The Jaguar XJ-S as Dinner Time Conversation

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.

1976 Jaguar XJ-S: uncredited photographer, Motor Sport , April 1976
1976 Jaguar XJ-S: uncredited photographer, Motor Sport , April 1976

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”).

1976 Jaguar XJ-S refuelling. They must have done a lot of this on that road trip: uncredited photographer, Motor Sport April 1976.
1976 Jaguar XJ-S refuelling. They must have done a lot of this on that road trip: uncredited photographer, Motor Sport April 1976.

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.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

4 thoughts on “The Jaguar XJ-S as Dinner Time Conversation”

  1. I’ve always liked the XJ-S. It’s the overall stance that does it for me (or rather did when i first set my eyes on it as a kid), so I can ignore some of the clumsier details like the window treatment (which is easier for a 12yr old than for an adult admittedly). Once you get bogged down into such details, it’s increasingly difficult to see the broader picture.

  2. We’ve all thrown our hats in before regarding the styling of the XJS, so I won’t go there again.

    I think much of the public’s misgivings about the car, both at the time and now, are ascribable to the common misconception that the model was a direct replacement for the E-Type. Clearly the two models could not have been further apart in terms of ethos, number of doors or length of bonnet notwithstanding. Taken upon its own merits, the XJS was very much fit for service as a continent crushing personal coupé (reliability notwithstanding). But a car with that remit was not what buyers or the press wanted or expected.

    Jaguar themselves were hugely guilty of mangling their message, no doubt in the hope of transferring some of the E-Type’s lustre to their make or break new model. In an ideal world the XJS would have been launched alongside an E-Type replacement; in the real world Jaguar launched the former and pretended it was the latter. The cap simply did not fit.

    1. I think you’re right in terms of perception, but by the end of its years the E-Type (as Eoin pointed out in his comprehensive piece on the XJ-S) was really more of a cramped GT than a sports car. So really, in all respects save image, the XJ-S was a far better car than the one it directly replaced.

    2. Yes, it’s probably fair to say there was an expectation, certainly from enthusiasts, that Jaguar would pull something amazing out of the bag as they had done so many times before. But the only route Jaguar could take with their new V12 engine was to go upmarket. Problem was, enthusiasts expected something mid-engined – fuelled by press speculation of such a machine – especially once the XJ13 prototype become known. Such a vehicle had been explored, but ultimately rejected.

      Jaguar wasn’t the only marque to have moved away from overtly sporting machinery. Aston Martin had gone from the more agile DB series to the much heavier V8 models by then, Bristol had done likewise, Maserati were finalising the V8 Kyalami for 1976 and Mercedes had also moved the R107 SL/SLC significantly upmarket from its 6-cylinder predecessor. Pre-Yom Kippur, this was the path the market was taking.

      Jaguar’s mangling of the message owed partly to a measure of trepidation about the car’s perception and the fact that by 1975, the company was sinking into the post-Ryder maelstrom – essentially rudderless.

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