It was brave, it was a failure and its fate was etched in Jaguar’s past.
Acts of creative reinvention are rarely acknowledged at the time of committal, being far more likely to be misunderstood and derided by those whose expectations were, for a variety of reasons subverted or otherwise denied. Brave or foolish? There is a fine line which separates both polarities, because inevitably, whenever these adjectives are appended to matters of a creative nature, it tends to be connected to its failure.
The X351-series Jaguar was a brave design, attempting to break from the creative straitjacket the over-familiar, and overworked XJ silhouette had evolved into. But now, a decade on from its Summer 2009 debut, and with the curtain soon to fall upon its production career, we can determine that it has indeed failed.
But such a bald statement cannot stand unaided. There is nuance to X351’s disappointing commercial performance, and while some of it can be solemnly laid at the design team’s door, they ought not be asked to bear its funeral casket alone.
When Ian Callum was appointed as successor to the late Geoff Lawson at Jaguar’s Whitley design studio, the preceding X350 XJ body design had been signed off, and he found himself defending a design for which he played no part and held little regard for. He subsequently made it clear that the era of rehashing past glories was over, speaking of overseeing a “different form of elegance”.
But first it was necessary to convince senior management of the necessity for change, illustrating to them the manner in which Sir William Lyons had evolved the Jaguar line in an iterative yet stylistically progressive manner. Making the point that by jettisoning modernity, they were also losing relevance, he told them that it would require what he described as “a big jolt” to regain it. And while subsequent Callum-helmed designs would embed recognisable Jaguar styling DNA, they would strive towards a very different aesthetic – one I might add, which has not met with anything like universal approval.
As the X351 programme got under way, and with the 2007 XF already having made the necessary visual statement of intent, Callum and then Jaguar MD, Mike O’Driscoll agreed the next XJ had to be a radical shape. However selling Adam Hatton’s bold and uncompromising exterior style to senior Ford management was unlikely to have been a straightforward act, Callum later outlining to journalists how much of a fight it was to shepherd it through.
X351 is not a design which brooks ambivalence – one either appreciates its audacity, visual drama and clarity of intent, or simply loathes the unflinching drama of its extremities. But while there is much to appreciate about the car’s appearance, it must fail the ‘Sir William test’ for aesthetic grace. That is not to suggest that Jaguar’s founder and creative Spiritus Rector would not have appreciated the rather dashing design theme – after all, he himself oversaw X351’s spiritual predecessor, (the equally daring, if unsuccessful Mark X) – more that he is unlikely to have countenanced some of its rather discordant design solutions.
But if the 351’s exterior was a somewhat uncomfortable jolt for the more traditionally minded marque aficionado, the cabin was a surprise of a far more pleasing variety. Overseen by Jaguar’s long-serving interior design chief, Mark Phillips, the XJ’s interior was a joyous symphony of broad-brush sweeps, playful highlights and well-chosen adornment. Traditional materials like wood, metal and leather were treated in a more contemporary fashion, combining a lightness of touch to offer perhaps the finest Jaguar cabin in decades.
But if the XJ’s body style acted as an impediment to success, another decision which was taken at senior management level is also likely to have harmed the car’s commercial chances. By pivoting Jaguar away from its long-standing pre-eminence in ride refinement and NVH resistance towards a more dynamics-focused behavioural package, X351 would manifest an agility which belied its size and garnered the plaudits of auto-journalists, but customers were largely nonplussed by such matters – after all, if an S-Class cosseted like a limousine, why couldn’t the Jag? It was a shift that was driven more by expedience than necessity, and it gained them nothing.
Despite this, Ford deserves more credit than it subsequently received for sanctioning the car at all, given how the business was haemorrhaging cash and how radical a reinvention it was for Jaguar’s previously rather conservative client base. Nevertheless, from Burbank to Berwick Upon Tweed, the product was greeted with mystification and no little disquiet.
Perhaps not since the ’70s advent of the XJ-S was there a new Jaguar which proved quite so visually polarising. X351 hastened the XJ’s slide in the luxury saloon sweepstakes, confirming that in addition to the above, the model had become too physically large – because even in the US, where bulk is not an impediment, the market has not accepted full-sized Jaguars since their 1950s heyday.
Compounding matters was Ian Callum’s stubbornness over the XJ’s stylistic weaknesses, missing an opportunity to address them when the car was mildly refreshed in 2015. Whether it would have made much difference is debatable – we would perhaps instead be decrying his moral climb-down, so it’s equally possible he was damned either way.
Ultimately then, where does this leave the ‘351 in the XJ pantheon? Certainly, as an outlier, if purely by consequence of its appearance, which at first principle remains at odds with every other XJ-badged car Jaguar made. In retrospect it proved a miscalculation on Jaguar’s part perhaps – a leap too far which failed to match customer’s expectations with Mr. Callum’s vision for a new Jag generation.
And yet, like so many brave failures, there is much to appreciate. It’s a striking car of enormous stylistic confidence and one which has scarcely dated (inside or out) in the decade it has been in production. It is also every inch a Jaguar, which is more than can be said for some of the vehicles currently bearing the fabled leaping cat emblem, regardless of how much Whitley’s outgoing design chief might laud them.
All of which places us in something of a quandary – for isn’t it preferable to fail gloriously than tentatively? But conversely, opportunities at Jaguar for reinvention come so infrequently, the danger is that as X351 production winds down this July, the sands of time may be running out for the XJ saloon.