History Repeating – The Tragedy of Jaguar’s XJ40

A new Jerusalem, or nothing but the same old story? In this series, we examine XJ40’s turbulent conception and ask, was this the last Jaguar?

Jaguar XJ40_04 (1)
Image: Jaguar Heritage

Taken as a single model line, the Jaguar XJ40 appears likely to remain the best-selling XJ series ever. Billed at launch as the Jag without tears; a high-tech culmination of an unprecedented level of proving in some of the world’s most hostile environments, XJ40 represented a fresh beginning for the embattled marque.

Launched in the aftermath of Jaguar’s escape from the restrictive influence of its British Leyland parent, XJ40’s 22-year journey encapsulates the most tumultuous period in the company’s history and vividly symbolises the poisonous relationship between Jaguar management and their paymasters at BL. Yet for all that the car has been widely regarded in latter times with outright derision.

The tragedy of XJ40 is twin-pronged. Despite being critically acclaimed upon release, its early reputation became smeared by build issues it would never outlive. Furthermore, the dashed dream embodied within the car holds a distinctly human dimension – as much the story of Jaguar’s dogged resistance as it is of the car itself. Central to this was the efforts of successive engineering chiefs to maintain the marque’s identity, but success came at bitter personal cost.

Some twenty years since production ceased, XJ40 is at last emerging from the netherworld, yet populist critics continue to view it as a poorly conceived car that appeared dated the moment it was launched. In 1986, the influential Car magazine lauded XJ40 to the skies, describing it as the finest car in the world. Two decades on they sneered, “Looks like BL’s vision of a Jag – square set girders replace feline curves” But critics ignore the monumental task Jaguar’s engineers and stylists faced and how close XJ40 came to not happening at all.

Throughout the 1970’s, XJ40 became Jaguar’s talisman, the one hope a demoralised corps could cling to when there appeared to be no future. Unfortunately, XJ40’s lengthy gestation meant that the end result could only be viewed as a let-down. Yet this belies the enormous efforts made to ensure XJ40 modernised, yet maintained marque traditions.

It could also be said to mark the point when Jaguar stopped looking forward. A nostalgia-laden philosophy Ford’s interventionist management later wrung dry with the XJ40 series’ ultimate successor – 2003’s X350 – the styling of which was mired in the past. In fact, parallels between XJ40 and its Ford-funded successor run deep. Both were intended to be technological flagships for both Jaguar and their parent. Both attempted to marry technical innovation with traditional styling. Both failed to stabilise the business and indirectly precipitated further changes of ownership.

“…It’s all just a little bit of history repeating…”, Shirley Bassey once purred over a Jaguar TV advert, and this lyric contains a truism, because for Jaguar the past refuses to stay buried for long.

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More on Jaguar

Sources / Credits / Further reading:
Project XJ40 – Philip Porter
XJ40- Evolution of the Species – Andrew Whyte
John Egan & The Will to Win – John Underwood
Norman Dewis – Developing the Legend – Paul Skilleter
Sir William Lyons The Authorised Biography – Philip Porter/Paul Skilleter
AROnline
Motor (11 Oct 1986)
Autocar (8 Oct/Oct 15 1986)
Car (November 1986/March 1986/Nov 1987)
Performance Car (November 1986)

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “History Repeating – The Tragedy of Jaguar’s XJ40”

  1. So long as these cars are parked outside the British Isles, they look rather appealing. The Britishness comes to the fore and one can overlook the inadequacies of the details. One has to ask oneself what else could they have done? Is there a period-appropriate alternative for the XJ40 possible? This would be a hard excercise but – now I come to think of it – a good one for car designers. Using only detailing from existing 80s cars, try to imagine a better looking 1986 Jaguar XJ40 than this. I would contend that when you feed in most of the known constraints, most alternatives would not differ so much from the actual one. Or this that just a Whig view of design on my part?

  2. Richard. I shall wait for the story to unfold, but are you sure that you aren’t just (generously) saying that the XJ40 now sits comfortably in Jaguar’s odd history? However, the alternative history would have seen XJ40 introduced maybe 8 years earlier, to be superceded by something far more modern by the early 90s. In terms of contemporaries, I remember the first scoop photo I saw, and thinking there was something of the E30 3 series BMW to its front profile. The trouble was that, by the time XJ40 was launched, BMW and everyone else had moved on.

  3. There are a few nice ’40s to be found here in Hamburg, in decent condition and preferable colour/trim combinations. Seen in a modern automotive environment, they don’t have to suffer from being seen within the same frame as a BMW E32 and therefore aren’t judged by contemporary standards. From such a “neutral” perspective, the XJ.40’s pretty proportions and clean surfaces are highlighted, as they would have been in 1982. As Sean pointed out, the ’40’s main visual shortcoming was that it was halfway outdated by the time it finally came to market.
    Thankfully, that isn’t an issue in 2014 anymore, which is why I now find myself appreciating it as a fine ’80s saloon, a proper Jaguar, full stop. Blackened read lights and all.

