Thirty Times ’40

With due consideration, your correspondent gets off the fence.

The last Jaguar? Image: Favcars
Image: Favcars

Praised to the skies by an adulatory UK motoring press at its launch thirty years ago, pilloried mercilessly in subsequent years and even to this day, only grudgingly accepted even by marque loyalists, the Jaguar XJ40’s reputation remains a matter of often quite heated debate. 

Its position in the Jaguar narrative hangs on several strands, most of which are a series of lasts. Not only the last Jaguar created by the remaining members of William Lyons’ original team, but also the final Jaguar saloon to be stylistically approved by the old master himself. Lyons worked closely with Jaguar stylists on detail design, even approving the rectangular headlamp treatment which so upset traditionalists.

XJ40 also saw Jaguar seriously move to take sales from rivals. Formerly content with a comparatively narrow slice of the luxury car market, Browns Lane product planners elected to break with convention, simultaneously attacking executive-class cars like contemporary top-spec Rovers and Granada’s, in addition to the S-Class and 7-Series it was primarily benchmarked against. Sales of over 208,000 over the car’s lifespan illustrated the efficacy of this strategy.

Arguably the most technically ambitious Jaguar saloon of all, XJ40 was an engineer’s car from stem to stern. Designed to address not only the necessity for a lighter, more fuel efficient machine, but one which would dispel Jaguar’s core weaknesses in durability and dependability. Every aspect of the car was subject to re-evaluation at the design phase with the primary aim of producing a durable car. Even its unloved single wiper was designed for simplicity and long-life. The car’s electrical and self-diagnostic systems were probably a good ten years ahead of their time, but would ultimately prove too complex for Jaguar’s manufacturing and supplier functions.

Jim Randle’s pursuit of the highest engineering principles was etched deep into the car, but possibly put him at odds with elements in Browns Lane who viewed things differently. The car’s technical specification – especially his patented pendulum-mounted double wishbone rear suspension confirmed Jaguar’s pre-eminence in the art of longitudinal compliance and NVH suppression. But this would prove to be another last; although subsequent models would feature variants of this innovative design, its design purity would become diluted as new management chased a broader customer base.

The ’40’s reputation remains bound up with those responsible for its creation and it’s taken until quite recently for this brave car to be reassessed. But despite a growing appreciation, most commentators cannot avoid gravitating to the spot where cracks first started to appear.

I recently examined and rode in a museum-preserved early ’40 and what became abundantly clear was the car’s creators did not lose sight of the fact that above all other considerations, a Jaguar should both look and feel delightful. And from the delicate action of its doorhandles, its superb ride quality, its overall quietness and isolation, it was a delight – contemporary cars simply don’t ‘flow’ like this – especially those sporting the Coventry leaper.

Even its styling has stood the test of time and to these eyes, (awkward details notwithstanding) XJ40’s stance, proportions and Lyons-inspired lines remain palpably more correct than any subsequent Jaguar saloon. Admittedly, the much derided digital instrumentation hasn’t aged anything like as well, but there’s little more dated than yesterday’s ‘tech’.

Designer, writer and critic David Pye once stated: “Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash up, something inept and provisional… If we cannot have our way in performance, we shall have it in appearance.” Because even if the ’40 fell short of ideal in some areas, Jaguar’s engineers imbued it with a warmth and a charm that remains seductive, three decades on.

In gestation for fourteen years, remaining in production (if you count its immediate successors) for sixteen and now thirty years since its introduction, this car casts a long shadow. My personal view has taken many turns over the intervening years but has latterly hardened. Because as far as I’m concerned, XJ40 has come to represent perhaps the most significant last of all: that of the last Jaguar.

