JAGUAR VS. LEYLAND
Despite its shortage of development money, Jaguar did good business in the late sixties and early seventies, thanks mostly to the new XJ4 sedans. Jaguar sold more than 94,000 XJ6s and Daimler Sovereigns between 1968 and 1973 and by 1971, the company’s total volume had risen to more than 32,000 units, a new record.
After Sir William’s retirement in early 1972, however, the mood at Browns Lane began to darken. Sir William’s successor was his former deputy, Frank “Lofty” England, a one-time RAF bomber pilot who had joined Jaguar in 1946, becoming manager of the works racing team in 1950 and rising to joint managing director by 1967.
While England’s loyalty to the Jaguar spirit was unquestionable, Sir William’s departure had left Jaguar with fewer friends on the BLMC board. British Leyland was already struggling with a massive array of overlapping divisions, aging products, excessive capacity, and contentious labor relations. While Jaguar was one of the few BLMC subsidiaries to turn a profit during this period, it was too small and too upscale to be a major corporate priority. BLMC management also felt — not without justice — that Jaguar’s product development plans tended to be more grandiose than the firm’s volume really justified. As a result, British Leyland was reluctant to make any major investments in Jaguar, whether in new products or new facilities. A case in point was the XJ40, the planned successor to the XJ6 sedan. Although XJ40 development began in 1972, it didn’t receive production approval until May 1980.
One particularly gloomy symbol of Jaguar’s marginal status was the decision in March 1973 to change the firm’s name from Jaguar Cars Ltd. to British Leyland Exports Ltd. By the fall of 1973, Lofty England was relegated to a largely nominal position, finally taking early retirement in January 1974. He was replaced by Geoffrey Robinson, a former Labour Party researcher who had advocated the British Leyland merger in the late sixties, later becoming BLMC controller and then chairman of Innocenti.
Robinson hoped to bolster Jaguar’s position by greatly expanding its volume, but he was stymied by the 1973–74 OPEC oil embargo and BLMC’s increasingly dire financial condition. By late 1974, British Leyland was close to collapse, leading the U.K.’s Labour government to effectively nationalize the struggling conglomerate. Geoffrey Robinson resigned in 1975; he became MP for Coventry North West in early 1976, which he remains today. Technical director Bob Knight was left in charge of day-to-day operations, struggling to retain Jaguar’s autonomy through a painful corporate reorganization.
In that climate, development of the XJ27 languished. Its styling was finalized in 1972, but most of Jaguar’s limited resources were then committed to the Series II sedans, whose redesign was necessary to meet the latest U.S. safety standards. The XJ27 didn’t go into production until mid-1975, more than a year after the last Series III E-type rolled off the line.
THE JAGUAR XJ-S
The XJ27 finally debuted at the Frankfurt show in September 1975, badged Jaguar XJ-S. Although Jaguar had built a single prototype of a Daimler-badged version with a different backlight and no flying buttresses, the coupe would be offered only as a Jaguar.
The initial press reaction to the XJ-S was mixed. Some reviewers — most of them British — were lavish in their acclaim, but others expressed reservations about the new car’s styling, considerable bulk, and raison d’être.
The first sticking point was size. The XJ-S was more than 7 inches (186 mm) longer than the last home-market Series III E-types, some 4.5 inches (114 mm) wider, and more than 450 lb (205 kg) heavier. In fact, with a curb weight of nearly 3,900 lb (about 1,760 kg), it was only about 100 lb (45 kg) lighter than an XJ6 sedan. The XJ-S was almost American in its avoirdupois; the only other European GT to approach its size and heft was the Jensen Interceptor.
Despite its considerable mass, the big coupe’s straight-line performance needed few apologies. According to the factory, manually shifted British and European cars, with 285 hp DIN (209 kW) and 294 lb-ft (397 N-m) of torque, were capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 6.8 seconds and a top speed of 153 mph (246 km/h), putting them in a very elite class. Even the low-compression federalized XJ-S, with mandatory automatic transmission, additional smog controls, and only 244 hp SAE (181 kW), was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in about 8 seconds and a top speed of more than 140 mph (225 km/h), putting it among the fastest cars sold in America in 1975.
That speed was matched by remarkable civility. Noise was well suppressed even at twice the federally mandated 55 mph (89 km/h) limit. Ride was also excellent, with some testers declaring it even better than the XJ12 sedan in spite of (or thanks to) the coupe’s greater body control. The only other GT of the time that could match the XJ-S for high-speed comfort was the recently discontinued Citroën SM.
The XJ-S’s roadholding, however, was a point of controversy. Few questioned its outright competence; the XJ-S handled much like a somewhat smaller, firmer XJ12, displaying admirable composure along with fine grip from its fat V-rated Dunlop radials. What the XJ-S lacked was the E-type’s immediacy. First impressions were of softness and slightly anesthetized response — the XJ-S was a car for covering long distances at speed, not carving corners. As a sedan, it was excellent, but as a sports car, the XJ-S was more pampered house cat than athletic predator.
Even considered purely as a luxury car, the XJ-S had its shortcomings. Interior space was modest and the rear seats were comfortable only for children well shy of puberty; whatever its overall dimensions, the XJ-S was definitely a coupe. Ventilation was limited and the interior decor lacked the richness of its sedan cousins, with no wood trim and real leather only on the seat facings. No one was particularly pleased by the dashboard’s odd, drum-type secondary gauges and while the standard equipment list included automatic air conditioning and central locking, there were also curious omissions, such as cruise control.
All those criticisms might have been dismissed if the XJ-S had been as arrestingly pretty as the original E-type, but its styling elicited more puzzlement than praise. The XJ-S looked nothing like its predecessor or, for that matter, the XJ sedans whose platform it shared. It had some of the cues of contemporary Italian sports cars, but not their unity of form. The big Jaguar was attractive from certain angles, awkward from others, and its overall proportions were slightly peculiar. It was distinctive, but not necessarily handsome.
The XJ-S wasn’t cheap, either. The original goal of the XJ4 GT had been to take Jaguar into a loftier (and more profitable) market segment, but its price tag nonetheless raised some eyebrows. In the U.K., the price at launch (including VAT and car tax) was a whopping £9,527, more than twice the asking for the last E-type roadster. In the U.S., the XJ-S started at $19,000, almost 20% more than an XJ12L sedan. Beyond the price, there was also the matter of the V-12’s considerable thirst, which ran to around 11 miles per Imperial gallon (9 mpg U.S.; 25.7 L/100) in hard driving, perhaps 14 mpg (12 mpg U.S., 20.2 L/100 km) on the road. Some British reviewers called the XJ-S a great value, perhaps because it undercut potential rivals like the Mercedes 450SL/SLC and Aston Martin V8, but it was no more a car for the masses than it was a sports car.