History Repeating – (XJ40 : 1972-1980)

We examine XJ40’s turbulent conception and ask, was this the last Jaguar?

Jaguar XJ40_04 (1)
Image credit: (c) Jaguar Heritage

Taken as a single model line, the Jaguar XJ40 seems 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 symbolises the poisonous relationship between Jaguar management and their paymasters at BL. Yet for all that the car has been latterly regarded with outright derision.

Despite being critically acclaimed upon release, the car’s 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 would come 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 .

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.

Phase One – 1972-1975: A New Jag Generation.

The definitive Jaguar? Image credit: Jaglovers

XJ40 underwent several distinct phases in its path to production, the first of which began with the 1968 launch of the XJ saloon, a car upon whose shoulders Jaguar would unknowingly place the next 18 years of its existence. The XJ was a superb car, its excellence the sum of several factors. The careful honing of proven hardware, a gifted development team, Jaguar’s V12 engine, and the appliance of stylistic genius. It would be the pinnacle of Sir William Lyons’ vision but as a new decade dawned, it was necessary to plan for its successor.

Product planning had previously been a nebulous concept at Browns Lane, amounting to whatever Lyons wanted done, to the exclusion of much else. During 1972 Jaguar management began scheming a replacement to the XJ, set to launch in the latter 1970s. Like all experimental Jaguars it was given an alphanumerical project code; the original XJ saloon designated XJ4 and its replacement henceforth would be known as XJ40.

Since 1968, Jaguar sat at the pinnacle of the BLMC car giant’s brand portfolio, but Sir William continued to run Jaguar as absolute leader. Despite maintaining a board of directors, he took most key decisions himself, but due to a combination of failing health and BLMC’s policy of compulsory retirement he stepped down in March 1972.

Lyons set up a small design studio around 1969, but his interest waned as he prepared to take leave, thrusting engineering chief, Bob Knight into the role of de-facto styling leader. Knight, a brilliant conceptual engineer but no stylist, was compelled to marshal a cohesive styling team from scratch, with little more than a vague methodology from Jaguar’s enigmatic founder .

Doug Thorpe was appointed to manage the new studio, remaining Jaguar’s most senior body stylist until 1984. Two men would carry out the bulk of the preliminary styling work. Chris Greville-Smith, later to join Austin Rover, and George Thomson, who subsequently became styling chief at Land-Rover. The longest serving Jaguar stylist was Chris Holtum, who ultimately became head of interior design.

Other notable design figures who would contribute to XJ40 included Roger Zimrec, Cliff Ruddell and Keith Helfet. Standing on the shoulders of a styling colossus, this small team got to work, amidst a lot of trial and a good deal of error.

Doug Thorpe’s initial 1972 XJ40 styling study modelled in quarter scale. Image credit: AROnline

Studies for XJ40 were initiated in late 1972, and once stylists had got some of their more outré ideas out of their systems, they knuckled down. Earlier that year, the XJ-S’ visuals had been frozen for production, and unsurprisingly, its influence was keenly felt – initial XJ40 styling studies featuring a frontal treatment incorporating similar surfacing and the flattened wing crown line that would define the controversial GT’s shape.

Much of this early work was carried out by Doug Thorpe, but despite looking quite promising in quarter scale, the styling team’s inexperience showed as they struggled to successfully translate it, which lead to further departures from this attractive early scheme. As work progressed, the characteristic rear quarter haunch was abandoned in favour of a more linear form language. This revised layout progressed throughout 1973, and at a June board meeting that year Bob Knight was commended – the minutes stating he had worked round the clock to ensure the prototype’s completion.

Knight was determined this proposal would be seen by BLMC’s Lord Stokes and John Barber in the best possible light, and one bright October morning, the full-sized styling model was presented outside the Browns Lane Experimental shop, with Knight reportedly continuing to finesse the model as it was being wheeled out. It was now up to BLMC’s managerial double act to decide.

In October 1973, the complete XJ40 styling proposal was presented to BLMC’s Donald Stokes and John Barber. The car’s style had evolved noticeably over the intervening twelve months, but the XJ-S-inspired lineage remained. The differences lay in the height and shaping of the canopy, the daylight openings – which now featured a six-light treatment – and the addition of a lineal shoulder line. Overall, it presented a cohesive and not unattractive projection of Jaguar saloon style.

