Forty years ago, Jaguar introduced the Series III XJ. Its combination of virtues cast deep and lasting shadows.
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.
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.
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 D-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.
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 – (a matter subsequently refuted by Jim Randle to this author). 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.” Car too were warm in their praise, describing it in the May 1979 issue as “still the saloon by which all others must be judged.” Both organs praised Pininfarina’s styling revisions but they were not universally lauded, then or now.
Perhaps the most prominent and arguably, 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, catastrophe would shortly follow.
In part two, we’ll examine Series III from a technical perspective.