Saving Grace – Part Seven

Some words from the gentlemen of the (mostly) UK press. 

(c) Company Car

With Series III a reality, if a somewhat limited one, the UK automotive press wasted little time getting to grips with a series of well-prepared press cars. Car magazine’s Mel Nichols was let loose in an XJ12 in March ’79, observing, “[T]he Jaguar is so controlled, so full of poise… It didn’t take too many miles on winding country roads to convince me all over again that nothing offers such ride comfort with such dynamic ability.

Later that year, coinciding with the introduction of Mercedes-Benz’s sector-defining W126 S-Class, Nichols ranged another XJ12 from Jaguar’s press fleet against the overwhelming superiority of Stuttgart-Untertürkheim’s flagship. No rational person on earth would have chosen the Jaguar over the Mercedes on anything but emotional grounds but it would be these, and other intangible factors that not only saw Car’s Editor equivocate, but would see the XJ time and again defy newer, more rigorously hewn opponents.

These included BMW’s E23 7-Series, which admittedly was underpowered (in this company) and widely derided by the UK press for its relative lack of refinement, poor suspension calibration and wayward semi-trailing arm handling characteristics. Others were either US-specific and therefore not directly comparable, or low-volume British or Italian specialist machines which cost vastly more.

This was a point made forcefully by Car in the Autumn of 1981, when they corralled the revised High-Efficiency Series III (in Daimler Double Six form) to face a 500SE and a heavily fettled (and significantly improved) 7-Series. This time however, pragmatism and the Swabian’s crushing superiority would not be denied and Car (with its union flag at half mast) bowed to it.

The Series III was adjudged a close second, with its suspension behaviour and overall refinement still cited as superior. As a package however, its rivals were beginning to edge away. The following year, Car’s business-focused Company Car quarterly reviewed a 4.2 litre XJ6 and made a few considered points as to the car’s sales resurgence.

Allowing that quality had improved and pricing remained competitive, they suggested that its appeal was rooted as much in what it was not, as what it was. Observing that 95% of Jaguar’s UK sales were to businesses, they posited the not-altogether fanciful view that it represented success by association, especially now that it had also become Mrs. Thatcher’s chosen means of transport.

Noting that the Series III’s styling looked “dated“, Company Car also conceded that its “traditional virtues” also lay squarely behind its appeal to businesses. Ownership of an XJ remained a more expensive proposition to that of its German rivals (especially on fuel), but to many business users, this was considered a price worth paying.

1984 saw the same publication compare the Sovereign V12 with the Mercedes 500 SE. Taking the hard-nosed fleet manager approach, they decreed that even accounting for the Mercedes’ stronger residual values and (slightly) cheaper running costs, the Jaguar’s value for money (“[T]hat price is a killer…”) would entail the additional cost of a Golf GTi to draw level (“[A]nd that’s too much to pay for a few practicalities…”).

In reality, and despite being natural rivals, they were vastly different cars, each with a strong and robust flavour very much their own. Respective owners were not particularly inclined to switch allegiances, unless they were significantly disenchanted – a matter which was occurring less as Jaguar got to grips with building Series III to an acceptable standard.

Interestingly, according to a 1983 analysis published in Motor, V12 models accounted for over 60% of Jaguar’s sales in what was then West Germany, where a high concentration of luxury car buyers resided. Even in countries like Italy and France, where high taxation acted as a brake on sales, those customers who did opt for the leaping cat often chose the full-fat version, since not only could they probably afford it, they were also going to be hammered by the taxman anyway.

(c) Jaguar Cars

As Series III gave way to its long-awaited successor, its place both in Jaguar and the motoring press’ priorities fell away somewhat, although America’s Road and Track made their position clear in 1987, describing the Series III as being “so desirable that it didn’t need to be replaced.” Speaking to this author in 2016, former Jaguar product strategist, Jonathan partridge elaborated, saying, “perhaps the markets were a little more polarised then, because it [Series III] was seen in Europe as fading a bit. There was more of a love affair with the more traditional Jaguar design in the US.”

Later that year, Car staged a shoot-out on the Northumberland moors between a Sovereign V12, Mercedes’ 560 SEL, BMW’s V12 750i, and Bentley’s Turbo R. The editorial team carried out their usual due diligence, concluding that on purely objective terms, Munich-Milbertshofen could lay claim to the ‘best car in the world’ mantle. “Only a heretic would choose the XJ12,” they declared, yet the Series III still had a spell to cast, the test team observing, “The Jaguar is still the world’s most refined car. Driving in it remains a special experience”, defining the XJ12 as the sensual choice.

