Year of the Cat – 1996 Jaguar XK8

Ford’s takeover of Jaguar lacked credibility, and the XK needed to change perceptions. Fortunately, it did – just.

Image: australiancar-reviews
Image: australiancar-reviews

The 1996 XK8 came at a crucial time for Jaguar, having been through the torrid post-Ford takeover period when Browns Lane was haemorrhaging around $2m a day. The luxury car maker desperately needed something to generate some excitement, following the launch of the X300 saloon two years previously; a car that while popular with traditional Jaguar customers, hardly signified a company looking confidently towards the future. The XK turned the tide. While it also cast a fairly sizeable glance in the rear view mirror, there was enough 1990’s in its surfacing to qualify as contemporary – although it could equally be argued that Jaguar was fortunate in that the prevailing taste for softer forms dovetailed with their adoption of a more retro-creative ethos.

Now, X100 should never have happened at all. When Ford management first crossed the threshold of the Browns Lane plant at the end of 1989, they found Jaguar’s production facilities, procedures and processes were from a previous epoch and would require millions in investment. Bill Hayden was Ford’s appointee; a man with all the PR nous, tact and emotional intelligence of a Prince Philip, who famously stated Browns Lane compared unfavourably with AvtoVAZ’s plant in Gorky. Trouble was he said it out loud.

What Jaguar did have however was two major new car programmes, both of which were in hand. Particularly so XJ41, the car intended to replace the XJS. This advanced design however had become detached from its original concept intent; the victim of politics and project-drift, it was likely doomed well before Hayden swung the axe. But without it and its XJ90 saloon sibling, there was nothing in the kitty.

The immediate post-takeover era appears to be one characterised by enough political intrigue, skulduggery and betrayal to give the Borgia’s a run for their money. Suffice to say, by the time the Dearborn beancounters agreed to fund development of an XJS replacement, Jaguar’s engineering and styling departments had been sorely debilitated. As X100’s style was being evolved, Ford styling chief, Jack Telnack is said to have lobbied for Jaguar’s styling responsibilities to be transferred to his Detroit studios. Management decided an internal competition would decide who got the role, which would include Detroit, Ghia in Turin and Geoff Lawson’s studio in Whitley.

Jaguar evolved two concepts. Ghia presented one, a somewhat baroque looking device and Telnack’s Detroit studio another. All were based upon the floorpan and hardpoints of the XJS, which posed sizeable limitations on the design and packaging. Telnack’s proposal suggested a continuance of XJS styling themes, which wasn’t favoured by Ford management, while Ghia’s model, while not looking much like a Jaguar at all, was.

Despite the political hurdles, Lawson’s proposal won through. The resulting design – attributed to Jaguar stylists, Keith Helfet and Fergus Pollock, both honoured yet simultaneously avoided direct reference to the abortive XJ41 – itself having morphed into the Jaguar Sport XX (or double cross in Browns Lane speak) before shape-shifting again into the 1994 Aston Martin DB7. The Aston’s mixed parentage and XJS underpinnings led to some difficulty in differentiating the two cars and certainly X100’s styling does appear to have been (at least partially) an attempt to create something distinct as well as distinctively Jaguar.

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Viewed head-on, X100 is a success. The front end treatment is assertive and confident, the air intake referencing both E-Type and XJ13. The headlight treatment was also a notable improvement to those of the aborted XJ41, which were hidden under retractable panels. It isn’t until the rear three quarters that X100’s style begins to come slightly undone. Particularly glaring is the visual discordance of the rear bumper treatment – a lumpen solution said at the time to enable a boot large enough to fit two sets of golf clubs. Overall, the tail styling is disappointing. There are also issues with the stance of early models, while elements of the surfacing lack sufficient tension. Another Lawson- era failing was the wholesale adoption of side rubbing strips which spoiled the purity of the lines.

X100 wasn’t a masterpiece, but as a package, particularly given the age limitations of its platform, it provided exactly what Jaguar owners wanted while gaining valuable conquest sales from its German opposition. Furthermore, thanks to the adoption of the XJ40-inspired rear suspension, optional adaptive damping and the considerable step forward in engine technology embodied in Ralph Smith’s quad-cam V8, the XK8 was a world away from the 21-year old XJS in road behaviour – in many respects superior to that of the more expensive (and prettier) Aston DB7.

