In September I mentioned an article about a road trip from Coventry to Munich in the Jaguar XJ-S and I said I would write a bit more about it. Finally.
Motor Sport were curious as to whether Jaguar’s claims to have made a car that would frighten Mercedes and Ferrari were valid. They initially tested the car (Oct ’75) in the Cotswolds which is not really a place to stretch the legs of a sporting grand tourer. A better test was to take it 2,435 miles on a trip that led to Munich. The Motor Sport people addressed two points in their article. One, quantitative. With three people (did they really put someone in the back?), luggage and 20 gallons of Super they achieved 150.1 miles per hour. “We know of no other car in the world which wouldfulfil these conditions with such smoothness and silence”. Second, qualitative. They call the car “aesthetically ugly” (but “aerodynamically brilliant”).
This part is worth quoting at length: “It is the sort of performance which allowed us to leave Munich post-breakfast at 8.55 a.m., lose a couple of hours shopping and eating and another couple of hours crossing the Channel and have the three of us deposited in our beds, though still quite fresh, as far apart as Hertfordshire, Essex and Berkshire, some 800 road miles distant, by midnight the same day.”
The main part of the trip took six days. They visited Ford’s Competitions Department in Cologne, Neuheusel, Opel at Ruesselsheim, Porsche and Mercedes in Stuttgart and BMW in Bavaria.
They noted the car lacked a light in the glove box. Fuel consumption hovered at 14 mpg and the exterior door mirror was not adjustable from inside the car. With characteristic attention to detail the man from Alpina spotted the plastic gaiter on the gearlever. “That should be leather,” he said.
What I get out of the article – apart from a rush of nostalgia because I would love to have seen Cologne in the 1970s – is that the car had huge underlying strengths. The speed and refinement were first-rate. Second and third-rate were the fit and finish and attention to details such as lamps, seatbelt position and overall quality.
The car came up in a conversation over dinner I had with two design academics recently. One of them absolutely hated it. He had no time for the car’s appearance and simply judged it to be an outright failure. The other fellow, a lecturer in design of many years standing, accepted my view that despite the car’s strange collision of forms, it is likeable. The rear of the car says Citroen, the profile of the bonnet is British and the front end is Italian. In spite of that, it is a car of great interest and still works as an aesthetic object. It ought not to and I can see that it could have been better.
I think the mixed view of we three diners: outright dislike and moderated acceptance says a lot. I can see why the other fellow disliked the car. That does not stop me saying an argument can be made, especially in the light of the car’s immense performance, that it is okay to like and indeed love the XJ-S. In a world of rather anonymous and impersonal designs, the idiosyncrasy of the XJ-S makes it worth defending. But intrinsically, the design is a fascinating set of forms that ought not to work but does.