Saving Grace – Part One

Forty years ago, Jaguar introduced the Series III XJ. Its combination of virtues cast deep and lasting shadows.

Best until last? (c) jaglovers

Frequently exercises in diminishing returns, facelifts tend to fall into the category of change for changes sake, or perhaps a last ditch effort to breathe life into a fading model line. Rare indeed is one which successfully transcends its originator. But if the original XJ saloon’s body styling was the inevitable culmination of a lifetime’s study by a master auteur, the Series III of 1979 proved by comparison to be something of a fortuitous accident.

In 1973 Jaguar introduced the second-series XJ, a modest revision of a highly successful model line – for at the time, no more was required. By then, work had already begun upon its ultimate replacement – the troubled XJ40 programme, then scheduled for release in Autumn 1977.

But the tectonic plates that underpinned Browns Lane had become highly unstable – within a year their BLMC parent would founder and with it, Jaguar as a functioning carmaker. In 1975, with XJ40’s stuttering progress mired in political interference, creative indecision and budgetary austerity, Jaguar’s leadership embarked upon an ambitious (if hitherto unplanned) modernisation programme for the existing XJ saloon.

With Jaguar’s own styling team grappling with XJ40’s bodyshape, it was decided to engage external consultants to lend the existing car a continued lease of life. Two years previously, former MD, Geoffrey Robinson commissioned three Italian carrozzieri to pitch for the XJ40 design commission. In the event, none of the Italian proposals were accepted, with both Bertone and Ital Design asked to resubmit their work.

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With the prospect of a third series XJ, Jaguar’s engineers were presented with an opportunity not only to further develop the car from a technical perspective, but also to correct the proportions of the existing long wheelbase saloon bodystyle, where an additional four inches added aft of the B-pillar had produced a rather unbalanced appearance. Furthermore, since the XJ’s debut, Jaguar’s US customers were lobbying for more cabin space, with rear headroom coming in for particular criticism. The core of the revised design brief therefore was to modify the canopy and subtly modernise the aesthetics, which it was felt, had started to date.

Having an established connection in place with the Italian design houses, the Transalpine studios were an obvious choice to provide styling proposals for the revised car. But not without some trepidation at Browns Lane, especially when it came to making significant alterations to the XJ body style. Speaking to Autocar for their coverage of the Series III’s March 1979 announcement, Jaguar’s Bob Knight expressed his misgivings, telling journalist, Mike Scarlett, “It scares me to death – what needs changing”?

Former engineering director, Jim Randle was tasked with delivering the XJ50 (Series III) programme, and in 2016 recalled to this author, “We had two cars, one by Pininfarina, one by Bertone – but we ditched the Bertone one.” Change was certainly part of the design brief, but despite the XJ coming under increasing pressure from Jaguar’s European rivals, so too was continuity.

Externally, while cleaving faithfully to the outgoing car, in reality, there was scarcely a single shared panel – meaning that far from simply being a thorough facelift, the Series III was in fact tantamount to a full reskin. Little is known of the Bertone proposal, but it is unlikely to have differed dramatically from that of their Cambiano rivals – who successfully managed the seemingly impossible.

Jim Randle: “You’d have thought the door lengths might have buggered it up in some respect, but I thought it was nicely balanced – it took the extra four inches [of wheelbase] and did it properly.” Because to take a car design universally hailed for its soft-formed 1960’s-influenced surfacing and sharpen its lines could easily have been a recipe for disaster – and in the wrong hands most likely would have been.

(c) Hemmings

But Pininfarina’s designers, under the supervision of Leonardo Fioravanti and Lorenzo Ramiciotti subtly massaged the existing proportions, pulling the front screen pillars forward at the base, lengthening the sideglass, which in conjunction with the deletion of the front quarterlight dramatically mitigated the visual discrepancy between front and rear door lengths.

The roof panel was made flatter and narrower, increasing the tumblehome effect of the sideglazing, which was now also taller. Towards the rear, the roofline angle was made shallower, reducing the inclination of the backlight, lending a sharper profile to the canopy. The C-pillar was also reprofiled, as was the rear three-quarterlight, which gained a slight upkick. Both front and rear screens were now bonded to the body for improved rigidity.

These subtle changes above the beltline successfully produced not only a more contemporary looking motor car, but to the eyes of many, the finest looking of the entire series. Not that it was perfect, Randle recalling one aspect which never sat well with him visually. “There was one part of the styling I think was slightly wrong, and that was the rear window. You look from the rear, the radii top and bottom don’t work for me. It had a bow tie appearance, but the rest of it I thought was really nice, a very pretty car.

