With due consideration, your correspondent gets off the fence.
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.