William Lyons’ masterpiece. Celebrating an automotive high watermark on 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, Jaguar 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 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 be removed from the grille, creating the definitive crosshatch arrangement for which the XJ6 is now 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.
Sanctioned in 1964, XJ4 was intended to launch in 1967, which seems in hindsight to have been a rather optimistic timescale. The project team would be led by Bob Knight, Jaguar’s senior development engineer and one of the finest conceptual minds of his era. The Browns Lane engineering department at the time was something of a collection of minor fiefdoms, most of whom worked somewhat independently, as Jim Randle discovered to his amazement when he joined the project team from Rover in 1965. (As recounted to DTW)
“When I came to Jaguar, I couldn’t see how they made a car, there was no bloody programme at all! It gradually dawned on me – you got people who were around the company – people like Tom Jones, Cyril Crouch and whatnot. They took their bit of the car; they didn’t talk to anybody, they’d just get on with it. And they often fell out with the guy who was doing the next bit! But you didn’t need anyone producing a programme.”
From his overseeing promontory, engineering director Bill Heynes did not envisage anything particularly radical, XJ4 being more about refining a successful formula. So while the double wishbone front suspension closely resembled that of existing models, it was rubber-mounted upon a box-section subframe and would embody an anti-dive geometry which not only reduced weight-transfer upon braking by 50%, but allowed softer road springs to be used. The Burman power-assisted steering was by rack and pinion – a first for a Jaguar saloon.
At the rear, Bob Knight (in conjunction with Tom Jones) oversaw the design of a new twin-link suspension design, mounted directly to the body and employing the driveshafts as the upper links as before. However, this new design employed a torque tube arrangement for the drive-line, with the aim of channelling stresses through the strongest section of the floorpan. The new system was lighter, and displayed a noted improvement in handling and secondary ride characteristics; a weakness of the older E-Type-derived unit, which had been rather hurriedly created in 1957.
Designed from the outset to utilise the all-alloy V12 engine, then in development, the only version of the in-line XK six intended for the car was a 3.0 litre version, believed to have been particularly sweet-running. Additionally, a 60° 3.5 litre V8, to be derived from the twelve cylinder tooling was also being investigated.
With Knight tasked with ensuring the new car exceeded Jaguar’s already impressive standards, Jaguar’s resident chassis guru employed everything he had learned about NVH suppression, employing the car’s major masses – its suspensions, axles, engine and gearbox as attenuators, to cancel out unwanted noise and vibrations.
A double-skinned bulkhead further insulated the passenger compartment, while painstaking attention to suspension bushes and damper settings saw new standards in ride isolation and handling being set, despite the pioneering adoption of purpose-designed 70-series low profile Dunlop 205/15 radial tyres, which appeared colossal at the time. Also in the quest for quietness, large quantities of soundproofing material were fitted throughout the cabin.
However, problems soon beset XJ4 development. The most pressing being a resonance of the torque tube, which led to a good deal of head-scratching, as Jim Randle explained. “The original XJ6 system was totally dependent on the angle of the drive link. That system [the alternative Bob Knight design] had a forward-facing tube with a mounting into the drum. The firing order put this on to resonance, and we had a boom”.
Complicating matters further was not only the multiplicity of projects being handled simultaneously, but also the fact that Jaguar’s engineering resource, although of a very high order, was woefully understaffed for the tasks at hand. Owing to the fact that the XJ body was almost as low slung as that of an E-type, XJ4 proved something of a packaging miracle. But that didn’t mean the job of incorporating all that heavy and space-taking hardware was anything but a massive headache for Jaguar’s overstretched development team.
By 1967, with the programme now well behind schedule, the resonant boom being generated by the experimental torque tube suspension system became a potentially ruinous drag on engineering resources, defying all attempts at a cure. With vast amounts of development time lost, Knight reluctantly abandoned further development.
This entailed, not only the late adoption of the existing rear suspension and final drive unit into the XJ4 bodyshell, but a hasty redesign of the underbody by Pressed Steel, who somewhat fortuitously were prepared to accommodate this last-minute alteration within a now very tight timescale. A further complication being that a good deal of proving and refinement work would need to be reprised.
Lyons was furious, but there was nothing for it but to defer introduction until the Autumn of 1968. A further setback came with repeated delays to the V12 engine. In early 1968, with launch material and sales brochures already in print, it became evident that the V12 would not be ready for the September launch. In fact, delays would continue to bedevil this engine programme, ultimately deferred until 1971, and finally being readied for the XJ saloon the following year.
An unintended knock-on was the lack of a larger engined variant. Already the 3.0 litre XK unit had been subsumed into a 2.8 litre version, intended to dip below European tax brackets, so the venerable, if rather compromised 4.2 litre XK unit from the 420 saloon was press ganged as a temporary stop-gap. But while the installation proved relatively trouble-free, the taller power-unit wouldn’t clear the XJ’s low bonnet.
To Lyons’ dismay, his exacting bonnet line was sacrificed and a central bulge added. Sir William reportedly detested the addition, expressing his surprise to a subordinate during the model’s launch that nobody had noticed. Ironically, this feature, not to mention the 4.2 litre unit itself, not only lasted the duration of the XJ6’s career, but would become over time an essential component of Jaguar stylistic iconography.