Further reading: An excellent XJ40 piece DTW recommends here.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “Thirty Times ’40”

  1. One of my earliest automotive memories is that the family across the road from ours had a light blue Sovereign when these things were new. Looking back, they must have been doing very well – in Australialand, these were by no means inexpensive. The more salient point is that as a kid, they always looked Jaguar-ish to me – more or less the same shape as the preceding XJs. It was only once I grew up that I actually discovered they were a fundamentally different model to the original series. I’m not necessarily sure if there is a point to this, except to note that I am not necessarily in agreement with those who suggest it lacks the characteristic Jag look. Whether it is a successful piece of design in its own right is another matter. In 1989, it seemed bang up to date. With the benefit of hindsight, and the same basic theme extended and refined through a further two generations of XJ, more than a few details come across as quite heavy-handed.

  2. It’s always nice to see David Pye being quoted.
    An acquaintance of mine had an eight cylinder XJ-40, back in the day when a good used one cost a thousand pounds. I remember the heavy quality of the car as much as the uneasy shapes on the outside. The XJ quickly dated and stayed dated for a long time. Like the Granada of the same period it has taken a long time for the car’s inherent, good characteristics to emerge. It is a complex object and that makes it worth looking at.

  3. Richard:

    I was looking at your earlier comments on the XJ40 under ‘History Repeating…”. In trying to imagine a ‘better’ XJ6 for the 1980s, I am in general agreement that the overall profile and theme would not change much. I do think, however, that Jag made a major hash of the detailing, including an overload of chrome around the DLO. I can live with the lights, both front and rear, although the rectangular units look more dated now than I remembered. The bumpers are a mess and are inexcusably dated given the price of the car and the fact the 928 debuted nearly a decade beforehand. The doorhandles also scream parts bin, even though I’m not sure they are shared with anything.

    1. XJ40 certainly is more of an ’83 than ’86 car, that’s for certain. BMW’s E32 was certainly far more contemporary a design, but even if it’s a flawed example of the brethren, XJ40 remains a genuine Jaguar, which is far from damning it with faint praise.

      But there’s little arguing with your statements as such, Stradale, even though said door handles are actually quite satisfying to operate.

      My main gripe still is the rear lights though. They’re okay on a dark car, but look both clumsy and cheap on anything lighter than gunmetal grey. Which makes it all the more baffling why that awful metallic dark red was so popular back in the day.

    2. The rear lights were handled badly. They don´t befit a car of this class. I have no problem with the brightwork and it is perhaps only purest good luck some nutter Modernist didn´t demand it was all whipped off or anodised as per the Vauxhall Carlton.

  4. Perhaps it’s XJ40’s imperfections that make it such a compelling object to me. That and a growing appreciation for the craft and ingenuity that went into its creation.

    What tends to be forgotten is just what a clever piece of engineering the ’40 was – particularly Jim Randle’s rear suspension. So much so, that aspects of its design were adopted in the engine mounting system for the McLaren F1 road car – I believe XJ40 was one of the dynamic benchmarks for chassis engineers on the project.

    Some of the detail design is messy – a fact acknowledged by insiders, but the car’s protracted and extremely difficult gestation played a significant role there. In terms of the bumpers, they were a better solution to the gargantuan things hanging off the X300/308 cars which followed – which gave them the visual illusion of a barbell.

    Jaguar styling under Geoff Lawson’s supervision seemed incapable of handling details like this well – in addition to being utterly fixated on plastering rubbing strips on everything.

    But above all, I believe XJ40 is the last truly beautiful Jaguar. The fact that its technical specification matches its visual appeal makes it doubly so to my eyes. You may have detected the merest hint of bias here. I make no apology…

    1. And why would you? With regard to aforementioned E32, one needs to remember that that car’s qualities, albeit abundant, were hardly exceptional. An E34 Five series looked rather similar and wasn’t that different in terms of engineering, ambience and overall character. The E32’s successor was similarly evolutionary a car, despite its distinctly more conservative flavour.

      In other words: an E32 is a magnificent car, but there are others like it. XJ40, on the other hand, is a car whose engineering ethos wouldn’t be replicated, and whose styling (if one considers the X300 a mere facelift) wouldn’t significantly be developed any further in the future. That’s why it’s more significant than the more successful (in most regards) BMW.

