We examine the defamation of the XJ-S.
This article was originally published exclusively on Driven to Write in serialised form in the Spring of 2014.
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 chosen venue appeared to be a calculated statement of power, British Leyland ensuring Jaguar’s management and workforce knew exactly who was in charge.
1975 was a tumultuous year in the UK. 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 worsening labour disputes, battle lines drawn on football terraces, and the all too familiar horror of the IRA bombing campaign on British soil.
While rock band, Queen topped the UK singles charts with the grandiose Bohemian Rhapsody, 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 collapse of Aston Martin. Following BLMC’s financial implosion the previous Autumn, government appointee, Sir Don Ryder’s report into its reconstitution proposed the removal of marque identities throughout the entire portfolio. Amidst these upheavals, the delayed launch of what would become Browns Lane’s most controversial car to date seemed almost appropriate.
The XJ-S’ appearance polarised opinion to an unprecedented degree, initial incredulity giving way to open disdain in many quarters as the car was written off as the conception of a carmaker in decline. With a back catalogue of all-time classics, Jaguar had committed an unpardonable sin; the failure to produce a car that matched the timeless appeal of its predecessor.
Almost immediately, the designed-by-committee term became the accepted throwaway dismissal, soon becoming a well worn justification for the car’s failings. Because the XJ-S’ appearance was controversial, and the pejorative both easily-digestible and credible, it rapidly became accepted.
Committees by their very nature suggest an element of group 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’ styling came not only from the motoring press, but also from hitherto more sympathetic sources. Noted Jaguar historian Philip Porter made it plain in a latterday assessment, stating that 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 latter part of its lifespan. Additionally, it represents the final creative legacy of Malcolm Sayer, Jaguar’s brilliant aerodynamicist, whose 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.
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, powerful, 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 he was known to over-rule his engineers if he became wedded to a particular shape.
Despite the occasional lapse however, his track record of styling landmarks is unparalleled. Yet when later asked by a colleague to explain his approach to styling, he seemed unable to articulate it, merely saying somewhat 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 programme during the 1950s, his approach to design was utterly 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.
By the latter end of the 1960s, Sayer was heading an advanced skunkworks department within the Browns Lane engineering department, and it was he who proposed the direction Jaguar should adopt for their new GT during the autumn of 1968. It has been more recently suggested that his influence was greater still: Lyons allegedly quietly canvassing his opinion on each new design before giving his final approval.
Interestingly, there were several notable parallels between both men. Both were quiet-spoken, inscrutable characters, both were musicians (Sayer also painted watercolours), both shunned the limelight, yet despite their personal reserve, both were responsible for some of the most emotive shapes in the automotive pantheon.
The downside was that neither Lyons nor Sayer could articulate their methodology, nor pass their knowledge to others. With Sir William taking a back seat as he edged towards retirement, he recognised the necessity of maintaining the ‘Jaguar line’, 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 this neophyte styling team, maintaining the link to the 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 Jaguar’s visual identity.
Meanwhile at the close of 1968, the XJ27 programme had been initiated, a 2+2 coupé intended to succeed (if not directly replace) the now rapidly ageing E-Type. XJ27 was schemed as a personal luxury coupé, which by the latter 1960s, US customers were buying in vast numbers. The wider landscape too was shifting. Consolidation saw prestige marques becoming subsumed into larger businesses. Additionally, mass-market carmakers too were starting to produce more sophisticated products, encroaching into previously inviolate sectors. This applied as much to Jaguar as anyone else in the specialist car field, 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 both domestic industry and the importers into a tailspin. Ever-stricter 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 for the North American market.
Precipitated by a well publicised campaign, the safety lobby gained ground throughout the US, with legislative sights being focused upon open-topped cars. Legislation was proposed in the state of Ohio legislature to ban the sale of convertible’s entirely. Was this to become federal law, manufacturers would have no option but to stop selling convertibles entirely in the US, and with demand for such models stemming mostly from the land of the free, the future for such models became gripped by uncertainty.
The situation was alluded to briefly in XJ-S – The Complete Story, a 1997 imprint by UK auto historian, Graham Robson. Quoting the former President of BLMC’s (and therefore Jaguar) US importer, Graham Whitehead, he observes, “there were certain federal laws being promulgated – there was a particular one in Ohio I believe – about convertibles”. Amid this backdrop, Jaguar’s engineers faced a tricky choice – develop XJ27 in open form and risk it falling under the proposed ban, or proceed solely with a fixed-head version? With a decision in abeyance, Jaguar’s engineers couldn’t afford to wait it out, leading to the open version being abandoned.
It wouldn’t be until 1973 that the US judiciary decreed personal freedom outweighed personal safety and the proposal was dropped. Jaguar’s American PR head, Mike Cook elaborated further, telling Graham 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.” By then however, XJ27 was frozen for production and it would be a further decade before Jaguar were in a position to produce an open version.