In 1964, a series of factors led Sir William Lyons to take the momentous decision to replace Jaguar’s multiplicity of saloon models with a single car line, betting the entire enterprise upon its success. Retrospectively of course, one could say he needn’t have worried, but at the time, it must have been a deeply anxious moment. How did this state of affairs come to pass? To answer this, we must examine the company’s fortunes throughout the 1960s, which were a good deal more torturous than some might believe.
XJ4 was initiated in 1961/2, but owing to Lyons’ uncertainty over the project’s viability, a firm decision to proceed was delayed a further two years. According to former senior experimental engineer, Tom Jones, Sir William demanded assurances Jaguar could sell 1000 a week, before going ahead with the programme.
A sizeable proportion of Lyons’ qualms were product-related, the most obvious being the commercial failure of the Mark Ten saloon. It had been a huge investment for such a comparatively small company and its lack of sales success was a massive blow, one which meant the perennially debt-shy Jaguar Chairman had far less to invest in new model lines than anticipated.
It is possible with hindsight to deduce that the Jaguar founder’s previously unerring product and stylistic judgement had temporarily deserted him during this period. A matter former engineering chief, Jim Randle latterly expanded upon. “Right up until XJ6, we produced things like the 420G (sic) and whatever, which were really not very nice cars. I think he [Lyons] was not particularly confident about XJ6 to start with. This is observing from a very minor position in the company – I only joined in 1965. But equally he was the key driver and he probably didn’t have people around him who had the sort of vision he had.”
Sir William’s policy had been to pay tooling costs upfront, amortising them over lengthy production runs, a good example being the compact saloon range, which originated in 1955, before lending itself to a succession of model variants until the final derivation ceased production in 1969. This policy served Lyons well, but the motor industry was becoming far more competitive and specialists like Jaguar were having to renew their offerings more frequently to stay abreast.
Jaguar’s fortunes in the US market too were nosediving, with growing competition from the likes of Mercedes-Benz and domestic carmakers, who could produce faster, better equipped cars in greater volumes, at much lower cost. Furthermore, Jaguar’s US customer base had decisively fallen out of love with the saloon models being sent their way.
Meanwhile, the commercial situation in the UK market remained volatile. Government policy throughout the decade had been to employ credit controls as a means of either stimulating or cooling down the economy as they saw fit. This had a devastating impact upon the domestic motor industry, making production planning almost impossible. Locked into a constantly reactive cycle, carmakers were endlessly hiring and laying off workers, forging an adversarial culture which would come disastrously home to roost in the following decade.
It has frequently been stated that Lyons, unable to fund the development of the XJ4 programme (said to have been in the region of £10 million), therefore had no choice but to seek a wealthy benefactor. This however bears further scrutiny. Lyons may not have got everything right, but in broader business terms, he was largely ahead of the game.
Clear-sighted enough to realise that Jaguar would not survive into the 1970s as an independent, Sir William firmly believed that the UK industry would be forced to consolidate, both to survive at all or to avoid being swallowed by US corporate raiders. By 1964, he had concluded a tie-up with another UK motor business was not only desirable, but necessary.
While it’s likely he lacked the capital to fulfil all of his product ambitions, Lyons elected to press ahead with XJ4, having reasoned that a single model line could underpin a series of models created off its platform. According to biographers, Jaguar paid the entirety of XJ4’s tooling costs up-front from their somewhat meagre coffers.
Jaguar’s ongoing relationship with Pressed Steel Fisher (PSF) was vital to its survival, and it was clear to Sir William that BMC’s acquisition of PSF in 1965 was nothing short of an existential threat. Losing access to PSF, would not only see Browns Lane forego its all-important body supply, but also the detailed production engineering and technical support provided by Joe Edwardes’ metal stamping colossus. Without that, Jaguar would be helpless.
A further conceivable factor was simply the huge leap Lyons was taking. Were XJ4 to fail, as the Mark Ten had, an independent Jaguar faced calamity. It’s entirely possible that having taken a daring gamble on an unproven new car (one he was basing Jaguar’s entire future upon), he believed having a stronger business behind him would provide a buffer against fate.
Having walked away from a merger offer with Leyland Motors in 1965, owing to his distrust of Donald Stokes, Sir William inked what he believed at the time to be an advantageous deal in July 1966 with Sir George Harriman at BMC, creating the British Motor Holdings combine. (A decision he would later regret.)
Lyons’ concern for Jaguar’s fortunes was far from unfounded. With XJ4 development facing endless delay, Browns Lane entered 1968 facing a sales meltdown. With no saloon model capable of passing stricter US emissions regulations, only the E-Type could be offered there. Meanwhile, production of the compact saloon ranges were in the process of being wound down in anticipation of the XJ4’s belated Autumn launch.
With Jaguar entering a new frontier within the politically charged creation of the sprawling BLMC empire which followed the 1967 collapse of the combined BMH business, it was insulated to some extent from the costs and inherent risks of transitioning to an entirely new and vitally important model. XJ4 was finally ready. But was Jaguar?