Also altered was the grille, which lost its cross-hatch effect for a simpler and more traditional vertically slatted arrangement. Flush door handles and larger bumpers with injection-moulded facings were added, and while these changes could have overwhelmed the styling, so well integrated were they as to appear virtually seamless.

There can be little doubt also that Series III benefited from the eye of someone else as Jaguar finalised its styling. The so-called Gothic tail lamps were said by historian, Andrew Whyte to have been to Sir William Lyons’s design instructions and it is conceivable that other subtle details would have come under the Jaguar founder’s gimlet-eyed purview.

(c) jaglovers

The Series III cabin also received a thorough reworking, and while architecturally similar to the outgoing car, hundreds of improvements took place. New, vastly improved front seats improved driver comfort, while thicker, more opulent carpeting was married with improved sound deadening, a new moulded roofliner, clearer instrumentation and a redesigned impact absorbing steering wheel, while matters such as central locking, the troublesome automatic gear selector mechanism and the windscreen wiping functionality received much-needed enhancements.

For Jaguaristes, the advent of the Series III came as an acute relief, since by the late ’70s the mood music from within BL was of the gloomiest variety – with rumours of reskinned Rover SD1’s being some of the more lurid predictions. However, given the privations and politics of the period, the fact that the revisions were so accomplished and well-executed came as a thoroughly pleasant surprise.

No less surprised or relieved were the UK automotive press – Autocar prefacing their coverage by stating; “Perfecting the near-perfect?… well, Browns Lane tries to.

(c) jaglovers

But Cambiano’s styling revisions were not universally lauded, then or now. Perhaps the most prominent and perhaps, surprising critic being current Jaguar Design Director and stylistic Spiritus Rector, Ian Callum, who told Octane magazine last year: “I don’t think the new roof is an improvement. I preferred the original.

On the other hand, Jim Randle, who of course may have been slightly biased (after all, he did develop the car) was unequivocal as to which of the XJ series’ he favoured: “Oh I think the Series III for me… Pininfarina did a nice job there.

Creatively speaking, Series III was an unqualified success. However, in time-honoured Jaguar fashion, success would be short-lived.

Saving Grace continues here
More on the XJ-Series here
More on Jaguar here 

©Driven to write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Saving Grace – Part One”

  1. It is hard to fault the Series III overhaul, but the “bow tie” optical illusion affecting the rear window that Eóin mentions is undeniable, once you notice it (or have it pointed out to you, in my case):

    Series II for comparison:

    Perhaps, with hindsight, they might have left a little more curvature in the roof to avoid this?

    In any event, the Series III gave the XJ thirteen more years and it still looked classically handsome at the end of its life, some would say moreso than its XJ40 replacement.

  2. Having just taken a little dig at the XJ40, I offer this beauty to Eóin by way of atonement:

    Was this an “official” prototype or a (very capable) amateur project? If the former, what a shame it never made production.

    1. Daniel, the ’40 Coupé as shown above was created by Special Vehicles Operations around 1993, so it was semi-official, but given that by then, XJ40 had less than a year to live, was not considered for production. I suspect it was more a piece of motor show fodder, aimed at maintaining interest at a point where Jaguar had no new product to display. It used a shortened XJ40 bodyshell, and was (I believe) a fully running prototype. The car now resides in the Jaguar Heritage collection, alongside the considerably more attractive XJ40 Estate proposal.

      I must say, close inspection of the Coupé does not flatter it – the canopy and daylight openings appearing ill-resolved. It has none of the elegance of Lyons’ XJ-C for instance. Mind you, the offensive colour-keying doesn’t help matters either – whoever specced it ought to have been taken out and shot.

      However, Jaguar had been considering an XJ40 Coupé as far back as 1985/6, with the design team at Browns Lane working on a far more attractive looking proposal. Former Jaguar designer, Cliff Ruddell latterly posted the following image on social media.

      Indeed, the Coupé idea lasted into the X300 era it would seem, but the budget was never there, either during the independence era, or indeed under Ford ownership.

    2. Actually, I thought it was quite nice from that single photo, but then I’m a sucker for elegant 1960’s style grand touring coupés with slim pillars, so am easily pleased.

