Driven to Write re-assesses the stylistic genesis of Jaguar’s much-maligned XJ-S
In September 1975 the newly nationalised British Leyland conglomerate celebrated the Jaguar XJ-S’ launch at Longbridge, the traditional home of its volume car division. A worse time to launch a 150-mph grand turismo is difficult to imagine, to say nothing of the chosen setting. The venue was a calculated statement of control, British Leyland ensuring Jaguar’s beleaguered management and workforce knew exactly who was in charge.
1975 was a tumultuous year in the UK anyway. Petrol rationing was in force, and a 50-mph speed limit blanketed the roads. A three-day week had been enacted to save energy and the very social fabric of British life appeared to be breaking down. There was an ugly whiff of cordite in the air, with spiralling labour disputes, battle lines drawn on football terraces, and the almost weekly horror of the IRA bombing campaign. Rock band, Queen topped the singles charts with the cosy grandiosity of Bohemian Rhapsody, while behind the scenes, punk pioneers, The Sex Pistols played their first public concert, heralding a more seismic redrafting of artistic boundaries. Less than 30 years from the end of the second World War, Britain; socially, economically and culturally appeared to be on its knees.
The domestic motor industry was similarly imperilled – 1975 had already seen the liquidation and closure of Jensen Motors and the future for Britain’s luxury marques looked bleak. Following BLMC’s financial collapse the previous Autumn, Sir Don Ryder’s report into its reconstitution proposed the removal of marque identities throughout the entire portfolio, signalling Jaguar’s demise. Amidst these upheavals, the delayed launch of what would become Browns Lane’s most controversial car to date seemed perhaps appropriate.
The XJ-S polarised opinion to an unprecedented degree, initial incredulity giving way to open disdain as the car was swiftly written off as the conception of a company in terminal decline. With a back catalogue of all-time classics, Jaguar had committed an unpardonable sin: failing to produce a car that matched the appeal of its predecessor. Almost immediately, the ‘designed by committee’ sobriquet became the accepted throwaway dismissal, soon becoming a well worn justification for the car’s visual and commercial failings. Because the XJ-S’ appearance was controversial, and the pejorative both easily-digestible and credible, it rapidly became the accepted norm.
Committees by their very nature suggest a level of default thinking and tepid decision-making that is the very antithesis of creativity or panache. So to label any creative endeavour in this manner is amongst the most damning dismissals. Criticism for the XJ-S’s styling came not only from the motoring press, but also from hitherto more sympathetic sources. Noted marque historian Philip Porter made his view plain in a latter-day assessment, stating that (XJ-S Designer) Malcolm Sayer’s “original ideas were ruined by committees, by BL and by regulations…”
Yet despite its troubled beginnings, the XJ-S went on to become one of the great automotive survivors, remaining in production for 21 years – its appeal perhaps even broader towards the end of its lifespan. Additionally, it represents the final creative legacy of Malcolm Sayer, Jaguar’s brilliant aerodynamicist, who’s work on the car was tragically cut short in 1970.
But is the ‘design by committee’ label justified? To answer these questions, we must first examine the factors that helped shape the most controversial sporting Jaguar ever.
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Philip Porter/Paul Skilleter – Sir William Lyons Biography
Philip Porter – E-Type – Definitive History
Paul Skilleter – XJ-S Autohistory
Graham Robson – XJ-S History