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