Saving Grace

The Series III XJ saved Jaguar. We tell its story.

Sublime. Image: veikl

The culmination of a lifetime’s study by a master auteur, the original XJ saloon of 1968 was not only a defining motor car, but the definitive Jaguar. Proving by comparison to be something of a fortuitous accident, its third iteration, the Series III of 1979 would become more significant still – all the more so for the fact that despite it being an almost perfectly pitched update of a well-loved design, its botched introduction almost killed the business entirely.

Frequently exercises in diminishing returns, facelifts tend to either manifest as change for changes sake, or alternatively a last ditch effort to breathe life into a fading model line. Rare indeed is one which successfully transcends its originator. The latter being the 1973 series 2 XJ, a modest revision, which at the time, was no more than was required. After all, work had begun upon its ultimate replacement – the XJ40 programme, provisionally scheduled for release in Autumn 1977.

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

With the prospect of a (hitherto unplanned) 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,[1] where an additional four inches added aft of the B-pillar had produced a somewhat unbalanced appearance.

Furthermore, since the XJ’s debut, Jaguar’s US customers were lobbying for improved cabin space, with rear headroom in particular coming in for criticism. The core of the revised design brief therefore was to modify the canopy and subtly modernise the aesthetics. But not without some considerable trepidation at Browns Lane, especially when it came to making significant alterations to the XJ’s body style. Speaking to Autocar’s Mike Scarlett for their coverage of the Series III’s March 1979 announcement, Managing Director, Bob Knight expressed his initial misgivings: “It scares me to death,” he said.

With Jaguar’s own styling team still vainly struggling to establish a definitive XJ40 body style, it was decided to engage external consultants to lend the existing car a continued lease of life. 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.

Image: wallpaperup

Jim Randle was tasked with delivering the XJ50 (Series III) programme, and in 2016 told Driven to Write, “We had two cars, one by Pininfarina, and 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 European rivals, so too was continuity.

While cleaving faithfully to the outgoing car’s external style, in reality, there was scarcely a single shared panel, meaning that far from simply being a thorough facelift, Series III was tantamount to a full reskin. Little is known of the Bertone proposal, but despite Marcello Gandini’s penchant for the unusual, it is unlikely to have differed radically from the established template. Pininfarina’s proposal however 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 is likely to have been.

But Pininfarina’s designers, under the supervision of Leonardo Fioravanti and Lorenzo Ramiciotti subtly massaged the existing proportions, pulling the A-pillars forward at the base, in turn lengthening the sideglass, which in conjunction with the deletion of the front quarterlights 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 quarterlight, which gained a slight upward kink. Both front and rear screens were now bonded to the bodyshell for improved sealing and rigidity.

Image: Autocar – Author’s collection

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 in lesser hands these changes might have overwhelmed the styling, so well integrated were they as to appear virtually seamless.

These subtle changes successfully produced not only a more contemporary looking motor car, but to the eyes of many, the finest of the entire series. Not that it was perfect, Randle recalled: “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.

Image: carsaddiction

While Pininfarina were undoubtedly responsible for the bulk of the body changes, there can be little doubt also that Series III’s detail design benefited from the work of Jaguar’s own styling team under the supervision of Doug Thorpe. However, as they finalised its styling, another more illustrious pair of eyes is also likely to have been consulted. According to Jaguar historian, Andrew Whyte, the so-called Gothic tail lamps were at Sir William Lyons’ suggestion, 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[2]. 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.

Image: jaglovers

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; rumours abounding of reskinned Rover SD1’s being some of the more lurid predictions[3]. 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.

But Cambiano’s styling revisions were not universally lauded, then or now. Perhaps the most prominent and perhaps, surprising critic being former Jaguar Design Director, Ian Callum, who told Octane magazine in 2018: “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.

Image: Autocar

Despite the positive manner in which the Series III was presented to the motor press, there was no getting away from the political environment under which the car was developed. From 1975-onwards, Jaguar was devastated from the effects of a series of post-nationalisation recommendations which as implemented, stripped it of its leadership, its identity and ultimately its ability to function.

As documented elsewhere, the remaining senior Jaguar staff, predominantly from within engineering began enacting a policy of non-co-operation and obstruction, essentially carrying on as best they could by simply ignoring BL management and their increasingly nonsensical integrationist dictates. Jim Randle: “You have to remember, this was a group of people who wanted to expunge the name of Jaguar from the group. You can see to some degree the logic; they wanted to make the whole thing uniform, but what it did to people’s morale was just ridiculous.

This engineering-led siege-mentality served to preserve a semblance of team spirit and would allow Series III to retain a strong marque identity. However, the prevailing view amid BL’s product planners was that in a post oil-shock landscape the business case for the type of luxury cars Jaguar were making was gone.