Jaguar knew how XJ40 should look, but BLMC management had other ideas. The apogee of the XJ-S inspired style – October 1973. Image credit: ARonline

Stokes approved, but Barber was unconvinced, suggesting that it looked too much like a Jaguar – an opening salvo in BLMC’s assault on the marque’s styling sovereignty – Barber apparently favouring a more corporate look. Within Jaguar too, uncertainty grew over creative direction. Earlier that year, Pininfarina re-bodied an XJ12 with factory approval, which inevitably turned up at Browns Lane, adding to unease over XJ40’s stylistic execution, particularly when Stokes favoured it over in-house efforts. It was back to the styling studio.

Structurally, XJ40 was initially intended to be a reskin of the existing long-wheelbase XJ structure, utilising the V12 engine as its mainstay power unit. However, United States legislators were proposing more stringent barrier crash tests which the XJ body structure could not meet, necessitating a new architecture. XJ40’s development would be greatly influenced by U.S safety legislation, much of it never enacted.

Stokes pressed ahead with plans to fully integrate Jaguar, appointing Geoffrey Robinson as Managing Director. Having managed the Innocenti business, Robinson felt that some Italian inspiration would encourage creative tension, so Bertone and Ital Design were contracted to submit proposals. These were met with derision from Browns Lane insiders. Both were rejected and the carrozzieri asked to submit revised designs. Ironically, Tom Tjaarda at Ghia had already re-imagined the XJ rather more successfully.

Pininfarina's proposed XJ40 styling study. Image:forum-auto
Pininfarina’s proposed XJ40 styling study, believed to be the work of Paolo Martin. Image credit: forum-auto

The result however was chaos. Throughout 1974, Jaguar stylists embarked on wasteful and pointless adventures into banality, departing utterly from any recognisable Jaguar styling language. Doug Thorpe later told chroniclers Stokes at one point informed him the only Jaguar thing he wanted to see on their next proposal was the badge on the front. This approach seriously hampered progress, and as the gulf grew wider between both entities, trust evaporated.

Throughout 1974, palpable signs of drift were beginning to afflict the XJ40 programme. Jaguar’s stylists laboured to establish a fresh styling direction in the light of ever-changing dictates from above. Knight struggled on. In several contemporary photos, he’s visible in the background, minutely inspecting a styling buck, which he would do from alternate standpoints for well over an hour before giving a definitive opinion.

Outside the walls of the Browns Lane however, events were unravelling with chilling speed. December 1974’s appointment of Sir Don Ryder by the UK Government amidst catastrophic losses of over £43m marked the endgame for BLMC. The XJ40 project and more fundamentally still, Jaguar itself was now in freefall.

Government appointee, Sir Don Ryder’s report into BLMC’s collapse was published in April 1975 and its findings were greeted with horror at Browns Lane. Ryder recommended British Leyland should henceforth operate as a ‘single integrated car business’. As such, marque identities would be subsumed into centralised BL business units. Jaguar would cease to exist, with its two plants now managed by separate Leyland Car divisions. The effects of rationalisation would go to ludicrous extremes, but with the UK government picking up the bill, there was little room for sentimentality.

Another casualty of the post-Ryder schisms was Geoffrey Robinson. Viewed by many as Stokes’ man, Robinson was accused of over-ambition, which does him some disservice. He saw the key to prosperity in growth and investment. Jaguar’s factories were woefully outdated and his plans involved overhauling plant and productivity.

He untangled production bottlenecks and rebuilt bridges with an increasingly militant and disaffected workforce, fostering a spirit of co-operation and consultation. His attitudes to labour relations meant that in 1974, despite the oil crisis and BLMC’s collapse, Jaguar produced 32,000 cars, a figure that wouldn’t be bettered until 1985.

Increased production came at a price. Build quality sank to new lows and as the energy crisis bit hard, sales collapsed, dealers went bust and the carefully nurtured trust between them and the factory was lost. Yet Robinson gained several key allies, not least in Bob Knight and Marketing chief, Bob Berry who later stated that Robinson was the first Jaguar boss to properly understand manufacturing.

Two weeks after the Ryder report was published and following impassioned attempts to persuade Lord Ryder to change his mind, Robinson resigned, denouncing the whole thing as madness. For decades, his contribution has been dismissed, but this belies the efforts he made to get to grips with the legacy issues of the Lyons era. Fundamentally, he appeared to be on the right track, but he became a hostage to fate.

