Supercat leaps back to life.
“If ‘efficiency’ is the watchword for the 1980s, what hope is there for the Jaguar XJ-S?” Opening their October 1980 test report of Jaguar’s embattled grand turismo coupé, UK magazine, Motor got right to nub of the matter. Because at the time, the auguries were ominous.
That Spring, Jaguar itself had come within squeaking distance of closure. With production having slumped to levels not seen since the 1950s; convulsed by a bruising walk-out of production-line workers, a full-blown crisis at the Castle Bromwich paint plant, and high drama at boardroom level, the carmaker (if indeed it could still be described as such) was clinging by a thread.
This nihilistic mindset was echoed by striking line workers at Browns Lane, who had become convinced that BL management were determined to close down Jaguar, come what may, as would happen later that year at MG’s Abingdon plant. Defiant and demoralised, even the prospect of joining Britain’s two million on the dole seemed little deterrent. Morale amid Jaguar management was also at sub-stratum level – worn out from endless strife, they too appeared resigned to the inevitable.
Production of the XJ-S had come to a standstill, partially owing to the number of manufacturing fires being fought simultaneously, partly to clear stock, but ultimately because demand had largely evaporated. In its first five years, the XJ-S had not been a particularly easy sell, but despair over its lamentable build, high running costs and woeful reliability – to say nothing of the ongoing Red, White and Yellow debacle, brought matters to a head.
Throughout the desperate years of the 1970s, Jaguar’s leadership, through a combination of strategic nous, smart political alliances and sheer bloody-minded obstruction, managed to maintain an engineering and development budget. It wasn’t much, but it was sufficient to update existing product. The bulk of this money was spent on the Series III XJ saloon which debuted – unready – in 1979, with a much smaller subset being directed towards powertrain modifications, so that anything that might have been earmarked for the XJ-S would amount to small change at best.
But first, John Egan, newly appointed in April 1980 had to make the case for restarting production of the car, since BL’s strategists were convinced the market had been lost. Former Sales Director, John Morgan would later recount how Egan dragged him to BL’s Bickenhill headquarters to have it out with the money men, Morgan telling chroniclers that the Jaguar MD “literally tore them to shreds”. The two men emerged from this showdown, bloodied but having prevailed.
Time had been bought, but with so little money, a mild facelift was all that could be enacted for a July 1981 re-launch. Cosmetic changes were minimal. Externally, the unsightly matt-black 5-mph bumpers were replaced by better-integrated chrome-topped units, similar in appearance to those fitted to the Series III saloons. Wider 215-section Dunlop D7 tyres were fitted to new ‘Starfish’ design GKN alloy wheels. Other, minor cosmetic enhancements were also made.
The significantly enriched cabin ambience was the result of some unofficial market research which had been carried out (while such matters were frowned upon by BL) by rebel Jaguar elements. A ‘trim enhancement programme’ was enacted, and then shown discretely at Jaguar Driver’s Club events. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, this forming the basis for the enhanced interior. Warmer trim colours and a higher standard of equipment would complete the effect.
However, it was under its low bonnet that the most significant change occurred. Nothing of significance ever happened quickly at Jaguar. The V12 engine had arrived late and not quite as first intended. While the 5343 cc unit achieved its primary aim – that of an almost total absence of untoward noise and vibration – Jaguar was constantly chasing ever-changing exhaust emission and fuel efficiency strictures. Already considered obsolete amid post-crisis 1970s austerity, Jaguar’s engineers, unwilling to abandon it, (or the massive investment in tooling) left few stones unturned in seeking an answer to the V12’s unquenchable thirst for hydrocarbons.
In 1976, Powertrain Director, Harry Mundy became aware of the pioneering work of Swiss consultant-engineer, Michael May into a form of stratified charge, lean-burn combustion. May’s design provided for a conventional valve set up but incorporated a novel combustion chamber design. Following a number of experimental single cylinder prototypes, Mundy’s team devised a new cylinder head with a specially shaped recess or swirl pocket machined into the head face. With a compression ratio of 12.5:1 (in Euro-spec) the Fireball Head provided levels of thermal efficiency which LJK Setright equated to that of “a good diesel”.
