The Nine Lives of the Jaguar XJS

The Jaguar XJS, introduced in 1975, remains one of the most controversial models ever to emerge from Browns Lane: a heavyweight GT far removed from its predecessor, the immortal E-type. Nonetheless, it survived for almost 21 years, enduring some of the most tumultuous periods of Jaguar’s history. This week, we look at the development and lengthy evolution of the XJ-S, from 1975 to 1996.

1995 Jaguar XJS 4.0 Convertible decklid badge


We can think of few challenges less enviable than designing a replacement for the legendary Jaguar E-type. A descendant of Jaguar’s spectacular D-type racers of the late 1950s, the E-type had bowed in March 1961 to international acclaim. It was fast, nimble, keenly priced, and gorgeous, and while its later iterations showed signs of middle-age spread, they remained among the most beautiful cars in the world.

Jaguar first started thinking seriously about a successor to the E-type in the fall of 1966. The new car, known internally as XJ21, was to retain the basic chassis layout and dimensions of the long-wheelbase E-type 2+2, but with new styling, a wider track, better heating and ventilation, and provision for convenience options like electric windows.

Like the E-type, the XJ21 would have been offered in three body styles: two-seat and 2+2 fixed-head coupes (sharing the same wheelbase, but with different rooflines) and a two-seat convertible. Instead of the venerable XK six, the XJ21 would have offered either a new 60-degree 3.6-liter (217 cu. in.) V-8 or Jaguar’s upcoming 5.3-liter (326 cu. in.) V-12. If that weren’t enough, at one point Jaguar also envisioned a smaller, cheaper companion model, the XJ17, riding the shorter wheelbase of the early two-seat E-type and offering a choice of V8s: either the new 3.6-liter engine or the 2.5-liter (156 cu. in.) OHV engine from the Daimler V-8 250 sedan.

1964 Jaguar E-Type front 3q © 2007 Lothar Spurzem (CC BY-SA 2.0 Germany)
Stripped of bumpers, a fixed-head E-type shows off its classic shape. By the late sixties, this car’s covered lights were illegal in the U.S., as were its knock-off wheels. (Photo: “Jaguar E-Type (16.06.2007)” © 2007 Lothar Spurzem; resized 2011 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Germany license)

That was an ambitious lineup for an automaker of Jaguar’s size. While the firm offered a surprisingly broad range of products in the mid-sixties, including the compact Mark 2 sedan (later renamed 240/340), the midsize S-type (later 420), the big Mark X (later 420G), and even a handful of Daimler limousines, Jaguar’s total volume was still well short of 30,000 units a year. As for the E-type, for all its success, it was still a low-volume product in absolute terms. Total Series I production amounted to fewer than 35,000 units between 1961 and 1968. With those kinds of numbers, the XJ21 and XJ17 promised to be an expensive proposition.

Jaguar had been doing well, acquiring Daimler, Coventry Climax, and Guy Motors earlier in the decade, but by 1965, chairman and managing director Sir William Lyons recognized that the company could not afford to remain independent much longer. In mid-1966, he negotiated a merger between Jaguar and the British Motor Company (BMC).

Although Jaguar retained its autonomy following the merger, hopes of greater financial stability (and additional development capital) were in vain. BMC’s losses, already worrisome, continued to mount, and by 1967, the British government was convinced that the only way to avoid a complete collapse was a merger between BMC and rival Leyland Motors. The result was the formation in the spring of 1968 of the massive British Leyland Motor Company (BLMC), under the leadership of Leyland’s Donald Stokes.

1959 Daimler Dart SP250 V-8 engine © Aaron Severson
Had the smaller Jaguar XJ17 sports car made it to production, its base engine would probably have been Daimler’s 2,548 cc (153 cu. in.) V-8, an OHV engine with aluminum heads and hemispherical combustion chambers. Jaguar acquired this engine along with Daimler in 1960 and continued to produce it for the Daimler 250 (the Daimler version of the compact Jaguar Mark II sedan) through 1969. Until 1967 there was also a larger, 4,561 cc (278 cu. in.) version, used in the bigger Daimler Majestic.

