The cars : Jaguar XJ-S development story

Replacing the legendary E-type was never going to be easy for Jaguar – and radical thinking was going to be needed.

Ian Nicholls charts the development of the car that was given the uneasy task, the XJ-S.

A brave new direction

The cars : Jaguar XJ-S development history

THEY say that history repeats itself, and Jaguar’s latest product launch had something of a familar feel to it for those with longer memories. When the wraps came off the Ian Callum-styled XF, it was hailed as the embodiment of the end of the retro era – and a confident leap into a bright future. Many pundits had concluded that big cats deliberately styled to ape the past were detrimental to the firm’s sales, and by turning its back on retro, Jaguar was making a positive policy change. In the opinion of many, Jaguar was locked in a timewarp, unable to evolve and progress its styling beyond the 1968 XJ6.

While Jaguar stagnated, its rivals were producing modern designs for the 21st century for drivers who weren’t turned on by such historical baggage. Ian Callum’s radical re-interpretation of what makes a Jaguar was precisely what the company needed at the time – but the company had been there before. Back in September 1975 and with the launch of the XJ-S, traditionalists were questioning whether the V12 grand tourer was what was actually needed in troubled times. In 1975, fuel costs were spiralling, and the global economy was teetering on the edge of meltdown – does that sound familar?

Jaguar historian Philip Porter wrote in his 1996 book Jaguar XK8: “No one could deny that the XJ-S was technically excellent, but it committed one cardinal sin, especially for a Jaguar. It lacked great beauty. Compare it with the XK120 and the E-type – Jaguar threw away all of its wonderful styling heritage. It may have been a factor that by this time Lyons was of advancing years and (Malcolm) Sayer was not a fit man – he died in 1970 at the age of only 53.

“The last E-types rolled off the production line in 1974 and after a brief hiatus the XJ-S appeared in 1975. The reception was a rather embarrassed silence. This was unprecedented for a Jaguar. I remember the day well , and I remember the great disappointment.”

Philip Porter never seems to have warmed to the XJ-S despite its 21-year production run that resulted in 115,413 cars – making this the longest-lived Jaguar of them all. Yet, he shouldn’t be that dismissive – compare the XJ-S’s tally with the E-type’s total production of 72,233 in 13 years. Not so bad after all. The best year for XJ-S production was 1989, when 10,665 left the Browns Lane factory, a full 14 years after the model’s launch – the perfect Indian summer. That’s because it improved with each passing year, while the E-type seemed to do the opposite.

As other books by Graham Robson and Nigel Thorley detail, the XJ-S turned out to be a great success. The idea that it was some sort of misguided aberration devised by an off-form Jaguar design team is totally unfounded. It was a progressive design from a forward thinking design team who understood the marque’s heritage. However, the hostile reception, allied with Jaguar’s controversial BL connection, and a troubled economy resulted in the near demise of the XJ-S in 1980 and insecurity over the way the forthcoming XJ40 would look…

From E to S: first thoughts

The above design appears to be an evolution of the E-type 2+2.
The above design appears to be an evolution of the E-type 2+2.

Malcolm Sayer was put in charge of the E-type replacement, codenamed XJ21 and this is where the detective work starts…

Work on XJ21 seems to have begun in 1966. The first concept, a coupe, emerged in October 1966 with a 105 inch wheelbase, the same as the 2+2 E-type. Differences were limited to a 2-inch wider track, expanding that measurement to 52 inches. A further styling scheme emerged in January 1967 featuring a different nose, air intake and wider rear wings. Malcolm Sayer also designed a convertible version, and a further revised design followed in March 1967.

By 1967-68, Jaguar’s forward product plans included no less than four sportscars. First on the list was a long wheelbase roadster powered by the 5.3-litre V12 – and the Jaguar curiosity, a 3.5-litre V8. This engine should not to be confused with the ex-GM/Rover V8 that in 1968, joined Jaguar as part of the British Leyland Motor Corporation line-up.

The Jaguar engine was a 60-degree V8 version of the V12, and Jaguar hoped that it would replace the long-running XK. Unfortunately, Jaguar could never get the engine to perform to its satisfaction, probably because the ideal angle for a V8 engine is 90 degrees. Although Jaguar tested the V8 extensively, no photographs have yet emerged of the powerplant.

