As the Jaguar XJ cel­e­brates its half-cen­tury, it re­mains a con­tender for the ‘best sa­loon of all time’ crown


Half a cen­tury old and still the finest sa­loon ever built, says Mar­tin Buckley

The Jaguar XJ6 is still the per­fect Bri­tish sa­loon car, and also the per­fect Bri­tish com­pro­mise – a skil­ful blend of ear­lier, well-proven con­cepts and com­po­nents, mas­saged and re­fined into a beau­ti­ful new shape. This long-run­ning bench­mark of sa­loon-car re­fine­ment was a mas­ter­ful fu­sion of tra­di­tion and moder­nity such that no sub­se­quent Jaguar sa­loon – in­deed, per­haps no other sa­loon car from any man­u­fac­turer – has ever re­cap­tured its bril­liance.

It could hardly have been oth­er­wise, ben­e­fit­ing as it did from the taste and judge­ment of Sir Wil­liam Lyons. As well as be­ing that cu­ri­ous com­bi­na­tion of hard-nosed ty­coon and artist, Lyons had an equal tal­ent for nur­tur­ing the best en­gi­neer­ing brains in the in­dus­try; the likes of Bob Knight, Wally Has­san and, per­haps most im­por­tant of all, Tech­ni­cal Di­rec­tor Bill Heynes.

Heynes’ orig­i­nal idea for the XJ project in the early ’60s was to cre­ate a four-door, four-seat E-type, a low-slung sports sa­loon that would take the fight to the Eu­ro­peans in the ’70s and re­cap­ture the in­ter­est of an Amer­i­can mar­ket that still loved its XKES but never quite took the MKX or S-type to its heart in the same way. The XJ was, in fact, a long-over­due fil­lip to the Jaguar range when Lyons per­son­ally launched it in Septem­ber 1968. The op­ti­mism and cer­tain­ties of the 1950s and early ’60s were fad­ing. The ex­ist­ing sa­loons were look­ing old, sales were tail­ing off (the MKX/420G was prov­ing a par­tic­u­lar dis­ap­point­ment) and it was no longer true to say that Jaguar could sell ev­ery car it built. Lyons him­self was tir­ing. He had no heir af­ter the death of his son John and was al­ready two years into an un­cer­tain merger with BMC, to form BMHC. As a means of se­cur­ing sup­plies of bodyshells for his new car from Pressed Steel-fisher (which had be­come part of the BMC group in 1965), it was an al­liance of ne­ces­sity that can’t have sat well with a man who had been very much his own boss for 40 years.

Learn­ing the chas­sis lessons of the S-type, 420 and MKX/420G, the XJ was con­ceived around wide-track, anti-dive, dou­ble-wish­bone front sus­pen­sion, with a quad-damper in­de­pen­dent rear and a new kind of low-pro­file ER70VR15 tyre spe­cially de­vel­oped for it by Dun­lop.

It was the first Jaguar sa­loon with rack-and­pin­ion steer­ing and, with five dif­fer­ent kinds of syn­thetic and nat­u­ral rub­ber in the front sub­frame mount­ings alone, it rep­re­sented a gi­ant leap for­ward in the un­der­stand­ing of what caused road-ex­cited noise in­side a mo­tor-car bodyshell, so much so that even 20 years later

‘A mas­ter­ful fu­sion of tra­di­tion and moder­nity that no sub­se­quent Jaguar sa­loon has ever re­cap­tured’

(when the last Se­ries III XJS were be­ing built) the op­po­si­tion was strug­gling to match it. Lots of res­o­nance damp­ing, care­fully iso­lated en­gine mount­ings and a dou­ble-thick­ness bulk­head were part of the se­cret and the XJ al­ways en­joyed a re­mark­able lack of wind noise, too, around that beau­ti­fully re­solved, thin-pil­lared glasshouse.

It also rep­re­sented an ad­vance in de­tail re­fine­ments now that Jaguar, for the first time, took com­plaints about its slith­ery arm­chair seats, fee­ble heat­ing and ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems se­ri­ously. The new body was vir­tu­ally built around a so­phis­ti­cated heater box feed­ing modern eye­ball vents, while front pas­sen­gers were sup­ported in semi-bucket seats that were more E-type than MKX in shape. This was im­por­tant in a sa­loon car that could now gen­er­ate cor­ner­ing forces more akin to the for­mer than the lat­ter.

Quickly set­tling down to a 25,000 out­put (about 650 a week, 56% for ex­port), the XJ6 eas­ily out­sold the so-called ‘com­pacts’ (240/340/ S-type/420) and the bul­bous 420G. By the end of 1970 it had re­placed them com­pletely, use­fully sim­pli­fy­ing a once-com­plex range and stream­lin­ing the pro­duc­tion lines, and gained a new badge-en­gi­neered sis­ter, the Daim­ler Sov­er­eign.

