Welcome to the Machine

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.

Image via Jaguar Heritage
Image: Jaguar Heritage

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 the car’s career, its appearance was derided by the automotive media, certain they were as right as Jaguar were wrong.

Report after report 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 without reference to its styling – the result of a drawn out and troubled 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 bloody-mindedness on Jaguar’s part, but more that they were starved of investment by their collapsing BL parent.

It wasn’t until the 1981 facelift 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 fuel efficient ‘May Fireball V12’ saw UK weekly, Motor take an XJ-S HE on a road trip through Germany’s unrestricted autobhans, concluding that Browns Lane’s flagship was, “the finest means yet devised in which to travel by road.”

The combination of visual and interior refinements, improved build, not to mention the reliability and the economy gains of the re-engineered V12 engine saw sales of the model soar throughout 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 identity.

1981 XJ-S HE. Image: Newoldcar
1981 XJ-S HE. Image: Newoldcar

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, but while the model line was no more, its platform and hard points went on to underpin the Aston Martin DB7 and Jaguar XK8 models, the latter model ceasing production in 2005.

Image via jaguarforums
Or to put it another way – History Repeating? Image: jaguarforums

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 owner, Richard Bremner), it has become an increasingly rare one. As 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.

Too many XJ-S' ended their days in places like this.
Too late for some – many XJ-S’ ended their days in places like this. Image: Driven to Write.

“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, but while the wider world is finally waking up to the big Jag’s latent charms, some of us really didn’t need reminding.

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Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

25 thoughts on “Welcome to the Machine”

  1. A rising tide raises all ships, hence the steady appreciation in value, if not opinion. The XJS has and always will be the runt of the litter. No matter how capable it was, it was not what people wanted in an E-Type replacement, which for all Jaguar’s huffing and puffing, the XJS was. It was simply too big, too cushy and too gimmicky in terms of styling. Perhaps opinion may have been more favourable if Jaguar had launched a direct replacement to the E-Type, allowing the XJS to luxuriate as a grand boulevardier, but even then I believe it still would have been an also ran.

    Incidentally, I nite that the XJS in the 4 litre advert above has an alternative (and much superior) DLO treatment. Is this a Photoshop job or does it actually exist?

    1. That new DLO was standard for the last years of the XJ-S (when it also got the horizontal rear lights). The bright reflection on the windows in the ad is quite cleverly used, as it conceals the fact that the larger window is mainly made of blackened glass that covers the same wide pillar as before. But I agree that it looks nicer than all that plastic trim.

    2. The revised DLO came along with the XJS facelift in 1990. I’m actually surprised that Eóin posted a photo of it, as I think it fair to say he is not a fan of the facelift.

    3. I much prefer that treatment. One thing you can say about the best Jaguar designs is that they do not resort to “graphics”. In that respect they have more in common with Porsches, where their respective design languages are expressed through the forms of the individual panels.

    4. Jaguar had originally intended an E-Type replacement in open & closed form, as well as a 2+2 coupe in the XJ-S idiom. They didn’t have the funds to do both however, moreover the E-Type platform was too old.

      Some people like the XJ-S, some don’t, but I think the press had a lot to do with the perceptions that surrounded it. After all, it sold strongly once they tided up the rougher edges.

    5. We could open a wider argument here as to whether the motoring press really does shape public perceptions, or whether it is merely an echo chamber. Whilst I have my doubts about the merits of press opinion, in the case of the XJS, I suspect the broadly consensual nature of their misgivings reflected those of potential buyers.

      Of course, public opinion is fickle and prey to many external factors. There was a great deal of difference between the sociological topography of the late sixties when the XJS was conceived and modernity was enthusiastically embraced, and the mid-seventies when the car was launched. 1975 was not the time to take a big gamble on an odd looking car with a V12 engine, yet that is exactly what the XJS was.

      Still, Jaguar were not alone. Many an illustrious enterprise had been brought down at heel by the same combination of circumstances. It was as if the confidence of the world was a great balloon with the gasses steadily leaking out. By the time that great creator of hot air Margaret Thatcher came to re-inflate the balloon, making lumpy metal objects that people wanted to buy was no longer a priority. In that respect, the XJS was indeed well ahead of the game.

  2. I have a nice write-up of the car from Motor Sport magazine which I should talk about here later.
    And Archie Vicar must have reviewed the car? Surely an article must exist…

  3. I never realised that the XJ-S was derided so much. I quite fancy a battered but mechanically sound one myself.

    Oh, and the expression is “grande routière”. Always check foreign words spelling before use…

  4. That derision might be a British thing.
    Of course, it was also derided in the German press, but I don’t remember that to be different than with any other foreign car trying to compete in the upper echelons which, as every child knows, only the Germans know to do properly.