Sir William managed to secure a favorable position as board member and deputy chairman of BLMC, but Jaguar’s position was becoming increasingly difficult. The launch of the XJ4 sedan, which would replace most of the company’s existing sedan lines, had been delayed until the fall of 1968, and its intended V-12 engine was still far from ready. With development funds in short supply, the XJ17 never got off the ground, and the XJ21, whose design was close to production form by the time of the BLMC merger, no longer seemed economically viable; it was canceled in 1969. The Series III E-type, the first production Jaguar with the new V-12, went forward, but it arrived more than 18 months behind schedule, debuting in March 1971.


While the Series III would survive for nearly three years, it was clear that the E-type could not go on indefinitely. The new engine restored the performance that U.S. emissions standards had eroded, but the E-type’s body had other deficiencies that were not easily rectified, like awkward entry and exit and sub-par ventilation. Worse, it had been designed well before the passage of the first U.S. motor vehicle safety standards, and getting the aging body to pass the more stringent rules slated for the mid-seventies would be difficult, if not impossible.

1972 Jaguar E-type 2+2 front 3q © 2008 Berthold Werner (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)
The E-type was redesigned in early 1971 to accommodate the new 5.3-liter (326 cu. in.) SOHC V-12, gaining an unpopular new grille (and under-bumper air intake) in the process. Curb weight rose to more than 3,400 lb (about 1,560 kg). In its initial four-carburetor form, V-12s in the U.K. and European markets were rated at 272 hp DIN (200 kW) while smog-controlled U.S. cars had 250 hp SAE (186 kW). (Photo: “Jaguar E-Type BW 1 3” © 2008 Berthold Werner; released into the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified (blurred background to obscure bystanders) 2011 and 2013 by Aaron Severson)

Although the company could not afford a completely new sports car platform, there was another possibility. Since Jaguar was busily replacing its sedan lineup with the new XJ4 series (the XJ6 2.8, 4.2, and equivalent Daimlers), a coupe built on the XJ4 platform was a logical next step. Design director Malcolm Sayer had proposed such a car, initially known as the XJ4 GT, shortly before the launch of the XJ6 in September 1968. If Jaguar had had the resources, it would probably have developed both the XJ21 and the XJ4 GT, but as the XJ21 project collapsed, the XJ4 GT emerged as its replacement.

Initially, Jaguar planned to offer the GT as both a 2+2 coupe, known internally as XJ27, and as a convertible, known as XJ28. The latter was canceled around 1970, both for cost reasons and because it appeared U.S. safety regulations would soon outlaw open cars. Unlike the E-type, whose body structure was a blend of monocoque and space frame, the XJ27 was a steel monocoque based on a shortened version of the XJ4 sedan floorpan. It shared the XJ4’s double-wishbone front suspension, differing primarily in spring, damping, and roll rates. Its rear suspension and subframe were also borrowed from the XJ4, with inboard disc brakes and dual coil springs and dampers on each side; the XJ27 added a rear anti-roll bar not found on the sedan. Like the XJ4, the XJ27 would have Adwest rack-and-pinion power steering, albeit with a faster ratio and a more rigidly mounted rack for greater precision.

The styling of the XJ27 was originated by Malcolm Sayer with substantial input from Sir William himself. Although Sayer had also been responsible for the E-type and its predecessors, the XKSS and D-type, the XJ27 was a considerable departure from Jaguar’s previous sports cars. Sayer was an aerodynamicist by training — his early career included a stint at the Bristol Aeroplane Company, where he helped develop the Bristol Blenheim and Beaufighter — and his goals for the XJ27 including substantial reductions in both drag and lift. Jaguar later claimed that the production car’s CdA (the product of drag coefficient and frontal area) was 10% lower than that of the Series III E-type, while front-end lift was halved.

