F-type: fact or fiction?

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that, with Jaguar under new ownership, once more the rumour mill is gearing up for another one of its sessions predicting the imminent arrival of the car hitherto known as the F-type.

This has been a sporadic occurrence for over 30 years now and, despite concept cars and any number of fuzzy scoop shots, it has yet to result in something the public can go out and buy. So forgive me if I don’t immediately take as gospel the current confection of speculation and off-the-record briefings, peppered somewhat inevitably by large sprinklings of wishful thinking, that the F-type is once more on the cards.

Besides, the last time there was any substance behind the speculation it still all came to nothing. You may remember that back in 1978 Pininfarina showed a concept car in London called the XJ Spider. It was very beautiful, very clearly styled to succeed the E-type (which had died just three years previously) and set a public still reeling from the awful ugliness of the XJS clamouring for its introduction.

That was never likely, but it did at least help persuade Jaguar that a modern E-type would be a desirable and, indeed, saleable car. Work started in the 1980s on what would have become the F-type and proceeded a long way, far enough at least for many fully functioning prototypes to be built, some of which still exist under dust covers in a quiet corner of Jaguar headquarters. Inside Jaguar it was known as XJ41 and, at first, it looked very promising. Then a rot, well known within the British motor industry at the time, set in. Like the similarly stillborn XJ13 racing car of the 1960s, the F-type was delayed and delayed again. Then it needed to be made safer which delayed it some more and made an already heavy car heavier still. Then the company was sold to Ford, which had also bought Aston Martin, a marque in even greater need of a new sports car than Jaguar. In short, the bare bones of the XJ41 project were given to Tom Walkinshaw who, in turn, brilliantly transformed this less than prepossessing raw material into the DB7. Jaguar got nothing.

So why believe anything will come of the current crop of hearsay, when there is no physical and not even that much circumstantial evidence available? Indeed the more obvious arguments seem to support a case against building an E-type successor.

First, and most seriously, where is the money going to come from? Now Jaguar is no longer owned by Ford, it cannot adapt a pre-existing platform as it did with the X-type (Mondeo) and S-type (Lincoln LS). So unless Jaguar enters into a strategic alliance with a major manufacturer, such as Aston Martin is rumoured shortly to do with Mercedes-Benz, Tata will have to build the car from scratch, which some have suggested would be a ruinous exercise for a company that’s already placed the begging bowl on the doorstep of No 10.

The other problem faced by Jaguar is that if this putative F-type is indeed a smaller, more affordable, more sporting coupé and roadster than the current XK, then it will have to wade into battle against some very able, well-established opposition. This has not always been the case. The brilliance of the Porsche Boxster, which unquestionably saved that company in the mid-1990s, was not its engineering or looks (both of which were pretty average even at the time), but the fact that it filled a gaping hole in the market. At the time of its introduction there was neither Audi TT nor Mercedes SLK, and while the BMW Z3 and MGF did just beat it into the showrooms, they were much more downmarket and affordable products. But the F-type would have to compete squarely against Porsche, Audi, Mercedes and BMW’s soon-to-be-renewed Z4.

And yet, despite it all, I feel inclined to believe such a car is a more likely proposition now than at any time in the last 20 years. It’s said this is a car Jaguar cannot afford to build: on the contrary, and in the hope you’ll forgive the double negative, I think it’s a car Jaguar cannot afford not to build. It seems clear that Jaguar’s long-term future cannot be secured by the existing model ranges, even though the XF and XK are among the best engineered in the class. But after the sales disasters of the X and S-types, it’s also clear that Jaguar has no future in mass manufacturing. It must exist as a low-volume, high-margin marque, much as did Porsche before it diversified into building vast SUVs.

What better product with which to face that future than a modern E-type? The platform issue can be addressed either by sharing one with its Land Rover sibling, which itself is in desperate need of a more compact offering, or by adapting the unique aluminium monocoque chassis of the XJ, though whether it could manufacture an aluminium F-type profitably is another matter. And as for the competition, if such a car was merely as good as its rivals, but gorgeous to behold and with a Jaguar badge on its nose, I have no doubt at all that it would sell.

When might we see such a car? Even if it were given the go-ahead today, it would take a minimum of three years to design, engineer and prepare for production. But that doesn’t mean we’ll have to wait that long to find out about it. In the spring of 2011, little more than two years from now, the Geneva motor show will mark the 50th anniversary of the day when Jaguar pulled the covers off the prototype E-type and changed the sports car world for ever.

There will never be a better time or place to show the world its successor. The good news is that this is a fact of which those in charge of Jaguar are acutely aware.