    Which makes me wonder what I’ll make of the X300 in a decade’s time: I actually caught myself appreciating its low (XJ.40-esque) height, particularly in contrast to the very ungainly X350. Does that mean I’ll come full circle regarding the ‘300, too? Heaven forbid!

  4. Since I didn´t see the XJ40 as being dated when it came out (I was about fifteen) I only have reports of its datedness to go on. By the time it did seem dated to me, it actually had dated. And now it´s emerged from that twilight of datedness into the nostalgic, kindly dusk of period charm. The rear lamps are still pretty offensive, though. They have the plain-man´s lack of adornment that would suit an Opel Omega “A” but are wrong on a Jaguar.

    Indeed, Seant, the XJ40 was a bit late to arrive, maybe more than eight years, Or try twelve. Off the top of my head, Mercedes were on their third S-class by 1986, on their second around 1972. The second BMW 7-series popped up in 1986. I just had a look at it again and it´s hard to see much 1986 about that one. Spada did a cracking job.

    I don´t know how far to extend the counterfactuals. In a perfect world, Jaguar would not have been part of BL, , and circa 1979 UK Ltd would not have begun a major social upheaval fashioned on market-liberal lines that saw manufacturing as wasted capital in the view of Keith Joseph. I suppose what I am trying to say is that behind the unhappy styling of the car were more than just a few poor decisions by one or two blokes in a studio but rather a huge set of really deep structural conditions (I am here in car-as-symbol-of-society mode!).

    I wouldn´t mind driving an XJ40 though, so long as it was in 2.9 guise with wool seating though.

  5. That´s the other nice one to have, in Sovereign guise? Didn´t they keep the Daimler Sovereign going until 1992 because they couldn´t fit the V12? The Wikipedia entry is a bit confused. The Double-Six is just a bit too profligate even for my fantasy garage so I tend to think it would be the 2.9 that would suit me, perhaps with the manual gearbox. There might be one or two left somewhere. I don´t think they were popular with the core customers of Jaguar.

  6. The interest in this story is very gratifying. Because this is such a lengthy piece, I have elected to serialise it in the hope that it will prove a little more digestible in this format. I hope future episodes will answer some of the questions raised here – I certainly have endeavoured to provide a most detailed and reasoned account of a fascinating car. I originally wrote a version of this piece as far back as 2009 and some of you might be familiar with it in that form. My intention here is to revisit this, firstly in the light of fresh information and secondly, to allow for the shorter attention span of the average online reader. I also hope this version is a little better written, but that is for others to judge.

    Just for accuracy, Series 3 was continued until 1992 because the V12 installation into XJ40 was endlessly delayed. The Ford-financed and heavily re-engineered XJ81 finally arrived in 1993, less than a year before XJ40 was discontinued. It received a longer-stroke 6-litre version of the V12, and was if anything even more profligate than the old car and considerably less refined. It also was known to wear through consumables like there was no tomorrow.

    The 2.9 was regarded as seriously lacking in torque, but was a very sweet running engine. Being a single cam 12-valve unit, mechanical noise was a good deal lower and with less swept volume, it could run to higher revolutions without undue harshness. Actually, it was well suited to the manual. My own driving impressions of a manual 2.9 found it to be perfectly adequate. Whether any 2.9’s now exist with the factory fit tweed upholstery is a moot question however. Not exactly the top of the XJ40 fancier’s list I would imagine – although I would concede that leather is rather over-rated.

  7. Eoin. Your episodic format leads me to suggest that you preceed each segment with a warning:

    “This article contains scenes of indecision, corporate indolence, pettiness, lost opportunities and general incompetence that some people might find distressing”

    You might also finish it with a helpful message :

    “If you have been affected by an XJ40 in any capacity , there is a helpline you can call.”

  8. I always had a soft spot for the XJ40, and I can see why it would appeal to anyone (I’ll name no names) who also likes the looks of say, a Buick Park Avenue that went on sale a few years later.

    1. Indeed, the Buick did a better job of taking Jaguar styling cues than the XJ40. They even seemed to use the same shade of metallic red paint on some models.
      I managed to find a nice 2.9 litre Jaguar XJ40 for sale at this site: http://www.carandclassic.co.uk/car/C507327
      The copy reads: “Jaguar XJ40 2.9 litre from 1989. Finished in Bordeaux red, with contrasting beige interior. 13,100 miles from new. A totally original time warp car. Known history. A unique opportunity to purchase a quality motor car for the price of a secondhand Fiesta. Warwickshire 07771 760 797.”
      Alas, it is trimmed in leather.

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