The counter-arguments posited by Jaguar’s acting chief executive (Bob Knight) must have been something to hear, especially in the febrile atmosphere of the newly constituted and financially straitened BL Cars division of nationalised British Leyland. Nevertheless some £7 million was eventually wheedled out of them for the XJ50 programme.[4]

Whereas the most obvious alterations were either stylistic or marketing-led, a number of engineering changes also took place beneath the XJ’s revised skin. The most significant of these related to the 4.2 litre version of Jaguar’s venerable XK in-line six. Having become somewhat emasculated from its 1960s incarnation, Jaguar’s mainstay power unit had been detuned to improve emissions and fuel efficiency, by mid-decade producing a lowly 172 bhp at 4,700 rpm. With US-specification emissions equipment, this figure had fallen further still.

However, the development of the joint Lucas-Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection system allowed engineers under powertrain chief, Harry Mundy to raise the 4.2’s compression ratio from 7.8 : 1 to 8.7 : 1 (8.1 : 1 in catalyst form) with modified pistons, larger inlet valves and alterations to the valve timing. These revisions saw maximum power leap to 205 bhp at 5000 rpm and torque to peak at 236 lb/ft at 3750 rpm, restoring the engine’s somewhat blunted performance to that of its Series 1 predecessor. A new, thicker head gasket also aimed to improve the 4.2’s noted propensity to blow its top.[5]

Mundy’s engineers had further developments up their sleeves for the fuel-hungry, if hugely refined 5.3 litre V12 unit, but they would be subject to the provision of additional BL funding and further hard-fought battles on the part of the chain-smoking Mr. Knight. Meanwhile, the entry-level 3.4 litre unit (which only really appealed to the UK market) continued unaltered.

The next major engineering change to Series III was perhaps the first and most notable piece of BL hardware to find its way beneath Browns Lane’s finest. Some years previously, Mundy had developed a five-speed manual gearbox capable of handling the V12’s torque output. Believed to have been a fine transmission, it fell foul of BL’s straitened finances and customer preference for automatics. In its stead, BL offered a smaller (if related), 77mm gearbox, developed by Rover for the SD1 programme.

While this was found to be acceptable, its quietness in operation was anything but, necessitating the use of a stronger layshaft, bigger bearings and a needle roller bearing for reverse – all of these changes being applied to Rover gearboxes as well. The latter development had already been specified for Rovers supplied to the UK’s traffic police, “for reversing 40 miles up the M1”, Mundy told Autocar with his tongue no doubt wedged firmly in his cheek. The advent of this transmission, available for the six-cylinder models meant the demise of Jaguar’s own four-speed unit; a knock-on effect being the end of the manual transmission XJ-S, as the Rover transmission could not handle the V12’s torque.

Image: Author’s collection

As you know, the quality of a car really starts with the body. Get the body right and you get the paint right. Get the body and the paint right and everything fits.” [John Egan – Motor, August 1980].

Since the early 1970s, Jaguar management had been agitating for investment into a modern paint plant at the Browns Lane factory to replace the existing facility which dated back to the 1930s. Hampered by poor finish and a lack of colour choice, Jaguar’s upmarket image was being compromised.

During his short reign as Managing Director in 1973/4, Geoffrey Robinson took matters into his own hands, commissioning Italian firm, Interlack to construct a new paint plant on a greenfield site next to the Browns Lane as part of an ambitious expansion plan, ordering the structural steel during the latter months of 1974.

But following the collapse of the BLMC business and the strategic vacuum created by 1975’s Ryder report, the massively expensive project ran aground, with nobody prepared to commit the £14 million required. Instead, the unused steel girders sat rusting in the Allesley rain for several years, eventually being sold off for scrap; a grim reminder not only of Robinson’s brief and controversial tenure, but of the leaping cat’s derailed expansionist hopes.

There matters were left until the newly constituted BL Cars initiated the SD-1 programme. Intended to serve Rover, Triumph and Jaguar, a new paint plant was finally commissioned in 1976 at a cost of £15.5 million at Pressed Steel’s Castle Bromwich facility. Claimed to be the most technically advanced in Britain when it was inaugurated in 1978, it was sited alongside the Jaguar body facility, which meant unpainted shells would no longer be required to be transported and stored at Browns Lane.

What would become the epicentre of Series III’s existential maladies lay North West of Browns Lane, opposite the Grade A listed Fort Dunlop tyre factory in the district of Erdington, on the outskirts of Birmingham. The Castle Bromwich facility, built by William Morris, was completed in 1940 as a wartime shadow factory for large-scale manufacture of Spitfire fighter aircraft. Over half of the total compliment of Spitfires flown were constructed there.

Post-War, it was purchased by Pressed Steel Fisher as a ‘jobbing shop‘ producing bodies in white (unpainted shells) to highly variable standards for a number of domestic manufacturers, Jaguar included. It was entirely reasonable therefore for BL to site their new paint plant (which was after all intended to serve the so-called ‘specialist‘ brands) at Castle Bromwich, despite Browns Lane’s objections at the time.