Even so, the XJ re­mained in short sup­ply for years, so much so that a black mar­ket of £1000 over list on de­liv­ery-mileage cars was soon es­tab­lished in the UK. Irate Swiss cus­tomers even felt moved to picket Lord Stokes, out­side the Bri­tish Leyland head­quar­ters in Berke­ley Square, over the length of the wait­ing lists. Browns Lane couldn’t build them fast enough, to the ex­tent that Jaguar pub­lished full-page ads in the mo­tor­ing press thank­ing cus­tomers for their pa­tience. Press re­ports drip­ping with su­perla­tives about the XJ’S poise and re­fine­ment only whet­ted buy­ers’ ap­petites fur­ther for a car widely con­sid­ered to be the best sa­loon in the world at any price, never mind the mere £2365 Jaguar asked for an over­drive-equipped 4.2.

The XK straight-six, at 20 years old, was still a mag­nif­i­cent en­gine and drew al­most noth­ing but praise for its smooth­ness and torque. But Lyons was not sat­is­fied. Keen to un­leash his V12 se­cret weapon, it was with some re­luc­tance that he had agreed to launch the car in six-cylin­der form only, with the short-stroke 2.8 of­fered as a sup­ple­men­tary vari­ant mainly for Euro­pean mar­kets, where en­gines over that swept vol­ume were heav­ily taxed. The 2.8, later in­fa­mous for burn­ing holes in its pis­tons, was sweeter and freer-revving, but gave away a lot of urge to the burly 4.2. Since few wealthy Euro­pean buy­ers cared about the ex­tra tax on an al­ready-ex­pen­sive car, or the fact it got two or three ex­tra miles per gal­lon, they tended to buy the 4.2 any­way.

The orig­i­nal plan had been to of­fer this short-block XK en­gine in 3-litre form as the six­cylin­der al­ter­na­tive to the V12. The de­ci­sion to fit the twin-su 4.2 was made late in pro­ceed­ings, its ad­di­tional height ne­ces­si­tat­ing last-minute changes to the bon­net press­ing.

De­vel­op­ment of the flat­head, sin­gle-over­head-cam-per-bank V12 was lan­guish­ing in the midst of pun­ish­ing new safety re­quire­ments that were tak­ing up too much of the tiny Browns Lane de­vel­op­ment team’s time and at­ten­tion. The ev­i­dence of this could be seen in the fact that the XJ6 was the first Jaguar sa­loon without a bon­net ‘leaper’ to maim pedes­tri­ans and the first to have crash-friendly rocker switches rather than eye-goug­ing tog­gles; the ig­ni­tion switch moved to the steer­ing col­umn for sim­i­lar rea­sons, so no more push-but­ton start­ing.

When the XJ12 fi­nally ap­peared in the sum­mer of 1972, it al­most seemed like overkill. No­body re­ally needed an even-more eerily si­lent, near 150mph, 11mpg four-door sa­loon pow­ered by the world’s only mass-pro­duced V12 en­gine, but Jaguar de­cided to build it any­way. Af­ter all, the XJ bodyshell had been de­signed to take the V12 from the be­gin­ning and it only

weighed 60lb more for a power in­crease of 70bhp. The ex­quis­ite one-up­man­ship fac­tor over the ‘mere’ V8s of Mercedes, Rolls-royce and the Amer­i­cans must have been hard to re­sist.

Re­visit any of the three XJ se­ries to­day and you will be sur­prised by how gen­uinely lowslung they are, par­tic­u­larly in a mo­tor­ing en­vi­ron­ment where ev­ery­one wants to sit sky­high in their SUVS. You slide down to as­sume a driv­ing po­si­tion that is close to per­fect, the su­perb vi­sion and the sense of iso­la­tion re­lax­ing you im­me­di­ately; it feels like com­ing home. ‘Our’ early, dark blue, low-bumper Se­ries I looks and even smells of the ’60s in­side, and there’s a strong ap­peal to its no-non­sense rocker-switch dash, its line-up of mi­nor gauges and its cool, slim-rimmed steer­ing wheel.

The Se­ries II dash­board, with its chunky push-but­tons, stalk-con­trolled wipers and im­proved air-blend­ing heat­ing sys­tem, is more ra­tio­nal, but less pleas­ing. Short- and long­wheel­base SIIS were of­fered along­side each other un­til the LWB was stan­dard­ised late in 1974, just be­fore the in­tro­duc­tion of the XJ 3.4 poverty model (to re­place the 2.8) and Lucas in­jec­tion on the V12 to curb its mon­strous thirst.

Our SII rep­re­sen­ta­tive is an XJC, the most ex­cit­ing new model in the re­vised high-bumper/ nar­row-grille Se­ries II range of 1973. It was also

‘XJCS were widely touted as sure­fire fu­ture clas­sics, but have only re­cently be­gun to be ap­pre­ci­ated for their rar­ity’

Clock­wise from main: the SI’S low-slung cabin is el­e­gantly ap­pointed; 4.2 ‘six’ is smooth; space is part of the lux­ury for the rear-seat oc­cu­pants

Clock­wise from main: just 9119 two-doors were built; gen­tle evo­lu­tion in­side; mus­cu­lar ‘six’; Daim­ler was the more up­mar­ket brand; ride com­fort still im­presses

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