The next Jaguar sportscar was a two-seater coupe with flying buttresses, more of later, again with V8 and V12 power. There would also be a 2+2 version, essentially the same as the then current E-type, also with the aforementioned new engines. The fourth projected car was described as a ‘four seater sports sedan’. Also known as the XJ 3-litre GT, this was a smaller car with a 96-inch wheelbase, distinctive twin headlamps and a truncated Kamm tail. Power was to come from the sadly underused 2.5-litre Daimler V8 or 3.5-litre Jaguar V8.

This product planning documentation implies that Jaguar planned to produce both XJ21 and what became the XJ-S.

On the 9th September 1968, Malcolm Sayer sent a memo to Jaguar boss Sir William Lyons. Sayer proposed a ‘2+2 sports based on XJ4 parts’. XJ4 was the codename for the new XJ6 saloon. In it, Sayer opined: “The image sought after is of a low wide high speed car at least as eyecatching as those the Italians will produce, even if it means sacrificing some of the more sensible values such as luggage and passenger space , silence, ease of entry.”

Then on the 14th November, William Heynes sent a document to Sir William Lyons entitled the ‘E-type Vehicle Project Plan’. Heynes argued that the forthcoming V12 engine should first be used in the E-type and then the XJ12 saloon. The design of the XJ21 was frozen in 1968, and Jaguar intended to produce it in both 2+2 coupe and roadster. At this stage, the plan was to introduce the V12 E-type, codenamed XJ25 in January 1970, with the XJ21 to follow in February 1971. By this time, the V12 engine was running behind schedule, and the XJ25 did not appear until March 1971.

Time was running out for the XJ21, which had been on the verge of being ordered into production. Malcolm Sayer’s new concept of an XJ saloon based 2+2 coupe gathered momentum. As Oliver Winterbottom, then working in Jaguar’s styling department recalled, “The brief was that it was a sports bodied XJ4 (XJ6) platform. We couldn’t afford a brand new car – in fact, we had gone into BMH (the merger with BMC) because we couldn’t afford the development of the XJ6. So the last thing anybody was going to be doing was developing totally new cars. I got involved in an alternative which was the XJ4 GT.”

This was the point where XJ21 transformed into XJ27/28, and the XJ-S really began to take shape. Whereas the XJ21 had been based on the 1961 E-type, the altogether newer platform of the XJ saloon would underpin the XJ27/28. XJ27 was the codename given to the coupe and XJ28 to the roadster – it was at this point that the V12 was chosen to be the prestigious new grand tourer’s motive power.

Perhaps the demise of the XJ21 was fortuitous, for its E-type ancestry would have been exposed. Jaguar planned to make its GT more refined, yet cheaper than its most obvious rivals, but at an E-type busting price in order to make some real money.

XJ-S wins through and starts to take shape

A Malcolm Sayer sketch for the XJ27.
A Malcolm Sayer sketch for the XJ27.

Sir William Lyons said of the development of the XJ-S style: “We decided from the very first that aerodynamics were the prime concern and I exerted my influence in a consultative capacity with Malcolm Sayer. Occasionally I saw a feature that I did not agree with and we would discuss it. I took my influence as far as I could without interfering with his basic aerodynamic requirements and he and I worked on the first styling models together.

“We originally considered a lower bonnet line but the international regulations on crash control and lighting made us change and we started afresh . Like all Jaguars we designed it to challenge any other of its type in the world – at whatever price – and still come out on top”.

A quote, in which Jaguar’s founder and chief stylist clearly nails his colours to the mast as approving of the XJ-S’s styling and indeed having a hand in it… Sayer’s most controversial contribution to the XJ27 were the flying buttresses. These added structural strength, aided aerodynamics and improved stability at high speed. And although the press hated them when it first appeared, whenever the company attempted to re-style the XJ-S without the flying buttresses, customer clinics would invariably return negative results.

Under the skin, the situation was now much more straightforward. Based on a 102-inch version of the XJ6’s 108-inch floorpan, the XJ27 achieved its more compact stance by moving the rear suspension forward. The power of that V12 engine would be kept in check by the Lucas fuel injection system that first appeared on the Series 2 XJ12 in May 1975.

Not plain sailing for Jaguar

Nearly there: An XJ27 mock up. Note the chrome bumpers.
Nearly there: An XJ27 mock up. Note the chrome bumpers.

