Jaguar Cars, ever loyal to an elegant heritage and local work force, chose the Birmingham International Motor Show on its industrial doorstep to introduce a smaller shape for the next millennium: the 2000 S-Type sports sedan.
That done, executives of the 62-year-old British heirloom, which Ford rescued from ruin in 1989, said the handsome bonnet of the latest Jaguar to mime lines from the ‘60s is pointed directly at the United States.
“We don’t have the European penetration of Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen, and so the United States takes about 47% of Jaguar production,” said Mike Dale, president of Jaguar Cars of North America. “The United States, from Jaguar’s point of view, is home market.”
That is also the developing view of other European car builders--Rover, MG, Maserati, even makers of the redoubtable Morgan sports car and brick-shaped Mini--that brought their baubles to last month’s show and acknowledged that they are poised to join the current Eurovasion of America.
The sly intrusion has been growing for months. And U.S. sales figures for October prove exactly how heavy the influx. While Big Three sales were up 8% and Asian sales rose 13%, U.S. purchases of European cars and sport-utility vehicles jumped a whopping 28% from a year earlier. And in the first nine months of this year, Europe’s share of the American market grew from 6.5% to 8.4%.
For most of the new arrivals, it will be an encore excursion into a rich overseas market they dumped years ago as too complicated, too restrictive, too unappreciative.
For others, particularly veterans of the American scene like Mercedes-Benz and Land Rover, the European influx represents a second look at vehicles they once said would never be exported to America.
Among these: the Land Rover Freelander, a small SUV-cum-station wagon and Toyota RAV4-fighter expected to sell for about $25,000. Spokesmen say it will arrive in the United States, probably with a V-6 engine replacing the current four-banger, in 2000.
Then there’s the Mercedes A-Class, a small and upright van-sedan for commuting in cluttered cities and engineered for multiple power sources--gasoline, diesel or electricity. “It’s not a matter of if the A-Class will arrive in the United States,” said a representative of Mercedes-Benz of North America. “But when.” The “when” is expected to be 2002.
With 90 horsepower and exterior measurements of a Honda Civic, the A-Class Elegance is the smallest vehicle in the Mercedes lineup. But if Volkswagen’s tiny Rabbit can succeed in the United States, said Walter Greaves, director of passenger cars for Mercedes-Benz in Britain, why not a baby Mercedes?
“The A-Class was introduced to meet driving requirements of people living in crowded metropolitan areas of Europe,” he said. “American cities are certainly as crowded.”
Move Over, Rover--and Morgan and MG
Britain’s Rover Group co-starred with Jaguar Cars at the Birmingham show, introducing the Rover 75 luxury sedan with noticeable styling similarities, inside and out, to the U.S.-bound Jaguar S-Type. That could be a result of testing the projected shape before consumer clinics in the United States.
Tom Purvis, director of sales and marketing for BMW-owned Rover, said the company “would like to think it could” export the 75 to America and that “we have done the basic work [making sure it will meet U.S. safety and emissions regulations] so that the car could be brought to the United States.”
That includes installation of equipment critical to any automotive success in America: cup holders front and rear.
Purvis well understands an important dynamic of the Eurovasion. It has to do with a broadening polarization of American consumers. There are those who see cars as mere transportation appliances, and there are those more interested in cars as high-value, personal statements carrying the cachet of global recognition.
“Ask about Mercedes-Benz and the response will involve quality and durability,” Purvis said. “BMW is sportiness. Jaguar is refinement. These are clear-cut brands.
“When you ask about Chevrolet, I don’t know what it stands for. Except as a piece of transportation.”
The Morgan two-seater suffers from no such identity crisis. From its wooden body frame, through unlockable doors to canvas tops only marginally weatherproof, the handcrafted Morgan has represented the pure British sports car since H.F.S Morgan built his first in 1935. Annual production is about 500 cars, and at times there has been a 10-year waiting list. Styling hasn’t changed much since 1968. The company’s last concession to modernity was to buy a computer in the late ‘80s.
Morgan roadsters first dribbled to America, for sale to disciples only, in 1948. The company pulled out--except for a propane-powered version available through a San Francisco importer--in the early ‘70s. Just one more casualty of Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation construction requirements.
Next year, however, the doughty, uncompromising, hard-riding and made-to-order Morgans will return to the States. For about $45,000. Or so promises Peter H.G. Morgan, son of the late H.F.S. Morgan.
“Construction of our latest model [the Plus 8] covers all the United States’ safety [bumper, air bag and side-impact] requirements,” Morgan said. “The engine is a 4.6-liter V-8 from the Range Rover, and it is already certified for use in the United States.”