Sayer’s aerodynamic aspirations were responsible for the XJ27’s most controversial styling feature: its flying-buttress sail panels and recessed backlight. This was not a new idea, first appearing on mid-engine race cars in the early sixties and followed in production by Ferrari’s Dino 206, GM’s 1966-67 A-body intermediates, and the 1968 Dodge Charger; it would become ubiquitous on mid-engine sports cars of the seventies. Some of the sketches for the earlier two-seat, fixed-head XJ21 had featured similar-looking extended sail panels, which appear to have been part of the XJ27’s brief from the beginning. Even some Jaguar stylists were dubious about the look, but the flying buttresses remained part of the design even after Malcolm Sayer’s untimely death in the summer of 1970.

1970 Jaguar XJ6 2.8 front 3q © 2011 Robotriot (CC-BYSA 3.0 Unported)
ass=”photocaption”>The XJ27 was based on the platform of Jaguar’s new XJ4 sedan, seen here in its humblest form: an early XJ6 2.8, powered by a 2,792 cc (170 cu. in.) version of the XK six with 180 gross horsepower (134 kW). Jaguar did not import this engine to the U.S.; all North American XJ6s had the bigger 4,235 cc (258 cu. in.) six. (Photo: “Jaguar XJ6 Series I 2.8 Litre Front” © 2011 Robotriot; resized 2011 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

At launch, the XJ27 would be offered with only one engine: the 5,343 cc (326 cu. in.) SOHC V-12 from the Series III E-type and XJ12 sedan. The planned 3,563 cc (217 cu. in.) V-8 — essentially a V-12 shorn of four cylinders — was proving troublesome, in large part because it shared the V-12’s 60-degree bank angle. The V-8’s output was respectable, but even with balance shafts, its refinement was lacking. It was finally canceled in the fall of 1971. A mooted 2,672 cc (163 cu. in.) slant six, intended for future sedans, eventually met a similar fate. As far as we’ve been able to determine, there were no serious plans to offer the XK six in the XJ27, although a six-cylinder model would emerge some years later.


Add a Comment
  1. Interesting article as usual Aaron, on an interesting or curious car – in some ways an example on what not to do. I remember reading about a spy photographer getting into the design studios and ignoring the XJS prototype because he didn’t think they would release a car with the ugly buttresses. The Lynx Eventer is far and away the best looking (along with the convertible) because of that.

    Typical large British car in some ways, with such a ‘huge’ engine it is like they ignore weight, the Rover SD1 is the same. Then the BL in-fighting that saw the XJ40 designed to not fit a vee engine because they were afraid the Rover 3.5 would be forced upon them, a move that caused havoc when they subsequently tried to fit the V12…

    1. Well, the weight of the XJ-S doesn’t seem as unreasonable if you consider it as a variation of the XJ sedans, which is really what it was, in many respects. Making it substantially lighter would have required a bespoke platform (which Jaguar couldn’t afford) or extensive use of alloy panels (which would have complicated manufacture and probably made it even more expensive than it already was). I don’t think Jaguar was oblivious to the issue, but sometimes you’ve got to make do with what you have.

      For the record, I rather like the buttresses. I think the issue is less the buttresses themselves and more the overall proportions, exacerbated to some extent by the awkward shape of the quarterlights. The pre-facelift cars have a hint of Mercedes C107 (SLC coupe), which is not to the credit of either; the facelift coupes are cleaner, but even more sedanish.

      I’ve mixed feelings about the aesthetics of the facelift. I like the revised nose, reshaped rocker panels, and frameless door glass, as well as the ’94-on body-colored bumpers, but I prefer the original taillights to the rather anonymous wraparound units, and the integral chin spoiler of late-model cars looks rather strange on close inspection. I’ve never liked the shape of the Eventer, which to me lacks elegance and looks huge — it’s not nearly as pretty as the Volvo 1800ES.

      1. You are of course right about the weight, but Jag sedans inc. the XJ6 have always been heavy, the engines likewise. Even the aluminium V12 weighs as much as an iron big block Chev (have seen an XJS with this swap!). That the weight of 40-year-old Jags seems ‘normal’ now says something I think.