Lofty England succeeded Lyons as Jaguar chairman in March 1972, but friction with Geoffrey Robinson, resulted in his premature retirement in 1974. This left just Harry Mundy, in charge of engines, and Bob Knight, now technical director, fighting for the old guard. Robinson was a controversial boss for Jaguar, but he seems to have had a close rapport with Knight – but was this at the cost of the quality of the company’s output?

Knight later claimed that £24m of Jaguar’s profits between 1968 and 1974 was taken from Browns Lane to invest in other parts of BLMC. To his credit, Robinson had ambitious plans for Jaguar, and when he arrived at Browns Lane in 1973, there was a two-year waiting list for the XJs, and he felt that production should be expanded to Browns Lane’s limit of 50-60,000 cars per annum. This would be combined with improved working conditions and a new paint plant (that would never go live). As Jaguar had needed to merge with BMC to fund the XJ’s development, quite clearly it had to generate more profit to become a stand-alone company.

Robinson’s plans for Jaguar were to be thwarted by outside events. Not long after he arrived at Jaguar the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war erupted, prompting petrol shortages and then petrol price rises. The west’s easy economic ride since 1945 ended abruptly and the era of cheap energy drew to a close. All of a sudden BLMC’s most important car was the Mini.

The energy crisis also fuelled inflation, which could only worsen industrial relations with Jaguars workforce who found their pay packets diminishing in real terms as the cost of living soared. Jaguar had to cut back on production and then in December 1974 BLMC ran out of money and the government agreed to step in. Geoffrey Robinson resigned as Jaguar chairman and the company lost its autonomy. By the time the XJ-S appeared, Jaguar was effectively run by Browns Lane’s plant director Peter Craig, and engineering supremo Bob Knight, who reported directly to Leyland Cars’ Derek Whittaker.

Tragically Malcolm Sayer, a heavy smoker in an era where nicotine addiction was the norm, died at the early age of 54 in July 1970. The styling of the XJ-S was then inherited by Doug Thorpe who was reportedly unhappy about the flying buttresses. However Malcolm Sayer’s work was vindicated when it was proved that the XJ-S was more aerodynamically efficient than the Series 3 E-type.

Fears that open cars would be outlawed in the USA were responsible for the axing of the XJ28 roadster, and although the possibility of such a ban disappeared in 1974, it was too late for both the XJ-S and the Triumph TR7. The previous generation of British sports cars had had to be adapted to meet US regulations, often to the detriment of the car’s styling, but both TR7 and the XJ-S were designed from the outset to incorporate all the changes the American market demanded.

Right car, wrong time…

The world took time to adjust to the XJ-S's radical styling - over a decade, in fact...
The world took time to adjust to the XJ-S’s radical styling – over a decade, in fact…

The Jaguar XJ-S was finally unveiled to the world in September 1975. Perhaps one of the factors that enabled critics to dismiss the car, was that most of Jaguar’s big-hitters had left the scene. Heynes, Sayer, Walter Hassan, and Jaguar’s founder and chief stylist Sir William Lyons had all gone by this time.

At launch the XJ-S was powered by a 285bhp fuel injected 5.3-litre V12 engine and was available in manual and automatic guise. The four-speed manual gearbox had first seen the light of day back in 1964, and was at the limit of its torque capabilities when married with the V12. A further disadvantage was its lack of overdrive – in an era when all of its rivals were moving to five-speed transmission. Only 352 manual XJ-Ss were produced before the option was withdrawn in 1979.

Interior lacked wood, and didn't go down well with the traditionalists...
Interior lacked wood, and didn’t go down well with the traditionalists…

A Harry Mundy designed five-speeder was developed for the V12, and several prototypes were built, but funding with never forthcoming. Although the early styling exercises show a car with chrome strategically attached, the production XJ-S was toned down, and the interior was also devoid of any wood. At the time it was felt that excess wood and chrome was not suitable for a sportscar.

Jaguar had made great efforts to reduce road and engine noise and combined with the immensely strong bodyshell, and this resulting in a car that was even more refined than the XJ12.

Jaguar hoped to produce 3000 XJ-Ss per year. Not ambitious given that the final full year of E-type production (1973) resulted in 4686 cars leaving Browns Lane. However, the last of the E-types were a bargin, retailing for £3743 – someway shy of the £8900 asked for the XJ-S. This was a massive hike, even accounting for inflation – and although the car was still a bargain compared with more exotic rivals, it was a huge leap for existing customers to take.

