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, not only could it be argued that this was XJ4’s original design intention, but during 1967, Jaguar’s North American distributors stated that they were only interested in a 2-door body style. But with the saloon-based XJ4 programme already a good 18-months behind schedule, and other BLMC programmes being accorded priority, Pressed Steel (PSF) ceased development of the coupé body entirely.
With XJ6 production getting under way, this remained the state of affairs in 1969. 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 could be obtained. It appeared as though the coupé, despite Sir William’s enthusiastic backing would remain a one-off.
But it seems Lyons’ successor, ‘Lofty’ England, was determined to see Sir William’s 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.
The issue for Jaguar’s engineers was that they were working in reverse. 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 sizeable portion of the body stresses and because Sir William had been insistent upon a pillarless style, the consequences of their removal was profound, as Jim Randle recalled to this author.
“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 problems 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 issues. Furthermore, developing a reliable winding mechanism which would allow the rear side glass to cleanly 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 much development work, which further delayed the car’s introduction some eighteen months, the sealing and wind-noise problems were never fully eradicated. Some owners, including Jaguar engineer, Tom Jones allegedly solved the problem by having the rear 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 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 XJ-C customers on both sides of the Atlantic opt instead for the newer, more modish alternative, despite there being some reservations to the XJ-S’ more radical style.
The XJ-C quickly became something of a liability for Jaguar, owing to its complex build, NVH, refinement and sealing issues, so the decision was taken to discontinue the model in 1977. Oddly, 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 coupé models were built.
The 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 having 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.
©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.