  5. I think, as a rugged, durable car, the XJ40 has made its engineering team proud. In our remote corner of the world (Chile) , you can still see some of them on the road, unlike the E32 7 series that has disappeared almost completely. And, if properly maintained, they are lovely to drive.

    1. What a vision: a Jaguar in Chile. I’d pay money to see that. I imagine a ’87 XJ-40 with dust and dents looking really imperial against an Andean background.

    2. Richard. I will do my best to satisfy your curiosity. Jaguars are not that uncommon here, so it should not be that difficult. Unfortunately for me, the only one that is scarce is the X350, a car that i happen to like very much for its advanced technical specification. I failed miserably to buy a pristine 4.2 v8 last year, having arrived at the seller just 10 minutes after he had closed a deal with someone else 😦

  6. I think I am alone in not really liking the look of this car. I remember seeing one for the first time and thinking how clumsy and dated it looked compared to its predecessor, and I never got over it. The strange twin rounded headlamps mounted within a rectangular unit was a really poor detail, and, for that reason, I prefered the rectangular lamps that looked like they were part of the original design. The rear section seemed to droop to a conclusion, culminating in those ill proportioned lamps. I never drove one, which probably does not help my opinion. Hopefully I’ll see it differently, one day.

    1. The round headlamps spoil the ’40’s looks, there’s no two ways of looking at it. And the Series III wipes the floor with it aesthetically, but then again a W140 isn’t in the same league as the sublime W126, and yet I’d call that literal elephant in the room the last proper Benz, just as XJ40 is the last genuine Jag.

      Does that constitute faint praise? Or am I merely open to the concept of ambiguity?

  7. It’s hard for me to tell. Thanks to Eoin’s sterling efforts over the years, I have genuinely (no, it really isn’t brainwashing … no please Eoin, don’t make me listen to that Linda Jackson press release again …. ) come round to appreciating the XJ40. Without nit-picking details, in that header photo it is pretty handsome. When new, it both irritated and disappointed me at the time that its styling was, obviously, lagging behind, which of course bearing in mind its overlong gestation was inevitable. It was no good saying that it looked as good as a BMW, it was a Jaguar for God’s sake, its job was to look far, far better than a BMW. And I am, of course, the Nutter Modernist of Richard’s nightmares, so I’d naturally have preferred a lot less chrome. But today that all seems less relevant. So, yes, I still think the tail droops too much, and I’d find it hard to actually own one, for the sole reason that a 60+ year old man with an old Jag is such a cliche, but its reputation has been unfairly maligned and I’m grateful to Eoin for showing me why.

    1. Speaking about the header photo, does anyone else think these are really good looking alloys there?

  8. Yes, those are good looking alloys. We need to see this car in the metal. The press photos are lovely but also they were chosen for their niceness. On balance, the XJ-40 seems like a pretty nice car with some super features. I could say the same about my XM. From what standpoint are we judging it? At the time the view of the XJ-40 was that it was a bit hard to take and had some technical problems; its peers didn´t have the charm and didn´t have the catches. Now, 300,000 days later we are talking Jaguar but not Seven Series or S-class. Those two cars don´t offer much to write about whereas the Jaguar does. If it came to test, I´d run for the Jaguar and drive off very quickly. From a design standpoint I could argue at length about all three, judge the BMW of the time the best but the Jaguar the most interesting (broadening the field I could provoke by saying the XM was interesting and coherent in the way the Jaguar was not).

  9. Roberto: I apologise if my imagination runs riot with clichees but I have this idea of a slightly battered XJ-40 or Series III roaming over rough roads with picturesque country towns and admiring farmfolk looking on . I’d fancy it’d make a terrific scenario for a short film. The other thing would be what an adventure it would be to steer a Jaguar in such a place, far from mundane 21st century Eurosuburbs. Maybe an 80s Cadillac might fit the role?

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