A difficult first act.
The XJ-S’ first five years were undoubtedly troubled. Launched into a post oil-shock world, where 12 mpg would butter increasingly fewer people’s parsnips, while at the same time presenting a visual envelope which substituted the E-Type’s easily assimilated aesthetics for something more complex and visually dissonant, the Seventies Jaguar flagship would prove a cerebral, rather than emotional choice. Also a far more expensive one, 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 machine.
The car’s introduction also coincided with an increasingly bitter internal environment which saw Jaguar’s management (such as they were) engaged in a desperate battle for survival within a carmaking group which had become fundamentally ungovernable. As British Leyland’s flagship model, the XJ-S would help underline the national carmaker’s repeated ability to snatch defeat from the very cusp of success. Critics of the XJ-S 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. But the truth is good deal more nuanced than that.
1977 would be a year of contrasts. Amid the lurid flagwaving of the Queen’s silver jubilee, Britain’s parents looked on in mute horror as the punks on the street corners turned out to be their own little darlings. Cultures were fracturing, as was Britain’s assured place in the world. 1977 would also mark the point when BL’s volume car division would become a terminal-case – not that this was immediately apparent to newly appointed British Leyland CEO, (Sir) Michael Edwardes. With the discredited Ryder report cast into the waste paper basket, Edwardes set to the task of mopping up what of the mould-ridden BL Cars that could be salvaged. Jaguar? Well down his to-do list.
Nevertheless, 1977 would also see a number of running changes to the XJ-S, foremost being 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 excised from the lower section of the bootlid, as was the chrome fillet trim from the B-pillar. Inside, the bright bezels surrounding the main instrument binnacles, criticised by the press for being cheap-looking were substituted for a matt-black affair. Despite this, the XJ-S’ cabin retained its somewhat cold ambience.
In 1979, manual transmission was removed from the (very short) options list. The manual, (Jaguar’s own four-speed unit) had not proven a popular choice amongst customers, despite its improved performance potential, better economy 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 earlier in the decade, but the BL overlords refused to sanction it. A mere 352 manual XJ-S’ were built in total.
As the levels of ambivalence towards the XJ-S’ appearance grew, opposition voices became more strident; critics now openly stating that Jaguar had abandoned its stylistic heritage, as epitomised by the E and D-Type models. While at the time engaged in speculative design work for Jaguar’s troubled saloon programme, a number of Italian design houses turned their attention to the XJ-S. Carrozzeria Bertone were first to show their hand in 1977 with the dramatic Ascot concept. Pininfarina showed their proposal a year later. Cambiano’s XJ-Spider garnered 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 design at least initiated an internal dialogue, which would lead to other things in the fullness of time.
With British Leyland now focussed entirely upon the survival of the volume car division, and Jaguar’s energies (and meagre resources) channelled towards its crucial saloon range, there was little or no funding forthcoming for more meaningful changes to the XJ-S, nor indeed much enthusiasm for a model which was not only viewed as a dinosaur, but the product of a subsidiary in virtually open revolt. Alongside the urgent manufacturing crisis facing the newly launched Series III XJ saloons, the low-volume XJ-S was becoming something of an afterthought.
But not entirely. The Jaguar V12 engine had originally been designed to run with high compression/ expansion ratios in the region of 10:1. However, US market emissions mandates, not to mention the cancellation of the original AE Brico fuel injection system saw engineers forced to reduce the compression ratio (and revise the combustion chamber design) to facilitate the much-delayed V12’s commercial introduction in 1971.
The advent however of the jointly-developed Lucas digital fuel injection in the spring of 1980 however remedied this handicap, restoring the 10:1 compression ratio, while boosting the power output of the V12 to an official 296 bhp, producing what many consider the most free-running and mechanically refined version of the factory V12 unit. Lamentably, few were built, primarily because by the Spring of 1980, production of the XJ-S had all but ceased.
Between 1975 and 1980, a total of 12,395 first series XJ-S’ were constructed, leading many chroniclers to conclude that the early XJ-S was a commercial failure. But how accurate a reading is this? Initial BL projections for the model predicted annual sales in the region of 3000 cars per annum – the XJ-S programme having been carefully costed in order to ensure its business case. Allowing for the fact that production was still ramping-up in 1975, annual sales fulfilled (and in some cases exceeded) projections – only significantly falling short in 1979/80.
The commercial falloff during those latter years is not difficult to pinpoint: stories would become rife of BL middle managers being offered XJ-S’ as company cars only to turn them down, such was their reputation for poor build integrity and shoddy componentry. Moreover, the Castle Bromwich paint plant debacle conjoined to catastrophically effect the supply of saleable cars, and with Browns Lane frantically rectifying every XJ saloon they could lay their hands upon, the XJ-S simply didn’t get a look-in. In the vital US market, the effects of UK government monetary policy adversely affected the price competitiveness of British exports, which combined with the debilitating 1979 US recession and the second fuel crisis with which it coincided would by the turn of the decade lead to an almost perfect storm.
Furthermore, with more modern rivals like Porsche’s ultra-modern 928 offering a far more appealing and up-to-date package, the XJ-S was in dire need of a refresh, but BL product planning at Bickenhill had already condemned the car, ideologically convinced that both it and the V12 engine had no commercial future in the new, more austere 1980s. Even within Browns Lane, there appeared to be a resignation towards the inevitable.
Nevertheless, Jaguar’s engineering nerve centre remained undeterred, continuing to quietly develop the car. Newly appointed Managing Director, John Egan also took the model’s case on board – the Lancastrian soon 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.
 The Jaguar four-speed manual was not a particularly pleasant device as fitted to the XJ-S – the change being rather slow and baulky and the clutch heavy. However, such was the V12’s uncanny flexibility, it hardly mattered, it being possible to pull away from standstill in top without fuss. But the take-up of the automatic told its own story, suggesting that Jaguar might have been better off developing one of their own rather than a manual, for it appears that few outside of the UK motor press really wanted a manual XJ-S.
 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.
 It’s believed that these last of the pre-‘HE’ V12 engines were the sweetest-running of the lot.
 (Sir) John Egan had prior experience of Jaguars as company cars, so when he was appointed in 1980, he stated that he already knew Jaguar had a saleable product in the XJ saloon. However, he was (initially at least), less convinced by the XJ-S. That would change however.
Sources: See part one