The XJ6 was and always will remain the quintessence of Jaguar.
“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 – but 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.
We recommend this definitive dissertation upon XJ4’s styling here
©Driven to Write. All rights reserved.
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