Rudderless and in disarray, Robinson’s departure left Jaguar with Bob Knight as last man standing. Thrust again into a role for which he was unprepared, Knight was probably the most unlikely rebel leader imaginable. A profound thinker, prone to legendary degrees of procrastination, he was known to inform subordinates that an engineer shouldn’t make a decision, he arrives at a conclusion.

Notorious for a perfectionism which both infuriated and perplexed in equal measure, his fierce drive would almost single-handedly maintain progress as the sky fell in during 1975. Knight assumed a small measure of control and proceeded to batten down hatches against the ‘Leylandisation’ that was taking place across the organisation. He quickly grasped the key to survival lay in the retention of Jaguar’s Engineering autonomy. Thus began a subtle campaign of non-co-operation and stubborn defiance which would confuse and repel successive BL operating committees.

For the next five years, all resistance was co-ordinated from Bob Knight’s technical bunker. Having completed their day’s work both he and deputy, Jim Randle would spend hours working out what Randle later described as ‘the politics of keeping us free, telling this author: “People very rarely give Bob the credit he deserves. He did all sorts to upset things, but he kept us alive!”

Adversaries had little hope against Knight’s keenly analytical brain, but if all else failed, he employed a swiftly gained political nous and filibustered. A chain-smoker, Knight would smile amiably through clouds of cigarette smoke, lecturing his interrogators on a given subject until they slowly lost the will to live. Thanks to these efforts, as well as some cunning deception in the loan of an XJ12 to Lord Ryder, the integration of Jaguar engineering was the only Ryder recommendation never implemented.

1974/5 saw styling take a distinctly bland turn – photo: AROnline

The collapse of BLMC and its fallout saw the first phase of the XJ40 saga to a close. But it would only be Knight’s sheer determination to fight the battle and to continue to fight the battle that saw any forwards progress at all.

Phase Two – 1976-1980: Fortress Jaguar. 

1975 saw the remnants of Jaguar in lockdown. Bob Knight’s policy of civil disobedience stemmed the tide of assimilation to some extent, but BL’s operating committees were undeterred. Like most of the industry, they believed the collapse of luxury car sales in the post-oil shock era would be permanent. The prevailing view being that Jaguar were producing dinosaurs.

Yet despite the daily battles, Jaguar (or Leymotor Five as it was now known)maintained a semblance of an engineering programme. Foremost was maintaining the current model’s appeal in the marketplace. Work also commenced on a comprehensive styling revision of the existing XJ saloon, actioned in light of growing uncertainty over XJ40’s début. Both Pininfarina and Bertone were engaged to provide proposals for revisions – mostly to the canopy section, aimed at improving rear headroom and providing a more contemporary silhouette.

Meanwhile in the seclusion of Knight’s engineering bunker, XJ40’s mechanical specification was fleshed out. In the wake of the fuel crisis, Jaguar’s V12 engine was viewed as commercially moribund – customers baulking at its 11-mpg thirst. Engineers left few stones unturned: two-speed axles, 8-stroke variable cylinder engines, a 24-valve 3.8 litre XK unit, all of which came to little.

Earlier in the decade, a 60° V8 had been derived from the V12 unit, but its inherent deficiencies saw development abandoned. BL management suggested Jaguar adapt the Rover V8, but once again, ingenuity and guile saw that off – Jim Randle informing BL that in order to achieve this, the existing work on XJ40’s front structure would have to be started afresh – an assertion that went unchallenged.

The only palatable solution was a new Jaguar-designed unit, dubbed AJ6. Inspired from an earlier proposal based on the existing V12, it would be an all-aluminium, slant-six unit. Weight targets aimed for a hefty saving over the cast iron XK engine and a mainstay capacity of around 3.5 litres.

Following engine chief, Harry Mundy’s experiments with a 24-valve XK unit, it was decided to develop AJ6 in two capacities, with alternate cylinder head configurations to allow for different marketing requirements. Designed from the outset with two and four valve cylinder heads, it was future-proofed to underpin an entire generation of new, more fuel-efficient cars.

The proposed entry level 2.9 litre power unit would use a single overhead camshaft, utilising the cylinder head design being engineered for the revised ‘High Efficiency’ V12 engine, while the larger capacity unit would employ twin overhead camshafts operating 24 valves for improved breathing and power. The decision to use AJ6 exclusively would have repercussions later in the programme, but at the time it appeared inconceivable the V12 unit had a future. Fundamentally though, the central thrust of AJ6 was to boot the prospect of the Rover V8 firmly out of the stadium.

