»I LIKED SIR WILLIAM VERY MUCH INDEED«
Meeting Jim Randle, formerly chief engineer at Jaguar
The November ’74 issue of CAR magazine boasted a bonafide scoop on its cover page: the successor to Jaguar’s E-type, almost completely without camouflage - caught on the motorway near Coventry. At the helm of the car: a blonde gentleman with a somewhat boyish face.
The car would eventually be marketed as the Jaguar XJ-S. And the gentleman behind the wheel, Jim Randle, would gain considerable fame as the company’s chief engineer some years later.
Today, Randle looks at these snapshots with some amusement.
'I remember getting chased up a road near to Browns Lane, with some […] guys chasing us. We actually finished up in a cul-de-sac, I think it was three of us. We stood around […] protecting the car!' Randle laughs when reminiscing about this particular occurrence, which took place some forty years ago.
James Neville Randle turns up for today’s interview in exactly the same attire he’d have worn on such occasions back then: despite having reached the ripe age of 78, he wouldn’t don anything less formal than a pin-striped suit and a tie. Just like in the ‘80s, when he - alongside celebrated Jaguar MD, John (eventually Sir John) Egan - acted as the public face of the re-emboldened Coventry manufacturer.
He even still talks exactly the same way as on period footage: somewhat hushed, accompanied by a slight whistling, which proves to be becalming in a sophisticated way. In general, an aura of sophistication remains prevalent around Randle. Not in a clichéd sense - his upper lip not being stiff enough for that, just as his pronunciation drifts too subtly between London, the Midlands and the Mid-Atlantic to conjure up any Terry-Thomas impressions. Randle’s demeanour isn’t that of some aristocratic toff, but distinguished in an unobtrusive way; not that he’s averse to a hearty chuckle, should an anecdote offer the opportunity.
Such as that story about the time he spent behind the wheel of Jaguar’s legendary XJ13 race car at a latter-day Le Mans commemorative event. “I pushed a GT40 off the track at Indianapolis, and I got a real bollocking! And I was told that if I ever tried anything like that again, I’d be banned!”
No matter how discreet his appearance may be, if one thing is becoming abundantly clear in an instant, it is Randle’s passion for engineering, speed and, above all, the combination of the two.
Specifically when aircraft are involved - in particular his stint onboard a Spitfire (a gift by then-Aston Martin owner, Victor Gauntlett, on the occasion of Jaguar’s overall win at Le Mans in 1988) - Randle displays a most vivid sense of enthusiasm. Which, of course, is also most apparent when it comes to motor cars, as which Randle still refers to the machine he devoted his life to.
Randle’s still piercingly steel blue eyes are aglow as he recalls such moments. He leans back in his chair like a man who’s experienced more good times than bad, and is quite at ease with himself and the rest of the world. But things aren’t as simple as that.
In 1986, Jim Randle could consider himself at the peak of his career, just as Jaguar seems to be at the dawn of a new, golden era. In the new generation XJ saloon, the XJ40, Jaguar unveils not just a new model - it is actually the company’s first all-new car since 1968 and the first model to have been developed at Coventry since the end of the unfortunate British Leyland era. And the XJ40 also acts as a symbol for the now independent British prestige brand’s regaining of its former strength, which means it’s now on equal footing with the industry’s big boys. The XJ40 is Randle’s brainchild. And for this achievement, some commentators even clamour for an OBE to be bestowed upon the engineer.
But a mere four years later, Jaguar finds itself a part of the Ford Motor Company’s empire and has to endure its new managing director, Bill Hayden, publicly slagging off the quality of the products coming out of Coventry, as well as its production facilities, which he compares to those found in the Soviet Republic. All of which undoubtedly did wonders to the Jaguar staff’s morale.
Jim Randle would remain on board for a time under Hayden ('not a very clever man'), but then his XJ41 sports car, which was supposed to be launched as the F-type, is cancelled. On top of that, he’s ordered to cut ten percent off his engineering staff, which was only recently expanded. 'I was losing the best people and in the end I thought: "oh sod it, I'll go and do something else".'
This marked the end of 25 years at Jaguar, the traces of which remain obvious to this day - despite Randle’s claims that he’s 'done' with the past.
His career actually started at Rover, where he acted as protégé to legendary engineer, Spen King, and was in charge of the 2000 TC variant of the P6 ('the cleverest car I’ve ever worked on').
After Rover, which was a professionally organised business before the Leyland years, Jaguar posed quite a cultural shock to the young Mr Randle: 'There was no bloody programme at all! I couldn’t see how they made a car. It gradually dawned on me: You got people who are around the company - the Tom Joneses, the Cyril Crouches and whatnot - and they took their bit of the car, they didn’t talk to anybody, they’d just get on with it. And often they fell out with the guy who was doing the next bit. But somehow, they just had sufficient passion to get it alright themselves. But you didn’t need anyone producing a programme. And that I find extraordinary. That’s the way it worked.'
