The XJ-S’ troubled early years.
While its commercial renaissance throughout the 1980s and into the early years of the following decade are indisputable, XJ-S critics routinely point to the first five years of its career as graphic illustration of Jaguar’s error in abandoning a much loved, tried and true format.
The XJ-S’ early years were undoubtedly difficult. Launched into a post oil-shock world, where 12 mpg would butter increasingly fewer people’s parsnips, yet presenting a visual envelope which substituted the E-Type’s easily assimilated aesthetics for something far more complex and discordant, the Seventies Jaguar flagship would prove a cerebral, rather than emotional choice. It was also a far pricier one than of yore, with an asking price more than double that of the last of line E-Types – but in mitigation, it was a far more sophisticated, more capable product.
The XJ-S was also introduced into a particularly febrile political landscape which saw Jaguar’s management (such as they were) engaged in a desperate battle for survival within a carmaking giant which not only had become fundamentally ungovernable, but by 1977, beyond rescue. As British Leyland’s flagship, the XJ-S, which was by no means a well wrought car during this lamentable period, crystallised the national carmaker’s uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of success.
While 1977 marked the year when BL itself became a terminal-case, it would also see a number of running changes to the XJ-S; foremost of which was the replacement of the much-criticised Borg Warner Model 12 automatic transmission for the superior US-made General Motors Turbo Hydramatic 400 unit. Externally, the matt black finish was deleted from the lower section of the bootlid, as was the chrome fillet trim from the B-pillar. Inside, the cheap-looking bright surround to the main instrument binnacles was also excised.
Two year’s later, manual transmission was removed from the (rather short) options list. The manual, (Jaguar’s own four-speed unit) had not proven a popular choice amongst customers, despite its improved performance potential, its superiority to the original Borg Warner auto, and the remarkable flexibility it offered. Jaguar’s drivetrain chief Harry Mundy had overseen development of a modern five-speed manual capable of handling the V12’s torque outputs, but the BL overlords said no. A mere 352 manual XJ-S’ were built in total.
These would amount to (almost) the sum total of the running changes to the model until its 1981 makeover, there being no funding forthcoming for anything more meaningful, nor indeed much enthusiasm from BL management in Bickenhill for a model which was not only viewed as a dinosaur, but the product of a subsidiary in open revolt.
And while there was an element of ambivalence towards the XJ-S’ from quarters within Jaguar itself, elsewhere, opinion was decidedly against it. Few uttered it openly, but the over-riding feeling was that Jaguar had abandoned its stylistic heritage, as epitomised by the E, D and C-Type models, not to mention the earlier XK series. Shortly after its introduction, a number of Italian design houses, some already engaged in speculative design work for Jaguar’s troubled saloon programme, turned their attention to the XJ-S; carrozzeria Bertone being first to show their hand in 1976 with the dramatic Ascot concept.
Pininfarina showed theirs two years later; Cambiano’s XJ-Spider garnering a lot more column inches, not to mention the attention of those few people at Browns Lane who actually mattered, and while neither concept elicited a commission, the Pininfarina car at least initiated an internal dialogue, which would lead to other things in the fullness of time.
Between 1975 and 1980, somewhere in the region of 15,000 first series XJ-S’ were constructed. This rather dramatic contrast with the over-70,000 second series 1981-1990 models built has lent some chroniclers to suggest that the early XJ-S was a commercial failure. But is this an accurate reading?
Initial BL projections for the model predicted annual sales in the region of 3000 per annum – the XJ-S programme having been carefully costed in order to ensure its business case. Allowing for the fact that comparatively few cars were built in 1975, annual sales fulfilled (and in some cases exceeded) that number – only significantly falling below expectations in 1979/80.
The falloff of sales during those latter years is not difficult to rationalise: from the poor build integrity, shoddy componentry, and most dramatically, the Castle Bromwich paint plant debacle, which conjoined to catastrophically effect the supply of saleable cars, to the effects of UK government monetary policy, which adversely affected the price competitiveness of British exports to the United States, not to mention the debilitating 1979 US recession and the second fuel crisis which coincided.
In 1979, former Grand Prix racing driver, Lotus development engineer and auto-pundit, John Miles lent his driving impressions of the XJ-S for Autocar magazine. For Miles, this represented his first, somewhat belated experience of the Jaguar coupé, writing; “I had all but forgotten about the XJ-S“. Despite some criticisms of aspects of the car’s ergonomics, he marvelled at the Jaguar’s ability to “cut journeys into ribbons“, its effortless performance, indomitable road manners and silence of operation.
But by 1980, this represented the XJ-S’ biggest existential threat – just about everybody it seemed, had forgotten about it. Alongside the urgent manufacturing crisis facing the more commercially sensitive and newly launched Series III XJ saloons, the low-volume XJ-S had become something of an afterthought.
Nevertheless, Browns Lane’s engineering nerve centre kept faith with both XJ-S and the V12 engine which so defined it. The V12 had originally been designed to run with high compression/ expansion ratios. However, US market emissions concerns, not to mention the cancellation of the original AE Brico fuel injection system saw a reduced and far less satisfactory CR for the V12’s commercial introduction.
The advent however of Lucas digital fuel injection in the spring of 1980 however remedied this handicap, boosting the power output of the V12 to over 300 bhp, producing what many consider the most free-running and mechanically refined version of the factory V12 unit. Lamentably few were built, owing to the fact that XJ-S production had for all intents and purposes ceased.
This dramatic collapse in demand was partly due to Jaguar’s inability to build them, but also because BL’s marketers had largely ceased to promote it. Furthermore, the car was in dire need of a refresh, but BL product planning at Bickenhill were of the strong belief that the XJ-S had run its course, ideologically convinced that both it and the V12 engine had no commercial future in a post-1980 environment.
Meanwhile, stories would become rife of BL middle managers being offered XJ-S’ as company cars only to turn them down, such was their shoddy reputation. Even within Browns Lane, there seemed to be a broad resignation towards the inevitable.
But not entirely. Engineering leader, Jim Randle and production director, Mike Beasley continued to quietly develop the car. Newly appointed MD, John Egan also took the model’s case on board with gusto – the Lancastrian quickly grasping the importance of Jaguar continuing to have more than one model line to offer – ensuring the XJ-S’ case was argued forcibly at the highest level. Survival would come. Not just on a hairsbreadth, but as it would turn out, on a veritable shoestring.
 Harry Mundy’s personal XJ12 was fitted with a five speed manual mated to a 6.4 litre experimental V12 engine. It was apparently a particularly well judged combination.
 According to Jim Randle, the success of the solid state injection system in the XJ-S convinced him of the value of digitalisation; applying it wholesale to XJ40, then in the first stages of programme development – as recounted to this author.
Philip Porter/ Paul Skilleter – Sir William Lyons – The Official Biography
Philip Porter – E-Type – The Definitive History
Paul Skilleter – XJ-S Autohistory
Paul Skilleter – Jaguar Saloon Cars
Graham Robson – XJ-S The Complete Story
Car Magazine / Motor / Classic Cars / Autosport / ARonline.co.uk