Welcome to the Machine – Part Five

Opening up the XJ-S. In sections.

Image: erwinxjs

Even amongst luxurious and indulgent grand turismos the Jaguar XJ-S stood apart, alongside its other more contentious attributes for its disproportionate length-to-cabin ratio. Despite generous exterior proportions, the XJ-S was avowedly a 2+2, with the rear seats of only the occasional variety. But if close-coupled coupés might be considered the preserve of the sybarite, its drophead coupé equivalent was by comparison entirely the chariot of the hedonist.

During the early 1970s, convertibles began to fall out of favour on both sides of the Atlantic. The reasons for this are complex, but a major factor influencing carmakers involved fears of draconian United States federal safety proposals which threatened to outlaw open-topped cars entirely, or at the very least render them unsaleable. In Europe on the other hand, as socio-political tensions began to turn violent, the Riviera-set elected to maintain a markedly less ostentatious profile.

But despite the environment for a drophead XJ-S being less than benign as it was being developed, an open model had originally been part of the product plan[1]. Faced however with the threat of US legislation, this version never got beyond the conceptual stage, and with resources stretched wafer thin for development of the fixed head, no further work was undertaken.

There matters stalled for the first five years of the XJ-S’ career, the irony being that as soon as the US legislative position was clarified in federal court, Jaguar’s US dealers began to bombard Browns Lane with requests for a convertible model[2]; the market for such vehicles quickly recovering, especially in the West-coast sunshine states. By then of course, the XJ-S had been introduced, Jaguar had more pressing problems, and in the post-collapse environment within British Leyland, there was no hope of obtaining the resources to bring such a complex project to fruition.

But in 1982, with the business having largely been stabilised, John Egan was appraised once more of the urgent necessity to develop an open-topped XJ-S for the US market. However, with its unitary bodyshell, which relied upon the roof and especially the substantial rear pillars for torsional rigidity, this would be anything but a quick or straightforward matter. On top of this, Jaguar’s understaffed engineering team were by then working flat out on other programmes and to cap matters, there was still little or no money to be spared.

Image: Lynx Cars – author’s collection

Nevertheless in 1981, a fully engineered convertible XJ-S[3] could be purchased – in the UK at least. Built by Lynx Engineering in St. Leonards-on-Sea on the East Sussex coast, the car had been under development for over two years before the company began taking orders. With the roof and rear sail panels removed the body was reinforced around the door shut faces and at the forward door posts. A box section was also welded in behind the seats to help compensate for the loss of the rear pillars. In addition, Lynx added a transverse brace across the engine bay. Two retracting rear quarter windows were added, along with the electrically folding mohair roof. Lynx was known for the quality of its work, and the professional nature of its conversions[4] impressed all who sampled them, the prevailing question from the press being what was stopping Browns Lane?

Image: stubs-auto.fr

While this glaring deficit was far from lost amid Jaguar’s senior management, matters such as this were catnip to the fertile mind of engineering chief, Jim Randle. Not simply a clever chap, but a persuasive one, Randle convinced a small group of stylists and engineers to work outside normal hours on various innovations and concepts in an unofficial skunkworks capacity. Around 1982, he presented one such scheme in prototype form, unprompted, to the Jaguar board. Egan et al were impressed, even more so when Randle explained how inexpensively and comparatively quickly it could be realised[5].

Randle worked out a way to circumvent both the huge engineering task to strengthen the decapitated XJ-S shell[6] and to build it without causing undue disruption to production at Browns Lane. He got around the structural issue by something of a fudge. The car would retain the perimeter side members containing the window apertures, linked at the B-pillar with a stout transverse crossbeam. Beneath the car, a carefully placed cruciform brace kept body flex to a minimum[7].

The roof was in three sections: two pop-out panels above the front seat occupants and a folding soft-top aft of the centre pillar/ cross strut. A removable fibreglass cover was also optional, lending greater security.

Image: Jaguar Cars – author’s collection

Production too was somewhat convoluted. XJ-S bodies, sans roof and rear header panel were transported to Park Sheet Metal in Coventry[8] where the sail panels were removed, the revised side and rear quarter panels blended in, and the strengthening brace fitted. Once complete, the shells returned to Castle Bromwich for painting, before again being trucked to Aston Martin’s Tickford[9] facility, North of Coventry for trimming and the fitment of the roof sections. Finally, the completed cars were sent to Browns Lane for final assembly, road test, inspection and delivery.

Aesthetically, the XJ-SC (as it was called) was something of a mixed blessing. For those allergic to the coupé’s sail fairings, it was the best looking XJ-S yet (this was largely the press reaction), but for those who hankered for the full open-air experience it fell a little short of ideal. In some ways then a UK answer to a US question, the cabriolet body was perhaps better suited to the Northern European climate, where conditions were often somewhat changeable. The XJ-SC also afforded its owner a little more privacy than a full convertible, which again, may have suited the more reserved European sensibilities than the show it if you have it mentality, across the Atlantic.

Not that it made a huge difference to US customers either way, for when the XJ-SC was introduced, it was not offered there. In some ways this October 1983 introduction would prove something of a mirage, for although 163 cabriolets were built that year (and 199 the next), the reality was that not only were Jaguar having considerable difficulty managing such a convoluted production process but supplies of the new six-cylinder engine were also in very short supply[10]. The US market introduction of the XJ-SC would not take place until 1985, when the V12 version came on stream, a matter which also coincided with Jaguar bringing the bulk of cabriolet production back in-house.

