History Repeating – (XJ40 : 1972-1980)

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

(c) Autocar

A New Jerusalem

They said it couldn’t be done, but he’d heard that before. Nobody had presented a car at the prestigious London Institution of Mechanical Engineers and furthermore no complete vehicle had ever broached the entrance of number One, Birdcage Walk, Westminster. This hallowed society of engineers, founded by Railway pioneer, George Stephenson in 1847, had already hosted some of the finest technical minds over its 140-year history, but August 28, 1986 would prove to be something of a first.

As Jim Randle surveyed the lecture theatre, with the still-secret new Jaguar, now back on four wheels and safely under wraps, Jaguar’s Director of Vehicle Engineering cast his mind back for a brief moment to the voices of doubt, the often fractious debates, to his insistence that a way would be found, the hours of calculations and re-calibrations, the ingenuity, improvisation and intellectual rigour which saw the construction of a purpose-built, detachable rotating metal cage which enveloped the car (dubbed Operation Catflap) as it was painstakingly inched on its side through the ImechE’s narrow portal only a few hours previously.

What time did Randle and his eleven-man team make it back to their hotel rooms to snatch a few hour’s sleep? Was it 4.00 Am – later still? But he was good at this kind of thing – after all, he’d had plenty of practice over the long years of privation and civil disobedience at Browns Lane throughout the previous decade.

A moment too perhaps to reflect upon the car itself. He was told that this was impossible as well. Not enough people, not enough money, too ambitious. Randle allowed himself a brief moment of satisfaction, but no more. He wasn’t here to grandstand. The XJ40 and his carefully selected group of speakers, each of whom would present a paper on a specific aspect of the car, were the thing. Drilled to word-perfect precision, they would tell the assembled press, fellow engineers and visiting dignitaries a story that had defied the odds.

Marking the beginning a series of unveilings which would take place over the next month in London, Browns Lane, Birmingham’s NEC and the Highlands of Scotland, this particular reveal would be the most prestigious, and for Randle, personally satisfying. 14 years after its creative inception, following an unprecedented degree of upheaval, attrition, downright skulduggery, not to mention over 5 million proving miles in every imaginable terrain, Jaguar’s first and breathlessly anticipated all-new saloon in almost two generations was being presented.

Billed 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 would represent a new beginning for the marque. Throughout the strife-ridden 1970s, it had became Jaguar’s talisman, the one hope a demoralised and debilitated corps could cling to when there appeared to be no future.

The first truly modern Jaguar, the model would be critically acclaimed upon release, but its reputation would become indelibly tarnished by early build-related issues. Despite being the best-selling XJ series of all, XJ40 today remains something of an outlier within the official Jaguar narrative, only latterly being appreciated for its finer qualities and for its status as arguably the most ambitious and technically pure Jaguar of all.

“…It’s all just a little bit of history repeating…”, Shirley Bassey once purred over a Jaguar TV advert, and this lyric contains an essential truism, because the one thing Jaguar has never truly escaped is its past.

And so it is to the past that we must first return.

The definitive Jaguar? (c) Jaglovers

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

XJ40 underwent several distinct phases in its path to production, the first of which began with the 1968 launch of the seminal XJ saloon, a car upon whose shoulders Jaguar would unknowingly place the next 18 years of its existence. The XJ was a landmark car, its excellence the sum of several factors: The careful honing of proven hardware, a gifted development team, Jaguar’s peerless V12 engine, and the appliance of stylistic genius. It would embody the pinnacle of Sir William Lyons’ career but as a new decade dawned, it was already 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 late 1970s. Like all experimental Jaguars it gained an alphanumerical project code – the original XJ saloon had been designated XJ4 and its replacement henceforth would be known as XJ40.

Since 1968, while Jaguar sat at the pinnacle of the BLMC brand portfolio, 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 deteriorating health and BLMC’s policy of compulsory retirement he reluctantly stepped down in March 1972.