Jaguar produced over 90,000 X100 XK’s over a ten-year production run. Perhaps the first truly credible Jaguar of the Ford era, it’s by far the most loved. Already enjoying a vocal enthusiast following, it’s likely the XK’s elevation to classic status will be a good deal swifter than its longer-running predecessor. Certainly, without this car, Jaguar’s position in the US market would have been considerably bleaker during the late ’90s and early 2000’s. And despite their problems in the luxury saloon market, customers everywhere seemed to love the glamour and overt heritage the XK came to represent. It’s a car that through adversity, politics and desperate necessity came to embody something more than the mere sum of its parts.

Image: performance-car-guide
Image: performance-car-guide

On announcement, US customers were heard to say; ‘now that’s a real Jag’. The trouble for Jaguar today is not how many people still think so but how comparatively few do when they see a new one.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

17 thoughts on “Year of the Cat – 1996 Jaguar XK8”

  1. Incidentally, I saw an early X100 Coupé with the cover picture’s car’s wheels. It looked terrible: too tall on its wheels, generally too long for its overall proportions, and with a shockingly flaccid glasshouse. It really looked like a minor ’90s Oldsmobile model.

    And yet I’ll admit as much as that a late model, without rubbing strips and improved stance, isn’t an offensive car. What doesn’t change though is the fact that X100 is one of those few instances when the convertible derivative truly (for lack of a better term) trumped the coupé version.

    I’d still prefer an X150, mind.

    1. Those wheels in the cover picture were the 17″ wheels fitted to basic (non-supercharged) XK8s in the early years of production. They are known as “webbed feet” wheels among XK8 enthusiasts and are not popular, partly because they fail to fill the wheel arches as you mention, and partly because they require an unusual tyre size which is expensive to buy. I’m surprised Jaguar used a car with such small wheels for promotional photos.

      Jaguar offered a wide variety of wheels on the X100 over the course of its life, going up to 20″ wheels which looked great but destroyed the ride quality. Most owners have settled on 18″ or 19″ wheels as a compromise between aesthetics and comfort.

    2. X100 does need large wheels, that’s for certain. As I stated earlier: it’s one of those cars that’s matured over time. The Callum facelift certainly improved its looks a lot.

      Thanks for enlightening me as to the name of those strange wheels. They are pretty horrible.

  2. The X100 is one of my favourite Ford era Jaguars. Whilst it nods to the past it is not beholden to it, a tack that worked again with the F-Type. It is a shame that Jaguar would not be allowed to replicate the same trick with any other car during the Ford era, although one suspects that Jaguar rather wished they could.

  3. The rear bumper is very much the weak link. It’s quite crude and unsettling. The package is next: for a long car it has little space in the rear. Finally, it is quite bland and misses the detailing appropriate for a car of this expense.

    1. Yes, but next to what came after it, the X100 looks like the most graceful of swans.

      Sweet lord, I’m actually defending a car I never really liked. There’s probably quite a substantial deposit of lime clogging my brain.

  4. I think you’re being a trifle unfair. The ovoid shapes are no more bland than was the norm for the day, yet the X100 somehow forges them into a well resolved and evocative shape. The result was a touch large and overly American, sure, but you only have to look at a fourth generation Chevrolet Camaro to see what kind of hash can be made from the same themes, or a DB7 to see how comparatively dainty it looks. The interior is to my eyes a triumph, marrying rich materials with romantic forms, the X150 being a distinct step backwards in that regard. I think it will be a future classic.

    1. Chris. But as I’ve discovered in the past, purists Kris and Eoin don’t do pragmatism regarding Ford era Jags. I’ve tried persuading them that, under the circumstances, the X300 was quite a clever way of extending XJ40s life, or that a 4WD Mondeo could only be a good thing, but it’s no use.

