Saving Grace – Part Eight

Concluding our profile of the Series III.

(c) Jaguar Cars

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 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 the mercurial dictates from Berkeley Square ensured that the XJ lived on far beyond its intended lifespan.

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, notably by the house of Chapron in Paris, who attempted just such a ménage on a number of coachbuilt Citroen DS’ during the late sixties, 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 always 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 yourself. One must therefore express 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 it only been its looks that had 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. (C) Jaguar Cars

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 (pale) homage, as was its X308 evolution, not to mention the rather bloated 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) Christopher Butt

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 hitherto tried and failed to grasp, and in its wake, could never quite again attain. Compact, yet generous. Sporting yet sybaritic. Prestigious yet not pretentious, 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 as downright seductive. It’s increasingly unlikely they ever will.

©Driven to write. All rights reserved.

Sources – further reading:
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

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Saving Grace – Part Eight”

  1. About a year ago Lemke Jaguar (the garage founded by Peter Lindner) had a dark grey metallic XJ12 with delivery milage for 53,000 EUR which sold within days.
    Seems the SIII still has its fans.

  2. The Series III update was a work of genius by Pininfarina, all the more so because the body below the waistline remained unchanged, yet there isn’t a hint of compromise evident in marrying old and new. The XJ40’s six-light DLO looked decidedly fussy by comparison, not helped by that nasty plastic and chrome capping at the base of the D-pillar to hide the join. That said, the XJ40 matured very nicely into the X300 and 308, so Jaguar clearly got the basics right, notwithstanding early quality issues.

    I only associated Chapron with the DS convertible, but Googling “Chapron DS” produced some hair-raising images, like the following:

    What advantage this effort offered over the standard DS is unclear, other than the ability to wear a top hat in the rear seat. A classic lesson in now not to gild the lily.

  3. “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, notably by the house of Chapron in Paris, who attempted just such a ménage on a number of coachbuilt Citroen DS’ during the late sixties, to less than harmonious effect.”

    I can’t say when it applies and when it doesn’t, but there is something about creative endeavours that sometimes benefits from having a severe set of constraints.

    For example, the Golden Age of Hollywood coincided with the restrictions of the Hayes Code. When, the restrictions of the Code started to be ignored, the resultant movies featured plenty of gore, swearing, and actresses flashing the audience, but the quality of the films did not improve (the opposite, actually).

    Analogously, Pininfarina’s Series III rework seemed to benefit from having so little leeway for change, while the XJ40 was a clean sheet design, and was less successful.

    (I keep hoping that the dictates of crash safety, aero, and pedestrian safety will have an effect similar to the Hayes Code on vehicle design, but it doesn’t seem to be happening).

    1. That’s an interesting analogy there Angel. It’s difficult to know just how much or little leeway Pininfarina (and Bertone, let’s not forget) had with the XJ50 revisions, but seeing as virtually every skin panel ended up being altered, one could suggest that in Cambiano’s case at least (I have never seen any image of Bertone’s SIII proposal), a concerted decision was made to carefully massage what was already there.

      This may have stemmed from a basic respect for the Lyons original – let’s face it, the boys at Pininfarina knew a thing or two about elegance. There may also have been a sense that Cambiano had overstepped themselves with the 1974 XJ40 proposal and that should they get the XJ facelift right, it would stand them in better stead with any further commissions that might have been in the offing.

      It’s also worth bearing in mind that Jaguar was not working without constraint with XJ40. As I hope I have made clear on these pages, the stylistic odyssey that took place from 1973 to 1980 was the result of a tremendous amount of obstruction and constraint, both from politics and from legislation, some of which never came to pass.

      Jaguar was, for most of XJ40’s stylistic gestation also working without the unerring eye of Sir William Lyons and by the time he returned to Browns Lane with any frequency, the essence of the car had already been set. The official line on the ’40 came from Jim Randle himself, who told us in 2016, that while they were dissatisfied with aspects of the car’s detail design, they simply ran out of time. Getting the programme over the line was at the time the most important thing.

      I’m still rooting around in the hope of discovering more about the SIII’s conception. Hopefully, more will come to light…

  4. Dittoed. I haven’t commented on every piece but I have read them all, and it’s some of the best writing out there on the subject. The XJ6 I+II+III and the XJ40 saga could easily be turned into a book. Good work! Especially so considering it’s not easy coming up with things to say that people haven’t heard before, but it was much in this series I had no idea about. The commentariat at this site is a harsh mistress because most people here are knowledgable people in the field. But I know without a doubt if it works for us it will work splendidly for a more general audience.

    1. May I add my thanks to Eóin for such an excellent and incisive series? Don’t forget to combine the pieces and add to the “Longer Read” section of the DTW website.

      Jeff Daniels’ definitive history, “British Leyland, The truth about the cars” was published in 1980 and, as far as I am aware, never updated. I’m curently working my way through my recently acquired copy. There’s certainly another volume to be written, covering 1980 to 2005 and this sounds like a perfect job for Eóin!

    2. Keeping the good Mr Doyle to ourselves does feel a bit selfish on the DTW crowd’s part.

      He truly should write at least one of the suggested tomes, I wholeheartedly agree.

  5. An enjoyable series.

    Never knew the Series II in much better circumstances should have been more like the Series III (apart from the latter not carrying over the XJ Coupe), nor that the XJ40 (and AJ6 engine) should have ideally appeared in place of the Series III.

  6. Thanks for the kind words gentlemen. Fortunately Jaguar continues to be a rich seam. There will be more kitty-related material in due course…

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