On the 26th September 1968, amid the opulence of the Royal Lancaster Hotel on London’s Bayswater Road, Sir William Lyons revealed Jaguar’s long-awaited saloon. Neither a particularly confident nor enthusiastic public speaker, the intensely private Jaguar Chairman was persuaded to record his introductory speech to the assembled dealers, dignitaries and members of the press, as the still secret new XJ6 was revealed over four successive nights.
The lavish series of functions climaxed with Guests being directed to a darkened function room where Sir William, picked out by spotlights, announced, “ladies and Gentlemen, I should like to introduce to you my new car.” The lights would then gradually brighten to reveal a single XJ6 on a raised turntable, surrounded by nine further examples arranged around the room’s perimeter. The reception throughout was rapturous, with dealers and motoring press alike lining up to congratulate Lyons on pulling off perhaps his greatest masterstroke yet.
What few observed however was Sir William’s utter mystification that nobody had commented upon the hasty adoption of the 4.2 litre engine, nor the fact that at the time these ten examples represented about a fifth of XJs in showable condition anywhere, such were the difficulties Jaguar faced in getting the car into full-scale production.
A first for both Jaguar and Lyons was his appearance in a press advertisement endorsing the new car. Sir William was reportedly reluctant to put himself forward, but it was nonetheless a powerful message of confidence, one borne out by the lavish and strikingly art-directed sales material for the model, both of which were overseen by Jaguar’s PR-chief, Bob Berry and executed by their retained ad-agency, Nelson Advertising.
XJ6’s body style might have reflected a harmonious evolution of Jaguar aesthetics, but so too did its cabin. The dashboard, while similar in overall appearance to that of the Mark Ten, was more logically laid out. Two main instruments faced the driver, set into the padded walnut veneer dash panel, while five auxiliary gauges sat centrally, with a neat row of rocker switches grouped below.
What set the XJ6’s cabin apart was not only its generous width, but the huge expanse of the centre console, which lent the interior something of an aircraft ambience, one more akin to that of an E-Type. Specially designed seats (by Slumberland) located driver and passengers far more comfortably and securely than of yore. The XJ’s cabin then, was warm, inviting, richly appointed, yet tastefully spare.
The entry level XJ6 was offered with a 2792 cc version of the XK in line engine, essentially a short-stroke version of the existing 4.2 litre unit. In fact both engines shared an identical cylinder head. With about 140 bhp (Net) at 6000 rpm and 182 lbs ft of torque, the small-capacity XJ was a good deal smoother and more free-spinning than its larger brother. A reasonable performer too, but only if Jaguar’s four-speed manual/overdrive transmission was specified.
The slower-revving and compromised 4.2 produced slightly about 180 bhp (Net) at 5500 rpm and a hefty 283 lbs ft of torque, which proved a better match to the Borg Warner Model 8 automatic transmission. An improved cooling system was incorporated to address one of the 4.2’s Achilles heels, a marked propensity to overheat when driven hard, a consequence of the XK engine having reached the limits of development.
It was some months before the mainstream UK auto press got their hands on an XJ6, but when they did, the accolades swiftly followed. Motor tested a manual 4.2 model, stating that it “came closer to perfection than any car we have yet tested, regardless of price”. Rival weekly, Autocar soon followed, stating their automatic test car was “unmatched by anything in the saloon class”, stating that its handling bettered that of the E-Type.
Meanwhile Car magazine awarded it their Car of the Year accolade for 1969, with acerbic critic, LJK Setright asserting that the XJ6 “makes superfluous all other cars costing more”. To further bolster Browns Lane’s trophy cabinet, the Jaguar also won that year’s Don safety award.
In sotto-voce briefings to journalists, Jaguar hinted that ‘multi-cylinder’ versions of the car would soon become available – a 3565 cc 60° V8 intended to supplant the ‘interim’ 4.2 six, while a closely related 5343 cc V12 would cap the range. It seemed that Jaguar, after a period of uncertainty had finally regained its swagger and appeared once more to be on the cusp of greatness.
The XJ6 had rewritten the luxury saloon car rulebook – its combination of style, elegance, fine performance, luxurious appointments, supremely capable dynamics, coupled with unrivalled ride comfort and NVH isolation, meant that Jaguar, mere minnows in global terms had contrived to produce a World-beating product. It was a striking vindication of Lyons’ vision and his engineering team’s technical prowess.
There was only one problem, and it was a big one. This being Jaguar’s habitual bête noir – building them.
Through a combination of genius, skill, misfortune and at times, sheer good luck, the Jaguar XJ6 proved to be precisely what the market realised it wanted. Offering all the glamour and visual allure of the E-Type in a four-door package, customers quickly discovered it fitted their needs very nicely indeed. The trouble was obtaining one. When Lyons sanctioned the model, he set production targets of a thousand cars a week. This would have amounted to slightly over 50,000 cars per annum, a figure Jaguar wouldn’t meet until the 1990s, and certainly one the XJ-series never came close to meeting – for a whole host of reasons.