      Eóin, you’re certainly right about the colour keying. It would look a lot better if everything within the brightwork surrounding the DLO was satin black rather than body colour. IIRC, this was a period in which colour-keying was rife, often with revolting results. Given that there was never any intention to productionise it, I suppose it was a cut-and-shut job that cost about tuppence to build.

      The canopy actually put me in mind of another non-starter from the same stable:

    3. Daniel: I would out of necessity state that the SVO Coupé is no horror by any stretch, but it is, to my eyes at least, desperately disappointing insofar as the prospect of an XJ40 Coupé was something I once keenly anticipated. So much so that I sketched a side elevation for such a vehicle in and around 1987.

      Speaking of cut and shut jobs that cost tuppence to build, the Daimler XJ-S was an unofficial skunkworks project which didn’t clinic well and was abandoned. Customers missed the buttresses…

  3. Still the definitive Jaguar saloon design in my opinion. The bow tie rear window doesn’t bother me at all. Even the font used for the boot lid badging is unsurpassed.

    The line drawings comparing the tail treatments are fascinating. Initially a case of “spot the difference”, it’s a textbook example of how seemingly minor detail changes can have a profound effect.

  4. One of the all-time greats of sedan design, in my view. I like this rear view comparison. XJ12 vs. same era front engine Ferrari.

  5. One other achievement of the Series 3 was to demonstrate that effective bumpers could be attractively styled.

  6. Absolutely fascinating reading an article with information that’s news to me, that is really good work.

    And I had no idea so much work was done, I always thought it was all just a minor tweak of the curvature of the roof pressing. But I need clarification on the extent, as I read the article practically everything above the beltline are new pressings? All the posts, doorframes, the lot? Because the actual body in white structure is often the most expensive part of the bodywork it is seldom changed if it can be avoided though the outer skin can often be tweaked to such an extent you can massage a seemingly different car out of it, the Ford Granada Mk I & II being a case in point. I always thought the pillars and door surrounds were identical between Series II & III with different door skins giving a different impression, but you mean they also changed the angle of the window posts? That’s some heavy rework of pressings to sort that work out. Did they change the position of the B-pillar for a more harmonious result or is that positioned identical between the cars? Sorry for being such a nuisance, but since this is all news to me I think it needs to be clarified for posterity.

    Also I had no idea Fioravanti put his hand over this. I really think this is a labour of love from Pininfarina and I really think they went the extra length far beyond what they could bill Jaguar for it. The more I look at it, the more I see the extremely subtle little differences they worked into it to get it “just so” right only a true artists studio can get away with. This is going far beyond the brief in details no one can ever single out but which makes for a sublime hollistic experience seen together. I say it’s a labour of love, and they did it in admiration for Jaguar the marque, for William Lyons, for the car itself, and for the trade of true craftmanship, this is one true artist giving another one a salute.

    1. Ingvar: From what I can ascertain, the A-posts and C-pillars are completely different to those of the Series one/two, as are the upper rear door openings and door inners. The position of the B-pillar is (I believe) unchanged, but whether it was reprofiled to allow for a shallower tumblehome (inclination) above the beltline would probably require direct comparison or someone with really intimate knowledge of the cars from a structural perspective. The front door inners were probably carried over as well, although the deletion of the quarterlight probably necessitated some alterations to the inner door-upper. The roof pressing was entirely new – its flatter surface allowing Jaguar for the first time to fit an electric sliding sunroof as an option. The curvature of the earlier cars’ roof panels had hitherto precluded this.

      One really noticeable aspect of Series III as against its predecessors is the manner in which they deteriorate. Series III’s rust in completely different areas to the earlier cars, leading one to believe that they are stitched together in a rather different manner. For instance, the later cars’ A-pillars are notorious for rotting, as are (in extreme cases) the C-pillars. Also, there appears to be a body seam which runs vertically from the rear wheelarch to the area around the fuel filler which rots on Series III models, but not noticeably on earlier cars. This could be a function of attempts to reduce the amount of lead loading for the SIII’s body-in-white, or different painting procedures, but it is rather striking. Even the front wings rust in different areas on SIII’s.

      I recall reading a latter-day interview with Fioravanti, where he spoke about the SIII as being very much ‘his’ design. But he was prone to this despite others carrying out the actual design work. It’s clear that he had overall responsibility for Cambiano’s styling studios at the time the SIII was created, with Ramiciotti heading the engineering side. The Pininfarina designer actually responsible for the Jaguar remains unknown, but if we ever find out, he will receive the credit he deserves. It’s quite unlikely to have been Leonardo however…

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