pops.
The eight speed ZF automatic ’box makes it very easy to showboat at low speeds. When called upon, it also makes it easy to go very fast – juvenile carspotters in family estates love you, motorway on-ramps fear you. Under heavy acceleration on a highway, the overwhelming impression of the F-Type is of stability and sumptuous power in a jet fighter-like cabin designed to make you feel comfortably secure at speed. The car pulls strongly and smoothly, the dread whine of the supercharger filling the cabin as the speedometer ticks up effortlessly. You soon approach unhealthy speeds, your ego an unhealthy size. Piloting an F-Type on an open, fast-flowing road or a motorway is a real joy.
In the spirit of adventure I pointed the F-Type at the Cotswolds, in search of B-roads on which to wring some more enjoyment out of the car. With almost 400 horsepower held in check with a smart AWD system, adaptive dampers and a mechanical limited-slip differential, the P380 wants to be driven with gusto. I duly careened through the hills, devouring them crest by crest. I was the king of the road and nobody could stop me. Not even Tom Hiddleston, not while I was taking an ego trip on the back of this big cat. It’s good to be bad. Nobody’s pussycat. Jaguar. A breed apart.
Punch-drunk on Jaguar juice, I’d forgotten about basic physics. The F-Type decided to remind me on a section of averagely bad English tarmac. Going over an uneven patch in a sequence of turns, I felt an unnatural lurch through the base of my spine, a sudden lightness in the steering. It was the feeling of being caught out by a hefty 1500kg of good-looking, stiffly sprung machinery whose moments and vectors aren’t quite aligned. There was no loss of control, no tyre squeal, just a few hasty steering corrections. But it was enough for me to ease onto the brakes, bring the car back in line with clammy palms and reassess my expectations.
For the rest of the day I was wary of pushing the car too much when things got a bit twisty. The F-Type had seduced me, and it will seduce you too; luring you into believing it is a do-anything car, it has an aura which threatens to charm away the fact that it is very much a GT and not a pin-sharp road racer. Through my excitement I’d imbued the car with some sort of ability beyond its capacities. Yes, the raw power is intoxicating, but I also realised that if disrespected, an F-Type will take you on a fearful passage of death-marked love, at speed, straight into the nearest hedge.
I cruised home at dusk and mulled over my experience. Jaguar. I wondered why I felt a strange kind of longing for something more despite clocking up many miles in a car I had desired for years. My mind wandered back to memories of a sweltering day at the Bicester Super Scramble in 2019. Jaguar had been on everyone’s minds then. Norman Dewis, the legendary engineer and Jaguar’s greatest test driver, had died shortly before the event at the age of 98.
I had watched the tribute parade of historic Jaguars roll by while listening to commemorative interviews with Norman’s colleagues. What struck me was how rich and analogue the stories about design, engineering and racing felt, with a quality no amount of smart advertising could replicate. It was real, inimitable passion for their craft – the kind which oozes from every curve of the E-Type, the kind which saw the XJ220 built as a weekend project by engineers without sanction from management. I realised I had wanted to capture some of that feeling myself when leaping into the F-Type with such mad enthusiasm. When you get behind the wheel of a car like this, it’s about more than just driving – it’s a way of connecting with the slowly receding motoring culture of the 20th century.
When it comes to Jaguar, it’s personal. I can’t help it. I covered almost 500 miles in the three days I had the F-Type, in all weathers. I showed it off to my friends, I took my dad for a drive on an impromptu adventure to Cambridge, and floored it on the motorway alone trying to find that something more. I had to conclude that perhaps this car couldn’t ever hope to live up to the unrealistic standards I’d set. I had secretly wanted the F-Type to be the best car in the world, and had to admit that it is not. It’s a very capable, very beautiful GT which presses all the right buttons, but should not be mistaken for the nimble sports car you think – you hope – it could be. But there are flashes of brilliance on the right road – certainly enough to make you smile, and even to suggest that behind the knowing adverts and back catalogue of pretty, safe, saloons, there are Jaguar engineers intent on building modern cars which capture, or even smuggle in, some of that magic of the past. Working tirelessly on making things less Jag, more Jaguar. That’s something I can get behind.
There are always mutterings behind the scenes of course, daggers behind the arras. One industry insider beckoned me over to him at the most recent London Classic Car Show. “On Jaguar – look, forget the F-Type – go back to the E-Types,” he whispered, looking around conspiratorially, “…they drive like crap. Are they even that good? I don’t think so. And Enzo never said it was beautiful. It’s all third-hand bollocks.” He tapped his nose with a wink and disappeared in a puff of exhaust fumes and auction receipts. I paused, took a deep breath, and turned to look at the nearest car. A long, lozenge-like bonnet of deepest black. Two cat-like eyes, wide open. 1961. Malcolm Sayer. Jaguar.
I think I know what’s next.
With thanks to Bicester Heritage for photoshoot permission.