The Jaguar XJ-S came from outer space – or did it?
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in November 2017.
A shape which to this day repels as much as it fascinates, the Jaguar XJ-S remains a car which divides opinion. While the reasons for repulsion are easy enough to discern, its fascination lies not only as a function of its striking shape, but also from a sense that its styling came about without precedent. But surely no car is developed entirely in a vacuum?
Driven to Write has covered the XJ-S’ stylistic development in some detail already, so you might consider it a little self-indulgent to retrace this ground, but what has not been addressed is the matter of influence; what external designs could conceivably have been pinned to Malcolm Sayer’s moodboard, had Jaguar’s aerodynamicist and self-confessed non-stylist have been in possession of such a device in 1968?
Firstly, it’s worth reminding ourselves that XJ-S (or to call it by its experimental code, XJ27) was initially believed to have had a low penetrating nose for aerodynamic reasons. The very earliest Sayer XJ27 sketches illustrate this, as indeed do photos of a scale model used for preliminary wind tunnel tests. It was stated at the car’s 1975 launch that it was the threat of proposed (but not enacted) US lighting regulations that prompted Sayer to abandon this arrangement.
However, we should consider the facts as we recognise them. None of the established written histories of the XJ-S definitively confirm what Sayer’s initial intention for the frontal aspect of XJ-S was to have been, the only mention being a slightly ambiguous quote from Sir William Lyons, which was included in the press pack for the car’s 1975 launch.
This is worth unpicking: In his submission, Sir William refers to “international regulations on crush control and lighting”, which caused both he and Sayer to “start afresh”. However, other carmakers selling across international markets at this time designed cars with low, penetrating nose treatments without incurring legislative wrath, so without knowing precisely to what he was referring, we are little wiser. A more telling section makes reference to Lyons “discussing” aspects of the design where both he and Sayer failed to find accord.
The adopted headlamp/ grille treatment was intended to be ‘read’ by the observer as a single integrated whole, rather than three separate entities: lights and grille. This design theme was not uncommon during the latter part of the ‘Sixties, possibly influenced by designs emanating from Detroit but most notably Pininfarina’s Cadillac-based Jacqueline study from 1961, in which headlamps and grille became a single unified entity – a treatment reprised on Peugeot’s 204 of 1966, from the same Italian studio.
An earlier variation on this conceit saw headlamps and grille separated; the laps sitting in recesses or pods mounted above and flanking the grille intake. Such treatments would include the 1962 Jensen C/V8, Bertone’s 1964 Gordon Keeble and Touring’s Lamborghini 350 GT of the same year. Mention should also be made of Pininfarina’s 1963 Ferrari 330 GT 2+2, which displayed a number of visual similarities: for instance, in the flattened wing crown line and dihedral beltline body crease.
But it is closer to home that the most compelling influence lies. Back in Browns Lane, Sir William oversaw a series of styling studies from 1962 to 1964, in conjunction with Fred Gardiner’s ‘studio’, as the Jaguar Chairman was trying to establish a definitive XJ4 style. As we know, this car, which ultimately became the acclaimed XJ6 saloon, began life as a four-seater personal luxury coupe with E-Type inspired styling. One of these proposals in particular (see below) not only reflects some of the external designs referenced above, but appears to have been an uncanny stylistic dry-run for the XJ-S.
Coincidence? Clearly the timelines preclude Lyons being influenced by anything apart from Jensen or Pininfarina-Cadillac but is it possible that Sir William in fact favoured this earlier in-house-inspired nose treatment; one after all he himself had developed, over the one which Sayer had proposed? It remains an intriguing possibility.
Returning to Sayer’s original styling sketches above, it is abundantly clear that XJ27’s eventual style was already there or thereabouts in the lineal wing line, the dihedral bodyside crease, the cut-off tail and truncated canopy. We have mentioned the (vague) resemblance of the Ferrari 330, however, another design from this period also exhibits some (equally vague) similarities, Pininfarina’s Lausanne study from 1963, combining (somewhat) uncluttered surfaces, a similar(ish) canopy treatment and an elongated tail.
However, what muddies the water here is the fact that Sayer had to some extent been working towards the XJ-S style with the car which preceded it. The stillborn XJ21 programme had been a proposed reskin of the E-Type which fell prey to regulatory complications, a lack of funding and impetus. However, a good deal of the thinking which went into XJ21 was employed for XJ27 in its stead. Certainly, the styling theme developed for this transitional Sayer proposal can best be described as a missing link.
But of course, it was at the rear that XJ27’s styling really went off-piste. Eschewing the classic Lyons line or indeed the previous soft-surfaced Sayer treatment, the result was dictated by aerodynamic concerns. What is interesting however, is that while Sir William was no radical in design terms, and generally eschewed anything which he would have deemed ephemeral or gimmicky, he seems to have approved of the tail-fin treatment, despite considerable objections.
The first exponent of the fin-shaped rear sail fairings (or buttresses) remains debatable, but Pininfarina certainly were amongst its earliest exponents, the one-off 1954 Ferrari 375 MM for film director Roberto Rossellini being perhaps the prime example, a feature which would later become something of a Pininfarina trademark. We could also look to the rear three quarter treatment of Ercole Spada’s 1963 Lancia Flavia Zagato, where a suggestion of the Jaguar’s sail panels can be seen. Also worth noting are the Lancia’s tail-lamp and bootlid treatments.
Now at this point it is worth restating that although Lyons was something of a creative magpie, Malcolm Sayer marched to a drumbeat almost entirely his own. Therefore, there is a question to be asked about how much account he might have taken of external stylistic influences. In fact, Sayer did take notice of what was happening, especially if something particularly caught his eye, but the purity of his calculations would remain at the forefront of his thinking.
No car design is created entirely in a vacuum, but is it possible the XJ-S was? Certainly, during the time of its conception both Lyons and Sayer were working quite intensely on what was to be an entirely new stylistic direction and were unlikely to have been distracted from this task by outside influences. From the study I have made, there is little hard evidence to suggest that the XJ-S was overtly influenced by any pre-existing non-Jaguar design.
What can therefore be said of Malcolm Sayer’s moodboard? Only this. Should such a thing have existed in 1968 (it didn’t), it is likely to have contained a series of numerical co-ordinates and little else. For that is what Sayer worked from and it is from where the design emerged. Did the XJ-S come from outer space? Not quite, but certainly from a brilliant and quite unique mind.
 A number of years ago a 330 GT 2+2 came up for auction, and its first recorded owner was alleged to have been Jaguar Cars Ltd. Interesting. Perhaps they were attempting to establish the GT state of the art?
 “We decided from the very first that aerodynamics were the prime concern, and I exerted my influence in a consultative capacity with Malcolm Sayer. Occasionally, I saw a feature I did not agree with, and we would discuss it. I took my influence as far as I could without interfering with his basic aerodynamic requirements and he and I worked on the first styling models together. We originally considered a lower bonnet line, but the international regulations on crush control and lighting made us change and we started afresh.” Sir William Lyons – XJ-S press release.
 Sir William certainly drew influences from far and wide, but he copied nobody. His designs were entirely original, and uniquely Jaguar.