The first of these manifested itself as Jaguar struggled to ramp up XJ6 production in the advent of the car’s launch. The XJ bodyshell was built at PSF in Castle Bromwich. Made up of hundreds of small pressings, the XJ shells were designed this way, firstly to keep tooling costs to a minimum, and secondly because PSF probably wasn’t a world-class supplier.
Therefore building the XJ6 shell was a labour-intensive process which involved a good deal of lead-loading and hand-finishing in order to obtain a smooth surface for painting. Unpainted (wax coated) shells were then transported to Browns Lane, where they were stored in partly open galleries.
By September 1968, neither the quality nor the quantity of bodies arriving at Jaguar’s Allesley plant was deemed acceptable, meaning the stock of models prior to launch was a fraction of what was required. The huge demand for XJ6 was testament to its conceptual excellence, but partly owing to the failure, both of suppliers to deliver, and Jaguar to maintain peace with its shop stewards, they couldn’t come close to satisfying it.
Strikes at suppliers saw a shortage of grilles and glass which necessitated some early cars going out to customers with rudimentary arrangements in their stead. Unrest at Leyland, who supplied the XK engine blocks to varying levels of quality, led to further production delays. By 1969, a night shift had been instigated, which was to increase volumes to over 800 cars per week, still some way short of projections. Despite this, the waiting list stretched out to well over a year.
Such was the level of feeling that in 1970, a delegation of Swiss customers, furious at the inability of Jaguar to deliver, staged a protest outside BMLC’s London headquarters, a matter which was allegedly laughed off by Donald Stokes. But the joke really was on him. Preoccupied by the troubled build-up to the launch of the volume division’s Austin Maxi, he appeared to lose sight of what was almost certainly BLMC’s biggest profit-earner, especially when despairing customers shopped elsewhere.
As an independent, Jaguar’s penny-pinching regarding bought-in components had become legendary, both in price and in some cases, quality. It was this level of economy which kept Jaguar’s costs down and allowed them to price their cars so competitively. Yet with the leaping cat still being run as Sir William saw fit, and Lord Stokes attempting to keep his multiplicity of newly inherited satellites aloft, no attempt was made to alter this somewhat dated policy.
Received wisdom on Lyons was that he was a notorious tightwad, but Jim Randle latterly took issue with that shibboleth, telling DTW, “He was a good man! I liked Sir William very much. I always thought I was reasonably rewarded for what I did. In fact at times I felt I was over-rewarded.” But while Jaguar’s engineers seemed content with their lot, life on the production tracks was a good deal less amenable. Although generally well regarded by union leaders for being honourable and fair-minded, Lyons took a hard line in labour disputes, and while Jaguar’s assembly-line issues were not as severe as at other BLMC plants, stoppages were frequent, and by the decade’s end, growing in virulence.
It’s worth recalling that the Browns Lane plant dated back to the 1930s, as indeed did much of the work practices, not to mention facilities for the track workers. Work was insecure and while a majority of Jaguar line workers viewed themselves as an elite, production engineers did not design XJ6 for ease (or accuracy) of assembly, so it wasn’t always the line worker’s fault that they didn’t go together that readily.
The XJ6 was the most complex car Jaguar had yet produced, and this complexity brought new problems, exposing the limits of Jaguar’s curious collection of self contained fiefdoms – the biggest of all being their massively outdated plant and assembly procedures.
In addition to manufacturing, there was also a fundamental issue with Jaguar’s paint process. Browns Lane’s paint plant was if anything, more antiquated than its assembly lines, parts of it dating back to the 1930s. This meant that Jaguar could offer only a limited number of non-metallic colours, while rustproofing was rudimentary at best.
Browns Lane’s antiquated plant was in desperate need of replacement in order to raise production volumes, but owing to government intransigence in insisting on relocation to a ‘development region’ and BLMC management’s apparent inability to recognise the urgency of Jaguar’s need, funding was not sanctioned until 1973, at the very cusp of the fuel crisis.
Meanwhile, year on year, Jaguar’s not insignificant profits were syphoned off and poured into BLMC’s struggling volume car business. Historian and author, Chris Cowin, made the following withering observation. “What happened at Jaguar during the period of British Leyland stewardship was a national scandal.”
It’s likely that Sir William Lyons agreed to surrender his company’s independence in 1966 for reasons of security: security of body supply, security of inward-investment and security against corporate predators. With Jaguar now a small but still shining satellite of the vast BLMC planetary system, the signs that some of these rationales were being reneged upon were growing.
Jaguar’s assumption into, firstly BMC and later the BLMC organisation was at best, a disappointing reversal of its original promise, but at worst a stark betrayal. Certainly, it was, by the early 1970s a very poor deal for Jaguar, who were starved of investment, let down by suppliers and haemorrhaged by their BLMC masters. As Sir William Lyons moved towards retirement, it must have been with a heavy heart. The safe harbour he had sought had turned out to be mined.
