XJ-S: Reconvening the Committee (Part 2)

Two figures defined XJ-S’ aesthetics: we examine their methods.

jaguar xjs back end
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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…

Read more here

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved. This series of articles may not be copied, republished (in full or in part) or used in any form without the written permission of the author.

[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

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

4 thoughts on “XJ-S: Reconvening the Committee (Part 2)”

  1. “The safety lobby was gaining ground throughout the US and none more so than the state of Cincinnati, where legislation was proposed that would ban the sale of convertible cars entirely. Were such legislation to become law, manufacturers would have no option but to stop selling them in the US, and with demand for such models stemming mostly from the land of the free, the future for open cars appeared bleak. With the Cincinnati decision in abeyance, Jaguar’s planners faced a stark choice: produce an open version of its forthcoming coupé or proceed only with a fixed-head version. While the Cincinnati legislature made up its mind, Jaguar’s engineers had no choice but to make up theirs, leading to the open version being abandoned. ”

    What a lot of absolute tripe!

    First of all, Cincinatti is tada! an unassuming city in the state of Ohio, not a state by itself.

    Second, if we assume that the scribbler really means California, he is still completely incorrect. California has never had or assumed any legislative power on vehicle structures. Their Air Resources Board, however, did bring in the first requirements regarding the toxic pollutants a vehicle could emit if it were to be offered for sale in the state. This it did for four years alone, until Nixon brought the US EPA into existence in Dec 1970. Earlier that same year the entity now known as NHTSA, a federal level agency (ministry) had been brought into existence, and they are the people who set crash standards which effect vehicle structures.

    It was this government body that decided to regulate rollover protection standards, which convertibles could not meet, not having a roof. And it was this standard which was struck down by a federal judge before it even came into official effect.

    Compare what I have just written to that of the putative author. His description can only have come from a minor brainstorm which rendered reality unknowable to him. At least it is original content and not plagiarised from anyone, and that is putting the very best light on it.

    Every article by this person is thus suspect, because who knows what is fact and what is pure unadulterated fantasy.

    1. Steady on, Bill. If you find an error we welcome a chance to hear about it and correct it where appropriate.

      As you may have noticed our editor is a functional alcoholic and this slipped through the day he discovered Lustau Los Arcos Amontillado sherry (rated at 90 by Parker – Google it).

  2. Firstly Bill, allow me to thank you for your thoughtful clarification. It is of course outrageous of me to have so elevated the fine city of Cincinnati; I really cannot apologise enough for such a basic error, which I will of course happily remedy.

    As to your other assertions, I must point out I didn’t exactly lick them off a wall. UK auto historian, Graham Robson in his 1997 imprint, ‘XJ-S – The Complete Story’ quotes the former President of BL’s US arm, Graham Whitehead, who tells the author; “…there were certain federal laws being promulgated – there was a particular one in Ohio I believe – about convertibles”. Jaguar’s American PR head, Mike Cook elaborates further, telling Robson; “That proposal got dumped in the federal court in Cincinnati in 1973… the judgement being it was not the business of the US government to tell people what models of car they could buy.” The fact that the proposal was quashed in Cincinnati has also appeared elsewhere, hence my assumption it stemmed from there in the first place.

    If however you remain convinced that the Cincinnati reference is, as you put it, absolute tripe, perhaps you might prefer to take it up with Mr. Robson.

    Actually your allusion to ‘plagiarism‘ is somewhat ironic given recent unauthorised use of portions of this and other DTW essays by sections of the mainstream media. If nothing else I suppose, it illustrates not everyone shares your views regarding the accuracy or reliability of our work.

    I hope you continue to enjoy our site, but I would also point out – manners cost nothing.

  3. Dear Bill

    Thank you for your comment. We genuinely value accuracy here and are very happy to be corrected on anything objective. As someone who had a reasonable pass in O Level Geography, I share Eoin’s mortification that I, too, didn’t pick up on his slip.

    However, can I point out that DTW is a flaming proof site? The contributors aren’t here because of their egos, and we don’t put up any advertising. In our slightly oddball way, we want a site that is interesting and uses reasoned argument with no recourse to gratuitous offence. Possibly this is a minor clash of cultures, but what you might consider robust and amusing criticism doesn’t translate into English (UK).

    If a single error makes everything an author writes suspect, as you suggest, then we are all liars. And if you want to confront real ‘tripe’ there are plenty of suitable sites I can point you to.



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