Having set up a small design studio around 1969, Sir William’s 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 stylist in-chief until 1984. Two others would carry out the bulk of the preliminary styling work. Chris Greville-Smith, later to join Austin Rover, and George Thomson, who subsequently headed the design team at Land-Rover. Also involved was Colin Holtum, who ultimately became senior interior designer in addition to being Jaguar’s longest serving stylist.

Other notable design figures who would later 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 then, 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, once stylists had got some of their more outré ideas out of their systems. Earlier that year, the XJ-S 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 promising early work was carried out by Doug Thorpe, but the styling team’s inexperience showed as they struggled to successfully enlarge it from quarter scale. As work progressed, the characteristic rear quarter haunch was abandoned in favour of a more linear form language. This revised layout was developed throughout 1973, and at a June board meeting that year Bob Knight’s efforts were singled out, the minutes stating he had worked round the clock to ensure the prototype’s completion.

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

The 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 attractive 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 gave his muted approval, but Barber was unconvinced, stating that it looked too much like a Jaguar, an opening salvo in BLMC’s assault on the marque’s styling sovereignty. Within Jaguar too, uncertainty began to grow 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.

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 existing 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 Innocenti in Turin, Robinson clearly felt that some Italian inspiration would stimulate creativity, so Bertone and Ital Design were contracted to submit proposals during 1974, which were met with derision at Browns Lane.

Both were rejected and the carrozzieri asked to submit revised designs. The irony being of course that Tom Tjaarda at Ghia had already re-imagined the XJ rather more successfully.

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

Throughout 1974, palpable signs of drift had afflicted the XJ40 programme. Jaguar’s stylists laboured to establish a fresh styling direction in the light of ever-changing dictates from above. Bob 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 offering a definitive opinion.

But if the studious Mr. Knight preferred to take his time, outside the walls of the Browns Lane, 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, Jaguar itself was in freefall.

Government appointee, Sir Don Ryder’s report into BLMC’s collapse was published in April 1975 and its findings were greeted with blank 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 essentially cease to exist, its two plants now managed by completely separate Leyland Car divisions. The effects of rationalisation would go to ludicrous extremes, but with the UK government picking up the bill, rationality and business sense had departed the building.

Geoffrey Robinson was another casualty of the post-Ryder schisms. Viewed by many as Stokes’ man, Robinson has been subsequently accused of over-reaching himself, which does him some disservice. He appears to have viewed the key to prosperity in growth and investment – Jaguar’s factories being woefully outdated and his plans involved overhauling plant and productivity.

Said to have untangled production bottlenecks and attempted to rebuild bridges with an increasingly disaffected workforce, his attitudes to labour relations meant that in 1974, despite the oil crisis and BLMC’s ongoing collapse, Jaguar produced 32,000 cars, a figure that wouldn’t be bettered until 1985.

Increased production however came at a price. Build quality sank to new lows and as the energy crisis bit hard, sales collapsed, and the carefully nurtured trust between dealers and the factory was broken. 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 CEO to really understand manufacturing.

Two weeks after the Ryder report was published and following impassioned attempts to persuade Lord Ryder to alter course, Robinson resigned, denouncing the whole thing as madness. For decades, his contribution has been dismissed, but this perhaps 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 it seems he became a hostage to fate.

Rudderless and in disarray, Robinson’s departure left Jaguar with Bob Knight thrust once again into a role for which he was unprepared. Probably the most unlikely rebel leader imaginable, Knight, a profound thinker, prone to legendary degrees of procrastination, was known to inform subordinates that one shouldn’t make a decision, one 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 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, he kept us free!”

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 recondite technical matters as 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 (very) 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.

Yet despite the daily skirmishes, Jaguar (or Leymotor Five as it became known) maintained an engineering programme. Foremost was enhancing 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 future. 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 the Browns Lane engineering bunker, further work continued. In the wake of the fuel crisis, Jaguar’s V12 engine had become viewed as commercially moribund – customers baulking at its 12-mpg thirst. Director of Powertrain Engineering, Harry Mundy’s engineers left few stones unturned: two-speed axles, 8-stroke variable cylinder engines, a 24-valve 3.8 litre XK unit, all of which amounted to little of tangible use.

