The advertising copy was unequivocal: “10th September 1975: A black day for Modena, Stuttgart and Milan”. It didn’t quite work out like that, but 40 years late, the jury’s finally in on the XJ-S.
On this day 40 years ago, the Jaguar XJ-S was launched to the press, and while knives were mostly sheathed, the sense of bewilderment was palpable. Because the one aspect of the XJ-S few critics ever truly got their heads around was its styling. For the entirety of its career, the car’s appearance was derided by the automotive media, certain they were as right as Jaguar were wrong. Test after test of Jaguar’s flagship told of a brilliantly developed grande routière whose road behaviour, effortless performance and uncanny mechanical refinement was from the very top-drawer but was let down by its polarising appearance.
It’s impossible to discuss the XJ-S with out reference to its styling, which was the result of a drawn-out and difficult process – one we have documented at length on these pages. Suffice to say, its appearance proved divisive then and divides enthusiasts as well as marque aficionados to this day. The car’s basic style remained largely unaltered for the first fifteen years of its lifespan, not through bloodymindedness on Jaguar’s part, but more that they were starved of investment by their collapsing BL parent.
It wasn’t until the 1981 ‘HE’ revisions that much in the way of visual change took place; the most significant of those being the replacement of the disfiguring US 5-mph bumpers with units similar in style to those of the Series III saloons. These revisions, which included the more efficient ‘May Fireball V12’ saw UK weekly, Motor embark upon a road trip through Germany’s unrestricted autobhans in an XJ-S HE, concluding it to be, “the finest means yet devised in which to travel by road.”
The combination of visual refinements, improved build and reliability and the economy gains of the re-engineered V12 engine saw sales of the model soar during the 1980s, a matter that belied the motor press’ entrenched position regarding the XJ-S’ appearance. So much so that when Jaguar explored a major restyling programme mid-decade, they discovered to their surprise that customers did not want the style of the car, (most notably the rear buttress-shaped sail panels) to be altered; so much had they become an immutable part of the car’s styling identity.
These revisions were delayed until 1990, and saw much of the body in white revised, in part to allow for the number of body panels to be reduced, production tolerances to be improved and worn out body dies to be replaced. Most of the visual changes were confined to the daylight openings – an aspect of the original car that was never satisfactorily resolved.
The adoption of larger, more ‘transatlantic’ looking tail lamp units completed the obvious changes, the overall effect being less cluttered, yet at the same time, less charming. In 1993 large integral body-colour bumper units were added, which really was a revision too far. Production ceased three years later.
With over 100,000 made over a 21-year lifespan, the XJ-S became a very familiar sight on UK roads. Such familiarity probably lead to a certain indifference but with only around 7,600 still registered in Britain – (according to journalist and XJ-S owner, Richard Bremner), it has become an increasingly rare one. As the XJ-S becomes a less common sight, its appearance, once so derided has become increasingly distinctive – after all, nothing looks quite like an XJ-S now – if indeed anything ever truly did.
And as E-Type values go stratospheric, the classic car industry is turning its avaricious eyes towards Jaguar’s formerly unloved GT and is now tipping the XJ-S for greatness. In his editorial in Octane Magazine last month, David Lillywhite, embraced the XJ-S’ looks, lauding its distinctive lines. In the same issue, Harry Metcalfe suggested that had XJ-S been the product of an Italian carrozzeira, it would already be viewed as a classic.
“Tank or Supercar”, shrieked Motor in 1976. “Now is the time to buy an XJ-S” scream the classic titles today. Yes, the XJ-S still fascinates and repels in equal measure, and while the wider world is finally waking up to the big Jag’s latent charms, some of us really didn’t need reminding.