Back in the day, Randle also acted as right-hand man of Bob Knight. An eminent engineer, Knight had not only been on charge of the legendary original XJ6 saloon (confusingly given the XJ4 monicker internally), but also prevented Jaguar’s engineering department from being absorbed into British Leyland, employing sometimes astonishing doses of insubordination to do so. Which would prove to have been inevitable, as otherwise a future independence would have been impossible.
'[Bob] was taciturn, a real thinker. A pain in the arse on occasion!' Randle begins to chuckle at the memory. 'He was one to work through the night, 24 hours at a go, you know? And you’d be sitting there, usually in the styling studio, trying to sort something out, and think: "If I killed him now, would I get away with it?"' By now, Randle is trembling with laughter. 'The trouble was: he was brilliant. He was the best engineer I’ve ever met. I’ve learned more from that man than any other I’ve ever known.'
Yet the notorious chain smoker’s exceptional analytical capacity could also manifest itself in more prosaic a fashion. For example when he was tackling the issue of a booming noise being emitted by the XJ’s sunroof: 'He found that if you held a packet of cigarettes up just at the edge of the screen, it would change the flow of air over the car and get rid of [the booming noise]! If you go and look at any of the old Series II with the sunroof, you’ll find that there's a rubber thing that looks like somebody's fingers sticking out at the front!'
Disregarding such idiosyncrasies, Randle considers Knight’s role in the saving of Jaguar to be still underestimated: 'I think [he] single-handedly saved the company.'
Apart from Bob Knight, Randle also enjoyed the privilege of having worked with quite a few other members of Jaguar’s old guard, such as aerodynamicist and E-type designer, Malcolm Sayer ('a very lovely man - very, very bright - and a lot of the styling was actually done mathematically'), not to mention Sir William Lyons himself.
More recently, Sir William may have somewhat fallen out of favour with certain historians and contemporary witnesses, but Randle’s appreciation remains undeterred: 'He was a good man! I liked Sir William very much indeed.'
Just as unambiguous is his judgement of the British Leyland years. 'Well, you know, Leyland management wasn't of the first order.' On this occasion, Randle refrains from laughing, and prefers to tell an anecdote of the more grotesque variety instead, as Leyland management actually proposed a variant of the Austin 1800 with rear wheel drive and an inline six cylinder engine as a successor to the XJ6. 'It wasn't treated with any great reverence.'
However, some of the parent company’s other intentions were taken much more seriously: 'This was a group of people that wanted to expunge the name of Jaguar from the group. We were called Large Car Manufacturer Number 3. You can see, to some degree, the logic that they wanted to make the whole thing uniform, but what it did to people's morale was just ridiculous.'
Which leads right back to Bob Knight: 'He did all sorts of things to upset things, but he kept us free – he kept us alive. Had Bob Knight not been there, Jaguar wouldn't be here today, I believe.'
When confronted with the remark that some of BL’s policies towards Jaguar had an almost aggressive quality to them, which suggests bad faith towards the group’s most prestigious marque, Randle's reply is almost laconic: 'They behaved badly towards everybody.'
This reprehensible behaviour would only end once John Egan arrived and made the company fit for independence within a mere four years - which incidentally was also when Jim Randle took over from Bob Knight as Director of Vehicle Engineering. 'This is when John Egan came in and he quite rightly recognised [that the product’s] real failing was quality. We had to put as much of our effort into quality as we could, and that delayed XJ40 of course.'
XJ40: Randle’s opus magnum. The very motor car that shall forever define his career - for better or worse. But right up to its unveiling, improving the existing model ranges each year remained paramount. This was helped enormously by the exceptional loyalty of certain costumers: 'It was interesting how so many of the would-be customers stayed with us when they had sufficient belief in what we were trying to do.'
From 1979 on, those customers had been offered a gorgeous, but initially woefully built saloon in the shape of the comely Series III XJ. Yet that car’s looks were by no means a foregone conclusion: 'We had two cars – we had one done by Pininfarina, one done by Bertone. We ditched the Bertone one.' Pininfarina’s proposal, on the other hand, finally did away with the aesthetic imbalance the Series II XJ had been bestowed with, once it was only offered in long wheelbase form. 'Four [more] inches in the door really did the styling no good at all.'
In stark contrast, the XJ-S benefitted enormously from the addition of chrome and wood, as implemented in 1982. Moreover, sales figures improved, thanks to the revised V12 engine, including May Fireball cylinder head, which was christened H.E., standing for High Efficiency. 'It really didn’t deliver too much. The bullshit of putting H.E. on the back, I think, was probably as valuable as anything!'
