Ford’s takeover of Jaguar lacked credibility, and the XK needed to change perceptions. Fortunately, it did.
The 1996 XK8 arrived 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.
By rights, X100 should never have happened at all. When Ford management first crossed the threshold of the Browns Lane plant at the closing weeks 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 who famously stated Browns Lane compared unfavourably with AvtoVAZ’s car plant in Gorky. Trouble was he said it out loud.
What Jaguar did have however was a major new car programme, in the form of 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 (seemingly unofficial) 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 Vatican a run for its money. Suffice to say, by the time the Dearborn bean counters 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 nod, which would involve 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 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 intrigue, Lawson’s proposal won through. The resulting design – the work of Jaguar stylists, Keith Helfet and Fergus Pollock, both honoured yet avoided direct reference to the abortive XJ41 – itself having morphed into the Jaguar Sport XX (or double cross in Browns Lane parlance) 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.
Overall, X100 is a handsome, feline shape, well in keeping with marque traditions. However, unlike the XJS which preceded it, the XK8 is (arguably) a car which appears more harmoniously resolved in convertible form. The front end treatment is assertive and confident, the air intake referencing both E-Type and XJ13. The headlight treatment is a notable improvement to those of the aborted XJ41, which were hidden under unsightly retractable panels. The flanks are cleanly surfaced and appropriately voluptuous, although a Lawson- era failing was the wholesale adoption of the side rubbing strips beloved of US customers which spoiled the purity of the lines.
It isn’t until the rear quarters that X100’s style turns unsatisfying. Particularly glaring is the visual discordance of the rear bumper treatment – a solution said at the time to enable a boot large enough to fit two sets of golf clubs. Overall, the tail styling remains slightly disappointing. There are also issues with the stance of early models, while elements of the surfacing lack tension.
Flawed it might have been, but as a package, particularly given the age limitations of its platform, X100 provided exactly what customers required 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 and stylistically more divisive predecessor.
Certainly, without X100, 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 a good deal more than the sum of its parts; perhaps even the last truly ‘warm-hearted’ Jaguar model.
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 few do when they see a new one.