William Lyons’ masterpiece. In a series of articles, we celebrate an automotive high watermark as it marks its 50th anniversary.
“Without any doubt at all, the XJ6 is my personal favourite. It comes closer to than any other to what I always had in mind as my ideal car.” Sir William Lyons.
One bright spring morning in 1967, two men strode towards a lock-up garage in the grounds of an imposing Victorian stately home, amid the rolling Warwickshire countryside. As the dew shimmered on the immaculately tended lawns and borders of Wappenbury Hall, Sir William Lyons, Chairman, Chief Executive and spiritus rector regarding all matters aesthetic, led his European Sales Director, John Morgan to where Jaguar’s vitally important new car lay sequestered, in seemingly definitive prototype form.
An autocrat to the tips of his highly polished brogues he may have been, but Lyons nevertheless regularly canvassed the opinions of those he trusted, although having done so, he would for the most part, take his own council.
Unfastening the gate, Sir William reveals the secret new Jaguar. “Is that going to be alright for you,” he enquires. Aghast at what he later described as a “really bland” grille arrangement, Morgan articulates the first thought that enters his head, indelicately suggesting that it looks like a 1955 Studebaker. Lyons is horrified, and demands an explanation. Morgan stands his ground. “Well, it does, Sir William, it’s that solid front.” Intensely irritated, the Jaguar Chairman dismisses his subordinate and mulls the matter over.
A few days later, Morgan is once again summoned to Wappenbury to view the now-revised XJ prototype. “I’m not going to do anything more to it,” Lyons insists, as he reveals the altered treatment. “Now Morgan, he demands, does it look like a Studebaker?” Sir William had instructed every second horizontal bar to removed from the grille, creating the definitive crosshatch arrangement for which the XJ6 is synonymous.
Not all great art is created by a lone genius and while the Jaguar XJ6 was clearly not the work of Lyons alone, the libretto was orchestrated and minutely directed by him. It is comparatively rare for a creative peak to occur towards the close of one’s career, but XJ6, while perhaps a logical culmination of fifty years in the business of art and commerce, was conclusively both Sir William and Jaguar’s finest opus.
Undoubtedly the definitive Jaguar; it cemented an image of the marque for over half a century, one which retains a strong relevance today. Unquestionably the most significant car in the marque’s history, and equally, its best realised.
Aesthetically, an inspired distillation of Lyons’ decades of stylistic experimentation, conceptually, a groundbreaker, and dynamically, the most accomplished Jaguar saloon then made. Yet the car which launched to such lavish acclaim in September 1968 deviated markedly from that which was originally envisaged.
Sir William Lyons began sketching out a ‘four-seater E-Type’ as early as 1961, having realised first hand at that car’s US launch that its cabin was simply too cramped. But what began initially as a long-wheelbase E-Type soon morphed into a different animal entirely.
With Jaguar’s US distributors agitating for a pillarless 2-door rival to Buick’s elegant 1963 Riviera, Lyons expanded his ideas into a vehicle (dubbed XJ4) which in appearance combined the production centre section, with an E-Type inspired nose and tail. A version of this was released to Pressed Steel Fisher (who carried out the bulk of Jaguar’s body engineering) as early as April 1962, but was not proceeded with.
Between 1961 and 1964, Lyons appeared to prevaricate, before electing to proceed with a version of the car in both two and four-door form. Meanwhile, he evolved the styling, first with a more formal and upright nose treatment which reflected that of the contemporary Mark Ten, and then at the tail, where the rounded E-Type treatment was abruptly foreshortened.
After that it would be the habitual trial and error before the definitive style emerged, with Sir William the sculptor painstakingly teasing out the nuance buried within. The car’s engineering package also informed its style, the wide wheels and low-profile tyres helping define the car’s appearance, with the body stretched tautly around them.
Having eschewed a more traditional sharply falling bodyside crease for something a good deal more subtle and linear, and utilising the car’s broad track to define its stance, the definitive XJ combined a athlete’s muscularity with supreme confidence and grace.
XJ4 benefited from Lyons’ magpie eye, its body style combining elements from previous Jaguar saloons, alongside those of the Italian carrozzieri in the delicate canopy treatment, and Jaguar’s resident aerodynamicist, Malcolm Sayer’s E-Type, in surfacing and form language. But it was how Sir William’s cohort of gifted metalworkers (under his watchful guidance) treated these elements that led to such outstanding results.
In terms of proportion, stance and overall form; in the relationship between body and canopy, and the manner in which these various stylistic elements were melded, the XJ6 remains a masterclass of understated flamboyance. To emphasise this interplay between exaggeration and restraint, no identifying script appeared on the early cars whatsoever, apart from badging which denoted engine capacity.
But even in this seemingly inviolate arena, difficulties arose. With Lyons’ 1966 market research illustrating that pillarless bodies were outselling saloons by a fifty percent margin in the United States, it was felt that Jaguar should prioritise the 2-door version, with their US distributors informing them they were only interested in this model. However, in Autumn 1967 Pressed Steel stopped work on the two-door XJ4 body owing to BMC’s Maxi gaining a priority slot. But with Jaguar now a subordinate cog of the failing BMH combine, there was little Sir William could do.
But the setbacks didn’t end there. Having met with resistance over the grille treatment, Lyons would face an even more frustrating stylistic impasse perilously late in the car’s gestation.
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