Stretching a Metaphor

Ford’s post-acquisition strategy for Jaguar was one of aggressive growth, but it came at some cost – particularly to their core model line.

Jaguar flagship. 1997 long-wheelbase Daimler Super V8. Image: motorstown

Having taken a multi-billion dollar hit on the acquisition of Jaguar in 1989, Ford executives saw only one way out of the mess they have got themselves into. In order to gain the return on investment they craved, Jaguar would need to be transformed from a specialist 35-40,000 car a year business to one pushing out at least five times that number. To achieve this, they would need to expand downmarket, but by the same token, more traditional models could not be neglected either.

But resources would only stretch so far, so at the top of the range it was a case of make do and mend. The 1997 Jaguar X308 XJ then was really all about its Lexus-rivalling V8 power unit, because visually, little else appeared to have changed. Seemingly, only the mildest of facelifts to the X300 model which preceded it – (itself a comprehensive facelift of the even older XJ40 model) – X308 was in fact much altered beneath the skin, with allegedly 30% of the car’s underbody redesigned, mostly to accommodate the all-new powertrain.

During the late 1980s Jaguar’s advanced engineering department, headed by the eminent Ralph Smith, was working on far reaching projects like hybrid drive as well as future combustion powerplants. One of these projects would become the Jaguar AJ26 programme, one which gained significant impetus within Whitley following Jaguar’s acquisition of one the first Lexus LS400s.

Jaguar’s AJ26 V8 engine – still powering Jaguar and Range Rovers today. Image: SAE

This car was greeted with dread at Browns Lane, an insider latterly stating that it was ‘chilling in every respect.’ Knowing their existing six cylinder engine family couldn’t compete, AJ26 became a priority project, aimed at being the mainstay unit for a new saloon model Jim Randle was scheming in his secret engineering skunkworks, dubbed XJ90.

Ford’s purchase of Jaguar in 1989 changed everything, especially once their advance party carried out the audit they perhaps should have carried out beforehand and with the scale of the required surgery becoming clear, most forward model programmes were cancelled. Not everything however. Jaguar insiders convincing Ford management to bankroll the AJ26 engine project.

Several configurations were examined, but a V8 was deemed the best combination of compactness, refinement, performance, weight and efficiency. A 90° all aluminium V8 engine with a cubic capacity of 3996cc, the chain driven quad cam 32-valve cylinder heads (by Cosworth) were ribbed to reduce vibration. Nikasil lined the bores to reduce friction and save weight.

The four litre version also employed variable valve timing and produced 290 bhp at 6100 rpm and 276 lbs ft of torque at 4350 rpm. A smaller capacity 3.2 unit was also available, producing 240 bhp at 6450 rpm and 228 lbs ft of torque at 4350 rpm. At the other end of the performance scale however, the range topping version, augmented by an Eaton mechanical supercharger lifted power to 400 bhp and 399 lbs ft.

1997 Jaguar XJR. Image: wheelsage

Under the skin, the engine bay was heavily revised and stiffened, with an additional bulkhead added to further isolate the power unit. The bodyshell was also strengthened at the B-posts. At the front, XK8 suspension with a revised kingpin angle was fitted to improve response and reduce road noise, while at the rear, a modified version of the XJ40 pendulum mounted double wishbone unit was employed, now with larger 17 inch wheels fitted as standard. The high performance XJR ran on eighteen inch wheels.

Inside, the interior was completely restyled, featuring a similar traditional treelined dashboard design to that of the 1996 XK, incorporating softer forms, and more overt use of wood veneer, resulting in a more romantic ambience than that of the outgoing car. However, the new interior ambience also possessed a somewhat skin-deep air, with some plastics both looking and feeling less than premium and some switchgear also of a low-rent variety.

X308 interior. Tree and lots of it, but it all looks contrived and rather plastic. Image: gtcarlot

Exterior styling was as X300, apart from revised front and rear bumper units and road wheel designs. X300’s styling had originally come about through a front-end mock up based on XJ40 carried out by Jim Randle in the late 80s at Park Sheet Metal with Jaguar stylist, Fergus Pollock. With XJ90 cancelled in 1991, it was decreed that only a nose and tail lift could be carried out on the existing XJ40 shell, which had been significantly re-engineered in anticipation.

