XJ-S: Reconvening the Committee (Part 3)

The XJ-S marked a entirely fresh direction for Jaguar style. We examine its birthpangs.

XJ27 takes shape in Jaguar's Styling studio - image via ARonline/Jaguar Cars
XJ27 takes shape in Jaguar’s Styling studio circa 1970. Image: ARonline

Early in 1969, work on XJ27 began in earnest. Due to BLMC’s straitened finances, funding was limited to utilising a modified version of the existing XJ saloon substructure and hardware component set. Structurally and mechanically then, there would be few surprises. Stylistically however, Sayer had something far more radical in mind. 

Sir William told chroniclers he worked in a consultative capacity with Sayer on XJ27’s shape, saying;  “I took my influence as far as I could without interfering with his basic aerodynamic requirements and he and I worked on the first styling models together.”

Proposals show an evolution of traditional Jaguar themes but with the soft curves of previous models substituted by flatter, more defined surfacing. But establishing a definitive style hit early setbacks. Proposed US safety legislation governing headlamp position led to early proposals featuring a low penetrating nose and retractable headlamps being abandoned. ‘Car’s Mel Nichols stated in October 1975,  “Pop-ups were dropped, not because of regulations, but because of draft regulations. Furthermore, the switch to fixed lamps set Jaguar back by about six months.”  

The resultant reshaping lent XJ27 a distinctive visual identity, but the most striking innovation would lie further aft. With aerodynamic stability at the heart of the car’s visual envelope, Sayer adopted a novel solution to the problem of managing the airflow over the rear three quarters of the vehicle. *The twin fin-shaped ‘buttresses’ (or sail panels) performed a similar function to the vestigial tail fins on the racing D-Type. Carefully shaped from Sayer’s mathematical calculations, they controlled the airflow at a crucial area towards the rear quarters of the car, where the airflow is most turbulent. Sayer evolved their shape from a good deal of number crunching. A notable element to their performance was the twist they exhibited as they flowed rearwards to the rear deck. This reduced the drag-inducing wave vortices that spill from the rear of the vehicle as it travels at speed.

But not only would they contribute to the car’s stability, they also would utterly define the new coupé’s visual character. XJ27 then, would be a total departure and perhaps the most radical design ever produced under Sir William’s tenure. Thanks to Sayer’s efforts, it would also be the most aerodynamic, [Cd: 0.38] eclipsing that of the E-type by a significant margin.

The rear 'buttresses' were an integral part the design from the beginning. Image: ARoline
The rear ‘buttresses’ were an integral part the design from the beginning. Image: ARoline

By the spring of 1970, the shape was close to being finalised with only detail design to be realised. However, the tragic death of the car’s creative leader saw progress falter. In Sayer’s absence, direct styling responsibility fell to studio manager, Doug Thorpe. Thorpe’s task was to maintain Sayer’s essential aerodynamic principles, even if he didn’t necessarily agree with them, telling historian Paul Skilleter in a 1983 issue of ‘Motor’, “I didn’t favour some of the approaches to it, but by the time we could make any significant contribution, it had gelled.”

There was some speculation that more comprehensive changes were investigated, (including the re-profiling of the rear screen), but they didn’t get far as Thorpe explained. “The car didn’t lend itself to face lifting exercises, it was an entity in itself.” Thorpe’s ambivalence was particularly concentrated towards the rear three quarters of the car, pointing out;  I didn’t altogether like the buttress effect, and the twist that it had.” Thorpe explaining he had approached Sayer on the matter, and was informed that it was an intentional effect to aid ‘aerodynamic spillage’.

Thorpe’s comments are notable in that they suggest Sayer was thinking in aviation terms when he formulated XJ27’s shape. Aerodynamically speaking, spillage occurs when air passes from the high pressure side of a surface to a low pressure side. Typically this occurs along the hinge line of an aircraft’s control surfaces. Once an aerodynamicist…

Changes were concentrated upon toning down some of Sayers’ more contentious visuals while incorporating alterations for production and build purposes. These entailed a shallower grille, one-piece ovoid headlamp units, and a remodelled tail featuring a central bridge-panel added to the boot lid to provide provision for a number plate lamp and lock. More prominent tail-lamps were also added. Another significant alteration was the matt-black framing of the side daylight openings and a more pronounced rear quarter vent to disguise the massive C-pillars. XJ27 appears to have polarised opinion within Jaguar, as Bob Knight outlined to Martin Buckley for ‘Classic Cars’ in 1999, saying,  “It fell between two or three stools styling-wise.”

XJ27 nears its final form circa 1972, when the styling was frozen for production. (Note the far more harmonious bumper treatment) Image via AROnline/Jaguar Cars
XJ27 nears its definitive form circa 1972, when the styling was frozen for production. (Note the more harmonious bumper treatment) Image: AROnline

With Sir William preparing for retirement it seems unimaginable that the man who took such an all-encompassing interest in Jaguar style would abandon the fashioning of a vital new model solely to a team of untested stylists, yet Knight suggested otherwise, noting,  “I took a hand in it and I tried to get Lyons interested but he was already thinking about leaving. I think he thought he’d done so well with the XJ6 that he could sit back a bit. In the end we just did our best with it and turned it into something saleable.”

In 1972, with changes initiated by Thorpe and Knight added, XJ27 was approved and its styling frozen for production. But this didn’t end XJ27’s woes. Backlogs at Pressed Steel delayed body tooling as BLMC prioritised its volume cars. 1974’s implosion of the entire BLMC organisation further delayed its launch, so well over two years late, XJ-S was launched into a notably hostile environment.

The XJ-S in launch specification
DTW is unable to attribute the source of this image.

*[A matter subsequently confirmed to this author by a former Jaguar insider]

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.

Driven to Write makes it into print. Pity they didn’t ask first. Read more here

Sources – see part 1.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

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