Some days, I really love my job. Take last week. We had the semi-annual meeting of our automotive group. As you might expect from a firm with such strong roots in the English Midlands, we have the largest and most highly rated specialist automotive group of lawyers in the UK.
It is always interesting when we get together, particularly when we hear from speakers such as Professor David Bailey (Aston University) and David Bell of SDB Automotive the latter scarily fascinating about the (lack of) cyber security in vehicles which are connected to the internet i.e. most of them, including large and fast lorries. Keep your distance, people. However, this meeting was particularly interesting, and indeed special, because it was held at the Castle Bromwich plant of our client Jaguar Land Rover and, of course, we got to poke around.
Now, I love visiting factories for all sorts of reasons. Here, I was in awe and wonder at the extraordinary technology on display. We saw the production line, which I am pretty sure I last saw on my previous visit some ten years ago (more on that later), and which was then state of the art but is now very much in manufacturing terms the primitive end of the operation. The power and, yes, beauty of this site are now to be found in the new pressing plant, where a handful of humans, made tiny by the vast hangar-like space around them, wander through what they describe as a “forest of robots”, the machines’ orange arms moving with a precision, speed and grace which would adorn the stage at Covent Garden as they fashion and sculpt from dull aluminium fabulous objects of desire.
I am aware this is a highly emotional response. It is supposed to be. An automotive engineer friend of mine told me it is harder to design cars than it is aeroplanes, because no-one has to feel anything about a Boeing or an Airbus, whereas a lump of metal with a circle of rubber at each corner has to provoke all sorts of feelings, not least of which is desire. My golly, Jaguar is good at that.
I should know. I always wanted a Jaguar. As a (very) small child in the 1970’s, I might see these glorious beasts on the roads or on other people’s drives and I would want them and everything they stood for: it was that or a Jensen Interceptor.
That small boy finally got his wish about ten years ago, an ‘S’ Type made, like my current model, at Castle Bromwich. By the time I took her there, they’d stopped making them but it didn’t matter. I like driving my car back to the place it was made. I know that she is not really purring even more smoothly as I turn into the factory gates. I know “The Love Bug” was not a documentary. I know that her successor vehicle in my ownership likewise does not care either where she is and cannot change her engine tone as she drives into what is not really her ‘birth’ place, but I feel something nonetheless.
That is why, as a petrol-head bereft of any technical knowledge, I am so impressed by what these engineers do. I do not do a proper job, I am a lawyer. I push paper, say words; I don’t make anything.
So I delight in seeing a car take shape, layer after layer, and revel in the well-rehearsed quips of the tour guide: dust is removed from the cars prior to painting by putting through rollers made of emu feathers, each roller costing £100,000 (“£10,000 for the feathers, £90,000 to catch the emus”); the water seals are tested by pumping 104,000 litres of water per minute at the vehicle (“to simulate a summer holiday in Wales”). Our guide started as an apprentice at Jaguar Cars in 1967. He would have helped build the models I saw as a little boy. Having learned that I am easily moved by metal, you will not be surprised to hear that I am equally stirred by a sense of history.
That is itself another reason why I love coming to this particular plant. It is where they built the Spitfires, that most evocative and heart-stirring piece of engineering genius. If you cannot be moved by the sound of a Merlin engine in a clear blue summer sky, have someone check your pulse. Alas, on this visit, we did not see – because it is in the paint shop and they don’t let anyone in there – that part of the roof of the factory improvised from the wing of a bomber, put in place some 70 years ago and still in use today. We did, however, see the camouflage markings which remain on the brickwork of the unit on the site where they build the car I currently drive. I’d like to think that there is some DNA from the Spitfire in that vehicle but I know it’s not the same thing at all, save that it is graceful, powerful, beautiful and British. That’ll do.