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. For the entirety of its career, the car’s appearance was derided and attacked 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 unorthodox 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 has proved divisive 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, only the 1981 ‘HE’ revisions lending much in the way of visual change. The biggest and most significant of those being the replacement of the ghastly US 5-mph bumpers with units similar in style to those of the Series III saloons. UK weekly, Motor confined themselves to the car’s dynamic abilities in 1981 following a road trip through Germany’s unrestricted autobhans in an XJ-S HE, describing it as; “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 ‘May Fireball Head’ V12 engine saw sales of the model soar during the 1980s, so much so that when Jaguar explored a major restyling programme, they discovered customers did not want the style of the car, (most notably the rear buttress panels) to change.
The 1990 revisions to the car 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 area 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 cleaner, yet somehow less charming. In 1993 large body-colour bumper units were added, which really did the lines no favours at all. 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 – (if not so much elsewhere). 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 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 carrozzeira Zagato, 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.