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 Rover’s 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 scrapped. Utter fabrication, as Randle later admitted, but it was an assertion that went unchallenged.

The only palatable solution to both Knight and Randle was a new Jaguar-designed unit, dubbed AJ6. Inspired from an earlier proposal based upon the existing V12, it would be an all-aluminium, inclined-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 the powertrain team’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 Michael May-inspired ‘fireball-head’ combustion chamber design being engineered for the revised ‘HE’ 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 the feeling was that the V12 unit had no 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 suspension would be totally new. Mounted directly to the body, it was inspired by a concept engineers had been forced to abandon on the original 1968 XJ.

The original Jaguar double wishbone IRS design dated back to the late 1950’s and it was something of a surprise to everyone that 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.

Throughout 1976, the paltry resources available for XJ40 also concentrated upon the ongoing struggle to establish an acceptable style. During the spring, Bertone and Ital Design submitted revised proposals, which again 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 reflect 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 under Colin Holtum were taken by the modernist appeal of digital instrumentation.

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

Spurred by Knight and Randle’s repeated insistence that the new car must display a strong family resemblance, outline shapes began to appear more recognisably ‘Jaguar’. However, this view didn’t necessarily gel with some of the more progressive members of Jaguar’s styling team; experimental shop foreman, Bob Blake, later suggesting 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

Meanwhile, the constant warfare proved increasingly wearying. In 1977, as BL lurched into a crisis from which it would never recover, the number of styling reviews became farcical. LC40 (as it was now denoted) by now seemingly influenced by Pininfarina’s Fiat 130 Coupé. Perhaps its most cohesive incarnation since 1973, but XJ40 had by now had become little more than a thought experiment. Despite this Knight and Randle 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 looked bleak.

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 eliminate 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.

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 concluded he wouldn’t pass unaided. Having discerned 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 Edwardes leadership, 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 preferred. The revitalised styling of the Series III XJ also cast a mighty shadow, because despite its age, Pininfarina’s superbly-judged revisions combined to create a sleeker, more modern looking 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 highly unusual style of management. A member of the experimental proving team was a talented cartoonist and portrayed Knight in characteristic pose, leaning on the rear deck of an XJ40 styling buck, cigarette in mouth alongside an ashtray full of stubs, 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. 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 acceded, 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 quickly 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 management had paralysed Browns Lane to the point where the business had almost ceased to function.

Worse followed, as a second oil crisis pummelled the motor industry, and 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 become 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 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 outside his control.

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

While the scorpion dance continued, XJ40 edged towards some highly significant milestones. Jaguar’s styling team (now reporting directly 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 Of course this, along with much of the dossier itself was utterly fabricated, but it needed to be if BL management was to be convinced of XJ40’s and Jaguar’s readiness.

Both Knight and Randle latterly expressed ambivalence about the final styling scheme to chroniclers, suggesting they would have preferred to develop it further, but there was no time for further deliberation.

Winning approval from the BL board however was one thing however, obtaining funding from the UK government would be the final hurdle. Despite their differing political views, it appears Mrs. Thatcher was susceptible to Sir Michael’s 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 to the private sector, 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, matters were considerably more stark. With Egan installed, 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, one description of his departure – on foot, carrying two plastic carrier bags of personal effects to the bus stop on Browns Lane seems 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 debacle. 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, both he and Jaguar itself would have completely lost the will to resist.

In the arena of chassis development, Knight was probably unsurpassed. Jim Randle was certainly of that belief, telling us, “He was brilliant, the best engineer I’ve ever met. I’ve learned more from that man than any I’ve ever known”. Knight’s almost pathological obsession with NVH refinement ensured successive Jaguars were world leaders in noise suppression and ride comfort.

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

History Repeating’s concluding part, charting XJ40’s development and subsequent commercial career follows. Continue reading here.

We profile Jaguar’s Bob Knight CBE here
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)

©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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

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