In 1968, when XJ launched, Jaguar was, in addition to future XJ4-derived models, seeking funding for a number of new product lines. These comprised of XJ21 – a V12 powered GT on the E-Type platform, XJ17 – an all-new compact 2+2 coupé and XJ27 – a large luxury coupé based on XJ4. While Jaguar’s own deliberations saw XJ21 abandoned, BLMC product planning policies meant XJ17 was also culled, with Lord Stokes decreeing that Jaguar would no longer operate at the lower end of the luxury market. Plans were cut down to two models – XJ25, which would be introduced in 1971 as the Series Three E-Type and XJ27, which would finally emerge as the XJ-S.
This may have been a blessing in disguise since Jaguar’s engineers’ workload continued to be an onerous one. With the V12 installation into the XJ saloon* facing continued setback and delay, frustration grew. Complicating matters further was the increasingly stringent emissions regulations emanating from the United States. By the close of the decade, over 60% of Jaguar’s engineering resource was devoted entirely to regulatory compliance.
Jaguar’s six cylinder powerplant was strong and well proven, but it was heavy, bulky and in 4.2 litre form, well past its developmental limit. Owing to US demand, Jaguar had enlarged the XK unit to improve the torque output, but this necessitated the bores to be staggered, which led to a very Heath Robinson combustion arrangement. The downside was a chronic propensity to overheat – an issue Jaguar never fully cured. The 4.2 was also less refined and notably less durable than its predecessors at higher engine speeds. In short, in the words of a former insider, it was “a bloody awful engine.”
More damaging was the reputation for piston failure which attached itself to the 2.8 litre engine. This unit, a derivation of the 4.2 block, proved highly sensitive to a combination of post-combustion deposits and very high exhaust valve temperatures, which lead to pre-ignition and in extreme cases, piston failure under light engine loads. It was a problem which also affected the larger unit, but its greater swept area mitigated matters somewhat. It took some time and a lot of head-scratching to eradicate, but this issue quickly sullied the 2.8’s reputation, and in mid-1973, it was quietly withdrawn from the UK market. Former senior engineer, Tom Jones later acknowledged, “we tried to do it too cheaply“.
By then, a number of development cars were running with the experimental 3565cc V8 engine. While engineers were satisfied with performance and driveability, they discovered it to be notably deficient in NVH terms. This programme would be reluctantly abandoned in 1971, leaving Jaguar saddled with the flawed but acceptable 4.2 XK unit for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, further threats emerged from within the BLMC mothership. Prior to its formation, Leyland-owned Rover initiated development of a flagship model, dubbed P8 which was intended as a direct rival to Jaguar and Mercedes. Following the BLMC merger, Sir William argued at board level that P8 was an expensive luxury the new car giant couldn’t afford, given that it would simply cannibalise XJ6 sales.
However, the technically advanced Rover had one ace up its sleeve – a more commodious cabin, particularly in the rear compartment. Stung into action, an edict was sent from Deputy MD, Raymond (Lofty) England in 1970, for a long-wheelbase XJ bodyshell. Because the conversion needed to be carried out as quickly and cheaply as possible, the additional four inches of length was confined aft of the B-pillar, with only the rear doors being enlarged. As a solution, it was quick, dirty but sufficient, and while the Rover P8 programme was cancelled in 1971 (for a host of other reasons), the advent of the stretched XJ probably hastened its demise.
Two years later, Jaguar finally announced the twelve cylinder XJ and shortly afterwards, the LWB body, initially as a super-luxury Daimler model, aimed at the market vacated by the larger 420G, discontinued in 1970. Painted and trimmed to a high standard at the coachbuilder’s Kingsbury works, the Double Six Vanden Plas marked the XJ’s apogee.
The longer body was later that year made available throughout the range, which now encompassed over a dozen combinations of nameplates, engine sizes, transmissions and wheelbase lengths. But after five years in the market, a major revision, bringing forth a host of technical and stylistic revisions was being readied for a September launch.
Since 1969, a total of 98,129 first series XJ models had been built, but given the shortages, stoppages and lack of manufacturing capacity at Browns Lane, that figure really ought to have been far higher. Certainly, for the first five years of the XJ6’s life, annual production only once exceeded 20,000 cars, way short, both of early projections and of the Browns Lane plant’s potential. In terms of missed opportunities, this was a sobering state of affairs.
While Lyons had been in charge, Jaguar had carefully controlled volumes, the policy having been to create demand through scarcity. More cars than were available were habitually allocated to distributors, who then had to scrabble to deliver. This kept Jaguar’s production lines running despite the fact that their cars were not always in massive demand.
The XJ6 changed all that. Demand for the car was insatiable and while the often fractious relationship with dealers was largely smoothed over by the car’s evident appeal, Jaguar’s inability to manufacture them strained matters to breaking point. With Sir William’s retirement, this policy would alter, but slowly and at some considerable cost.
Already fully subsumed within the BLMC car giant, the close of 1973 saw Jaguar entering a new era. Futile attempts were made by Lyons’ immediate successor to maintain continuity, but the old ways were really no longer fit for the purpose. Change was belatedly coming to Browns Lane, but as geopolitical storm clouds gathered, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
At the 1973 Frankfurt motor show, Jaguar displayed the facelifted Series II XJ series, billed in the launch material as “the logical evolution of British Leyland’s most coveted car.” External revisions were largely confined to the nose treatment which lent the car a fresher appearance. The revisions were made partly with one eye to the XJ’s duration in the marketplace, but mostly in accordance with increasingly stringent US regulations.
