The Quintessence : (Part Nine)

The XJ6 was and always will remain the quintessence of Jaguar. 

© Jaguar Heritage

“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.

© Driven to Write

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.

© Driven to Write

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

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “The Quintessence : (Part Nine)”

  1. May I second your opinion on the SWB XJ12 being the apotheosis, Eoin? (Accent not knowingly available on this keyboard – apologies!)

  2. Thanks gentlemen – it was a pleasure to write. The intention going forward is to cover the XJ12 separately, as it deserves a thorough in-depth assessment of its own. Similarly, Series III will be covered on its 40th anniversary, this coming February.

    Peter: I’m agnostic to their use – in my view it’s discretionary. But if the urge takes you, select alt gr and the relevant vowel on your keyboard for your sine fada requirements.

  3. Yes, a wonderful series of articles. Thank you. However, I now find myself wanting an XJ6, so you may have precipitated my financial ruin.

  4. Thank you for such a wonderful series on a wonderful car. This car was the standard bearer of the marque for so many years. It embodies all the qualities that made the Jaguar the special car that it has been and will continue to be. The current models reflect the contemporary values of the company. While I am not in the favorable position to purchase one of these new cars, I enjoy my older XJ6 and XJS.

  5. You´re quite right about the XJ´s appearance. I´d be really interested to say what a curvature analysis of the main forms would reveal. They would not add to the beauty but at least hint at the techique behind the forms. The content of the car´s form defy easy analysis because it´s not plainly “Modern” and it´s not plainly antique. The car is a manifestation of another approach to form-giving and goodness knows if even Lyons understood what was being achieved. It was done unselfconsciously, I assume much like classic tailors have an instinctive feel for their craft. Just to take an example of the subtle fins on the tail. I don´t think there´s any known design science that would lead one to do that but it is utterly correct. It is sui generis – and as Eoin says, probably Lyons could not express it at all.

    1. Remember that the XJ’s original intention was to be a four door E Type and the first prototypes shown on AROnline look exactly like that. Then do what Sir William Lyons did and cut thirty centimetres off the E Type’s rear and you get the fins.

  6. Thank you Eóin. The XJ merits your excellent essay in a way that few cars do.
    How naïve I was to think that such a paragon would remain accessible.
    The upside is that at last they are being spared the banger track.

  7. I’d like to ponder the thought the XJ6 only became a classic with sheer perseverance and long hard work, it went to hell and back, almost died along the way, became resurrected, and was rewarded with instant classic car status already in its life time.

    But what would’ve happened if it had not completed its full circle? What would’ve happened if the XJ40 had been completed on time in 1979 and the Series III had never came to be?

    The Series I would’ve been known as the prodigy they could never make enough of, while the Series II would’ve been known only as that long in the tooth model with questionable build quality they kept too long after its sell by date.

    I mean it is the Series III that completes the circle and justify the status of the other two. Because it had gone full circle from being merely anachronistic to become a ready made classic car. And it was recognized as such at the time, nobody bought an XJ6 in the 80’s because they were slightly off kilter, they bought it because it was an instant classic, and a smashing success at that.

    The Series III accounted for almost 45% of total Series I-III production, the last two years of production was also the second and third best year of all time with almost 30K cars produced in each year of 1985 and 86. And the Series III continued in production even after the introduction of the XJ40 with about 1500 V12 cars per year up until 1992.

    1. Does the Series III rate as the most successful reworking (facelift is hardly adequate in this case) of an existing model, both aesthetically and commercially, in automotive history? My memory stretches back to the 1970’s and I can’t think of a better one, in Europe at least.

    2. With respect to long-lived car types (off-roader, roadster, luxury car) your comment suggests that the XJ had landed in the area of a long-lived car type and probably didn´t need to adhere to normal 7 year product cycles. It needed only continual, careful improvement as per Rolls or the Toyota Century. All it needed to do was to look and feel fabulous and like Barbour jackets and Swiss Army knives it would sell steadily to those who wanted something alternative to the other prestige cars. The more I think about it, a good design can persevere for more than a decade. I bet Century sales are steady across its lifecycle. This planned obsolecence thing is insane not only for consumers but for engineers trying to up the ante when the ante can´t be uppped in any meaningful way.

  8. Good morning, Richard. I should make clear that I’m not arguing that the Series III was a better looking car than its predecessors. However, the Series II, while supremely elegant, was looking somewhat dated against its competition. The reworking successfully updated it while maintaining its essential beauty.

    1. If I remember correctly the reworking was done by Pininfarina. They did what they knew best and created a truly timeless beauty, this time out of an already beautiful if somewhat traditional car. No other designer would have been able to do what was considered an impossible job at the time and improve on the original XJ.
      Other reworkings in the same league could be Bertoni’s new front for Citroen DS, Pininfarina’s transmogrification of Ferrari 348 to 355 and I definitely belong to a minority in thinking that a CX MkII looks better than the original chrome bumper version.

  9. I’d like to just add my thanks and admiration for the writing in this series – great story-telling, insightful commentary, illuminating facts and quotes from key individuals. There have been a few ‘professional’ pieces in car magazines recently given the anniversary of this car and the passing of its latest iteration, but none can hold a candle to what you have achieved with this oeuvre.

    It remains a gorgeous car, truly timeless and still a reference point for others in this class.

  10. Daniel, Ford Granada 2. The doors give it away..
    It’s no glamour puss, but Uncle Henry turned a tidy profit.

    1. Hi Rob, yes, that little uptick in the rear door window line, blacked out and disguised by a straight chrome trim on the saloon (but still visible on the estate) indicated just how much of the Mk1 lived on beneath the new outer skin of the Mk2, which was a quite handsome and contempory design, particularly after it was facelifted.

      Ford was expert at recycling old underpinnings, but sometimes their chutzpah (cynicism?) in doing so was breathtaking. Remember the Mk2 Escort? The estate (and van) version was simply the coke-bottle style Mk1 with a Mk2 style nose:

      Imagine any manufacturer trying to get away with that ruse today!

  11. I saved this part nine for the weekend. Glad I did; nine cracking articles and some excellent responses to boot.
    Upon finishing, my in box gave me Martin Buckley’ view of these loveable rogues in his nicely worded and very suitably pictured C&SC article. A nice accompanyment to Eoin’s plain fascinating insights.
    Now forra cuppa and the latest posts missed due to bonfires

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