In 1978, Pininfarina made one final pitch to gain Jaguar’s business. It didn’t succeed, but did it precipitate another, more tangled narrative web?
By around 1976 the automotive world had broadly coalesced around the belief that Jaguar’s XJ-S was, in stylistic terms a rather poor show from a carmaker renowned for being the business of beauty. It didn’t really matter that this particular set of shared assumptions had largely been formed by a UK and US press corps who had whipped themselves into a frenzy on the false premise that Jaguar would reprise the E-Type’s impact and ambition and by consequence required a scapegoat when reality proved somewhat different.
Blaming Jaguar was perhaps cathartic and while some argued the carmaker might have controlled the narrative a little better in the run up to the XJ-S’ announcement, in reality, the embattled residents of Browns Lane couldn’t control much of anything by the Autumn of 1975, being locked in an almost daily battle for survival against the forces of assimilation.
Against this febrile backdrop came the inevitable attempts at alternate realities, the Italian carrozzieri being of similar mind as regards the visual merits of Jaguar’s flagship GT. First across the bows was Bertone who showed their wedge-shaped Ascot concept in 1977, a proposal which Jaguar’s Bob Knight and Jim Randle found as easy to dismiss as Mr Gandini’s successive saloon proposals languishing under dust sheets in the Allesley experimental works.
The same year, Pininfarina, who had in 1975 successfully received a commission to restyle Jaguar’s existing XJ saloon, proposed a two seater concept, requesting an XJ-S as basis. With Browns Lane’s cordial but non-committal blessing, a rather well-used development car was provided, which, shorn of its roof and outer bodywork, would be transformed into the putative show-car swan.
Styling was the responsibility of Elio Nicosia, a longstanding Pininfarina designer, who under the leadership of Leonardo Fioravanti, would later be credited with the designs for the 1984 Ferrari Testarossa and 288 GTO. Drawing heavily upon Jaguar’s sports-racing heritage; ostensibly the designs of Malcolm Sayer, the XJ Spider as it was unimaginatively dubbed was as much Pininfarina as Jaguar in form, reflecting the pioneering aerodynamic studies the carrozzeria had been carrying out, particularly with the CNR-PF so-called ‘banana car’ concept.
Speaking to Car magazine’s Mel Nichols, Pininfarina’s Lorenzo Ramaciotti suggested the design team quickly settled upon the design theme. “It evolved very easily, and it just seemed the ideal shape – a fine blend of Jaguar tradition with a strong but contemporary Pininfarina flavour.” Aerodynamic efficiency also played a significant role, with the car being subjected to testing at Pininfarina’s own wind tunnel, where it was said to have performed better than expected, with a claimed drag coefficient of 0.36.
The intention was to have a completed prototype ready for the 1978 British motor show. The car barely made it, arriving as a non-runner and in an incomplete state. Painted in a deep shade of metallic British Racing Green as a nod to heritage, its reception was mixed, one rival designer suggesting to Autocar’s Ray Hutton that it looked ‘like a dark green slug’.
By the following year, Pininfarina had completed the car, adding further styling details and ensuring it was both a fully-functional runner and that elements like the roof mechanism and solid state instruments worked. The car was also repainted silver, which did show its lines in a more flattering light.
While perhaps the most convincing of all the Italian coachbuilder’s efforts to replicate Jaguar style, the XJ Spider however was something of a curate’s egg from a visual perspective. The Coventry styling cues are easily discerned and unlike the carrozzeria’s XJ12-PF from 1973, are perhaps better integrated, yet somehow, like its forebear, it fails wholly to gel.
It’s a broadly handsome shape, of that there can be little doubt, but there is a bluntness to its forms, particularly towards the rear. The issue here is not so much its height (although it was deemed quite radical at the time), more its width, which demonstrates a fundamental lack of appreciation for the nuances of Jaguar design themes.
Of course, using the stylistic hard points of the XJ-S, (not for the first time one must note), itself derived from the XJ saloon was hardly conducive to producing a compact, lithe and lightweight sports two-seater, and despite running the risk of sounding needlessly critical, Nicosia and Pininfarina failed to quite capture the required delicacy of form. Creating Jaguars, after all, is a good harder than it might first appear.
Having completed the rounds of the auto shows, the XJ Spider, now fully drivable, was featured prominently by the UK press during 1979, with Autocar’s Italian correspondent, Gianni Rogliatti taking to Turin’s streets, accompanied by Leonardo Fioravanti, while Mel Nichols assumed the wheel for Car magazine. In 1991, it resurfaced in the pages of Classic and Sportscar, confined to the grounds of Cambiano’s Studi e Ricerche centre. Needless to say, all who drove it clamoured loudly for it to be immediately commissioned.
In 1983, as word emerged that Browns Lane was initiating a new ‘sportscar’ programme dubbed XJ41, Nichols wrote once more of the XJ Spider’s prescience, alleging in Car that the new Jaguar was also to be styled at Cambiano, while declaiming that, as he put it, Pininfarina’s bait had been ‘beautifully taken‘. Which was either a nice line in unsubstantiated hyperbole (a longstanding tradition of both writer and publication), or a deft piece of misinformation from Browns Lane.
While it’s obvious that the XJ Spider made it to Allesley where it would have been studied intensely by Jaguar’s engineering leadership, by the styling team and undoubtedly by Sir William Lyons during his infrequent visits to the factory, there is no evidence to suggest that there was any serious intent for the car to be produced. Anyway, by 1979, every available hand was diverted to getting the troubled Series III XJ saloon into production, so the idea of going cap in hand to BL’s Sir Michael Edwardes for a further wodge of cash was not be contemplated.
When Jaguar finally did create a car along these lines, there was no thought of involving Pininfarina or indeed, anyone else. XJ41 was created entirely in-house and was notable for being the very last design Sir William lent stylistic input to, prior to his death in 1985. What can be said is that Jaguar’s Keith Helfet, under the guidance of Browns Lane’s éminence grise, did a far better job.
But while that car’s torrid tale is one which must continue to remain shrouded in the impenetrable political mists into which it vanished in 1991, there can be little question that the advent of Pininfarina’s 1978 concept spun the thread of an idea in Mr. Engineer Randle’s mind’s eye. Spiders after all, have their uses.