The work of Jaguar’s styling team under Doug Thorpe; while regulations tied their hands somewhat in terms of what could be effected, it can perhaps best be described as competent, rather than inspired. However, Jim Randle was among Series II’s champions, telling Driven to Write…
“Series 1 was a bit fussy, I thought. One thing that was always strange was the height of the bumper, front to rear. Of course the larger grille suited that situation anyway, but with the requirement to meet a 5-mph impact without damage, these bumpers had to go to the right height relative to each other. That narrowed the grille and I thought Series II tidied that up quite well.”
A great deal of work went into the original XJ’s heating and ventilation system, not to mention the air conditioning that was so important for US customers. However, it remained one of the most criticised aspects, and for Series II, both were totally redesigned. Also significantly updated was the instrument panel and switchgear.
Out went the traditional and attractive row of toggle switches, relocated closer to the driver or replaced with warning lights. Minor gauges were now grouped around the main instrumentation, but the addition of a pair of unsightly, if practical rectangular air vents lent a slightly downmarket air. Series II also incorporated a good deal of additional equipment, which included the option of central locking and a factory fitted sunroof. However, the latter development was not without issues as Jim Randle recounted to DTW with some amusement.
“The sunroof on the saloon had a major boom problem, particularly if you tried to open it at speed; suddenly it was quite awful. [Bob Knight] found that if you held a packet of cigarettes up just at the edge of the screen, it would change the flow of air over the car and get rid of it. If you look at any of the old Series II’s, with the sunroof, you’ll find there’s a rubber thing that looks like somebody’s fingers sticking out at the front!”
Initially offered with the option of both wheelbase lengths (all Series II V12s were LWB), the more compact (and better proportioned) body lasted only a year before being phased out in favour of the more popular LWB version. More commodious it may have been, but aesthetically, it was another matter. Yet so appealing were the XJ’s lines, the discrepancy was barely commented upon.
The short wheelbase body would see a brief reprieve however; the major surprise at the Series II Frankfurt reveal being the addition of an elegant two-door pillarless coupé. However, while it was shown in 1973, it remained some way off production-readiness. The Series II revisions were generally well received by the press, with US publication, Road & Track saying, “The result of these revisions is nothing short of outstanding…”
Raymond ‘Lofty’ England’s brief tenure as Jaguar Chief executive was curtailed in 1973, with Lord Stokes of the (probably correct) view that England was too much of a Lyons-loyalist to enact much-needed reforms. Geoffrey Robinson had been BLMC’s financial controller before being sent to Turin to manage the Innocenti operation. Now based at the nearby Posthouse Hotel as he flitted from Browns Lane to Turin, the energetic 34 year old brought a very different ethos and major expansion plans.
Stokes had realised that an expanded Jaguar could earn his car business serious money, but UK government intransigence prevented much useful progress being made unless they were prepared to move to an area of industrial deprivation. This proposal was rejected, with Jaguar insisting on development taking place at Browns Lane.
Finally a £60 million plan was agreed upon where the Browns Lane site would be expanded, a new link road built to divert heavy traffic from a now heavily built-up area and a new paint plant would be added. Production would be ramped up gradually, firstly to around 60,000 cars per annum, with 90,000 being the ultimate aim. With volumes like these, Jaguar would become a major global player.
But geopolitical events have a way of undoing the best laid plans, and these plans were not laid well. Production was increased, but as the World reeled from the aftermath of the Middle East oil embargo, Jaguar’s expansion plans were thrown into confusion. Robinson, believing the crisis to be short-lived pressed on, but with the push to increase production at all costs, build quality plummeted, aided by the increasing labour unrest and often shocking inadequacy of bought-in components.
Demand slumped alarmingly in the aftermath of the energy crisis, unsold cars piled up and quickly deteriorated. With its profligate 12 mpg thirst, the XJ12 model was particularly affected, and the demise of the smaller engined models left Jaguar woefully exposed. While it had been deleted from the UK price lists in 1973, a small number of SWB 2.8 litre Series II models were built for export markets, but these too petered out. Jaguar engineers readied a larger 3442 cc version of the XK unit, largely one suspects, because the largely debugged and now discontinued 2.8 placed Jaguar too close to the forthcoming Rover SD1.
The XJ 3.4 model was introduced in 1975, as was a fuel injected version of the V12. This system, engineered by Bosch, but adapted by Lucas and Jaguar, restored the V12’s power output, improved emissions and fuel economy. But in the messy aftermath of BLMC’s insolvency, amidst the UK government’s notorious rescue plan, Jaguar was fighting for its life.
For the next three years, Browns Lane was locked down, with only the engineering department offering any meaningful leadership. Rebel in-chief was the unlikely figure of Bob Knight, who alongside Jim Randle and a small legion of cohorts, simply behaved as though BL wasn’t there. Very little got done, but BL’s rationalisation and interference were kept largely ay bay.
