by Gar Cole
A short 2 minute ride on the minibus didn't give us much time to reflect on what we had just witnessed on the 'Spitfires' part of the tour, especially as Andy our tour guide kept pointing things out on the ride. "On your left is the plants own fire station, on your right is the cobblestone test track putting 2 XFs through their paces" etc.
We pulled up at a large shiny new building, the plants new press shop. We disembarked the minibus and followed Andy inside where we received ear plugs and a stern warning to stay within the yellow pedestrian walkways. Andy drily pointed out if something looks shiny in a press shop that means it's sharp, so don't touch!
The press shop represents a 100 million pound investment by parent group 'Tata' to future-proof the assembly plant; compare that for 1 building in 2016 to the 4 million the entire complex cost to build in 1938.
We rounded the first series of walkways to be greeted by the biggest reel of aluminium you ever did see. These are delivered to the plant from the supplier in Germany. In fact the majority of machinery and the presses themselves are built by German companies such as Schuler. Andy pointed out that during the war Allied bombers had heavily damaged Schuler's factories. When you consider what we had just seen below ground it shows the utter futility of war and hopefully it will never happen again.
Once the reels are delivered they are given 48 hrs to adjust to the ambient temperature of the building before passing through a series of rollers that straighten the sheet out and stop it recoiling into a roll.
The building houses 13 individual presses and 16 robots, the dies for pressing the panels can be changed around relatively quickly, making parts for the XK, XF, XJ and F type. It also presses parts for the Discovery and F pace that are built at Solihull.
Now these dies are enormous, 10ft by 6ft, ranging in weight from 18,000 KGs to 42,000 KGs. They are manoeuvred by huge ceiling-mounted cranes that use chains that look like they belong to the QE2 Ocean liner. One passed over our heads as we stood in the walkway; despite it being about 10ft in the air we all instinctively made a little duck as it passed over - large machinery has a habit of making you feel very small and vulnerable.
We made our way down another narrow walkway with the ground vibrating from the heavy machinery until we came across 'the Cathedral', the huge 30ft high, 5-stage central press. The scale of these moving parts is quite awe-inspiring and with my ear plugs firmly in, my imagination fired up with sound of Sergei Prokofiev's masterpiece 'Dance of the Knights '.
These 5 presses mounted in one large Cathedral press the same panel 5 times - first with lower pressure to cut and give the basic shape, then with gradually increasing pressure as it moves from press to press that forms more and more sharper edges and detailing without splitting the metal in one big punch.
These are ultra modern machines powered by electric servo motors, much quieter than hydraulic presses of the past and with a greater degree of control - truly a sight to behold if you're a fan of heavy engineering .
Jaws lifted off the floor, Andy hurried us out of the building back into the minibus. Now we headed off once again to D and E block, back int ma day lad these buildings were used for the S type saloon, which incidentally was the first Jaguar to be completely built at Castle Bromwich - but more of that later - they are now home to the production lines for the XF and XE models.
This is by far the most modern and the most automated part of the entire plant, an incredible 680 robots from start to finish, with 86% of all jobs on the cars performed by automation. You really could feel the transition here from traditional hand crafted jobs such as welding and riveting now done by hyper accurate robotics.
During our tour there was no actual production taking place due to a small number of 2019 models being tested on the line and in a change from my day, Jaguar no longer builds cars to stock - every car made is already bought and ordered to individual specification. In these times of declining diesel sales and Brexit uncertainty it seems a sensible business plan to follow.
Having seen the bread and butter cars a few of us were keen to cross over the road to A1 and A2 buildings in which the awesome F type is built. Andy obliged and we soon found ourselves in a different sort of place, much less modernised than the other buildings we had visited and far less automation.
Just 4% of jobs on the F type are done by robots, compare that to the XF's 86%. Some of the robots and staff were still working and we got to see several stages of body construction take place before the shells disappeared on a track through the ceiling before going to the paint shop.
Lots of ooos and ahhhs could be heard from our group as we progressed around the assembly line seeing the cars more and more completed. This car represents the closest thing you will get in 2018 to a traditionally built Jaguar with 96% of jobs done by hand while incorporating the latest technology. These models are available with far greater personalisation options than other models, from unique paint jobs, 40 different interior colour and materials to choosing the colour of the stitching on the seats and dashboard.
Andy looked hopeful there might be some wealthy folks amongst us and happily pointed out the F type started at ' just ' £49,800 , but naturally having pulled into the car park in a well worn Morris Minor he didn't look in my direction! He then took us over to a parked bevy of completed beauties awaiting the ' water test ' which looked like a 50ft long washing machine.
The entry level car has a 2.0 turbo engine; this didn't really impress us until we learned it kicks out 300bhp! Next up is a 3.0 V6 supercharged producing 380bhp and a lot more torque than the 4 cylinder. Moving up the range again is the 5.0 V8 Supercharged R model with a very tasty 500bhp, and for those playing 'Top Trumps' there is the SVR model boasting further engine mods to the V8 and a titanium exhaust that blasts out 550bhp. We wondered - is this car truly the successor to the legendary E type?
The tour wrapped up at this point and we headed back to the Heritage Centre for further refreshments before heading off for lunch, however I have a few other things to tell you before you go.
You may recall in the previous blog that I pointed out Castle Bromwich didn't feature in the Jaguar story until much later, 1977 to be exact. Following the war, the plant was purchased by Fisher and Ludlow, later to become Pressed Steel Fisher. This company supplied steel panels to a large number of manufacturers including BMC and later Leyland. Castle Bromwich has produced panels for the Morris Minor, the original Mini, some Imp panels for Hillman and Triumph, many Rover panels and later Jaguar.
The company became wholly owned by Jaguar in late 1977. From then until 2001 Jaguar had the unusual practice of building its body shells at Castle Brom, then loading XJS, XJ saloon and later XK sports bodies onto a fleet of arctic lorries to be driven the 13 miles to Browns Lane in Coventry for painting and final assembly.
In later years the zinc coated body shells were stored in heated storage sheds and covered in plastic until loaded onto the trucks, however through the 80s and 90s it wasn't uncommon to leave untreated bare shells out in the rain while awaiting a transporter. I even heard tales of whole bodies left outside from Friday afternoon until Monday morning. If you've ever wondered why many Jaguars of that era suffered with such bad structural rot well that's the answer. Often the metal was exposed before it was even primered and painted, amazingly this carried on until 2001 albeit with some improvements.
This was a costly and inefficient way of building cars. When the new S-Type was launched in 1998 it was completely assembled at Castle Bromwich using the new paint shop and renovated D block building. At this point we knew one of the Midlands plants was at risk. Being a Jaguar fan I believed Coventry deserved to stay open as it was the spiritual home of Jaguar, but Browns Lane was unfortunately surrounded by new housing developments whereas Castle Bromwich still had unused land, excellent access to the motorways and airport and it's own rail link. The writing was on the wall and Browns Lane had all it's production lines and 90% of its personnel transferred to Castle Brom by the end of 2003 just in time for the launch of the new Aluminium XJ350 model.
The Castle Bromwich plant is now home to Jaguar manufacturing but I hope the blogs have given you an idea of just what a fascinating place it was even before Jaguar entered it's history, I haven't been on the plant for almost 10 years and it was good to go back and relive some memories and make some new ones.
Just as I was about to leave I smiled at my Minor parked amongst what I estimated to be over a million pounds worth of machinery when the 2 young ladies who worked on the reception came outside and had their picture taken with my old moggy. Made my day that!
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