Anyone following the fortunes of the British car industry understands that the Jaguar F-Type isn't just a car. It's industrial redemption: after decades of decline, Jaguar has built a worthy successor to the E-Type, the car that once defined British cool along with the Beatles, Carnaby Street and James Bond.
Now I was putting the F-Type through its paces on a road that twisted through a storybook landscape of emerald green hills, grazing sheep and moss-covered buildings. This was sports car nirvana.
England, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, has produced some of the greatest cars in history. But it has also made some of the worst.
English cars always occupied a special place in the car buff's imagination thanks to their unique style and performance. Enzo Ferrari himself declared the Jaguar E-Type "the most beautiful car ever built." But by the late 1970s, the glory days were over, and the British car industry was best known for labour strife, mechanical breakdowns and flaky electrics.
Those days are gone – English car manufacturing has been reinvigorated by fresh thinking and foreign investment. Rolls-Royce has been purchased by BMW. Jaguar was sold to an Indian conglomerate. The critics howled, but both companies are making their best cars in decades. This is England's new Industrial Revolution – and a journey to three radically different British car builders showed there's still a place for old-school tradition, too.
CASTLE BROMWICH, BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND
Every car company has an essence. Jaguar's is based on a combination of high style and shrewdly calculated value. The company's founder, Sir William Lyons, produced brilliant cars that sold for a fraction as much as a Ferrari. This called for astute resource allocation – in the 1960s, when Jaguar stunned the world with the iconic E-Type, Jaguar executives saved money by cutting their office carpets and putting the most ragged parts under furniture so no one would see. The money went into design and engineering, not office decoration.
Castle Bromwich factory is a place filled with history. In the Second World War, it built Lancaster bombers and the beautiful Spitfire fighter that helped win the Battle of Britain.
But it has changed a lot since then. The site has been expanded, and a steady stream of trucks poured through the factory gates, delivering parts and taking away finished Jaguars. The factory cranks out nearly 400 cars a day – about 10 times the rate that Jaguar could manage in the golden age of the E-Type.
Inside, Graham Harvey with Jaguar since 1968, has witnessed the company's highs and lows. When he started, Sir William Lyons still presided over the company. Then came the British Leyland period, when Jaguar became part of a dispiriting, government-owned consortium.
"Not our finest hour," said Harvey.
After that, Jaguar was sold to Ford, which lost money on it. Then came Jaguar's salvation – in 2008, the company was purchased by Tata, an Indian industrial conglomerate. The result: sales are up, and the F-Type is a hit.
Under Tata, Castle Bromwich has been upgraded with the latest manufacturing technology. Robots carry out tasks that demand high precision – aluminum F-Type bodies clanked past on the assembly line, each perfectly crafted. I thought of an English car mechanic who specializes in vintage E-Types, and the grief he endures due to the loose tolerances that Jaguars exhibited – bolting a fender on a Honda Civic takes an hour or so; on a vintage E-Type, it could take a week.
"We used to have a lot of problems with water leaks back in the '70s," Harvey said. "Not now. We're making cars you can be proud of again."
Rolls-Royce's manufacturing facility is like nothing else in the industrial world. The roof of the low-slug facility is covered with greenery, and the sweeping windows glint with light.
"It's unique," said Rolls-Royce executive Andrew Boyle. "The factory is designed to disappear."
This was the quietest factory I'd ever seen. Instead of a clanking, chain-driven production line, the cars moved through on silent, high-tech carts. At Jaguar, the pace had been relentlessly swift. Here, the cars sat for hours at a time while technicians tweaked and polished.
Back in the day, Rolls-Royce was renowned for building cars almost completely by hand. This wasn't always a good thing – when it came time to replace a part, there was no guarantee that it would fit, since no two cars were identical.
The Goodwood factory, which opened in 2003, uses the most advanced manufacturing technology, which means that the main components of a new Rolls-Royce are built using systems similar to those used to build a Toyota Camry – computer numerical control machining, robot welding, etc.
But that's where the similarity to a Camry stops. The design and engineering in these Rolls-Royce cars are the kind you can get only when price is no object – the doors open and close with bank vault solidity, engines are bolted into place with $12,000 torque wrenches, and transmissions are coupled to the GPS system so they will automatically prepare for upcoming corners.
Rolls-Royce's clientele includes some of the world's wealthiest. The owner of a hotel chain recently ordered 30 matching Phantoms. Corporate moguls and Saudi princes fly into the nearby Goodwood aerodrome in private jets, and celebrities like David Beckham and Rowan Atkinson visit the factory to pore over custom details on their new cars.
A Rolls-Royce may spend as long as nine months inside the factory while teams assemble and perfect it. The factory is beautiful and smoothly run. Every detail perfect, the finished machines have the look of crown jewels, and a drive in a brand-new Rolls-Royce felt exactly as it should – silent, massive and smooth.
The base price of the least expensive model (the Ghost II) is just less than $330,000. The top-of-the-line Phantom starts at more than $468,000, but most customers add at least $100,000 in options and custom features. Not long ago, the factory produced a Phantom that sold for more than $1-million.
And sales are up. Rolls-Royce made 3,600 cars last year – a record.
"Our customers want something special," said Boyle. "It all has to be Rolls-Royce quality. There are no shortcuts."
Driving a Morgan Plus 4 is like entering a time warp. The interior is a vintage cocoon of pleated leather, and the long hood and wing-style fenders stretch away in front like something out of a childhood dream.
The 2014 model looked as though it could have been built in 1958 – or 1938. It was a fantastic, soulful machine. The top was down, the wind was blasting, and it felt like I was doing 100 mph, even though the speedometer read 50.
The Morgan factory is a series of brick buildings with sliding wooden doors, and there is no production line – instead, craftsmen construct the cars in stages, and roll the partially-built chassis between buildings like soapbox derby racers.
Morgan opened in 1909, and some of its production processes have changed little since then. Workers still shape aluminum cowl panels with wooden mallets and manual rollers known as English Wheels – it was like watching the construction of a knight's armour during the time of King Arthur.
Morgan cars are famous for using wood in their body structure. Carpenters shape laminated ash into artfully shaped frames that support the aluminum panels. Despite its old-school ethic, Morgan has also embraced advanced engineering – beneath the skin of its Aero series cars is a high-tech chassis made from formed and extruded aluminum.
In the trim shop, Ben Jones handcrafted a folding convertible top for an Aero Morgan. His hands moved with the dexterity of a surgeon, and the finished top was a work of art. It was beautifully made, but slight variations in the stitching revealed its provenance: it had been created by a human being, not a robot. It was imperfect, but perfectly so.
Like us on Facebook
Add us to your circles
Sign up for our weekly newsletter