Jaguar’s volumes might have been the least of the three marques, but their need was greater. However it was, as with most BL decisions which went against Jaguar’s interests, a matter of trust, one which simply further inflamed a burning sense of grievance which was felt right across the employee spectrum at Allesley.

On paper it all sounded impressive. Allegedly pioneered by General Motors, the Thermo-Plastic Acrylic (TPA) paint process was a controversial system, largely discredited across the industry and had rather notably already been abandoned by GM themselves. So strong was the level of feeling against it that Jaguar’s unions took strike action in protest. Deaf however both to Jaguar’s entreaties in relation to the plant’s site, or to the objections levelled from both management and unions to the proposed TPA process, the new facility went ahead.

TPA saw bodies-in-white receive a phosphate pre-treatment; both spraying and dipping, electro-priming, two coats of primer, four coats of acrylic thermoplastic colour, and oil sanding. The final paint coat was then subjected to ‘reflowing’ in an oven for about 30 minutes at temperatures of over 154° C to achieve a durable, high-gloss finish.

This might not necessarily prove to be an issue with Rover’s up to date body-in-white, but it wholly neglected to account for the manner in which Jaguar’s bodyshells were constituted. These would prove hopelessly unsuited to the new paint process, but BL management had long ceased paying attention to the troublesome occupants of an increasingly restive Browns Lane.

Image: Author’s collection

One of the many ways in which Jaguar maintained control of cost during the Lyons-era was to skimp on the intangibles; for example the quality of bought-in components and body tooling, all of which helped maintain Jaguar’s competitive pricing. Bodyshells were crudely and inaccurately welded together, employing quantities of lead filler to achieve an acceptable finish for painting. Jaguars had also become notorious for the weakness of their paint finish, which dulled and chipped easily.

Within Browns Lane’s antiquated paint plant, these issues could be largely side-stepped. However, once the Series III shells were exposed to the new TPA process, it was discovered that the oven temperatures coincided with the melting point of the lead filler, resulting in catastrophic paint contamination. Both sides blamed the other, but the upshot was Jaguar rejecting every body they received.

Having already delayed the Series III launch from the previous autumn, Browns Lane management could no longer hold off, formally announcing the car on March 31st 1979. Brave faces were presented to the press but behind the scenes, affairs were unravelling in alarming fashion. Colour availability was limited to three non-metallic shades – Tudor White, Damson Red and Cotswold Yellow.

Any colour you like… Image: Autocar

The background behind this was straightforward enough. When changing to a new paint process it is standard practice for carmakers to initially limit the number of colours, the rationale being the fewer finishes, the less potential for problems. However, while this process would normally only last a number of days as new colours were brought on stream, the situation at Castle Bromwich persisted for 18 months.

The result was chaos. The condemned Browns Lane paint plant was hastily reanimated, with almost every bodyshell received from Castle Bromwich requiring a full bare metal repaint. With the TPA system at virtual standstill, Jaguar began accepting only primered shells for painting at Allesley. At one point, the purchase of the unused Triumph paint plant at Speke was investigated. But in addition to this, production of the Series III became further mired in delay owing to component shortages and problems on the tracks owing to a lack of a pilot build facility.

What all this meant in reality was that comparatively few completed Series IIIs left the factory throughout 1979. But the following year, as deliveries to customers began to take place in earnest, a truer picture of the crisis began to emerge. The losses in rectification, warranty and lost orders was of an order of magnitude to render Jaguar insolvent. But while BL’s Sir Michael Edwardes was quick to apportion blame (making Jaguar’s Bob Knight a marked man), he also was of the belief that Jaguar could survive if it could be turned around quickly enough – appointing John Egan in April 1980 with a kill or cure brief.

However, it was Triumph which would inadvertently become key to Jaguar’s salvation. In 1980, production of Triumph TR7 bodyshells at Castle Bromwich was stopped, pending its move to Rover’s Solihull plant. The Rover SD1 body was already being built and painted in Cowley, so the vast and under-utilised Castle Bromwich plant now only served Jaguar and this in name only. As matters deteriorated, Edwardes proposed shutting it entirely.

But in the late spring of 1980, newly appointed Jaguar CEO, John Egan successfully negotiated for Castle Bromwich to come under his purview and having gained the support of the workforce, senior management, notably David Fielden and Mike Beasley slowly and painfully came to grips with the TPA process. Body tooling was improved for greater accuracy, (therefore requiring less lead-loading), better quality sheet steel was employed, the paint formulation was altered and the TPA temperature was more finely controlled – enough to flow the paint, but not melt the lead.

But while Jaguar struggled to restart production at Castle Bromwich, the Series III was dying in the marketplace. Customers were unimpressed with the colour choice (Cotswold Yellow being especially ill-favoured), nor were they particularly pleased with the finish once their car was delivered, to say nothing of its reliability. Jaguar’s 1979 sales collapsed with a mere 12,500 cars leaving the Allesley plant, a figure which represented only half of the business’ break-even point.

