There’s more than one way to sketch a cat.
Pininfarina’s 1973 take on the seminal Jaguar saloon wasn’t their finest hour. But while it served to highlight a fundamental weakness in the Italian carrozzieri’s business model, it did lead to something more worthwhile.
For Italian coachbuilding firms it was a matter of intense pride that no manufacturer was creatively off limits, even one with as strong and universally lauded a design tradition as Jaguar. Predominantly the result of one man’s exceptional taste and unswerving vision, the craftsmen of Piedmont would time and again dash themselves fruitlessly against the creative firmament of Sir William Lyons and his small band of gifted interpreters. But with Jaguar’s founder taking a back seat in the run up to his retirement, the tectonic plates were shifting.
At its core, the motor business is a small and fairly incestuous place and given that Sir William enjoyed a cordial relationship with the Italian styling houses, it was probably widely known not only that change was afoot, but that work would soon begin on a new Jaguar saloon – the first not to be styled under the Jaguar founder’s direct supervision.
1972 saw the belated launch of the XJ12, Jaguar’s saloon finally gaining the power unit that had been expressly designed for it. Instantly hailed as the finest luxury saloon in existence, orders poured in for Browns Lane’s flagship, with Sergio Pininfarina obtaining one of the earliest models. Nobody could be in any doubt that the XJ12 was a superb looking car, arguably the most visually accomplished four-door saloon of all time, but Pininfarina wasn’t about to allow this small matter stand in its way. Rebodied along more contemporary Italian lines, the XJ12 PF, stylistically attributed (it is believed) to Paolo Martin was completed in 1973, before being displayed at that year’s Paris motor show.
Unsurprisingly, it also found its way to Browns Lane later that year, where it generated a good deal of interest, not all of it favourable. Its arrival was ill-timed, coinciding with the initial presentation of Jaguar’s own saloon proposal to BLMC’s Lord Stokes and John Barber, the review leading to Browns Lane’s stylists being told to come up with something that looked a good deal less like a Jaguar.
BLMC’s top dog did however look favourably upon Cambiano’s proposal at a styling review held the following year, as Browns Lane senior body-engineer Cyril Crouch outlined to chronicler, Philip Porter. “We had a line-up of the various Italian ones [proposals] and a couple we’d done and Stokes came along and didn’t think much of any of them, as I recall, apart from the Pininfarina one – an ugly looking brute in my opinion! He liked that best of all, much to the dismay of everyone else.”
Whatever one’s view of its stylistic merits, what is evident is that Paolo Martin encountered the same challenges Jaguar’s own nascent styling team faced in marrying more lineal surface language to Jaguar’s more voluptuous forms. What can be discerned in the overall silhouette, with its low bonnet line, lengthened, falling tail, slim pillars and large glass area, is Martin’s attempt to reflect Jaguar style, but the surfacing and the treatment of the car’s extremities saw a formal shift – one which proved an uneven struggle to execute successfully.
Apart from the pinched central light line across the car’s flanks (first seen perhaps on Pininfarina’s 1955 Florida concept and reinterpreted by Jaguar on their own 1973 XJ40 proposal), the bodysides were unadorned – a Jaguar styling staple, as was the distinct wing crown line which created a ‘gothic’ peak above the tail lamps. But it was at the transitions to the nose and tail that Martin’s studious work founders.
The sharply cut-off nose containing large rectangular headlamp units, a broad, rather anonymous looking grille and bulky impact-absorbing plastic bumpers simply looked clumsy, bland and ill-resolved. The tail treatment, while employing a similarly sharp transition, is better, the tail lamps and more delicate treatment of the wing line offering a more plausible interpretation, with only the bumper treatment jarring noticeably.
But more damningly, the overall forms and relationship between body and canopy lack the dynamic tension and subtle muscularity of Lyons’ best work, the Pininfarina design appearing somewhat flaccid by comparison. Inside too, while some of the treatments have some visual merit, it was all a bit modish and lacked the warmth and cosy familiarity of Coventry’s offerings.
Perhaps more Ferrari than Jaguar in appearance and feeling, what Martin produced was a perfectly acceptable contemporary Pininfarina, but a rather second-rate Jaguar. Nevertheless, the XJ12PF proved rather influential for a time, Jaguar not only carrying out their own version of it (arguably an even less successful attempt), but employing variations of its themes through 1974-76 until both interference from BL management eased and clarity at Browns Lane was restored.
Reappraising the XJ12PF today raises a question: Was the Fiat 130 Coupé Paolo Martin’s last truly outstanding Pininfarina design? While it’s one from which elements of the XJ12PF can distantly be gleaned, albeit in a more blunt, less refined manner, it is ironically, a design Jaguar’s styling team turned to later in the ’70s as they struggled to find a way out of their partly self-imposed styling impasse.
Of the Italian carrozzieri, one could readily imagine Pininfarina being well-placed to create a plausible Jaguar saloon, given their rich history of visual elegance, yet with the XJ12 PF they missed the mark by some distance. Still, it wasn’t an entirely wasted effort, garnering a commission from Jaguar to restyle the existing XJ saloon’s canopy, resulting in the superbly realised 1979 Series III. But apart from this Cambiano never quite established a fruitful ongoing relationship.
Perhaps the true answer lies here, with senior Jaguar designer, Colin Holtum telling historian, Philip Porter, “You stand as much chance of getting a good car out of the Italians as you do out of us, because they are experienced people, but what the company loses is the design history that created the car. What the Italians don’t have is the Jaguar background. So we have found that, when we deal with outside people, they do a very professional product, but they don’t produce a Jaguar.”
Quod Erat Demonstrandum, as they used to say in Italy.