Under the guidance of John Egan, some unusual measures were being taken, such as an obligation for all Jaguar directors to go and sell cars at a dealership each week. '[We’d] go off to a dealership, they’d get a lot of customers and we’d stand up and tell them what we were trying to do. And then trying to sell cars! I held the record for a while: I sold six in one evening.'
Yet being a car salesman was far less formative an experience for Randle than working on a plethora of skunkwork projects. 'I don't know why I didn't get into trouble. I’ve often said I should have been sacked many times.' But Egan et al apparently knew what they had in their director of engineering, who wasn’t just working on hybrid engine systems, but also a pretty XJ40 estate car and a possible facelift for XJ40 (which Ford would eventually turn into the X300 version of the XJ saloon). But his best-known after-hours project remains, of course, the XJ220.
'It was a bit of a nonsense to start with.' After all, Randle initially only intended to have something to present at the upcoming 1988 Birmingham motorshow, which would otherwise have been quite bare, as far as new product was concerned. And yet this project, courtesy of what was known as the Saturday Club - a band of dedicated Jaguar staff who were working on the super car in their leisure time - eventually turned into a bona fide phenomenon: 'We were across the way from Ferrari [at the 1988 motorshow]. And [the F40] model sat there on the corner, and [obviously] we unveiled this. All the crowds and, of course, nobody was looking their way. [So] they basically put a girl on this stand there. And bits and pieces came off, and every now and again you might see one head turn around! That was an absolute hoot!'
The sensational public reception of XJ220 was certainly mainly due to its shape, despite the V12 engine - which, by the way, was one of the five four valve units originally built for XJ13 - being a more than adequate means of propulsion. Yet the fact that the XJ220’s production version, whose engineering shared little with the Saturday Club’s creation, which was only intended as a show car anyway, made do with an externally-sourced six cylinder engine, goes to show quite how much of the car’s impact was due to its styling.
Ranking high among those responsible for that styling were, according to Randle, some outstanding tinsmiths: 'They were truly wonderful guys. And they loved their work. I remember one night on the ‘220 - what we used to do [was this]: Everybody would turn up at wherever the car was, six o’clock in the morning. [We’d] work ‘till about eight on the car, go to Jaguar and work through the day, come back again at six o’clock at night to work on. Of course, there was more and more pressure as we got toward the motorshow. And I remember one night, having left the car at about ten o’clock at night, and [I] came back the next morning at about six o’clock, and the guy working on the shell at that time was still there!'
This kind of workload actually was the rule, rather than the exception at Jaguar, back then. 'My wife got used to it. She was as good as gold, really. She could have complained a lot, but she once said: "If somebody cut you through the middle, you’d have Jaguar written all the way through, wouldn’t you?" I think that’s about right.'
There’s a sense of irony about the fact that the only production Jaguar to completely bear the signature of this dyed-in-the-wool Jaguar man is the XJ40, a car that remains somewhat controversial to this day. Randle is obviously trying his best to come up with a rational conclusion when he explains that he views this car with some affection today, 'and the people around it, of course.' He also admits that some things could have been done better, but by and large, he’d appraise the car as being 'okay'. Which must be considered a bit of an understatement, given the XJ40’s rank as the last Jaguar to be engineered according to the brand’s traditional values, which lead to its supreme combination of smooth comfort and precise handling, even though its styling doesn’t reach the same heights as Sir William’s most outstanding efforts.
Under Ford’s stewardship, Jaguar cars would become less complex, easier to maintain - but the Jaguar flavour was on the wane. 'When Ford took over Jaguar, we were furnished with the way in which Ford designed cars. They had an 18 panel chart, and you had to tick every one of the panels with your car. And that meant that every car was going to be like every other car.'
The collateral damage of Ford’s hostile takeover turned out not to be limited to the careers of one John Egan or Jim Randle at Jaguar, but also a couple of models, which had been at various stages of development by that point. Among them was also the XJ40’s intended successor, which was called XJ90. 'I think it was pretty noticeably a Jaguar, which is what I tried to do. That said, the XJ90 was very well received by Bill Hayden anyway. He notably said he was going to have "an orgasm".'
In terms of engineering, XJ90 would possibly not quite have been able to elicit excitement of the carnal variety, but it would certainly have marked a distinct progression from XJ40. This would have, in part, been due to a new range of V8 engines, which in fact were only developed to production readiness by Ford after a prolonged hiatus and eventually came to the market in 1996. But these engines were not to be found underneath the bonnet of an all-new design like XJ90 (photos of which have actually only recently come to light), but were employed in the X308 generation of the XJ, which was the second XJ40-based facelift under Ford’s watch. “There’s nothing wrong with the business case on XJ90, it was just that Ford ran out of money. That would have been a good car, I believe.”