    1. At the risk of blowing one’s own trumpet, we took a pretty comprehensive look at the XJ-S’ development here as well…

  5. The British love to deride anything that smacks of the good old days, tradition and eccentricity. It´s an echo of the class war, I think.
    Indeed, that photo is very well angled. it completely hides the fakery the glass is trying to conceal. For me the facelift is still better than the orginal design which says as much about the original as it does about the facelift.
    Do I like this car? I find it interesting to look at, that´s true. It´s not awful and parts of it are inspired. I have to take the business of the ride and performance on trust. The only car which gets close in terms of the joy of driving it might be a Bristol. The Mercedes 450 SLC might come close: it´s nearly as badly packaged as the Jaguar. And there´s the BMW 635CSi. Perhaps that one nails the package, looks and performance compromise the best if one can´t nominate the Bristol which costs a great deal more than the Jaguar.
    635s can be had for about 4000 euros and XJS for similar sums.

  6. I think it is unfair to say that the British love to deride eccentricity. Indeed, we have gone out of our way to laud and accommodate it, especially in our car industry, even to the point where that eccentricity becomes a problem.

  7. I can forgive the XJS it’s styling and its size, but the fact that at 6’3″, not an outrageous height even in 1975, I’d find it cramped seems inexcusable.

  8. I had a scale model of an XJ-S as a kid (circa 1990-1991) and I loved it to death. Maybe this is why I find the design inexplicably excellent – it’s just a beautiful beast for me. It reminds me of a snake, especially the front end.

  9. Possibly due to my own vintage (1983), the XJ-S has always been part of the Jaguar canon. My love for the brand may have been ignited by the XJ, but I never ever considered the ‘S a kind of inbred relative, as many traditionalists did/do. When I got to sit in one as a boy, it just felt like a thoroughbred Jaguar, and it still does, albeit in a more abstract, less obviously elegant way than The Great Jags. I’d certainly have one rather than an S3 E-type, that’s for sure.

    Regarding the facelift, I feel obliged to highlight that even thought it tidied up certain stylistic quirks and the odd example of sloppiness, it also had the effect of almost ruining the car for two reasons: 1. the Knight Rider style bar of rear lights, 2. the changed, softer DLO outline – which meant that the welcome addition of more (faux) glazing was more than nullified by robbing the car’s silhouette of the one area of tension it so badly needed, which was the chrome highlight that added tension to the sail panels’ side aspect.

    And as I’m going against the tide anyway, I’ll also admit to not liking the convertible all that much. It’s basic proportions are plain wrong, no matter what the Golf playing Jagwar enthusiasts are claiming (and paying).

    1. I must admit I like the convertible as well, although I’ll agree with you on the facelift – the taillights look like lifted off a Toyota Camry and the rear DLO creates an awkward, convex C-pillar panel.

  10. The rear pillar does remind me to the Mercedes SLC, i think this is not pure coincidence.

    I don´t like the XJ-S versions without chromed bumpers. This does not fit to the elegance of the rest of the car.

  11. I tried to post a reply. I will try again.
    Nice photo, Markus. The Mercedes is more visually homogenous. These cars must have looked astonishing in 1974.
    About the revised Jaguar C-pillar, I can´t really see the problem. The DLO shape looks consistent with the surroundings and links the car to the saloon. It gets rid of the pointy corner on the original. And the rear lamps gain a lot of visual order even if they are not so distinctive as the originals. The original design had too many small bits and they didn´t make a pleasing whole.

    1. I disagree.

      Orderly it is not, but interesting. The sail panels’ aspect gains the tension necessary to not only prevent the profile from appearing like a plain, elongated flatfish, but also helps integrating their curvature into the side view, which helps the profile and rear gaining some visual consistency.

      Calmer and cleaner the facelift maybe, but the trade-off is too high a price for losing the nasty vinyl air vent behind the DLO.

    2. Stylistically, Jaguar never knew what to do with the XJ-S. Despite the visual similarities, apparently few external panels are shared between the pre and post-facelift cars. By the late 1980’s the press tools for the XJ-S body were becoming worn out and in an effort to reduce the number of body pressings, the rear sail panels were extensively redesigned. I can’t confirm this, but their profile seems different to those of the earlier cars, suggesting to me a further dilution of Sayer’s exacting calculations.

      Whatever anyone thinks of the revised car, it removed far more than it added; buffing out a lot of its character along with the rough edges. They even erased the hyphen…

  12. This seems to be another topic that will not die. As previously mentioned, I much prefer the general treatment of the facelift XJS, although I would have preferred slightly less chrome in the glasshouse. As for the original, everyone was struggling with federalised bumpers at that time. Regarding the controversial buttresses, deleting the black panels and their encircling chrome would have improved the look no end.

  13. Moving on a generation, I saw a first generation XK8 on the road the other day. What a handsome car that was. Only the pillowy panel shapes dated the car; otherwise it appeared relatively timeless.

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