Costs of the revised cylinder head design were a fairly modest £500,000, mostly for tooling. The results were a notable improvement in part-throttle fuel consumption at the expense (it was suggested) of a slight increase in combustion noise, and full throttle economy. A taller axle ratio also enhanced efficiency at the expense of outright performance, which after all, was more than adequate.
Introduced in July 1981, the XJ-S HE, (or Supercat, as it was advertised), made a far greater impression both in the showroom and on the road than the sum of its changes might have suggested. A reduction in price probably didn’t hurt either, in addition to well publicised improvements in build integrity and supplier quality, meaning that a car which had previously been considered moribund would within a few short years become one of Jaguar’s most enduring sales successes.
For just as fate and geopolitics had conspired against the XJ-S during its first five years of existence, the next half-decade would be one of economic prosperity, and oil price stability. With a larger potential customer base, facing few direct rivals, and offering a broadly unique set of virtues, XJ-S sales would grow exponentially year on year throughout the 1980s, riding on the coattails of the steadily improving reputation of the XJ saloons, both on this side of the Atlantic but especially in the United States.
With a residual well of goodwill from the World’s motor press, the XJ-S HE received a warm reception. Motor, who barely six months previously had questioned the car’s viability, now hailed “the finest means yet devised in which to travel by road”. LJK Setright too was impressed, describing it as “a beautiful car, in everything except possibly its shape”. Setright declared that the revised XJ-S (and particularly its engine) would challenge a lot of long-held beliefs, but one which few (not even LJKS himself) could bear to let go of was the car’s (still) uncompromised appearance.
Did the XJ-S’ renaissance occur in spite of its styling or was it in fact less of an issue than the gentlemen of the press chose to make it? Certainly, those in the market for indulgent and expensive luxury coupés were not in the habit of choosing what they considered unattractive, especially during the ‘image is king’ 1980s. But those rear sail fairings would nevertheless remain a stubborn point of contention. What if they could be excised?
The next logical evolution for the XJ-S would be, like so many Jaguar developments, long overdue and would involve quite an element of metalwork. Also, like much at Browns Lane, it would prove anything but a straightforward or linear process.
 From a previous high in 1974, overall Production fell to 14,861 cars during 1979, the lowest since 1957.
 They were half right. It was only the appointment of John Egan which provided a stay of execution that Spring. Edwardes had to give him a chance to facilitate a turn-around. But it was a very close run thing.
 Owing to the calamitous situation with the Thermoplastic process at JRT’s paint plant in Castle Bromwich, Jaguars were offered with only three colours for well over a year.
 The provision of a broad beltline pinstripe was perhaps the only visual demerit of the 1981 facelift, appearing somewhat tacky. US market cars were spared this.
 Trim enhancements would include additional leather on door cards and consoles, while elm-wood fillets were incorporated to doors and dash panels. A sunroof was also made optional.
 There is some debate as to whether the Jaguar V12 cylinder head as first productionised was a ‘pure’ Heron Head. It was however based upon Sam Heron’s original thinking.
 Prototype engines were running well on a 14:1 a compression ratio, but to Jaguar’s disappointment, the CR had to be reduced for production. Jim Randle latterly stated (to this author) that in his estimation, the May Head didn’t live up to expectations. The badge on the back did more to sell the car than anything else, he observed. (Source: ©DTW).
 LJK Setright wrote that the 299 bhp figure for the HE engine was a conservative figure, with up to 330 bhp not uncommon. (Source: Car).
 Jaguar North America’s head of public relations, Mike Cook outlined to author, Graham Robson that early US specification XJ-S’ achieved only about 9 (US) mpg. With the HE version, this went up to 14 mpg. “I honestly believe the rebirth of the XJ-S started from then,” he said.
 Matters didn’t change overnight; there were still innumerable problems to be solved, but the cars began making friends, and more importantly still, the company was making money.
Full list of sources: See Part One