Knight later told journalists his engineers experimented with most forms of spring / damper systems, but in the end opted for an evolution of existing practice of all round double wishbones. While front suspension would be similar in principle to existing cars, the rear would be totally new. Mounted directly to the body, it reprised a concept engineers had been forced to abandon on the original XJ.

The original Jaguar IRS design dated back to the late 1950’s and it was something of a surprise it continued to work so well. Determined XJ40 would eclipse its predecessor in ride, handling and refinement, only fresh thinking would suffice.

Meanwhile, the 1975 UK motor show which marked the belated début of the XJ-S was also notable in that Jaguar was no longer represented on its own stand, being forced to mix with the Allegros and Marina’s. The implications were there for all to see.

Jaguar’s 1975 offerings – image credit: Chicago Auto Show

Throughout 1976, the paltry resources available for XJ40 concentrated mostly upon the ongoing struggle to establish an acceptable style. During the spring, Bertone and Ital Design submitted revised proposals, which ended up mouldering under dust sheets.

Few avenues were left unexplored – for instance, having run tests on the effects of weight and drag reduction, engineers found that flush side glazing provided only a modest reduction in drag. Wind tunnel tests did highlight one outstanding issue with the existing car however – its evocative headlight fairings contributed significantly to aerodynamic drag. In Lyons’ day, such considerations were secondary, but in this more austere era, they would have to go.

Bob Knight & Doug Thorpe examine an XJ40 styling proposal during the summer of 1976.
Bob Knight, George Thomson & Doug Thorpe examine one of two XJ40 styling proposals during the summer of 1976. Image: AROnline

By the mid-’70s, the luxury market was becoming dominated by the stark interior aesthetic of Mercedes and BMW and the feeling was that XJ40 should echo this trend to entice a contemporary customer. Already acquainted with the bracing modernity of the new Rover SD-1’s product design-inspired interior, Jaguar’s designers were taken by the sci-fi appeal of digital instrumentation. Colin Holtum’s team perhaps drawing upon cars like Aston Martin’s space-age Lagonda.

Jim Randle was also a keen amateur pilot and spoke of being influenced by aircraft cockpits. So if XJ40’s exterior style remained a matter of some contention, there appeared to be greater accord over its interior.

With new recruits bringing fresh thinking, outline shapes began to appear more recognisably ‘Jaguar’, spurred by Bob Knight’s repeated insistence that the new car must display a strong family resemblance. However, this view didn’t necessarily gel with some of the more progressive members of Jaguar’s styling team. Experimental shop foreman, Bob Blake, the man largely responsible for the styling of the fixed–head E-Type and possibly one of their most gifted stylists later suggested to chroniclers that Knight wasn’t daring enough.

Classical or contemporary? The argument remained unresolved throughout 1976-77.
Classical or contemporary? The argument remained unresolved throughout 1976-77. Image credit: AROnline

The constant warfare proved wearying. By 1977, with BL lurching into a crisis from which it would never recover, the level of styling reviews became farcical. LC40 (as it was now denoted) had mutated into something more akin to Pininfarina’s Fiat 130. Perhaps its most cohesive incarnation since 1973, but XJ40 had become little more than a thought experiment. Knight and his small team stubbornly forged on – to do anything less would have signified total capitulation.

1977 was notable for the Royal Jubilee, grinding industrial unrest and riots on British streets. Crisis-torn British Leyland ground to a standstill with the Government threatening to end state funding unless the strikes ceased. Patience with its loss-making car maker was running desperately thin. Jaguar’s situation was no better, sales had nosedived, build quality was lamentable, and the future seemed grim.

However, Michael Edwardes’ appointment to the BL top job marked a watershed. The South African was tasked with either turning the car giant around or closing it. Edwardes highlighted the BL businesses with potential and enacted plans to shut the remainder. He also initiated a process that saw some autonomy returning to Browns Lane. Bob Knight’s worst fears were allayed and as a further endorsement of his efforts, he was awarded a CBE. Edwardes also invited him to apply for the position of Managing Director for a new ‘Specialist Cars’ division.

XJ40, nee LC40 – 1977 – image credit: AROnline

Having convinced Edwardes of the importance in Jaguar having its own MD, Bob Knight put himself forward, believing he could then argue Jaguar’s cause at the highest level. Sir Michael believed in using psychometric tests for all senior appointees and Knight believed he wouldn’t pass unaided. Having discovered the nature of the test, he manipulated his answers until the life-long bachelor and procrastinator-in-chief emerged as a devoted husband quick decision-maker, and Jaguar’s new Managing Director.