Fergus Pollock recently told chroniclers that Jaguar originally intended X300 to share no skin panels with XJ40 but Ford insisted on carry-over for both door and roof pressings. It later transpired the press tools for the doors had worn out, but by then the styling had been frozen. Similarly, the roof pressing had to be redesigned to incorporate an externally-sourced sunroof, so he alleges they could have had their full reskin after all.

Larger wheels didn’t improve the car’s stance. 1997 Jaguar XJ8. Image: autoweek.nl

The overall style was suggestive of the abortive XJ90, but lacked that car’s finer proportions, appearing overbodied at either extremity. Detailing left something to be desired as well, with excessive decorative brightwork adding a degree of fussiness to an already busy style and incongruous rubbing strips blighting the flanks. It wasn’t terrible by any account, but both X300 and by consequence X308 lacked the restraint, the excellent stance and taut proportions of the oft-maligned XJ40 model, to say nothing of its more distant forebears. Neither restyle managing to carry off the visual conceit, their facelift traces never quite erased.

Nevertheless, X308 was well received, the smooth and powerful V8 engine in particular being singled out for praise. Overall though, the car was viewed as dated, particularly from a packaging perspective. Headroom was at a premium and in short wheelbase form, so was legroom. Car described it as being ‘not the best luxury car you can buy, but it certainly has the most charm’.

X308 outsold X300, but it was in production for much longer. Image: see above

But that was the problem. Jaguar was now appealing only to the ‘Inspector Morse’ brigade. Aimed it seems as much at Florida Real Estate moguls as Beverley Hills cosmetic surgeons, Jaguar’s large saloon demographic was affluent all right, but it was ageing and like the car itself, no amount of botox was going to halt time’s inexorable march.

Ford really should have addressed the matter of the XJ well before the close of the nineties. X300 could perhaps have been justified as an expedient stopgap before a modern all new car was readied. Instead, Jaguar were forced to carry on with the same basic design so that by the time it ceased production in 2002, the underlying bodyshell was sixteen years old.

Diverted by costly and ultimately futile investment into the X200 and X400 programmes, Ford allowed their focus on growth to hobble the XJ at a point when their German and Japanese rivals were leaping ahead in an entirely decisive manner. By the time Jaguar had their all-new XJ, (2003’s X350), the World had moved on and Downton Abbey was as yet a twinkle in Julian Fellowes’ eye. The XJ entered a decline that shows no sign of abatement.

A very long goodbye. Image: favcars

The seeds of the XJ’s diminution is rooted in the cars of this era. Ford got many aspects right – particularly component and manufacturing quality, but they neglected and misunderstood the fundamentals of what made a Jaguar appealing in the first place. Because after all, one can only stretch a metaphor so far.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

17 thoughts on “Stretching a Metaphor”

  1. I like the X300, but for all the changes are not dramatic the X308 leaves me cold. I think the cheesy 90s “organic shapes” interior and the small changes to bumper detailing cheapened the impression of the car significantly, the interior is embarrassingly “Toby Carvery”

    In a different world X300 would have hit the market in 1994/5 to captur the zenith of the retro craze and left it in ’97 before retro became seen as the lazy dead end that it always is, to be replaced by a car as contemporary and up to date as the V8 engine was.

    The X300 was just retro enough to be cool but not so retro as to be cringeworthy after 18 months on the market, however in seems Ford (and Rover) very seriously misjudged the longevity of that particular fad when they went all in with absolute dross like the S-Type and X-Type. Unlike both those cars the X308 was never something you’d be ashamed to own, and it’s credentials as a proper Jaguar were never in question.

    1. I never much cared for the X300 even when new. It always appeared a little ill-proportioned and even when I see one now (increasingly rarely I might add), I find them visually unsatisfying. In my view the styling changes made to X308 only accentuated that. Both cars however are well-loved by marque aficionados and certainly appear to have a more enthusiastic following to that of the ’40, but I suppose it takes all kinds.

      The X300 inherited not only the XJ81 body structure, but the late-era XJ40 dash and basic interior and seats/steering wheel apart, retained some Jaguar feeling. The 308 interior by comparison felt very contrived and lacked depth. The wood didn’t really look or feel like wood and I think by then Jaguar’s own sawmill and woodworking artisans were no more. Of the two cars, it’s the latter model’s interior that has aged the worst by far.