But most regrettable, in a number of ways, was the loss of the sports car project that was known as XJ41, work on which had started in the early ‘80s. During its design process, stylist Keith Helfet was assisted by no less an authority than Sir William himself, who, despite being of a ripe old age and a frail physical condition, was still in possession of an unerring eye. One last time, he would put it to use to create the shape of a motor car. 'As we got towards the detailing end, he would come in at least once a week and we'd go over that [car] and XJ40. I loved working with Sir William. He'd usually have his walking stick with him, and he'd be walking around ’41 or whatever. He always called you by your surname, never anything else: "Randle, Randle come over 'ere!" And he's got his stick and he'd say "look at that line there!" You know, he's probably looking at a cantrail line. "What do think of that, don't you think it should come down, perhaps a quarter of an inch or something?" And you'd have spent a lot of time on this, you know: "I don't think so Sir William, I've given it a lot of thought." "Oh right", he’d say and you’d go off and sit and look at the bloody thing and think: "Oh for f**k’s sake, he's right!" So you'd put it right and he'd come in next day or next week and say: "Ah that's better!"'
Yet the fact that XJ41 acts as Sir William’s stylistic legacy is not the only good reason to lament the loss of this particular car. In its original conception, it was a truly beguiling, aluminium-bodied sports car, with a bi-turbo inline six cylinder engine for a potent power unit. But it was not to be. In the end, Jaguar's current styling chief, Ian Callum, was put in charge of creating a variation of the XJ41’s body that was to be attached to the old XJ-S chassis. This concoction eventually became known as the Aston Martin DB7. There is quite a bit of irony to this development, as it was this car that put Callum on the map, while XJ41 became but a footnote in Jaguar history.
'I didn't make any friends with anybody on that one' is all Randle would say about this particular project. In the end, it was Bill Hayden who pulled the plug, after numerous changes to the car’s basic concept had been implemented over the years. In typical style, Hayden did not miss this opportunity to put the boot in and publicly reviled the car.
Jim Randle’s conclusion therefore hardly comes as a surprise: 'Jaguar, although it was a funny place, […] was an honest place, before Ford. […] When Jaguar was Jaguar, I was treated very well. […] But I didn't like Ford.'
After his retirement, Jim Randle didn’t pick up golf, but kept on working as a freelance engineer on behalf of numerous manufacturers, such as Volvo, for whom he continued his work on the gas turbine hybrid power plant, which he had created while at Browns Lane. But this proved to be another instance where he unwittingly found himself on collision course with Uncle Henry of Dearborn, Michigan. Perhaps inevitably, futuristic projects such as Randle’s were unceremoniously cancelled, once the Americans had taken over the Swedish marque.
Also due to his tenure as a professor at the University of Birmingham, Jim Randle is still more than able to keep up with any topics involving current developments and the future of the automobile.
'I believe that one of the major problems we have nowadays is [that] youngsters […] don’t get their hands dirty.' One glance at Randle’s own, mighty hands, which stand in stark contrast to his otherwise almost delicate physique, serves to stress the point that he himself obviously never had such issues. And that may be the reason why he is able to lecture on as broad a topic as chassis and tyre technology, engine design, aerodynamics, crash performance and body engineering - in brief: all the engineering facets of the automobile.
'If you’re going to have a vision of what it is you’re trying to create, you got to get your hands dirty.' The kind of highly specialised, yet narrow-minded expertise that is becoming increasingly prevalent in his line of business, as well as the fact that all manufacturers are pursuing very similar paths, in order to succeed in the marketplace, are developments of which Randle is taking a critical view.
'I used to sit on a committee in Brussels, the CCMC, and I used to sit with people from Peugeot, Mercedes, VW, Fiat, Volvo. And we all got to be quite good friends. We almost had an understanding that we wouldn’t encroach upon Mercedes’ area of expertise, or BMW’s, and they’d leave us alone. And we sort of shared up the marketplace with different interpretations of what we thought the marketplace wanted. It was a good relationship, actually quite a friendly relationship! What was going to be the conclusion was that if I wanted to make a car handle like a BMW, BMW would beat me. And if I wanted to make it as reliable as a Mercedes, Mercedes would beat me. But we were better at the NVH side.'
The obsession of today’s industry with what is considered to be ‘sportiness’ is therefore something Randle finds lamentable. To him, these assumed, but actually non-factual handling advantages entail an absurd loss in comfort that is utterly at odds with today’s driving environment.
At the end of a very long chat, the man who is supposedly done with the past, starts back for home.
He does so in a Jaguar XF of the latest generation. There is still no doubt which word would show in full, if Jim Randle was to be cut in half.
The interview with Jim Randle was conducted in cooperation with Eòin Doyle of driventowrite.com.
Photos: Jaguar Heritage Trust Archive (8), auto-didakt.com (2), all rights reserved
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