Delivery, incidentally, promises to be speedier than in earlier times. The waiting list has shriveled to four years. Must be that computer.
Among other European vehicles poised for expatriation:
* Maserati, which fled America in the ‘80s when its fast but mechanically flawed Biturbo failed to sell, will return to the Americas next year with its impressive 370-horsepower 3200 GT coupe.
* The rambunctious little Mini--once labeled for Morris, Austin and British Leyland but now built by a division of the Rover Group--will reach U.S. showrooms in 2001. At $18,000, it promises to be as much inexpensive mischief as the Minis beloved by American drivers in the ‘60s.
* Insiders say the second generation of the new MGF sports car, probably powered by a V-6, will arrive about the same time.
European Marques Tap Demand for Value, Style
This renewed interest in the left side of the Atlantic, European experts say, is simply a matter of opportunist car makers searching for greener pastures and chinks in the opposition’s armor.
British manufacturers fighting for a small piece of their own 2-million-unit annual market find America’s 15 million new-vehicle buyers an irresistible population. Alliances between multinational corporations--Daimler-Benz with Chrysler, Ford with Jaguar, General Motors with Saab, Volkswagen with Bentley and BMW with Rover, MG and Rolls-Royce--have streamlined production, reduced costs and retail prices, developed cars that meet governmental demands of all nations and eased access to the U.S. market.
American cars, continues the popular wisdom, have become generally uninspiring. Japanese cars have lost much of their novelty and price edge while their styling has become almost uniform.
Alex Trotman, retiring chairman of Ford Motor Co., in Birmingham to add his heavyweight executive presence to the S-Type introduction, says “herding” is one way to explain the Asian drift to safe styling and sameness. And this conservatism comes at a time, he notes, when “very smart [American] consumers” are showing new appreciation for “style, engineering, value, distinction and quality in their automobiles.”
Jaguar executive Dale says that for American consumers, buying imported products, particularly automobiles, is no longer considered an affectation. It’s simply wise, quality buying.
“Ten years ago, it was the Japanese who would live forever [in the U.S.],” he said. “Now you have the unthinkable--[some] Japanese car companies losing money in the United States--and so the Europeans are coming back.”
Indeed. Last month, U.S. sales of Audi and Volkswagen improved 137% and 69%, respectively, over October 1997. Saab rose 85%. For the year to date, Mercedes sales are up 55%. BMW, Volvo and Porsche have posted gains. And Jaguar, which sold only 8,600 cars in the United States in 1992, expects to triple that number by the end of this year.
Yet do not look for Peugeot, Renault or Fiat to return to American shores any time soon.
“They look like they are permanently out, even though everybody realizes that America is important,” said Ray Hutton, motoring correspondent for the Sunday Times of London. “These independents decided America was too complicated and wasn’t worth the effort. And it is not worth it if they think they have expansion markets elsewhere.
“The Rover 95 is clearly intended for America. But MG and Maserati? Can they successfully come back and overcome their problems and their reputations with dealers who had contracts canceled on them years ago? I don’t know.”
Jaguar’s Newest Cat Springs From Tradition
Few critics believe that Jaguar’s S-Type will fail in the colonies. Even if it does share a platform with the incoming Lincoln LS, another Ford product. Even if it is going nose-to-grille with the BMW 5-Series, the Mercedes E-Class and other contestants in the $45,000 price range.
With no prototypes available for test drives, Jaguar put its point across with amplified speeches that would have stilled a rock concert, press releases, a poetic and horribly expensive photo album with aluminum covers and the congratulations of Queen Elizabeth in a letter from Buckingham Palace. Also the lusty energy of a revivalist meeting as the S-Type, wreathed in steam from dry ice, rose on its revolving rostrum to haute couture applause from 750 automotive journalists.
The car is clearly a child of earlier Jaguars, in particular the Mark II 3.8 built between 1959 and 1967. Remember that welterweight with its voluptuous rounds and broad oval grille borrowed from the XK150? John Thaw as Inspector Morse drove a Mark II in his PBS “Mystery!” series.
It is a grand look formed from restrained gleanings. This Jaguar is styled a great distance from its peers and will never be mistaken for anything but a Jaguar. It is a shape and a silhouette that company officials say reflects the “Jaguarness” of the sedan. Or its DNA.
The concern now, they acknowledge, is whether that Jaguarness has carried through to the ride, handling and performance of the S-Type. Which, like London Bridge and the late Duke of Windsor, joins the slim ranks of British legends married to American parts.
Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.