Jaguar had become a somewhat unwilling part of the sprawling BLMC conglomerate in 1968, and much like political rivals thrust into an uneasy coalition, Sir William and BLMC Chairman, Lord Stokes developed what can best be described as an icy cordiality; neither man particularly cared for the other (Lyons is said to have detested Stokes). Sir William was determined 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, the BLMC board’s direct interference in product planning and engineering development remained almost non-existent.
Stokes was reportedly keen for Jaguars to be more corporate in appearance, so it’s likely he would have approved of XJ27’s break with stylistic tradition. However, one discernible impact of BLMC policy upon the new model was its proposed market position; BLMC bosses believing XJ27 should move further upmarket, with a price almost twice that of its predecessor.
Early in 1969, work on XJ27 began in earnest. Owing to BLMC’s straitened finances, a factor of the huge investments they were making in the volume car division, Jaguar utilised a heavily modified version of the existing XJ saloon substructure and component hardware set. Structurally and mechanically then, there would be few surprises. Stylistically however, Sayer had something far more radical in mind.
Sir William later told chroniclers that he had worked primarily 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 allegedly led to early proposals featuring a low penetrating nose and retractable headlamps being abandoned. Car Magazine’s Mel Nichols stated as much in October 1975, pointing out, “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 serve to 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.
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 magazine, “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, 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. 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 that Sayer was still 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, and having formerly worked at Bristol Aviation, he would have understood this principle.
Changes were concentrated upon toning down some of Sayers’ more uncompromising 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.
With Sir William preparing for retirement it seems inconceivable that someone who had taken such an all-encompassing interest in Jaguar style for so many years would now leave the fashioning of a vital new model solely to a team of untested stylists, yet Bob Knight, speaking with Classic Cars Magazine suggested otherwise, noting, “I took a hand in it and I tried to get Lyons interested but he was already thinking about leaving. In the end we just did our best.”
In 1972, with changes initiated under Thorpe, XJ27 was officially approved and its styling frozen for production. But owing to backlogs at Pressed Steel Fisher, body tooling was delayed as the parent company prioritised commercially vital models like the Marina, Maxi and Allegro. BLMC’s financial collapse in the winter of 1974 further delayed matters, so two years late, XJ-S was launched – into a notably hostile environment.
The world fell in love with the E-Type, but what many fail to realise is that by the early ’70s, Jaguar’s sports car icon was virtually unmarketable, the curves everyone loved in 1961 by then hopelessly out of fashion. Yet when Jaguar announced the XJ-S as a lineal successor, traditionalists had apoplexy on the spot. But was it really all that much of a departure?
While the XJ-S’ detractors would swear blind to the contrary, the car’s profile is characterised by a closer resemblance to its predecessor than one might first discern. It does require the removal of some critical prejudice to appreciate, but from the elongated bonnet, pronounced frontal overhang, through the absurdly short wheelbase, to the tapered rear, XJ-S was essentially Malcolm Sayer’s evolution of the ‘E’. Substitute the earlier car’s curves and pinched extremities for a more lineal form language and it becomes apparent that the Sayer DNA runs deep.
The E-Type appears on its toes, while the XJ-S with its wide track and low build, hugs the ground. The frontal aspect is dominated by the large ovoid headlamp units flanking a narrow strip of grille. The departure here from previous Jaguar styling themes is obvious but this treatment was entirely consistent with styling norms of the time where distinctive grille shapes were becoming less compatible with contemporary surfacing. It’s possible to see in this too, a flattened version of the E-Type’s air intake.
The rear buttress sail-panels dominate the shape and character of the rear, not only serving a distinct aerodynamic function, but also visually disguising the truncated appearance of the canopy. The sail panels themselves lend a distinct and somewhat Gothic appearance to the rear of the car and in so doing provide both visual interest and the illusion of a fastback in what is essentially a three-volume silhouette.
Viewed in this manner, the XJ-S appears coiled and purposeful; its muscular stance and strong proportions suggesting power and litheness, aided by the car’s low roofline and crouching stature which combines elegance with a subtle menace.
Seen through more critical eyes however, several aspects appear less harmonious. The position of the rear wheels in relation to the rear three-quarter light emphasises the shortness of the wheelbase and pronounced overhangs. The detailing of the canopy area is fussy and although it is apparent that the chromed daylight opening surround has been carefully shaped to harmonise with the outline of the sail panels, large swathes of matt black have been applied to lessen the impact of the colossal C-pillars, a device that only serves to emphasise the paucity of the glass area.
This makes the transition from the assertive front to the rear seem abrupt. Viewed from the rear three quarters, the inward twist of the rear buttresses also lends the rear a slightly weak appearance, the dipping rear lamp units also contributing to this somewhat melancholic effect.