The picture facing Egan and his management team was grim. While the basic product was outstanding, Jaguar’s utter inability to build it to an acceptable standard had brought the business to the very brink of disaster.

Compounding matters further was the fact that with XJ-S production at a standstill (owing to lack of demand and similar paint-related maladies), Jaguar was now wholly dependent on Series III. The battle to remain in business would be fought day by day, week by week, but by Autumn 1980, the paint crisis had been brought to a successful conclusion with cars reaching customers in far better shape and in a broader range of colour finishes.

However, the TPA debacle cemented Jaguar’s antipathy towards BL, fuelling John Egan’s resolve to press for full independence. It also precipitated the decision to abandon the paint process entirely, adapting the industry-normative ‘clear over base’ system; this however would have to await better times. After all, there were larger, more pressing fish to fry.

Image: Jaguar Cars – Author’s collection

The Castle Bromwich paint debacle crystallised the manner in which the relationship between Jaguar and its adoptive parent broke down in the years following its absorption into British Leyland, characterised by unwarranted interference and lack of meaningful communication on one hand and distrust, insubordination and outright defiance on the other.

Lord Ryder’s 1975 report and the recommendations enacted by the government-run NEB were well-meant, but disastrous in practice. Not only was it suicidal in brand-identity terms, it essentially starved the BL business of urgent funding which was required to radically restructure and modernise a ramshackle, poorly-run many-headed Hydra of a car company.

In its wake, a power vacuum developed, which at Jaguar was filled to some extent by Bob Knight and Browns Lane Plant Director, Peter Craig who together became the bulwark for a campaign of disobedience, obstruction and obfuscation. Knight, a man who could contentedly carry on a scholarly discourse on some recondite technicality for hours, would frequently bore his interlocutors to distraction, proving an effective means of getting rid of unwanted visitors.

But this was no way to run a car business. By the time the Castle Bromwich plant was commissioned in 1976, British Leyland had in effect become a ship of fools, where failure wasn’t simply an option, but the expectation. A shining example being management’s deaf-blind adoption (at enormous cost) of an already discredited paint process, despite every possible warning to the contrary being voiced.

Certainly any residual trust or meaningful communication between fortress Browns Lane and BL’s Bickenhill HQ had long-been lost. Fortunately for Jaguar’s bottom line perhaps, the costs of Castle Bromwich were absorbed by the parent company but the damage done was felt most acutely in Allesley, coming bitingly close to bringing the house down entirely.

Jaguar had been endeavouring to obtain sanction for a new car throughout most of the 1970s, to no avail. Not only was this a consequence of funding being mostly funnelled into the unfathomable abyss of the volume car division, but also the fact that BL became so hopelessly inefficient, it was haemorrhaging money from every orifice. All that was forthcoming was the £7m required to put Series III into production, a figure which Mercedes routinely spent on hubcap development.

Overwhelming evidence points to manufacturing being Jaguar’s particular weakness, a consequence of a long-standing reluctance to commit to large scale investment in tooling and plant; legacies of Sir William Lyons’ stewardship of the company and perhaps one of the greatest indictments of his management. This make-do-and-mend policy got Jaguar (just about) through the ’60s but the XJ-series represented an entirely new paradigm. Lyons may have (perhaps naively) believed he could obtain the required investment within a larger, better funded organisation, or perhaps he became irredeemably locked into a scrupulous mindset, one for which time and tide had departed. We may never know for certain.

Jaguar’s manufacturing facility was already in real trouble before BLMC’s leaky vessel hit the reefs in 1974, and only serious investment is likely to have alleviated it. Jaguar’s management of the time weren’t entirely blameless either, but by the late 1970s those who had been defaulted into leadership roles at Browns Lane had largely inherited these problems and had by necessity adopted a fortress mentality.

One could argue that in carrying out their subtle form of civil resistance they were behaving in a manner which ran contrary to BL’s interests and there is truth in that assertion. But Jaguar was, despite its many glaring faults, an organisation which fostered deep emotional bonds. Furthermore, having already witnessed what had happened elsewhere amid the organisation, they were determined to prevent the same happening there.

Bob Knight assumed the role of Managing Director in 1978, and while some of the functions shorn by the implementation of Ryder were handed back, Knight was not in possession of a functioning car company, only disconnected elements of it. He also lacked not only the leadership experience to successfully get to grips with Jaguar’s structural problems, but one can also discern, the fundamental zeal required to grasp the issues head-on. Not while there remained existential battles to be fought at board level or seemingly intractable engineering and design-related puzzles to unpick.

Either way, by the time Ryder was abandoned and Michael Edwardes appointed, so much damage had been done to the entire BL business that it would prove impossible to rescue in its entirety. And while the decision to adopt the TPA paint process had already been taken, it doesn’t absolve Edwardes for casting the blame for its catastrophic failure entirely upon Knight’s shoulders.