        I agree with you on the tail lights, the buttresses I think are not helped by the overly-arched rear window. I see what you mean about the rear overhang of the Eventer, a bit smaller would help.

  2. Too bad the XJC (2 door) didn’t get much of a chance. That’s the first I’ve learned of it and I think it looks great.

  3. Aaron, kudos on another fine article.

    For anyone who wants to see photos of the Lynx Eventer, check out .

    Also, a minor typo on the last page: you said that the XJS had 115,00 sales (the final zero is missing).

    1. Thanks for the note on the typo — it’s been fixed.

  4. Minor detail to an fine article: under the first picture of the XK-E, you state that "[i]This car’s covered lights were not legal in the U.S. in the sixties and seventies[/i]".
    Actually, covered headlights were legal in the US though the 1967 production year, and the XK-E, Alfa Spider and Fiat 850 Spider had them through MY 1967. There were other cars that had them too, mainly Italians like Ferraris and such. Sadly, in 1968, they all went away, ending an era.

  5. Desperately trying to find the tire and rim sizes that Tullius ran on the Group 44 XJS racer.Thank you for your consdieration

    1. The Group 44 cars had Goodyear Blue Streak tires on 15×10 Minilite magnesium wheels. The front tires were 25.0×10.0-15, the rears were 25.0×11.0-15.

  6. Hello
    Any help on aftermarket wheels for the XJS like the ones on the 44 XJS racer/ thx Mike

  7. Aaron-great article- just purchased a 1996 XJS 2+2 DHC as a stablemate for my 1990 Vanden Plas Majestic, which is a prolific show winner for me. You can see a picture of my Majestic in Wikipedia listed in the Jaguar XJ40 article, listed as the Majestic model,taken at the 2012 Greenwich Concours Show. The XJS has 138K+ miles and was mechanically neglected by it’s previous owners. Exterior is Topaz Pearl Metallic with Oatmeal interior and Brown Hood, all in good shape, however car is currently undergoing extensive surgery in the local ER with the help of a couple of capable Latino “doctors” and a few suppliers from around the US. After receiving the diagnosis a couple of days ago, I could have kicked myself for the purchase, but it is a great looking car cosmetically and am looking forward to showing it when discharged and cruising the backroads of CT to car shows next year.

  8. Richard
    Un poco tarde. En San Luis Obispo California, está XK Unlimited y ellos tienen todo lo de Jaguar. Inclusive envian las partes a México.

  9. Old article, but I have just come across it. I have owned a 95 4.0 Coupe and now a 95 4.0 soft top. I never heard a complaint about the buttress from anyone. I used to prefer the coupe, but now I think each has its own look. Having put quite a few miles on the two, and comparing to some Germans I have driven recently back to back; I would agree that the steering it too light. I would have preferred the dash about 6″ forward instead of the long hood, which does have some spare space with the 6. I disagree that this car will not become a desired classic. Not versus the e-type, but in a minor way. Prices are moving upwards on good ones.

    1. I find that encouraging! The dilemma the XJS faces as a collector car is that it’s not especially rare and it is very costly to properly maintain, repair, or restore. That can create a scenario in which a lot of examples get run down beyond the point where it makes economic sense to fix them and either end up scrapped or as a sort of a devil’s bargain for used car buyers (there are few things so perversely expensive as a cheap used luxury car!). That in turn can depress their resale values, making the cars’ survival dependent on individual owners just really liking their cars rather than there being a strong market for them. (This isn’t limited to the XJS; a lot of high-end luxury cars present the same issues.)

  10. Excellent article. I re-discover this every few years and have a great read. I own a 1986 XJ-S and a 1986 Pontiac Trans Am T-top. I can’t tell you how firm…tank-like…the XJ-S feels after getting out of the TA with its many squeaks, creaks, rattles, and flex. The TA’s great for a little poor-man’s Miami Vice vibe, but sometimes you feel more like the refinement (and dare I say Bond vibe) from the XJ-S.

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