Arguably the most misunderstood Jaguar of all time, Driven to Write seeks once and for all to put the ‘committee design’ assertion to rest as we examine the defamation of the 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 power, British Leyland ensuring Jaguar’s beleaguered 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 spiralling labour disputes, battle lines drawn on football terraces, and the horror of the IRA bombing campaign.
While rock band, Queen topped the singles charts with the cosy grandiosity of 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 future for Britain’s luxury marques looked bleak. Following BLMC’s 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 latterday 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, 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, 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…
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. *[A matter subsequently confirmed to this author by a former senior Jaguar insider]
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.
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.”
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. In the end we just did our best with it and turned it into something saleable.”
In 1972, with changes initiated by Thorpe, XJ27 was approved and its styling frozen for production. But this didn’t end the car’s woes. Backlogs at Pressed Steel delayed body tooling as BLMC prioritised its volume models. 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 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 now hopelessly out of fashion. Yet when Jaguar announced the XJ-S as lineal successor, traditionalists had apoplexy on the spot. But was it really 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 imagine. 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 buttresses 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. The car’s low roofline and crouching stature combine 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 its short wheelbase and pronounced overhangs. The detailing of the canopy area is overly fussy and although it is apparent that the chromed daylight opening surround has been carefully shaped to sympathise 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 slightly melancholic rear seem abrupt. Viewed from the rear three quarters, the inward twist of the rear buttresses also makes the rear appear slightly weak, the dipping rear lamp units also contributing to a slightly melancholic effect.
But all visual aspects are overwhelmed by the imposition of monstrous US-specification 5-mph bumpers. Furthermore, the expanses of matt black suggest a base-trim 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 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 minimalism. Perceived as a modern 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 modernist but dour. 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 to and emulated. It’s evident the ‘committee-design’ assertion emanated from this source, which illustrates that journalists are as prone to suggestion as anyone. The press subsequently appropriated this assertion which over time 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 real 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 corrosive effect of US regulations.
The car’s conception was repeatedly set back by changes in US legislation, much of which was never 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 of all was the effect upon the car’s aesthetics from the imposition of the regulatory 5-mph bumpers – the clumsy integration of this (across all markets) arguably did more to adversely affect the car’s reception than 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. Many commentators 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: one of the world’s finest grand touring cars.
More than that however, Sayer set out to conceive an entirely new creative direction for the marque. But to further slam the lid on the whole ‘committee’ smear, when put to him, former Jaguar Engineering Director Jim Randle commented to this author dismissively, “It must have been a small committee!”
Jaguar Design Director, Ian Callum has also added his voice to the XJ-S’ growing rehabilitation, telling Top Gear, “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.”
Due to its difficult gestation, tempestuous lifespan and divisive appearance, XJ-S came to personify Jaguar’s fraught passage through the volatile years of the late Seventies. Now, almost forty years on, XJ-S is at last gaining acceptance, affection even.
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.
©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.
We consider the XJ-S’ stylistic inspiration (such as it was) 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