But if Bob Knight was viewed as the wrong man, John Egan was unquestionably the right one. The turnaround of Jaguar under his leadership was a combination of hard work, yes, but no small amount of good (economic) fortune, and more importantly still, political will. (Not to mention the Series III product itself). His post-1980 reforms at Jaguar have frequently been viewed in quasi-miraculous terms. But the real miracle, given the chaos surrounding its birth, is that Series III happened at all.

Image: Author’s collection

Unreliable and unjustifiable, its cars had become a laughing stock, its management a comedy and its accounts a tragedy. Only when it began to take itself very seriously indeed, to cultivate the quality it had previously scorned did things change…” (LJK Setright – Car 1986)

It was dubbed ‘The Egan miracle‘. The turnaround which saw Jaguar go from loss-making irrelevance (in the region of £20 million in 1979), ripe for closure, to media darling and shining example to all of how failing businesses could be transformed by effective management.

And Egan was effective. Aided by a store of goodwill that existed for the marque within the broader automotive industry, amid the car-buying public, from the workforce itself and within certain quarters of the unwieldy BL leviathan, the ambitious Lancastrian came with proven managerial qualities, enthusiasm and a burning drive to succeed.

But in 1980, the main order of business was survival. Only then, could the painful process of pulling Jaguar’s reputation out of the scrapyard begin. Egan and his management team identified 150 major faults with the cars, Jaguar’s CEO telling Motor magazine’s Anthony Curtis in 1983, “I didn’t have a saleable product until the quality was right”.

As much as 60% of these faults related to bought-in components, ranging from power steering and rear axle failures to minor gripes like the electric aerial. Assessed for severity, the most egregious were handled personally by Egan and his senior management team. Task forces within engineering, manufacturing and servicing worked closely with suppliers to identify and remedy problems, with the suppliers bearing the full warranty and shipping costs. Those who refused to comply had their contracts terminated.

One of key reasons that this initiative worked was the fact that not only had Jaguar regained control of its purchasing but also for the first time, components were purchased on quality as much as cost grounds. Significant efforts were also made on the production tracks to build the cars accurately and to a standard that befitted their market price. “I knew each car was going out the door and not making friends – until it made friends, nothing else was left”, Egan later observed.

Change was enacted throughout the organisation, as more of Jaguar’s functions returned under Browns Lane control. In the US market, deliveries had become unpredictable, often late and frequently not to specification, to the consternation of customers. Also, Jaguar’s dealers were often not of the first order. This too would change.

John Egan (left) and Sir William Lyons – 1983. (c) Jaguar Heritage

Tarnished reputations however are only slowly regained. Getting the message out was vital and while the UK press could be relied upon to lend a empathetic ear, home market sales were not going to be sufficient. Jaguar’s dented sales prospects in the US remained the single biggest obstacle to success. To up the ante even further, during the spring of 1981, the BL board dropped an existential bombshell. Should Jaguar fail to break-even that year and return to profitability in 1982 BL would pull the plug entirely. There was only one way out of this impasse and that was to sell more cars.

But while firefighting multiple crises at home, Egan and his team seemingly missed the boat to communicate positive change to its beleaguered US dealer base for the 1981 model year. Export Director, John Morgan however came up with an ambitious back-of-an-envelope gambit, where they would skip the 1981 model year cars entirely and introduce the 1982 models; essentially a relaunched Series III and revised XJ-S HE at a specially erected marquee outside the Browns Lane offices that July, there being no money for anything more elaborate.

The suave and multi-lingual Morgan was a battle-hardened Jaguar lifer who not only knew how to improvise, but also knew everybody who mattered. He wheedled the loan of Warwick Castle and the services of the Lord Chancellor to preside over a lavish banquet for the visiting US dealer principals who earlier that day had been treated to a VIP tour of a spruced-up Browns Lane production line and its slimmed-down, newly-motivated workforce.

That evening, Egan worked the room, passionately exhorting the visiting Americans to believe. In a scene akin to a gospel revival meeting, as he implored the US dealers to revise their 1982 sales projections upwards by almost 50%. The energy in the room proved decisive and by the evening’s end the US visitors were banging tables, pledging to sell 10,000 cars. Egan and Jaguar, by the skin of their teeth were back in the game.

1982 marked a point where perceptions really began to shift. The cars were clearly better finished and durability had improved sufficiently that dealers were minded, not only to drive Jaguars themselves, but to sell them again to their friends and acquaintances. Major changes to the ’82 Series III’s were largely confined to the V12 model, which received a reconfigured cylinder head design, precipitating economy gains of around 20%, which would prove to be its lifeline.

It has been retrospectively stated that the Egan-led quality drive was more illusory than real, which is perhaps a little unfair to the huge effort from all concerned. There was however, in Egan parlance, perhaps a little more sizzle than steak to it. Nevertheless, the reforms had a basis in fact and if the JD Power statistics were any guide, it’s evident that Jaguar made significant strides in this area.

