Two of the most distinctive cars of their time; bitter rivals, yet with much in common. Driven to Write counts the ways.
They couldn’t have looked more different, yet the fates of the Porsche 928 and Jaguar XJ-S were intrinsically bound. One seemed more like a car from the Cinzano era, the other from the future, yet both shared a purpose, appealed to the same customer base and lived out similar career paths – misunderstood and derided by those who didn’t expect their preconceived notions to be so roundly challenged.
It’s easy and perhaps comforting to regard Porsche’s progress since the 1960s as being an unbroken arc of success, but this would be a good deal short of the truth. Crisis dogged the Stuttgart sports car specialist innumerable times over the intervening years; lacking size, scale and prey to the vicissitudes of the global economy and the US market in particular, survival was often a fraught affair.
In many ways then, Porsche’s history has been similar to that of Jaguar’s, only more successful and less chaotic. Certainly Porsche was very similar in size and vulnerability to the pre-merged Jaguar, only less autocratically run and certainly by the early 1970s, considerably better financed. Zuffenhausen also had an ace up their sleeve in their much-respected Weissach engineering consultancy – an entity which more than once saved their bacon.
By 1970, each company was producing a car that would ultimately come to define them. Jaguar’s E-Type was then in its second series and a year away from its V12-engined swansong. Porsche’s 911 in turn was in its ‘C-series’ which employed a longer wheelbase and larger capacity (2.2 litre) engines. Both companies were already looking at the feasibility of replacing these cars, but the manner and circumstances of their doing would set them apart.
When Porsche’s Dr Ernst Fuhrmann laid down the basis for the 928 programme around 1971, he faced the same challenges as Jaguar’s engineering head, Bob Knight. Both the E-Type and 911 were dated, cramped and increasingly unsuited to 1970’s motoring conditions. Emissions were a problem. So too was noise – the 911’s air cooled flat-six believed to be at risk of being outlawed.
Safety concerns too bedevilled both designs, the E-Type’s fuel tank being mounted in too vulnerable a position for US legislators. And with talk of further legislation banning rear-engined cars in the wake of the Corvair debacle, Porsche needed to act. Jaguar was wedded to a front-engine layout, but at Zuffenhausen, adopting this layout meant total revolution
Fuhrmann had one advantage over his Browns Lane equivalents – he had a far more generous budget. With VW (initially at least) bankrolling what became the 924 project, a element of cross-pollination would theoretically be possible, despite the 928 being a bigger, more sophisticated car. Certainly, the 928 was spared nothing – new from stem to stern. Nothing prosaic about its engineering specification either – Fuhrmann determined to produce a Porsche that would thrill without spilling itself and its occupants backwards into surrounding countryside if they over-stepped matters.
However Knight, now haemorrhaging vital funds to his holed below the waterline BLMC masters, had to use what was to hand. XJ27, as the XJ-S was known internally, was based on a shortened XJ saloon platform, using hardware, including suspensions and the V12 engine from Jaguar’s acclaimed saloon. Serious work on this programme began around 1970, Jaguar having earlier tried in vain to produce a new model on an E-type sub-structure.
Both XJ-S and 928 would take their respective marques into a new more rarefied sector of the market, away from predecessors’ more overt sporting mien. US market requirements were for larger, more luxurious cabins, incorporating air conditioning, powered windows and doorlocks, amongst other niceties. More features meant a larger car and more weight. More weight meant more power and larger engines. Larger engines meant bigger, more powerful brakes, and so on. Both the 928 and XJ-S were no longer the nimble sportsters of old, but this was the industry’s direction of travel.
Both cars were also adversely affected by politics. Arguments raged within Zuffenhausen over whether the 928 was the right course of action, with a traditionalist faction lobbying for a more reactionary approach. Also VW’s cancellation of the joint Audi/VW GT saw Fuhrmann take it entirely in-house as a dedicated Porsche project with the aim of mopping up the bottom end of the market. 1973 fuel crisis saw the 928 being delayed until such time as an appraisal of market conditions could take place, deferring its launch until late 1977.
Meanwhile, the XJ-S was also delayed, first by uncertainty over detail design following the sudden death of its creator, Malcolm Sayer in 1970. Secondly, Jaguar’s BLMC masters prioritised volume models like the Marina and Allegro, meaning the XJ-S’ slot at Pressed Steel (where Jaguar bodyshells were made) was unavailable for well over a year. Additionally, the oil crisis and the 1974 collapse of BLMC further delayed its introduction.
The 928 was perhaps something close to what Jaguar would have made had they the resources. Instead the XJ-S was by mid-seventies standards and certainly compared to the showroom appeal of the 1977 Porsche, somewhat cobbled together. It was however, a testament to the genius of Jaguar’s engineering team – Knight and Randle producing a car that was as fast as many supercars, yet handled securely and was as quiet and pliant as a luxury saloon. It was here the 928 fell between two stools. Hemmed into playing both sybarite and pugilist, it perhaps excelled at neither.
Styling was another clear point of divergence. While the 928 was futuristic and looked as though it would cleave the air unaided, it was in fact aerodynamically compromised. With a stated Cd of 0.44, the 928 was neither as fast, economical nor stable as it could have been.
By contrast the rather more rudimentarily detailed XJ-S, styled mathematically by the same aerodynamicist who shaped Jaguar’s Le-Mans winners, not only had a better Cd and decisively better CdA – (which includes frontal area), but its much derided buttress panels were shaped to smooth the XJ-S’ path through the air.
Despite some early (and quite serious) reliability issues, the 928 quickly settled down to being an impressive ownership proposition, customers doing mileages into the hundreds of thousands without serious mishap. Finish and material quality was of the top drawer too, as was convenience and ergonomic design.
The XJ-S on the other hand was initially notorious for issues of finish, build and durability. Austere and lacking in showroom appeal, it made a very poor case for itself and by 1980, sales had collapsed. Post-1981 models were better wrought, more reliable and featured considerably nicer cabins, but the Jag was never as spacious, versatile, well designed or finished as the German car.
Both cars enjoyed long production lives, the Jaguar hanging on until 1996 with 115,330 made. The Porsche was pensioned off the year before, with slightly over 61,000 sold. The XJ-S remained true to its positioning; to the end a suave and cultured GT, if a very old one by then. The 928 however had been shoehorned into a bruiser role to which it was ill-suited, the final GTS models sporting macho wheelarch flairs and a vulgar rear wing, spoiling the subtle Möebius-penned lines.
Porsche never replaced the 928 – although some would suggest the current Panamera saloon fulfils that role now. Jaguar on the other hand used the XJ-S as the basis for the XK-series that directly replaced it, but have subsequently abandoned the segment – reverting to a more overtly sporting template.
Whether you consider one or other the better choice then or now depends on which marque’s values appeal more. Taken coldly, the Porsche was simply better in every measurable way apart from NVH suppression, engine refinement, outright performance (in launch spec at least) and ride comfort. The XJ-S offered less quantifiable charms, but its looks and ambience proved a deal-breaker for some.
Neither car was entirely understood or appreciated in their lifetime and remain marginal figures in their respective marque iconographies to this day. Yet both cars offered something richer, more subtle than their less cultured, more iconic, and now dominant forebears.
Despite time’s passage, the turismo twins remain locked together, even in death.