Two figures defined XJ-S’ aesthetics: we examine their methods.
Sir William Lyons not only founded Jaguar Cars but personally supervised all matters of styling. His approach involved working (alongside skilled technicians) from full-sized wooden and metal styling ‘bucks’ which once reviewed in natural light he would have modified until he arrived at a conclusion he was satisfied with.
Never particularly radical in style, his designs however tended to be forward looking. He favoured striking, largely unadorned forms, using subtle detail to add richness and although he absorbed contemporary trends, the car designs he oversaw rarely followed fashion. Once Lyons approved a style, he wouldn’t stand to have it questioned, on occasion over-ruling his engineers if he became wedded to a particular shape. Despite the occasional lapse, it’s beyond dispute his track record of styling landmarks is unparalleled. Yet when asked to explain how he approached styling, he seemed unable to articulate it, saying enigmatically, “All I try to do is to make nice cars…”
The sole exception to Sir William’s pre-eminence in this matter was aerodynamicist, Malcolm Sayer. Originally recruited to assist with Jaguar’s racing efforts, his approach to design was unique, evolving a system which employed detailed sets of mathematical co-ordinates, producing complex curves that could then be accurately translated into wood or metal by Jaguar’s skilled technicians.
With Sayer now heading an advanced engineering skunkworks within the Browns Lane engineering department, it was he who proposed the direction Jaguar should take for their new GT during the autumn of 1968. It’s been suggested his influence was greater still: Lyons quietly canvassing his opinion on each new design before giving his final approval. Interestingly, both were quiet spoken, inscrutable characters who shunned the limelight, yet despite their reserve, produced some of the most emotive shapes in the automotive pantheon.
The downside was that neither Lyons nor Sayer could articulate their methodology. With Sir William taking more of a back seat as he edged towards retirement, he recognised the risk in this arrangement, establishing a small styling studio at the former Daimler facility in Radford. Clearly Lyons believed that in Sayer, he would have a man capable of leading his neophyte design team, maintaining the link to the styling principles he established.
But Sayer’s fatal heart attack in April 1970 threw all succession plans into chaos. Following Sir William’s retirement in 1972, Jaguar’s small team of stylists reported to Engineering Director, Bob Knight, a man who by his own admission knew little about styling, but was determined to preserve the ‘Lyons line’. Not so the younger stylists who were looking longingly at the dart-like profiles then being produced by the Italian design houses.
At the close of 1968, project XJ27 was initiated, a 2+2 coupé intended to succeed (if not directly replace) the now ageing E-Type. Having come to grief with the Mark Ten saloon earlier that decade, Lyons had bitter experience of the vagaries of the US market. XJ27 was schemed as a personal luxury coupé, which affluent US customers were buying like never before.
The wider landscape too was shifting. Consolidation which had begun in the mid-1960’s saw prestige marques becoming controlled by larger businesses. Additionally, mass-market carmakers were starting to produce vastly more sophisticated products, encroaching into previously inviolate sectors. This applied as much to Jaguar as anyone else, so a step upmarket was hardly against the Zeitgeist.
In North America, matters were complicated further by a two-pronged safety and emissions crusade which sent the industry into a tailspin. Emissions regulations blunted power outputs, sapped economy, and adversely affected model lead-times. By 1969, over 60% of Jaguar’s engineering staff were employed solely on regulatory matters.
The safety lobby also gained ground throughout the US, none more so than the state of Ohio, where legislation was proposed to ban the sale of convertible’s entirely. Were such legislation to become law, manufacturers would have no option but to stop selling them entirely in the US, and with demand for such models stemming mostly from the land of the free, the future for convertibles looked bleak.
With a decision in abeyance, Jaguar’s planners faced a stark choice: develop XJ27 in open form or proceed with a fixed-head-only version. While the US legislature made up its mind, Jaguar’s engineers had no choice but to make up theirs, leading to the open version being abandoned. It wasn’t until 1973 that the US Government decreed personal freedom outweighed personal safety and the proposal was dropped by the federal court in Cincinnati. By then however, XJ-S was fully committed and it would be a further decade before Jaguar were in a position to produce an open version.
Despite Lyons’ intentions, Jaguar became part of the sprawling BLMC conglomerate in 1968. Like political rivals thrust into uneasy coalition, Sir William and BLMC Chairman, Lord Stokes developed an icy cordiality. Lyons wanted to carry on running Jaguar as he saw fit while Stokes’ ambition was for full integration. However, while Jaguar’s founder remained at the helm, BLMC management’s direct interference in product planning and engineering development remained minimal.
But following Lyons’ retirement in 1972, the level of interference increased exponentially. Stokes was keen for Jaguars to be more corporate in appearance, so it’s likely he approved of XJ27’s break with tradition. However, one discernible impact of BLMC policy on the new model was its market position. Originally viewed as a more upmarket replacement for the fixed-head E-Type, BLMC bosses believed XJ27 should move further upmarket still, with a price almost three times that of its predecessor…
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[The original text mistakenly referred to the state of Cincinnati, which naturally should have read Ohio. This error has been amended within the text – 14/12/15]
List of sources and further reading, see part 1