    2. It will be, unquestionably. It’s just that I see it the same way as E-type 3.8 owners would look at an XJ-S. There’s some Jaguar-ness to it, admittedly, but it’s a compromised, lazy version of what a Jaguar should be.

      While X150’s cabin wasn’t brilliant, the X100’s interior wasn’t that impressive either. That Spitfire wing theme is quite distinctive, but the wood didn’t betray the same kind of actual craftsmanship as, say an XJ40’s (without knowing it for sure I’d claim that Jaguar’s woodwork department had been closed down in the meantime, meaning that X100’s dashboard was probably the handiwork of a Faurecia or a Dräxlmeier), just as the instruments were rather carelessly designed items.

  5. Interesting article. I own a 2000 XK8, and wasn’t aware of the involvement of Jack Telnack and Ghia in the early stages of the design process.

    I actually like the rear three quarter view of the car, and have never noticed the rear bumper as being a weak point of the styling. I agree that rear seat space is poor for such a long car.

    The X150 is better packaged and is far more rust resistant, but I agree with chrisward1978 that the interior is more bland and less distinctly “Jaguar” in feel.

    Most X100s are “weekend cars” these days, enjoyed by Jag enthusiasts who don’t fancy the X150 and find the F-type too shouty (or too expensive). It’s a great car for that purpose, and the biggest headache for most owners is staying on top of the rust – they rust pretty badly on the wheelarches, the sills and the rear bumper mounts.

    1. Thank you for your comments Andy. I had meant to comment on those “webbed” wheels since they were unfamiliar to me, and not really very nice. You’ve now answered my questions. I disagree with Richard on the rear bumper. Although it comes up at rather an abrupt angle, I rather like the way it wraps under the car – it could just have been flush with the rear wings, which would have been far blander.

      From the early 90s on, there seemed to be a groundswell that rust was a thing of the past. It’s interesting how this is being shown up as a bit of a fallacy, and in cars you might not expect.

    2. The X100 is a car I never much cared for stylistically, but a recent visit to Jaguar Heritage’s collections centre has led to a mellowing on that front. I still think the original XJ41 proposal was superior in most respects.

      Thanks for stopping in Andy and I’m pleased your XK remains a source of enjoyment. Speaking of rust issues, I believe the X300 suffers from rot quite badly too – in places far more difficult to access and repair and to a greater extent than that of its much derided predecessor.

    3. Been a DTW reader for a long time, but never felt the urge to comment until now. Regarding the rust, I think a lot of late 90s cars are proving to be more vulnerable to rust than expected (e.g. Merc W210), possibly due to the move to water-based paints?

      I am a fan of blobby ’90s cars in general, as I was a teenager in the 1990s and these were the cars I read about in magazines back then. Am a great fan of the Mazda 323F and Xedos 6, the Ferrari 456, the late ’90s Celica and even the oval Ford Taurus.

    4. Andy, I’m no soft design enthusiast myself, but I certainly appreciate a distinctive taste! So what do you make of the Porsche 996? I actually don’t like it at all, but a) it’s pretty much the epitome of soft design trends, b) it’s tacky, but it’s non-conformist nature means it’s arguably the one 911 dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts wood sniff at, which makes it endearing in its own right.

    5. The Porsche 996 is the ultimate test of commitment to soft design! I considered the 996 when buying my XK8, but realized that my budget would only stretch to shabby high mileage cars. The 911 is such a distinctive shape, and I think most people feel the 993 (and 997) are closer to their mind’s image of what a Porsche should look like.

      The 996 is much more practical and refined than the 993, but if cost wasn’t a factor I would still prefer a 993 to a 996.

    6. I admired most the cars you mention when they were new Andy (even the Taurus, too), particularly the Xedos which seemed to suggest what an early 90s Mk2 Jaguar replacement should look like. Possibly bad versions of blobbiness (wobbly forward and bow your head Citroen Xsara) tended to diminish the whole style, but I’m beginning to appreciate the good ones again.

      And although, through sheer dogged persistence on Porsche’s behalf, I’ve finally been brainwashed into believing that if Porsche deviate too far from the sacred 911 shape the world will wall off its axis, at the time I thought the 996 was perfectly OK – and I still do.

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