The Series II limped on, battered by the onslaught of the Rover SD1, a car which rendered it dated overnight, but couldn’t match it for refinement or outright grace, outmatched by its better made German rivals and hampered by thirsty large-capacity engines. Jaguar engineers laboured to improve efficiency, and to obtain funding for a new more efficient XJ40 saloon, but with BL now crippled, no money was forthcoming.
By 1978, the XJ had become something of an anachronism, its styling, while still appealing, appeared somewhat old fashioned, its finish and reliability a poor joke and its appeal in the market fading. It seemed as though the car, so lauded a decade before, had reached the end of the road. But like all great survivors, while it may have been on the ropes, the XJ wasn’t quite out of the game. There would be one more ace to play.
“All I try to do is make nice cars…” (Sir William Lyons)
Throughout its history Jaguar have produced faster, more visually arresting, more technically dense cars; indeed, more commercially successful cars (and with over 400,000 units built over three distinct series the XJ was successful), but it’s debatable whether they ever produced as complete a car. A forward looking design which transcended its convoluted gestation, last-minute revisions and troubled career to become something which far outweighed the sum of its parts.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the XJ6 in Jaguar’s history. It arrived at a point when Jaguar had stagnated. With a dated and poorly selling saloon range, falling US sales and a merger strategy which was already showing signs of unravelling, it completely revitalised the business in terms of confidence and direction, and had it been possible to build them in numbers commensurate with demand, their commercial prospects would have been transformed.
In many ways the XJ Series epitomised Jaguar’s uneven approach to carmaking. Sublime styling, an uncompromisingly highbrow engineering ethos, an alluring overall package, but no real ability to manufacture a quality product. The opportunity to remodel the business at a time when worldwide demand for the XJ was at its height was squandered by a diverted and somewhat antagonistic BLMC management, by elements within Browns Lane who resisted moves to evolve Lyons’ dated business principles, and by labour issues which bedevilled the entire UK industry.
In the wake of Sir William’s retirement, his immediate successor became locked-in to the Jaguar founder’s principles and fiercely resisted reform – much of which was urgently needed. BLMC appointee, Geoffrey Robinson attempted to effect this (with distinctly mixed success) but became a hostage to fortune. It took another decade, new management and a vastly different climate to shift the dial.
History cannot be altered, but such was the XJ concept’s overall excellence, it not only humbled far more expensive machinery, but maintained this pre-eminent position throughout the following decades, despite the slings, arrows and outrageous fortune that embodied of the worst of the BL years. Indeed, in its final third Series form, it spearheaded Jaguar’s rebirth, allowing customers to fall in love with its charms all over again.
The XJ6 came about simply because Sir William Lyons decided upon the course of action Jaguar should take. No product committees, no clinics, no marketing plan, just pure gut instinct. The primary reason it became such a powerful marque-archetype was that it represented the unswerving vision of one man, backed by perhaps the finest conceptual engineering minds in the business. Their expertise and skill saw a conventionally engineered car achieve heights of noise suppression, ride comfort and refinement which remain unsurpassed to this day. Cars are not designed like this now.
They are not styled this way either. Because the true poetry of the XJ lies within its line and form. From an aesthetic perspective, there is little doubt that it remains the single four-door saloon of the modern era which has edged closest to perfection. Certainly, it is acutely difficult to pin-point any significant stylistic criticisms, not without accusations of petty-mindedness at least.
That it represented the apogee of the ‘Lyons Line’ there can be no doubt. So pleased was Sir William with the finished product (sublimated in SWB XJ12 form in this author’s opinion), he chose to step away from styling almost entirely, limiting himself to a purely consultative role.
Certainly, whatever one’s view of Lyons as a businessman or leader (and in these matters, opinions vary), in stylistic terms his eye for line and form remain unsurpassed. The loss to Jaguar following his 1972 retirement was one (despite the efforts of many) from which the carmaker never quite recovered.
It’s also beyond doubt that only Sir William Lyons truly understood how a Jaguar should look and feel. The cars represented his personal taste to such an extent that not only did he struggle to articulate his methodology – both in visual or verbal terms – nobody else could accurately replicate it.
Having produced what was in his mind the closest to his ideal, it was perhaps inevitable that he chose to step away. After all, it’s entirely possible that he, like so many great artists before him, simply felt he had nothing more to add.
In the spring of 1975, the XJ finally went on sale in coupé form, but the timing proved somewhat inauspicious.
From the point of inception, it had been Jaguar’s intention to produce the XJ in two door coupé form. Indeed, during 1967, Jaguar’s North American distributors stated that they were only interested in this body style. But with the XJ4 programme already a good 18-months behind schedule, and other BLMC programmes being accorded priority, PSF ceased development of the coupé body entirely.
This remained the state of affairs in 1969. With XJ6 production getting under way, PSF were in no position to expedite matters and with demand for the saloon so high, all hands were set to fulfilling it. However that year, Sir William Lyons had the artisans within his secret styling shop convert a surplus saloon shell into a pillarless coupé.