      Regarding the assertion of being a ‘proper Jaguar’, may I challenge that for a moment? Recently discovering that Jaguar engineers, under Ford’s Jim Pallida apparently mucked around with Jim Randle’s innovative ‘pendulum’ rear suspension because (as a former insider recently suggested to me) ‘they didn’t understand it’ nails that coffin shut as far as I’m concerned. And let’s face it, an XJ40 on 15 in wheels is always going to ride better than an X308 on 17/18 in rims.

  2. On the one hand I’m not among the hard-core fans of Jaguar and on the other I really have no problem with any of these cars. They are fabulously heavy, smooth riding fast cars with a severe sense of occasion that other brands short of Bristol and Rolls lack. The ones I see around here have a big presence probably because they are long and low. If you want legroom like a 750iL then get another car.It won’t look like a Jaguar.

  3. X308 was the third XJ I experienced as a (young) passenger, after XJ50 and XJ40. Even back then, I wasn’t as taken as I’d been by the older cars, which was, above all, due to its plasticky interior. My younger self wouldn’t have been able to explain it, but subconsciously I must have detected the absence of Jaguar’s artisan woodworkers’ input. X308’s cabin just felt a bit ordinary, which was a sobering experienced I’d made for the first time when I got to sit inside an X100 convertible. At that time, Jaguar underwent the same kind of process Maserati did recently. It was turned from being a purveyor of semi-handmade, bespoke automobiles into a mass producer, with obvious effects on the product, some of which were for the better, some for the worse.

    As far as the driving experience is concerned, I can only state that X308 felt a bit wallowy and ever so slightly American. For me as a passenger, it didn’t come across as being terribly composed, which hadn’t been my experience in the XJ40. As it was my father who did all the driving, I feel obliged to report that he didn’t enjoy his time behind X308’s steering wheel at all, for it was too soft and underpowered a car for his liking.

    1. When the car lost weight due to the aluminium it must also have lost the heftiness inherent in pure mass. I imagine much of the sense of well-being you get from a RR Silver Shadow relates to 2 tonnes of car feeling utterly solid.

    2. X308 was still steel-bodied. The aluminium body was introduced with its X350 successor in 2003.

      Mind you, a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupé is a rather comforting automobile, despite being made of aluminium.

    3. Funny you mention the X100. When I had an X300 XJ12 I took my then wife to look at an X100. She didn’t like it at all, said the interior was nasty and that while you could tell that the X300 was (once) an expensive car the XK8 really didn’t feel like one at all. Same goes for X308.

      X350 was better in that regard.

  4. On a side note, does anyone know if the AJ26 is related to the current (petrol) Jaguar V6 and V8 engines? The current engine is an open deck design, yet I remember the AJ26 to have been a closed deck one?

    1. I know at the time they claimed an “all new” engine block, so it could actually be true. Don’t get me started on that bastardised V6 though!

  5. Can’t say that I ever heard the AJ-V8 was a real Lexus V8 rival. Not with Nikasil bores, bad timing chain guides and numerous other niggles to begin with. That Lexus V8 was smooooth. Been in two Lexuses with variations of that engine and you can see why people bought them, and the cars were well made indeed. As others have said, find me a broken Lexus V8 – anywhere. Of course after years of fettling and messing around the now JLR V8 is currently pretty good, but that’s not the point. The Lexus was damn near perfect from the get-go, designed to last 250,000 miles even if the rich plods driving it forgot to change the oil on schedule.

    So far as the rear suspension goes on the XJ40, I managed to find an Inst Mech E article from 1986 on it by some bloke named of all things A J Cartwright of Jaguar. Descriptive English was not his forte unfortunately, so it took me a while to even work out what he was nattering about on the finer points. For example, the original prototype pendulum was the wheel hub itself, an upside down pendulum. Understood. But how or why the final “pendulum” was so named requires lateral thought, especially since moving it affects the pivot on the other side of the car as well, reducing independence.

