UK: Motor mouth - Sex, curves and the big cat.

UK: Motor mouth - Sex, curves and the big cat. - The surreal oddity of the Jaguar brand today is that while the cars are ineffably superior to their ancestors, the richness of collective memory requires a ritualistic homage to a technically inferior prod

by STEPHEN BAYLEY.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The surreal oddity of the Jaguar brand today is that while the cars are ineffably superior to their ancestors, the richness of collective memory requires a ritualistic homage to a technically inferior product.

Only a classic car bore would get much use or enjoyment out of, say, a 1963 Mark Ten. It was slow and creaky, cornered like a bateau mouche, was assembled only approximately and it smelt of mould. Yet the image of such a car exercises our desires.

It is the task of Jaguar design to storm the hypothalamus, reach that pleasure centre, and twiddle the knobs.

Just as the Jaguar has mutated so that not a single cell is shared by the old S-type and the new, so Jaguar man has changed. But while a modern Jaguar cleverly evokes a mythic past, the Jaguar man has been changed beyond recognition. Prototype Jaguar man had a clear specification, loosely based on perceptions of Graham Hill: sheepskin coat, flat cap, tight trousers, gin and tonic, Battle of Britain twinkle, bottom-pinching, arf-arfing.

Just as advanced technology and production processes have taken the wheezes, rattles and anachronisms out of the cars, so inevitable Darwinian processes have hastened the evolution of Jaguar man. Politically speaking, he has been corrected. To use an industry metaphor, his panel gaps were tightened.

Jaguars' back seats are now respectable enough to accommodate very dignified bottoms, but they remain cars for people who like to sit in the front.

What do those drivers want? A product which achieves a philosophical first, allowing the use of 'British' and 'sensuous' in the same sentence.

Jaguar man cares desperately about his self-image (otherwise he would buy a BMW). Jaguar man is modern and successful and not afraid to hide it (otherwise he would buy a BMW). He takes time to look in the mirror, has expensive haircuts and cares about how he dresses - but definitions of dapper have changed.

Who is he? Well, to give two examples, Jaguar man is David Beckham and Tony Blair - men who get value for money out of their mirrors. Jaguar man is Modern Britain personified.

Aesthetically, Jaguar's catalogue is a glorious backlist of expressive shapes. From the handwriting of its founder, Sir William Lyons, to the inimitable aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, to Geoff Lawson, current design director, no manufacturer has a better record in producing such voluptuous and considered curves. The effect is based on a nice tension between feminine beauty and masculine purpose, a curious relationship between an exotic dancer and a clubland hero, or sex and sensibility. Somehow, this visual language has evolved into a persuasive shorthand for Englishness itself. Not as technical as a BMW, not as arrogant as Mercedes-Benz, less austere than Audi, more credible than Lexus, Jaguar is more charming and refined. Thanks to images etched in collective memory, Jaguar is Le Mans and Goodwood: Duncan Hamilton and Graham Hill, not Pedro Gonzalez and Nino Vaccarella. Sophisticated and just a weeny bit raffish. This is what Ford bought. New Jaguars are no longer conceived in the tradition of inspired lash-up that gave us the Spitfire, but as a part of Ford's professional global parts-sharing strategy. So, because the new S-Type uses the floor pan of the Lincoln and, in some versions, engines that can be found in Mondeos, the novelty is not in what the new car does, but what it means.

I went to Coventry to see a pre-production styling buck of the S-Type.

Lawson showed me around. Thinking of that intimidating Jaguar culture of evocative curves, he said he wanted to achieve 'surfaces with a lot of visual activity'. He understands curves and angles: his office has, for inspiration, a luscious Fender Stratocaster and a scary Bren gun.

'There are,' he says, ' fat rounded cars and thin rounded cars: the difference between a curve that is muscular and one that is anorexic is about 3mm.' It's his job to know just where those three mills begin and end.

The S-type's muscles are calibrated with that sort of refinement. But to purse your lips about whether it is beautiful is to misunderstand today's car design. Simple beauty is no longer elusive: when Daewoo employs Italy's best designer to style its Cheapo GLX, we have le monde a l'envers. Don't expect another E-type; that sort of innovation will never happen again.

Instead, the designer's job is to evoke meaningful reference and state 'Jaguar' with unequivocal clarity. That's exactly what the S-type says in its language of curves.

Stephen Bayley is an author and design consultant.

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