Ex-colony as proud rescuer

The Baltimore Sun

LONDON -- Inspector Morse tooled around Oxford in a Mark II. James Bond's arch-enemy Zao drove an XKR roadster, with an optional Gatling gun mounted behind the seats. When former Prime Minister Tony Blair pulled for the last time out of Downing Street last year, it was - how else? - in the back seat of a Jaguar.

There have been Lotuses and Triumphs, Aston Martins and MGs, but no vehicle has epitomized the once-legendary British motor industry like that most English of cars, the powerful, sultry Jaguar. Except that for almost 18 years, Jaguar has been owned by Ford Motor Co. in Detroit. Now the brand is about to be acquired by another vestige of Britain's long-ago colonies.

India's Tata Group wants to take off Ford's hands not only Jaguar but Land Rover, the British matron of sport utility vehicles that Queen Elizabeth II has been known to flog through the gardens behind Windsor Castle. A deal is expected to be announced tomorrow.

The import of one of India's muscular conglomerates riding to the rescue of British legends - and paying as much as $2 billion to do so - isn't lost on either side of the former empire.

The Tata deal "has made us all proud," said Debashis Chakraborty, a government official in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), the one-time capital of the British Raj.

Neither Indians nor Brits have failed to appreciate the historical ironies involved. In Britain, though, the reaction has been mixed, with optimism that Tata chief executive Ratan Tata would be able to help restore the brand to its former pre-eminence and faint regret that it took an Indian giant to do the job.

"I think Sir William Lyons would be turning in his grave, quite frankly," said Barrie Birkin, a longtime Jaguar owner, referring to the legendary co-founder of the company who presided over the marque in world motor sports and luxury car design through 1972.

"I can't believe it, to tell you the truth," Birkin said. "But Tata's a guy who's made billions, and he must have some ideas to turn it around."

It probably helps the British attitude that Tata is no stranger to preserving British brands. The company owns the United Kingdom's biggest steel company, Corus, which includes the former British Steel, as well as Tetley Tea (which British observers note with some satisfaction was not merged into Tata Tea, the largest tea manufacturer in India).

"The media likes to call it the empire striking back. But I think there's more to it than that. There's a lot of evidence in international business research that companies will go to countries that are close to their own countries, close being defined broadly either in cultural terms or historical terms," said Ravi Ramamurti, director of the Center for Emerging Markets at Northeastern University in Boston.

In 1989, British car enthusiasts saw Ford's purchase of Jaguar as a lifesaver that averted the brand's near-certain extinction under British ownership. The latest top-end models executed under Ford management have been widely celebrated: The new XF was named Car of the Year 2008 in Britain's What Car? awards.

The critical successes came on the tail end of years of lackluster financial performance and Ford's ill-fated experimentation with its X-type introductory level luxury car - an endeavor that produced the unlikely specter of a Jaguar station wagon.

Peter Cooke, KPMG professor of automotive management at the University of Buckingham, said that Ford "damaged the brand."

Land Rover prospered under Ford, with worldwide sales rising 18 percent last year as Jaguar's shrank by a similar proportion, but cash-hungry Ford wants to sell both. The automaker lost $2.67 billion in 2007 and $12.6 billion in 2006, and it recently unloaded Aston Martin, another premier British automobile brand, to a Kuwaiti investor group for $848 million, keeping a $77 million stake.

Under the complex ownership-sharing agreements being hashed out, Ford is expected to continue supplying engines - a provision that guarantees, over the next few years at least, not only the jobs of 16,500 workers at Ford plants but up to 40,000 others in the companies that provide components.

Tata would maintain British management teams and three existing production plants in Birmingham and Liverpool, as well as two engineering and design studios. And both Jaguar and Land Rover could wind up a lot more classically British than they ever did under Ford.

"What attracted us was the fact that these are two iconic brands, global in nature and highly respected for their products," Ratan Tata said in an interview with Autocar magazine. "We believe it is the duty of whoever owns them to nurture the image, to retain their touch and feel, and not to tinker with them. They are British brands - and they should remain British."

Kim Murphy and Henry Chu write for the Los Angeles Times.

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