We convene the committee one final time and examine the defamation of the XJ-S.
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 ‘design by committee’ smear, when put to him, former Jaguar Engineering Director Jim Randle told this author with a derisive laugh; “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 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.”
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 still 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.
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See part one for a list of sources.