1977 ended with an MD who was Jaguar to his fingertips, with manufacturing and service functions regained, but the years of conflict and neglect had taken a fearsome toll.

1978 saw a brief reprieve in Jaguar’s fortunes. Under Sir Michael Edwardes, interference eased sufficiently to finally allow a consensus to emerge on XJ40’s style. Customer research backed the assertion that a strong family resemblance was required. The revitalised styling of the Series III XJ also cast a mighty shadow, because despite its age, Pininfarina’s revisions combined to create a sleeker, more modern car.

The result was to silence the more progressive elements within Jaguar’s styling team – the traditionalists had won the argument. During 1978, XJ40’s styling entered its final phase, resembling a more angular, less voluptuous version of the outgoing car. During 1978/9, a double sided and heavily Series III-influenced styling concept took shape featuring the familiar four-light glasshouse and graphics of the outgoing model, with an alternative six-light treatment and reverse fold lower body crease on the reverse. After so many false avenues, XJ40 was starting to gel.

On the home stretch - Series III styling elements feature strongly on this 1978 proposal
The home stretch – Series III styling elements feature strongly on this 1978 proposal – image credit: AROnline

Despite Knight’s accession, a sense of unease permeated Browns Lane about his peculiar style of management. A member of Norman Dewis’ experimental team was a talented cartoonist and portrayed Knight in characteristic pose, leaning on the rear deck of an XJ40 styling buck, cigarette in mouth with an ashtray full of stubs beside him, bearing the legend, “All decisions come with a government health warning.” Edwardes too had begun to wonder if he too had made the correct choice.

Meanwhile, the priority was to bring Series III to market, but doing so would nearly finish Jaguar off entirely. Scheduled for an autumn 1978 launch, it was delayed because manufacturing was not ready. As early as 1973, Geoffrey Robinson had agitated for a modern paint plant at Browns Lane to supplant the antiquated facilities there. Due to its age, Jaguar could only offer a very limited range of colours. Paint quality and durability was poor and rust-proofing rudimentary.

In 1976, BL finally agreed, but built it miles away at the Pressed Steel Fisher facility at Castle Bromwich, to serve both Rover and Jaguar. Worse still, despite lobbying from Jaguar management and unions, BL pressed ahead with a new thermoplastic paint process. Jaguar bodies were typically made from hundreds of small pressings, mash-welded together, meaning a bodyshell would require significant lead-loading to achieve an acceptable finish. Subjected to this new high temperature paint process, the lead melted, with catastrophic results.

As newly painted Series III bodies started to arrive at Browns Lane, management quickly realised how much trouble they were in. The situation remained a full-blown crisis for well over a year as they grappled with the appalling finish from the Castle Bromwich plant. Production director, Mike Beasley ended up taking anything vaguely acceptable, rectifying as necessary at Browns Lane.

Series 3 body production. Image credit: unknown

In desperation, Knight even tried to negotiate the purchase of the shuttered Triumph paint plant at Canley, but the situation spiralled out of control. The delays, lost orders and warranty costs were said to have resulted in losses of over £35m.

Series III was met with warm praise from the UK press and interest in the new model was high, but with only three unattractive shades available – (red, yellow or white) – lengthening delivery times and woeful finish, customers melted away. Management desperately tried to get to grips with the situation but the quality issues were now too acute. The bitter struggle between Jaguar’s embattled engineers and BL’s interference paralysed Browns Lane to the point where the business had virtually ceased to function.

Worse followed, as a second oil crisis pummelled the motor industry through 1979. Furthermore, the newly installed Conservative Government’s monetary policies crippled exporters. Jaguar’s sales, already dropping alarmingly, nosedived. The business had entered its death throes. As losses piled up, Edwardes came under increasing pressure from the government to close Jaguar entirely.

He reportedly came close to acceding, but had one more card to play. So although this would be Jaguar’s nadir, it is only when rock-bottom is reached that it’s possible to start afresh.

SIII production
Series III production at Browns Lane. Image credit: Birmingham Evening News

Throughout 1979, Sir Michael Edwardes began talking to the man he believed could pull Jaguar out of the abyss. Having previously revived the ailing Unipart business before quitting in the post-Ryder schisms, John Egan had all the right credentials. The only problem was convincing him to take the job. Central to Edwardes’ desire to recruit Egan was a mounting belief that he had made a misjudgement in Bob Knight’s appointment.