But the XJ-S’ visuals are totally overwhelmed by the imposition of enormous US-specification 5-mph bumpers. Furthermore, the expanses of matt black suggest a base-level Ford rather than a top of the range Mercedes-beater, lending the impression of detail design work being subject to a lack of clarity and cost-cutting. Yet beneath the barnacles, the XJ-S was in essence a striking, handsome form.
The interior styling became another area of departure from accepted norms. The most striking aspect being a lack of natural materials. Apart from the leather seat facings, the XJ-S interior was a symphony of petrochemicals and a shrine to ’70s modernism. Perceived as an up to date interpretation of a sporting Jaguar, linear forms predominated in the shape of the IP and centre console.
The instruments referenced aircraft practice with a central display of rotating drum minor instruments flanked by more traditional circular speedometer and rev-counter dials. The effect was business-like but lacked richness. Matt black predominated and especially in darker trim colours, the cabin appeared gloomy and unappealing. Even the seats were thin-looking and meanly upholstered. This unconventional and unconvincing interior style only served to compound the car’s lukewarm initial reception.
Widely seen as the most outspoken and irreverent of the UK’s automotive titles, Car was the journal most automotive journalists and commentators looked towards. It’s evident the committee-design assertion emanated from this source, which illustrates that journalists are as prone to suggestion as anyone. Certainly this assertion quickly morphed into established fact.
Car editor Mel Nichols made his views clear in October 1975, stating; “Of the people who’d seen the XJ-S before release, I met only one who thought it looked anything other than disappointing… you can extract the confession [from Jaguar] that so far as the detail styling goes the XJ-S is something of a committee car”. He goes on to state, “So the XJ-S’ styling doesn’t quite make it; it pays the penalty of its committee work, and of its extraordinarily long gestation period.”
What is beyond debate is that XJ-S was a compromised design from a company in the grip of profound creative and cultural change and its eventual appearance reflected the belaboured process of its birth. Malcolm Sayer’s vision was nothing short of the next leap forward for Jaguar style – an entirely new, post-Lyons aesthetic. But following his tragic death, Jaguar’s inexperienced styling team were forced to deal with a creative vacuum, placing the nascent XJ27 in an unique set of circumstances.
There’s little tangible evidence to suggest BLMC management meddled with the XJ27’s appearance. It is more likely their influence was confined to the positioning of the model in the marketplace, which manifested itself in the car’s specification, and its ambitious pricing. A far stronger case can be made in relation to the malign effect of US regulations.
The car’s conception was repeatedly set back by changes in US legislation, much of which was never fully enacted. The proposed federal law banning convertibles prevented Jaguar from sanctioning an open version – a decision which would damage the XJ-S’ sales prospects for over a decade. Worst of all was the effect upon the car’s aesthetics from the imposition of the regulatory 5-mph bumpers – their clumsy integration (across all markets) doing as much to adversely affect the car’s reception as any single factor.
The designed by committee pejorative has served the XJ-S’ detractors well over the decades and remains a comforting rationale to hold onto. A great many critics never quite forgave the XJ-S for not being another E-Type. Yet it was never Jaguar’s intention to produce a sports car in that mould. Detail styling aside, XJ-S was exactly what Lyons and Sayer set out to achieve – as fine a grand touring car as was within their abilities to produce – but above all, a Jaguar.
More than that however, Sayer set out to conceive an entirely new creative direction. But to further slam the lid on the whole committee-car smear, when this author put it to him, former Engineering Director, Jim Randle (and lead engineer on XJ-S) commented, “It must have been a small committee!”
Ian Callum also added his voice to the XJ-S’ rehabilitation, telling Top Gear magazine, “I am beginning to appreciate the elegance of this car. I love the single positive and beautiful waistline… It’s not voluptuous, but it does have proper Jaguar design DNA.”
Yet for many, it remains Jaguar’s ‘Dylan goes electric’ moment, a Rubicon they refuse to cross. But as the passage of time allows us to see the car with less jaundiced eyes, perhaps it can finally be seen for what it always was – a landmark Jaguar and fitting epitaph to a true visionary.
 Sir William was also a member of the BLMC board of management, giving him a veto over any direct interference by any BLMC director or division. However, following Lyons’ retirement in 1972, matters altered considerably.
 The exact purpose of Malcom Sayer’s Sail Panel buttresses remains somewhat disputed, but the matter as described above was subsequently confirmed to this author by Jaguar’s former Engineering Chief, and lead engineer on XJ27, Jim Randle in 2016.
More on buttresses here.
More on the XJ-S here.
Driven to Write makes it into print. Pity they didn’t ask first. Read more here
Philip Porter/Paul Skilleter – Sir William Lyons Biography
Philip Porter – E-Type – Definitive History
Paul Skilleter – XJ-S Autohistory
Graham Robson – XJ-S The Complete Story
Car Magazine / Motor / Classic Cars / Autosport / ARonline.co.uk
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