This was a cut and shut job, largely to ascertain its feasibility and prove the styling. Once Lyons was satisfied, the finished car – the only Series 1 Coupé ever made was secreted within Browns Lane, awaiting sanction. But despite efforts to add it to the product plan, no BLMC funding was forthcoming. It appeared as though the final car whose styling Sir William personally supervised prior to his retirement would remain a one-off.
But it seems Lyons’ successor, ‘Lofty’ England, was determined to see Sir William’s final opus reach production and having cobbled together a business plan for the model, obtained backing for it to be shown at the 1973 Frankfurt Motor show as an adjunct to the revised Series II XJ saloons. But while the car caused something of a sensation, XJ33 was anything but production-ready.
Much of the XJ saloon’s torsional rigidity stemmed from its substantial side sills and hefty transmission tunnel. However, the centre pillars also carried a great deal of the body stresses and because Sir William was insistent upon a pillarless style, the consequences of their removal was profound, as Jim Randle recalled.
“It was a difficult car to develop. That was largely because of the loss of the b-pillar. The car used to go on resonance, so road noise and so forth would bring up a low-frequency boom. You could cure it entirely by putting a piece of wood between the base of the b-pillars, but sales and marketing wouldn’t go for that, even if we veneered it! But actually, we more or less cured it by putting damping door seals in there; foam seals, because those doors were heavy.”
But the pillarless layout exposed other issues as well. Aerodynamically, the presence of a low pressure area had the effect of sucking the unsupported side-glass outwards, leading to excessive wind noise and sealing problems. Furthermore, developing a reliable winding mechanism which would allow the rear side glass to fully retract proved intensely difficult. Jaguar’s senior body engineer, Cyril Crouch was given that unenviable task to perform – the resultant cable and pulley system being the result.
Despite a good deal of development, which delayed the car’s introduction some eighteen months, the sealing and wind-noise problems were never fully eradicated. Some owners, including Jaguar’s Tom Jones allegedly solved the problem by having the side glass screwed shut.
The XJ-C was an exceptionally elegant car, the side window DLO being particularly harmonious in execution. However, it remains a matter of conjecture whether it matched or exceeded the visual purity of the short wheelbase saloon. Not particularly aiding the XJ-C’s cause was the standard fitment of that de-rigueur Seventies accoutrement, the vinyl covered roof.
There was an element of fashion to this – many Series II saloons were so fitted – but also, it’s believed that owing to flexing of the coupé bodyshell and the somewhat rudimentary paint technology employed, it could also be said to have covered a multitude.
Technically, the XJ-C was identical to the saloon and was offered with the same combination of 4.2 or 5.3 litre engines, transmissions and marque nameplates as the four-door. Only the bodyshell, which shared the same wheelbase as the SWB saloon differed markedly. But if the standard XJ saloon was a complex car from a build perspective, the coupé proved a good deal more so, and owing to complications associated with its assembly it required a dedicated line at Browns Lane.
UK demand for the car was weak, owing perhaps to prevailing economic conditions, the aftermath of the oil embargo, the negative publicity surrounding the embattled BL group and the fact that the four-door XJ looked as good, cost less and in LWB form offered a good deal more practicality.
In the US market, while sales of personal luxury coupés hadn’t completely nose-dived, they were in significant decline. The XJ-C had simply arrived a decade too late. Furthermore, the Autumn announcement of the mechanically similar XJ-S saw potential V12 XJ-C customers on both sides of the Atlantic opt instead for the newer, more modish alternative, despite some reservations towards XJ-S’ more radical style.
The XJ-C became something of a liability for Jaguar, owing to its complex build, NVH, refinement and sealing issues, so the decision was reluctantly taken to discontinue the model in 1977. Curiously, the last few hundred were listed as 1978 models; these cars, in V12 form were fitted with the far-superior GM 400 automatic gearbox, which became common to all V12-engined Jaguar’s that year. In all, 10,487 XJ-C models were built.
XJ-C wouldn’t be the first or last car which entered production with significant and fundamental flaws, largely because its creators were hooked upon its styling. Certainly its looks and suave demeanour acted as a powerful counterbalance to its foibles, but it’s debatable as to whether these were sufficient, then or now. But for many however, it remains (from a visual perspective at least) the XJ perfected.
It’s somewhat ironic that XJ-C, despite being planned from the outset, arrived as something of an afterthought and having been eclipsed by in-house rivals, went out with something of a whimper – a consequence perhaps of having been left on the back burner too long. Realistically then, while a nice idea in theory, the Coupé probably ought to have remained a one-off.
* The story of the V12 engine and Series III XJ will be told in separate articles.
We recommend this dissertation upon XJ6 here
Sources – further reading:
Car Magazine – 12 Gun Salute Jan 1993
Classic & Sportscar – Lyons’ Pride November 1986
Project XJ40 – Philip Porter
Jaguar – History of a Great British Car – Andrew Whyte
Sir William Lyons – The Official Biography – Philip Porter / Paul Skilleter
British Leyland: Chronicle of a Car Crash 1968-1978 – Chris Cowin
The Will to Win – John Underwood
Octane – September 2018
Jim Randle interview – © Driven to Write
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