Unsung heroes : Jaguar XJ40
Keith Adams celebrates yet another car that currently resides in the doldrums of the Bangernomics world
But the Jaguar XJ40 was possibly the best car in the world when it was launched… even if it set Jaguar down a course of Retro design that lasted until 2008!
Credit where it’s due
Right now, Jaguar is building the best cars in the world. Of that, there’s no question. Pound for pound, the XF, XK and XJ are the most stylish and desirable cars in their price ranges, offering world-leading dynamics into the bargain. 25 years ago, the situation was rather different – the XJ40 had just been launched, and it was a convincer – it had to persuade disillusioned ex-Jaguar owners (of which there were many) that Browns Lane’s products genuinely were worth a second – third, or fourth – chance.
The XJ40’s arrival on the motoring scene in September 1986 had been eagerly anticipated – for years. Knowledge of its launch had been in the public domain since at least the late 1970s, and as a consequence, the press had been gradually whipping up a frenzy about its impending arrival. Except that despite being on the development schedule since late 1972, the project was subject to delays, lack of funding, and generally caught up in the malaise that Jaguar – and its parent company BL – found itself in throughout the 1970s.
In the background, unprecedented Jaguar product unreliability, was a common and recurring theme – not helped by serious industrial unrest at the factory. Consumer confidence in the magnificent XJ melted away, while the E-type’s replacement, the XJ-S struggled to sell in a post-oil shock world. That any new models at all found their way on to the market during the 1970s was a miracle at all – but the Series 2 and 3 XJs that rolled out of Browns Lane were useful updates over their predecessors.
Problem was that even though the Series 2 and 3 XJ6 and XJ12 – especially – could also be considered the best in the world, they were carrying too much BL baggage with them. However, in one of the most miraculous turn-arounds the industry has ever seen, Jaguar became desirable again after Sir Michael Edwardes grasped the value of Jaguar, separating it from the rest of the company – and then the arrival of Sir John Egan. Jaguar was finally cut free from the BL mothership.
Quality may have lagged behind the German opposition (but at least the improved dealers made you feel better when your car broke down), and reliability was still not where it should have been during the early-1980s, there was no doubt that Jaguar enjoyed a huge renaissance. Especially in the USA. That led to the floatation of the company in 1984 – and no doubt contributed to the slow down in XJ40’s development (after the design sign-off in 1980).
But the press and customers’ calls for a new XJ were getting increasingly vocal – yes, the XJ still had world-beating resistance to NVH in the mid-1980s, its ‘classic’ looks were a world away from the stark modernism from the Bavarian and Swabian alternatives.
So, when the XJ40 was finally revealed to the world, there was palpable relief – most notably from Jaguar executives and salesmen who had something new to sell. The fact its design so clearly harked back to the XJ Series 3 was met with some puzzlement in the press – but customers loved it. You see, the old girl had survived middle-age and arrived into its pensionable status with the maximum of grace – no doubt an advantage bestowed upon it through elegant design.
But. And this the big but – the XJ40’s arrival following its lengthy gestation did set forth a period of design retro at Jaguar that the company only managed to shake off with the arrival of the new XJ back in 2009.
But what of the XJ40? Clearly it was good, as it needed to improve on the strengths of the original car. So, it rode even more smoothly and quietly for a start. It might not have been too roomy compared with the German briefcases it fought against, but there was definitely more stowage space for golf clubs in its drooping boot, and rear passengers didn’t need to feel quite so snug together as they did before.
The new AJ6 slant-six twin-cam was clearly a step forward after the old XK in terms of efficiency. The 3.6 was had a sporting growl to it (no doubt after being perfected in the XJ-S 3.6), but just like back in 1968, the entry level engine (a 2.9 single cam) wasn’t quite up to the job. But what it did do, was offer executive buyers the opportunity to buy a new Jaguar for less money than a top of the range Rover. And, boy, did that make the headlines.
If you wanted an XJ12, your only option was the Series 3, which remained on sale amidst rumours that the XJ40 had been designed without the engine bay room for a vee-engine. At least it meant buyers were given the opportunity to buy a brand new classic car. A rarity in 1986.
The XJ40’s launch passed off well. And sales saw an immediate uplift, which was nothing but good news for an independent Jaguar. It was good, too, as contemporary (UK) road tests saw it come top in group test after group test. And that success probably helped encourage both Ford and General Motors consider buying the company, despite being bruised in their failed attempts to buy both Austin Rover and Leyland Bus and Trucks at the beginning of 1986.
While the politics went on the foreground, Jaguar engineers were already working hard to improve the XJ40. They worked on bigger AJ6s, and a more traditional instrument display to replace the ‘Tokyo by Night’ digital set up in the original car. And in 1989, around the time it became clear that Ford was going to become Jaguar’s new owner (after a £1.6bn offer was accepted by Jaguar’s management), the fruits of that labour was announced. The XJ40 was getting better with each passing year.
So much so that when Ford came fully onboard as the new custodians of Jaguar, the first thing it did was put in place a programme of quality improvements – the first of which saw the light of day as the V12 powered XJ81, the 1993 XJ12. And what a car it was!
But it was only the beginning, as the company had been working hard on thoroughly overhauling the XJ40 to become the X300 – the car’s 1994 replacement. Although in reality, it was more of a top-down facelift with the welcome addition of quad rounded headlights and a seductively contoured bonnet. If anything, that overhaul prettified the XJ40 so effectively, it took away any pretense of 1970s-’80s squarerigged-ness that the older car’s big, bold headlamps introduced.
By the time the XJ40 sashayed out of the new car arena after a (surprisingly short for Jaguar) production run of eight years, it was already earning a reputation for rust, flaky electronics, and distinctly average build quality. And as a result, trade values suffered disproportionally early, and cast a shadow over Jaguar’s reputation with the executives it had worked so hard to get back on board. But under new management, the company could genuinely hold up its hands and say, ‘it wasn’t us, and we’re doing all we can to sort things out.’ And truth be told, that’s what they did with the X300.
But while the X300 was doing its bit to turn around the company’s image, the XJ40 was becoming something of a secondhand dealer’s forecourt millstone. They were rapidly becoming banger fodder, and falling into the hands of people who could ill afford to run them properly. And of course, that meant more broken down XJ40s – and crumbling residuals. Still, you could see why the less well-heeled were failing head-over-heels for the XJ40. It was wafty, wonderful to drive, and didn’t look a million miles separated from those impressive new cars. And most importantly, even when truly knackered, an XJ40 was still a great car to drive.
But by the turn of the millennium, they really were street detritus, and you could pick one up for pennies. I should know, I bought one for the Staples2Naples banger rally, and despite costing £100 with a whiff of MoT left, seriously shot bushes and dampers, and a disintegrating clutch, I still felt a million dollars driving it. As it happened, the clutch blew up on the way to Dover, and we had to take a Rover 800 instead. But that’s another story.
But XJ40s are on the way up now. They must be. The truly awful ones (like mine) have long since been converted into Chinese bean cans, leaving the best cherished examples left to fight over. Finding one for beer money now is getting tougher as people latch on to these cars’ fine combination of abilities. Actually now, it’s the X300 that’s going through its banger phase, and perhaps it’s this car we need to be heralding as the darling unsung hero…