JAGUAR XJ AT 50
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