In 1983, BMW’s Eberhard von Kuenheim toured the Browns Lane facility. What he made of it is undocumented, but he must have been, to say the least, given to a measure of incredulity. Nevertheless by then, Jaguar had largely got to grips with building Series III to an acceptable standard. However, that standard remained discernibly lower than that of its Munich rival and at the time, potential suitor.

The XJ bodyshell, while now more accurately put together, remained a patchwork requiring a high degree of hand-finishing, its interior an alluring combination of tastefully matched, finely crafted natural materials and cheap-feeling injection mouldings, while its final assembly remained locked in the past.

A major upswing in durability terms occurred once Jaguar embarked upon a full-time on-site proving regime, building a dedicated base in Phoenix, Arizona. Regular forays to the Nardo test-track in Southern Italy and to the Middle East, Australia and Canada led to significant improvements for the customer.

But what hadn’t changed was the fact that the cars remained sensitive to neglect or careless ownership and were not as robust as they needed to be, especially once they reached their second or third owners. But Series III (and the XJ-S) were late-’60s designs with inbuilt design foibles and there was probably a limit to what could be achieved without significant and highly expensive alterations.

Image: Jaguar Cars – Author’s collection

In 1983, US market CAFE economy mandates which penalised ‘gas-guzzlers‘ entailed the bitter irony of the XJ12 being pulled from the US market entirely.[6] A further change that year saw the first Jaguar model to be known by a model name rather than an alphanumeric. In Europe and the US, an element of confusion existed over the use of the Daimler nameplate, so the Jaguar Sovereign was offered to a similar specification and trim level to that of the top-line Daimler-badged version in some European markets. In the US, it would be sold under the Vanden Plas nameplate.

The Sovereign soon migrated home, this more upmarket model proving a winning formula. It also ushered in a new style of roadwheel which would become defining – the Pepperpot. Apart from detail changes; a revised centre console and minor trim enhancements in 1985, the Series III remained largely unchanged. The truly dramatic alteration were the sales figures which just kept rising (over 26,700 Series IIIs that year alone), surprising everybody, not least Egan, who despite protestations to the contrary, couldn’t quite believe the car’s success would last.

Ironically, the model which formed the bulk of global Series III sales was perhaps the most mechanically fragile. The 4.2 litre version of the long-lived XK in-line six had been something of a botch-job by Jaguar standards. Necessitating an element of jiggery-pokery in order to gain the additional bore widths, the engine became fundamentally compromised from a thermal standpoint.

4.2 XK (left) and 5.3 V12. Image: Jaguar Cars – Author’s collection

Reviewing the technicalities of Jaguar’s revived mid-range engine in 1979, Car magazine’s LJK Setright noted the much-needed alterations had resulted in a torque curve of remarkable linearity, with maximum torque being developed at a mere 1500 rpm, which meant the driver never really needed to explore the upper reaches of the rev range, where the 4.2 tended to lose its composure and get decidedly hot under the collar. Despite its physical size and vast weight, (as heavy as the larger V12), the 4.2 gained a reputation as a fragile engine and was never much regarded within Browns Lane. It’s certainly no accident that the factory never raced it.

Yet it outsold the more complex but superior V12 unit by a significant margin, despite offering broadly similar fuel economy. Yes the twelve cost more; to buy, to service and most likely in depreciation (always a Jaguar bugbear), but it offered something utterly unique; an uncanny smoothness and silence of operation, which as Jim Randle observed to this author, was as close to the characteristics of an electric motor as an internal combustion engine could reasonably be contrived. So if the V12 cost more, the 4.2 was in turn worth far less.

Image: Car Magazine

By the late ’70s, the necessity for a large-displacement diesel powerplant became apparent within BL. Upon Spen King’s suggestion, a diesel unit based on the block of the existing Rover/Buick V8 was developed in conjunction with Perkins. Primarily intended for Land Rover, but also for SD1, there were suggestions at the time that Jaguar could also be a recipient of what became known as the Iceberg programme. However, it fell victim to BL’s ongoing cashflow crises.

A powertrain project which came a good deal closer to fruition was XJ59 – a Jaguar programme which saw the adoption of a VM Motori turbodiesel which was fitted to a number of SIII development cars around 1981/82. This unit, an in-line six of 3.6 litres, developed 150 bhp at 4200 rpm and 288 lbs ft of torque at 2400 rpm.

Those outputs were broadly similar to the US-spec 4.2 but gave notably better fuel economy. America had briefly embraced diesel following the 1979 oil embargo and Mercedes had introduced diesel versions of both W123 and W126 models, which had proven a sales success. General Motors too had introduced a diesel V8 for Oldsmobile and Cadillac – which might have been more successful if it had been correctly executed. In 1981, a BL Cars spokesman told Car magazine they planned to introduce the diesel-engined XJ into the US market for the 1983 model year.

However as consumption concerns abated, the diesel Series III, despite having been largely proven was shelved; Jim Randle telling Motor’s Jeremy Sinek in 1983, “should the market require it in future, we could introduce it quite rapidly.” Another missed opportunity in retrospect perhaps, since such an engine might have opened Jaguar to more of the European market.