Edwardes had become increasingly frustrated with the almost daily deterioration in Jaguar’s fortunes, believing Knight was too focused upon XJ40 to the detriment of the business. But Jaguar’s MD lacked the managerial experience to handle the multiple crises facing the company, much of which lay beyond his control.

Negotiations between Egan and Edwardes continued through the spring of 1980, with Egan demanding full control. Sir Michael hedged his bets, offering only as much autonomy as could be earned. Also on the table was the prospect of XJ40 – viewed as Jaguar’s lifeline.

While the scorpion dance continued, XJ40 edged towards some highly significant milestones. Jaguar’s styling team (now reporting to Jim Randle) continued refining 1978/9’s styling theme and having rejected the four-light proposal, the alternative six-light variant was favoured to go forward to BL for approval. The overall execution was crisper and more contemporary, but the low roofline and sloping tail were a clear homage to the previous car.

After eight painful years and innumerable styling schemes, XJ40 had come full circle. With the project gaining momentum, BL approved development of the AJ6 engine that January, with the UK Government rubber-stamping it in March.

Getting very close to the final execution - only detail styling to be finalised
Almost there. XJ40, late 1979 – image credit: AROnline

With the ink still drying on his contract, John Egan spent his first weekend on the job locked in negotiations with union officials over a crippling strike that threatened to close Jaguar for good. At the eleventh hour, the dispute was resolved and oblivion averted. Now the tough part would begin – pulling Jaguar’s reputation out of the scrapyard.

With XJ40’s styling frozen, it was presented to the BL board that July, accompanied by an engineering dossier which stated: “This concept submission deals with a proposal by Jaguar cars to design and build a replacement vehicle (codenamed XJ40) to their Jaguar and Daimler saloon car ranges to be introduced in the UK in autumn 1983 Most of this was fiction, but it needed to be if BL were to be convinced of XJ40’s readiness.

Bob Knight subsequently expressed some ambivalence about the final styling scheme to chroniclers, suggesting he would have preferred to develop it further; (a viewpoint Jim Randle latterly shared with this author), but there was no going back now.

Winning approval from the BL board however was one thing, obtaining funding from the government would be the final hurdle. Despite their differing political views, it appears Mrs. Thatcher was susceptible to Sir Michael Edwardes’ charms, enabling him to wheedle vast sums of money out of a vehemently non-interventionist Prime Minister.

The sweetener was the long-term potential of a revitalised Jaguar being sold off, gaining XJ40 serious traction as a priority BL project. Things were looking up, especially when it was announced the company would once again be known as Jaguar Cars, a separate independent entity within BL.

A full-sized fibreglass styling model of XJ40 as presented to the BL board in July 1980. Image credit AROnline

But for Bob Knight, there was no future. With Egan installed as Chairman, his position became untenable. It remains a matter of conjecture as to whether he left or was pushed but that July, Knight cleared his desk and walked out of the company for whom he had sacrificed so much. Certainly, the description of his departure – on foot, carrying two plastic carrier bags of personal effects to the bus stop on Browns Lane is almost unbearably poignant.

It simply isn’t possible to overstate the significance of Bob Knight – not only to XJ40, but to Jaguar’s very survival. Without his subtle and sophisticated campaign to protect the marque’s autonomy through the 1970’s, Jaguar would have been yet another sorry statistic of the Ryder years. Jim Randle was unequivocal, telling this author, “Had Bob Knight not been there, Jaguar wouldn’t be here today.”

Perhaps he was a little too fixated on XJ40 to the detriment of other more pressing concerns, but it is equally possible that without the galvanising effect of the project, he would have completely lost the will to resist. In the arena of chassis development, Knight was probably unsurpassed. His almost pathological obsession with refinement ensured successive Jaguars were world leaders in noise suppression and ride comfort.

His loss would be felt keenly, but his engineering successor would prove a worthy one. Meanwhile, Knight’s departure would see act two of XJ40’s opera to its close.

©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.This article may not be copied, republished (in full or in part) or used in any form without the written permission of the author.

In part two, we continue to chart XJ40’s development and subsequent career. Continue here
Driven to Write profiles Jaguar’s Bob Knight CBE here
More on Jaguar
The excellent website, AROnline has a full set of XJ40 styling study images here

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.

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