But the adjudicator in this contest was none other than veteran iconoclast, LJK Setright, who wasn’t about to resort to time-honoured journalistic tropes or indeed come to anything approaching a predictable conclusion. Critiquing the BMW, he sounded a remarkably prescient note of caution, suggesting, “It would be tragic if the future [Jaguar] V12 should be similarly inferior to the new XJ6.

Dismissing the two German machines with a flick of his finely crafted leather driving gloves, LJKS drew upon all of his class-bound prejudices, describing the Jaguar as being the only car fit for a gentleman, a statement which if nothing else underlined just how far in perception the marque had travelled in a few short years. “It is remarkably good”, Setright added, “and I found to my surprise that I was driving it faster than the BMW in similar circumstances because it was so much less stressful.

An honourable second place was probably more than Jaguar could have hoped for by then, but as Series III reached its final years, while its position as the world’s most refined car remained intact, it was apparent that this twenty-year old design was approaching the limits of viability.

Certainly, this was the conclusion Car’s Gavin Green reached in January 1993, when the Series III received its final airing, by which time production had already ceased. Despite listing the car’s many age-related foibles, Green went on to marvel at the XJ12’s serenity, the warm embrace of its cabin and the sense of wellbeing one experienced behind the wheel.

Time may have passed Series III by, but one word would remain indelibly embedded within the journalistic lexicon – one which had come to utterly define the model : Grace.

Saving Grace concludes here

©Driven to write. All rights reserved.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

6 thoughts on “Saving Grace – Part Seven”

  1. This is such a good series – it so captures the essence and attraction of the Series III. Bravo and encore!

    1. I completely agree and would without hesitation buy the book, were it ever turned into one. (Garnished with some juicy original photography perhaps?)

  2. Great series of articles !

    A mystery to me is why Jaguar did not to put a 4 speed automatic in the Series III a soon as they became available. The Ford AOD was introduced in 1980 and the GM 700R4 in 1982.

    Since they were so worried about fuel economy and went for the effort of the HE engine, it seems like an obvious thing to do.

    1. Thanks gentlemen. While I don’t really need much encouragement to write about this subject, it’s nonetheless gratifying to hear. I think there will be one final piece before the series concludes.

      As to the four-speed transmission, I agree. It would have made a huge difference – both to driveability as well as economy. I’m afraid I do not have a definitive answer. The only suggestion I can make is one of resource. From 1981 onwards, all energies were directed at improving the durability of the existing cars and preparing XJ40. Jim Randle had to achieve both with a fraction of the headcount required.

      The four-speed transmission did of course arrive with the advent of the 6.0 litre V12 XJS in 1992, but Series III was (understandably by then) left unchanged.

    2. Jaguar utilised the most excellent General Motors Turbo Hydramatic 400 (TH400) automatic transmission. The Jaguar version of the hydramatic was unique in that its case was a single-piece casting. Standard versions of the TH400 transmission have a bolt-on bell-housing for the torque converter. Jaguar needed extra stiffness (higher natural frequency) even from the ultra-strong TH400. A major alteration from standard was the elimination of bending at the gearbox to bell-housing junction by the expedient of a Jaguar specific housing which was was developed for them by GM. The guts of the transmission remained standard GM fare though. If anything was an issue it was that the second gear ratio* was a little on the high side for the V-12.

      The four-speed GM automatic transmissions were never quite as rigid internally as the GM400. Additionally they would have needed a new single-piece case developed for them to have been able to be used in the Jaguar XJ application. Given the modest volumes that Jaguar were ordering from GM it is likely that a development project would have been cost prohibitive for Jaguar by this stage in the game. By comparison the HE project was not difficult or elaborate, technically speaking. It was extremely economic to achieve for an immediate benefit.

      *Remember that the GM400 was developed for the big-block V-8 engines with much more low end torque than the Jaguar V-12 at similar rpm. The V-12 made good torque, but at slightly higher rpm than they. In any case it had a lot less cubic capacity than the Rat motor (which ranged in size from 427, 455 and on through to 502cid- by comparison Jaguar was a mere 326 cid) so less torque. A lower second gear ratio would have made TH400 a perfect match to the V-12. These days the wonderful US aftermarket provides all manner of things for the TH400, including a huge choice of ratios- one of the aftermarket vendors happens to have a gearset available for the TH400 with a 2nd gear ratio which is a perfect match for the V-12 at 5.3 or 6 litres.

  3. I, for one, wouldn’t feel the least bit irrational in choosing a Series III XJ over a W126 based on suspension behavior alone…

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