Randle expanded a little more on this matter when he spoke to DTW in 2016. “We looked at diesel engines in the early ‘80s, using VM. It was built like an Aston Martin engine, where you have a tunnel through the crankcase, and each of the main bearings sits in a circular cup, as it were. It was interesting; turbocharged, but not a performer. It had the potential for finding some extra customers, but in the end, I think, sales and marketing weren’t keen”. When I put it to him that perhaps a diesel didn’t really fit with Jaguar’s NVH ethos at the time, he replied; “No, it was difficult – mostly airborne [noise] though. We put extra sealing on the bulkheads, and things like that. But no, it didn’t immediately cause you to want to buy one”.

Image: Author’s collection

But the Series III was now making friends, so much so that in the US in particular, there was a feeling that Jaguar might want to think twice about replacing it. Back home however, perceptions were more nuanced. Former product strategist, Jonathan Partridge summed up the feeling by mid-decade within Browns Lane, telling DTW “I felt that it seemed quite an outdated car alongside the S-Class and 7-Series; you know, Jaguar’s lagged behind. I remember once describing a Series III; you felt like you were in a vehicle that was made of thousands of parts that were loosely joined together and moving roughly in the same direction. It seemed like a product from a previous generation.

But a new generation was on the horizon and Jaguar was chomping at the bit to announce it. Twice delayed, Jaguar’s new-era XJ saloon was introduced in Autumn 1986, and ought to have marked the Series III’s immediate demise. But not so fast. Jaguar had very carefully drawn down SIII production in the run up to XJ40’s launch, and this, combined with robust demand for what was seen as the last of the classic Jaguars, ensured that the transition was a smooth one.

In fact, six-cylinder SIII production continued for US and rest of the World markets until the Spring of 1987 as the new car was incrementally rolled out. It wasn’t to end there either; the V12 models being retained in production until such time as an equivalent XJ40 model could be developed.

The very last Euro-spec six-cylinder SIII built. (c) Driven to Write

There is a strong sense that the V12 XJ40 was subject to something of an internal struggle between engineering and product planning as to its necessity. Either way, it too was repeatedly delayed, further lengthening Series III’s lifespan. In 1990, the Sovereign V12 and Daimler Double Six received anti-lock brakes and exhaust catalysts, but this aside, for the final years of its life, it was largely hand-built to order on the former XJ40 pilot line, track six at Browns Lane.

The end finally came in late-1992, with the very last car, a Daimler Double Six coming off the tracks, while its replacement, the overshadowed and (some suggest) undercooked XJ81 arrived onto the market for less than a year before it too was cast into the history books.

Coming within two years of outliving its intended replacement, the Series III became the Jaguar that steadfastly defied death’s scythe. But with its passing, the unfeigned sorrow amid the automotive universe was palpable. One of the true greats had gone and nothing would ever be quite the same again.


(c) Auto-Didakt

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 (“that price is a killer…”) would entail the additional cost of a Golf GTi to draw level (“and 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.

Image: Author’s collection

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 accounted for this, 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.”

In the Autumn of 1987, 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. Savagely 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-born 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 marvellous sense of wellbeing one experienced behind the wheel.

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

Image: Classic and Sportscar

It can be stated without a trace of hyperbole that the Series III XJ remains the most commercially significant Jaguar of all time. Not the most successful, mark you; other XJ generations have sold in greater numbers, others still to come may yet again similarly transform its fortunes, but the Series III remains to this day the car that single-handedly saved the company.

Ironic of course, given that it should never have come into being, and had BLMC’s Lords and masters given Browns Lane the creative freedom and the finances to design and build Jaguars as they saw fit, it would never have come to light. As it was, a combination of financial privation and stark confusion over British Leyland’s mercurial dictates ensured that the XJ lived far beyond its intended lifespan and became the timeless classic it is now celebrated as being.

It is compelling then to view Series III as the logical conclusion of the XJ-Series trilogy, but this may be something of a misconception. Because although all three iterations shared a large percentage of mechanical hardware and significant amounts of the body-in-white (at least below the beltline), Series III was such a different car in detail that it really ought to be viewed as an entirely separate model line.

It stands apart too in being the only series-production Jaguar not to have been styled internally, the bulk of the creative work being carried out at Cambiano by carrozzeria Pininfarina. And while Doug Thorpe’s team at Browns Lane undoubtedly lent significant input into the detail design, this would be the sole instance of an outside consultancy shaping a Jaguar saloon.

Bluntly stated, Pininfarina’s reworking simply should not have succeeded. After all, marrying a soft-formed sixties body to a sharper-edged canopy had been attempted in the past, to less than harmonious effect. Yet Pininfarina’s work was so subtle, so expertly carried out with such sympathy to both the original design and to Jaguar’s styling heritage, that not only was it an overwhelming visual success, it quickly appeared as though it had ever been thus.

