I am surrounded by four beautiful two-seaters in the hushed courtyard of the Muga de Beloso Alma Pamplona Hotel.
Over to my right is a C-Type Jaguar from the early 1950s. Just off its left fender is a 1956 Jaguar D-Type and naturally both cars are in British Racing Green. Four paces away is a 1961 E-Type. Everyone knows the E-Type, "one of the most beautiful cars if not the most beautiful car ever built," says Jaguar design chief Ian Callum, who's giving me a personal tour of Jaguar two-seater history.
Finally we come to the 2014 Jaguar F-Type. "We've wanted to do a two-seat sports car for years and years," he says.
More importantly, adds Callum, Ratan Tata himself wanted to do one from the day the then-CEO of the 150-year-old Tata conglomerate and family business bought Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) from Ford in 2008. Tata – trained as an architect and a regular now in Jaguar's design studios – knew Jaguar needed a true two-seater in the lineup. What's Jag without a sports car to take on the likes of the Porsche 911, Audi R8 and Aston Martin Vantage V-8?
So after watching Tata spend £1.1-billion (or about $2.3-billion U.S) to buy JLR and then spending billions more investing in new models and factories and technology, we arrive at the launch of this all-new Jag two-seater.
The place is Pamplona in northern Spain, a town made famous in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises for the running of the bulls. But rather than running with wild beasts intent on goring me, I have these peaceful minutes with Callum, a middle-aged Scotsman who looks like a kid on Christmas morning. The 40-year wait for a new Jaguar two-seater has ended, thanks in no small part to Ratan Tata himself.
"When [Tata] first arrived," says Callum, "he said we have to do a two-seater Jaguar. It's a very obvious thing to do, so we've done it."
It wasn't quite so obvious to most of us back in recession-wracked 2008. Then, a desperate Ford unloaded JLR in the same year the Blue Oval lost $14.6-billion (U.S.) and the world's economy was imploding. Banks were failing, financial markets were frozen, car companies were going bankrupt and unemployment was rising at a frightening clip. Ford was in no position to fund a JLR comeback, much less take a flyer on a Jaguar sports car. So it was up to Tata.
"Without the Tata Group, Jaguar Land Rover would not be alive," Ralf Speth, chief executive officer of Jaguar Land Rover, told the Hindustan Times, adding, "What Tata Group then did was phenomenal. They not only paid for us, but also invested in us. We owe them everything and are trying to pay back for the trust they had in us."
So here is the new Jag and, yes, it's lovely and, yes, it has the right stance.
"The first thing about the car – any Jaguar, really – is it's all about proportions, the visual architecture," says Callum, standing beside his studio's latest, as he sweeps back with his arm as if to embrace the other three Jaguars just behind the new F-Type. "We try to sort out the proportions right from the beginning – the big picture – to make sure it looks like a beautiful car from 200 yards. Then we get into the surfacing, the lines, the details."
Ah, the details. The F-Type's grille is not an oval shape, but instead one "inspired by the XF and XJ" of today. A family resemblance runs through modern Jaguars and perhaps for the first time in Jaguar history, says Callum. He then confesses to adapting the bonnet or hood bulge of the original 1968 XJ to the F-Type because "it's something I love."
But perhaps the most critical design detail is a line that starts at the lower front vent on either side. It then comes up from the blade to run through the body, then drop off at the door, only to be taken over by another line that kicks up from the rear of the cockpit and is then drawn out over the rear haunch.
"It's a classical sports car look," he says, adding the line "gives the car a sense of movement."
Art and aesthetics aside, Jaguar is also in the business of moving cars off dealer lots. If you want one of the new Jags, well, there is a serious price to be paid.
The entry model with its 340-horspower, supercharged V-6 – 0-100 km/h in 5.3 seconds – starts at $76,900. The step up to the F-Type S will cost you $88,900. That gets you a car with the 380-hp version of the supercharged V-6 in the starter model and all that goes with it: 0-100 km in 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 275 km/h, versus 260 km/h for the less expensive F. Finally, at the top of the range is the supercharged F-Type V8S: 490 hp, 0-100 km/h in 4.3 seconds, top speed of 300 km/h and a sticker price at $100,900.
In every case, the F-Type is a very real Jaguar soft-top with a convertible lid that lowers in 12 seconds at speeds up to 50 km/h. The look in general is classic: What is less so is the lightweight aluminum architecture underneath the aluminum body. Jag has been working at the aluminum thing for more than a decade now; in fact, this is a fourth-generation effort. But all-aluminum cars are not commonplace, not at all. Nothing classic there.
What I can tell you is that the car is solid, rigid and stiff. You can drive in the open air at very high speeds without noticing any obvious twisting or sagging in the chassis. The six-cylinder cars we drove on the race track and through the countryside seemed firmer and less forgiving than the V-8 car, though; if it were my money, I'd get the V-8. It is much more comfortable in the everyday. It is also more powerful – obviously – and you get what Jaguar calls Configurable Dynamics. This is very useful for tailoring the road manners to your own taste and those of the roads and driving demands. Oh, and you also get a lap timer and G-meter, too.
The F-Type does not come with an available manual gearbox; the only choice all buyers have is an eight-speed automatic with steering-wheel-mounted paddles. Yes, this gives you manual control just like an Formula One driver, but some purists will say a sports car is only a sports car if it has a manual gearbox – at or at the very least if it has one on the options sheet. Not here. But limiting the number of transmissions is one way to save money, right?
The cabin also is a success, though not everyone will like the snug and firm seats. They are wonderful for carving corners on the Circuito de Navarra where we did hot laps in the F-Type S, but some might feel squeezed on long touring runs through the countryside. The cockpit is not overly roomy, either – especially with that massive centre console under which is the transmission tunnel. Some will say that's the way it should be, that a sports car is all about wrapping the sheetmetal tightly around the people and the mechanical bits and pieces.
The cockpit materials are first-rate and not overdone at all. Now that's what we all want in a sporting car. Instruments and controls are arranged in a driver-focused way and nothing appears retro. No throwbacks to the past. Indeed, it's quite obvious where Jag has borrowed controls and so on from other models in its lineup of the present.
First reports suggested that the F-Type would be aimed at the Porsche Boxster, but now that I've driven the car and pored over its specs, it seems that Jaguar is mostly interested in landing the F somewhere between the Boxster and the bigger, pricier 911 Carrera. Jaguar brand boss Adrian Hallmark refers to that as a "sweet spot" in the luxury/high-performance car market.
After 40 years of watching other car companies have fun, Jag does not want to have its new two-seater merely run in the pack. I can't say for sure, but knowing what I know about Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons, it seems to me he would approve. Obviously Jaguar's current savior, Ratan Tata, already has.