    As a mech engineer myself who specialized in vibration isolation, I am quite familiar with pendulum absorbers, and so is Ford, their having hung more than one off a gearbox to absorb nasty driveline vibrations or off a bumper on a frame chassis to quell shake modes. However, I finally worked out what Jaguar were up to in 1986 by reading on and then going back, and it is a study on how to properly deploy pillow and other bushings of various kinds without crushing the life out of them as a multilink suspension tends to do with its impossible arcs of movement. Clever, in that the subframe is minimal as well, while there is very decent separation of transverse and lateral loadings experienced by the wheel to subframe and finally to body. The proof in terms of minimal toe and camber change together with low vertical and lateral accelerations experienced in the cabin over bumps is presented. One presumes the multi-link suspension they compare it to was Mercedes, because they were the only one with it in 1986, and the semi-trailing arm was probably BMW – they were always an over-rated car in those days suspension-wise. Wet roads and snow – argh!

    Then I found a service book online handed out to Jaguar technicians in North America in the late 1990s, with fair drawings of the various rear suspensions from XJ40 on to XJR8. Yup, perhaps Cartwright and Randle had left by 1994 when the pressed steel rear A-arm (as they called it for Americans, but known in Blighty as a wishbone) was changed to a hollow alloy unit. This is where the plot was lost, because the whole point of the previous longitudinal compliance was dismissed, simply by not attaching the rear wishbone pivot behind the rear tie cross piece. They saved a quid and brought the wishbone’s rearmost pivot to the face of the rear tie cross piece rather than behind it. Superficially it seems to do the same thing – in practice obviously not, not helped by its narrower base of the wishbone arm contained between pivots, less able to resist toe changes and giving more likelihood to twist instead of longitudinally complying. Scratches semi-bald head. Huh. Yes, they missed the point, I think. I am at a loss as to why the change was made in the first place, because they probably spent more on that alloy wishbone than they needed to, just to say it had one. “It’ll look good in the brochure, Bertie!” quoth one PR hack to his assistant, the mind imagines.

    Nice article. Made me don my thinking hat.

    1. Bill: A thousand times thank you. You’ve put into words even this idiot can understand what I had hitherto suspected, was given hints of but have never had properly and vividly spelled out. I may have to have this printed up and laminated for reference the next time some self appointed know-all suggests to me how X300/308 was such a superior car to the ’40 – for all its flaws. The whole point of Randle’s original design was to allow for a good deal of longitudinal compliance, while also preventing unwanted steering effects under load, not to mention the habitual matters of isolation, vibration and noise suppression. It was clever and since we’ve been discussing the subject of late, elegant. It also worked and worked well.

      To clarify the timelines a little, Jim Randle departed Browns Lane (in disgust) in 1991, having lost a sizeable proportion of his best engineers to Bill Hayden’s slash and burn policy. Ford parachuted in Jim Padilla from the US in his stead and with Randle gone, one gets the impression it became quite easy (not to mention convenient) to smear engineering as being Jim’s madhouse; one where only Padilla and his new broom could bring order. I’m sure Jim Padilla was a competent engineer, but decisions like this do not reflect well on his judgement.

      Regarding LS400. All of the Jaguar old hands I’ve spoken to (to a man) have nothing but the highest praise for that car and the engineering team that created it. And time has shown just what a stellar achievement it was. In fact nobody I’ve spoken to with an engineering background has a bad word to say about that car. The Lexus was a landmark and deserves far greater regard than it has been accorded.

      Incidentally, you’re correct about the Nikasil issue. The use I believe of high sulphur petrol led to engine failures and many early AJV8’s were replaced under warranty. Jaguar wasn’t the only one affected. I believe BMW had similar problems. I doubt Jaguar ever matched Lexus on durability or refinement of their V8 by the way, but of course they were always massively underfunded by comparison.

    2. Interesting! Many moons ago i had the pleasure of driving a late, perfectly maintained XJ40 on a rather poor piece of road in the mountains near my hometown (Santiago, Chile), and i distinctly remember thinking ‘there is some wizardry in the rear axle design here’. Turns out, there was.

    3. Roberto: as you live in Chile it´s “just your back yard”. Sitting here in Denmark, the idea of a Jaguar roving around Chile seems thrilling, even in this day of cheap jet travel and global movement. That really must have been quite a sight. The only comparable thing I have witnessed was a 1994 Buick Park Avenue I once saw driving in the west of Ireland. Let me assure you, Buick Park Avenues are not part of the Irish road scene.

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