Image: Jaguar Cars – author’s collection

Upon its US arrival, Jaguar Incorporated’s reaction was broadly positive, the cabriolet being something new and well executed in its way, but the feeling was that it was not quite what the customer was asking for. But affluent Americans have a strong aversion to waiting, so while some customers were delighted with the cabriolet, others simply wouldn’t accept a compromise. At Jaguar Inc’s New Jersey headquarters, it was decided to look further afield. Cincinnati, Ohio to be precise.

Jaguar’s in-house convertible, the Hess & Eisenhardt XJ-S, the six-cylinder model (and Lynx Eventer) will feature in later articles.

More on the XJ-S here

[1] XJ28 was the internal code for the original XJ-S drophead.

[2] In the first couple of years after its 1976 US market introduction, Jaguar Inc didn’t really know how to market the XJ-S, since it was such a departure from what went before. An open-topped version, they believed, would have aided matters considerably. 

[3] US-based Royal Carriage Motors were the first to offer an open-topped XJ-S in 1980. 

[4] The Lynx Spyder conversion continued after Jaguar’s own full convertible made its debut, featuring occasional rear seating and an electro-mechanical hood latch that the factory model lacked. 

[5] Jim Randle: “I figured if I didn’t have to ask the board for permission, I could get on with it… I had enough funding to be able to cover these things. But that one, it was actually more competent than it ought to be really, and it only cost us… half a million to put it into production. We made 5,700 of them and we made, I think, an extra £72m in revenue”. Source: ©Driven to Write.

[6] XJ58 was the internal code for XJ-SC.

[7] Press reports of the XJ-SC confirmed the structure’s freedom from unwanted resonances, shudders or shaking, proving as quiet and torsionally secure as the closed model.

[8] Aston Martin Tickford were descended from the original coachbuilder, based in Newport Pagnell. Tickford were later reinvented as an independent consultancy, carrying out small-scale contract manufacturing and modification for OEM manufacturers. Much of the roof system for XJ-SC was developed at Bedworth, where it was also fitted to production cars. This arrangement came to an end in early 1985, when this was in-housed to Browns Lane.

[9] Park Sheet Metal enjoyed a long association with Jaguar, employed by them for low-volume work and prototyping – Jim Randle using them as part of his skunkworks. PSM continued to modify XJ-SC bodies after all other aspects were taken back in-house.

[10] The 3.6 litre AJ-6 engine made its debut in the 1983 XJ-S coupé and Cabriolet. Fitted with manual transmission only, production was kept deliberately low, partially owing to healthy demand for the V12-engined car, and secondly, because development of the AJ-6 engine was incomplete at this point. For reasons which were never adequately explained, it took another two years for the V12 Cabrio to be offered on sale. 

Sources: See Part One.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

8 thoughts on “Welcome to the Machine – Part Five”

  1. Wasn’t Tickford also involved in the creation of the Ford Racing Puma FRP?

    As former short time owner of a Lancia beta Spider I can confirm that such a car is not comparable to real open top motoring. It’s more like sitting under an oversize sunroof.

    1. Hi Dave. Agreed, and the same applies to those metal-roofed coupé-convertibles with the windscreen top rail pulled so far back (to reduce the length of the roof) that it feels like you’re sitting under glass.

    2. Dave: Tickford carried out the conversions on the Puma. Standard 1.7 litre Pumas were shipped directly from the final line at Neihl to Tickford’s Daventry workshops to receive the bodywork, cabin and limited slip differential. The cars were not fully assembled at Cologne, they arrived sans front and rear bumpers, fuel filler cap, seats, wheels (steelies were a temporary fitment) and several other items, since these would only be discarded. The cars were deemed ‘standard’ by the authorities, because as being in receipt of ‘after-market’ enhancement, they didn’t require further homologation.

  2. The XJ-SC was a clever, pragmatic solution, but pragmatism is not what customers buying a luxury convertible want or expect. It’s the door and rear side window frames that give the XJ-SC a rather clunky look. What a shame that Jim Randle and his team couldn’t instead have developed a T-bar roof combined with frameless side windows, like the Triumph Stag. That could have combined the best features of both cabriolet and convertible without the need for the extensive re-engineering required by the latter.

    1. The XJ-SC reminds me of the Baur TC BMWs.
      As soon as BMW produced a car with a proper folding roof nobody bought the TCs anymore (which in case of the horrible E36 TC with its extra thick door frames is more than understandable).

  3. The Lynx spyder looked interesting but it led me on to the Eventer… That looks like XJ S that Jaguar surely should have been building themselves?

  4. Dave,

    The beauty is in the eyes of the beholder…
    I’m sorry only me and 300 other fellows saw the unique caractheristics of the e36 BaurTC4.
    It’s a pity around 8.000.000.000 other human beings are blind.
    There are a lot of qualities on the tc4, namely…
    …errr…
    …oh, yes: you can carry 5 people; the hardtop hardly diminishes the boot volume when stowed there, you have 4 doors so you can have delighful trips with your partner and respective old age parents; you can choose who you wish to fry under the sun (front or rear) and on classic BMW meetings everyone asks what the hell is it ( before they freely start appreciating all the design flaws. But then, that only proves they are part of all those other 8.000.000.000 human beings)

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