Because of this, it has become tantalising for many to imagine what Cambiano could have offered Jaguar had an XJ40 proposal been requested at the point in that car’s stylistic gestation when it became clear that a more traditional line was required. But there is a world of difference between skilfully refashioning an existing stylistic masterpiece and envisaging one from scratch oneself. We should therefore express strong misgivings about Pininfarina’s efforts eclipsing Jaguar’s own.

But while it’s easy to lose oneself in the warm embrace of the Series III’s visual charms, one must not lose sight of the fact that had only its appearance stood the test of time, the XJ simply would not have lasted the course. It was its engineering depth, especially its uncanny resistance to noise, vibration and harshness (and of course that V12) that ensured that the car remained competitive well past its putative sell-by date.

The S3’s disastrous start in life was to a large extent an unfortunate sideshow – a crystallisation of years of mistrust and mutual loathing between two intractable entities, both stubbornly resistant to compromise. Of course it has been argued that had Jaguar management shown more compliance in their dealing with their BLMC/BL masters the situation might not have become so intractable, but the counter-argument to this is that had they given an inch, they would simply have been consumed.

Amid this civil war, Series III became in the event, the final engineering legacy of Bob Knight, the man whose single-minded obsession with achieving previously unheard of standards of mechanical refinement (and maintaining Jaguar’s engineering legitimacy) led to the creation of a car that Jaguar would time and again struggle to surpass.

Jaguar Sovereign cabin. Image: Jaguar Cars – author’s collection.

In the end, it was Series III’s antiquity that became perhaps its strongest suit. The car came to embody a set of values which spoke of a simpler time – from its sinuous exterior, its elegant cabin, to the sense of luxuriant wellbeing it elicited in its owners, especially once the build-related woes were vanquished.

Even prior to its 1979 announcement, Series III cast a shadow upon Jaguar’s designers as they struggled to establish a style for its replacement which honoured, yet elaborated upon it. Until late in the process, XJ40 proposals employing a Series III inspired four-light DLO and unadorned lower flank treatment were still being given consideration.

By the time the ’40 had entered production, Jaguar had returned to this theme, the Series III inspiring the styling of the cancelled 1990/91 XJ90 proposal. The X300 Series which emerged from the ruins in 1994 was also very much a homage, as was its X308 evolution, not to mention the rather inflated looking X351 series of 2003.

Also reflecting Series III (and the XJ Series in general) was Ken Okuyama’s Pininfarina authored 2004 Maserati Quattroporte V and it was to the XJ that carrozzeria Bertone would return in 2011 with the Jaguar B99 concept, styled under the supervision of Adrian Griffiths. Some shapes are simply too compelling to abandon.

(c) Hemmings

Yet abandon it Jaguar did, for good or ill and while the XJ Series continues to haunt Jaguar to this day, it is Series III which is most commonly cited as its apogee. In size and style it hit a spot in the market which Jaguar had previously tried and failed to grasp, and in its wake, could never quite again attain. Compact, yet generous. Sporting yet sybaritic. Prestigious yet unpretentious, the Series III distilled the Jaguar recipe into something quite irresistible.

Jaguar made better products; better conceived, better wrought, yet they never quite made any saloon car as downright seductive. It is increasingly unlikely they ever will.


[1] The original long wheelbase XJ was a bit of a rushed job, hurriedly introduced to answer criticism of the XJ’s rear compartment, which was decidedly on the snug side for taller folk. It was also viewed by some as a means of neutralising the perceived in-house threat posed by Rover’s P8 saloon.

[2] In 1972, Bob Knight and Lofty England set out the specifications for XJ40, the XJ’s late-70s successor. Endlessly delayed, owing to BL’s ongoing crises, it is believed that Series III incorporated the bulk of this ‘wish-list’ of improvements.

[3] There does appear to have been some BL attempts at exploring the feasibility of SD-1 to this end, a quarter scale model of a three-volume Daimler proposal employing the centre section and door pressings of the Rover being created at the Solihull studio. It is however, unclear how serious a proposal this was.

[4] The Series III programme was dubbed internally as XJ50 (5.3), XJ51 (4.2) and XJ52 (3.4).

[5] Fuel injection had been introduced for the V12 engined Jaguars in 1975, and with the benefits for emissions and engine efficiency proven, was developed for the 4.2 litre XK unit, first introduced for US market Series 2 XJs in 1978.

[6] Following the withdrawal of the XJ12 saloon from the US market in 1983, the XJ-S remained as the sole V12-engined Jaguar offering in North America until the early 1990s, when the 6-litre version was reintroduced briefly. Ironic, given that the V12 engine was primarily aimed at the American market.

More on Jaguar here 

Car Magazine – 12 Gun Salute Jan 1993
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
Saving Jaguar – John Egan
Jim Randle interview – © Driven to Write
Jonathan Partridge interview – © Driven to Write

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

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