Jaguar ended up abandoning the sportscar market, leaving it to the likes of Porsche. Its target was now Mercedes-Benz and the svelte 350/450 SLC in particular. In September 1975 the 450 SLC sold for £11,271, even more than the XJ-S, and the German concern was producing 6000-7000 a year. If Jaguar could replicate this then the opportunity for real growth of the brand was there for the taking.

AUTOCAR tested the new Jaguar XJ-S, in manual form in February 1976 issue, and came up with an impressive stats:

XJ-S versus E-type Series 3

XJ-S manual Series 3 E-type manual
Maximum speed 153mph 146mph
0-60mph 6.9 secs 6.4 secs
Overall mpg 15.4 14.5
Unladen weight 1770kg 1454kg

As can be seen, Sayers’ work had paid off, though in the E-type’s defence, it must be pointed out that the XJ-S had available an extra 13bhp to play with. However, the fuel economy figures for both were nothing to shout about, but that probably would not have concerned those that could afford to buy such a car in the first place.

There was some press criticism of the rear seat accommodation, but the answer to that was to buy an XJ12 instead. By and large the British motoring press was enthusiastic about the car, despite its appalling fuel economy. It is interesting that Autocar, Motor and Autosport all tested manual transmission versions of the XJ-S; Jaguar, perhaps sensing that this was the type of car journalists would prefer. Eventually the press did get hold of the automatic version fitted with the 3-speed Borg-Warner model 12 transmission system.

1975 XJ-S Auto

Maximum speed 145mph
0-60mph 7.5 secs
Overall mpg 14

However, in the American market the Jaguar XJ-S received a tougher reception. In federal specification the V12 engines produced around 244bhp, which did not produce supercar performance – 0-60mph in 8.6 seconds was nothing to write home about. More importantly, though, Jaguar’s reputation for quality was going down the toilet.

The fuel-injected engine could not cope with the summer heat as the electronic ignition system was mounted in the hottest part of the engine, with the result that cars cut out embarrassingly. The XJ-S was built on a production line installed in the early 1950s – and that had been purchased secondhand and was pre-war in origin.

Bob Knight had wanted to reinvest Jaguar’s profits – and finally get that new paint shop online, and purchase a bodyshop to go with it. Instead Jaguar had to make do and mend. As well producing cars on outdated facilities, Jaguar found itself hostage to the industrial unrest that was endemic at the time. No figures are available for the number of strikes at Jaguar, so there are no indicators as to whether the company’s own workforce was militant, but strikes among major component suppliers was a big factor. Jaguar was tied into long contracts with suppliers who often provided shoddy products. Strikes at component suppliers also halt Jaguar production.

Nineteen seventy-seven was British Leyland’s annus horriblis, as its world market share went into freefall never to recover. Strikes proliferated, and the vehicles built between the stoppages were notoriously unreliable. As well as being the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, it was also the year of the bitter Grunwick dispute, and maybe the increasing class tensions that were deep rooted in Britain were affecting industrial relations in British Leyland. On top of all this, in October 1977, the incumbent Chairman Sir Richard Dobson was replaced by South African-born Michael Edwardes. One of his first acts was to dismantle the short-lived Leyland Cars, and many of the executives associated with the immediate post-nationalisation era departed. Losses included Alex Park, Derek Whittaker, Geoffrey Whalen, and PR director Keith Hopkins.

The company now found itself as part of Jaguar Rover-Triumph – and Bob Knight, by training an engineer, was now officially installed as Managing Director. While this was ongoing, XJ-S production had seemingly peaked.

Appearances in The Saint, starring Ian Ogilvy as Simon Templar, did little to lift XJ-S sales. (Picture,
Appearances in The Saint, starring Ian Ogilvy as Simon Templar, did little to lift XJ-S sales. (Picture,

From being a swan that looked like making a lot of money for its makers, the Jaguar XJ-S seemed to have become another BL turkey. Sales were declining despite the prime time broadcasts of The Return Of The Saint, where the car was most definitely the star. Sir Michael Edwardes was frustrated with the situation at Jaguar, later commenting: “Some managers were more concerned with producing new models and reaching new standards of engineering excellence than with managing the business.”

In this he may have been referring to Bob Knight, and certainly Jaguar was pressing ahead with the XJ40 and the AJ6 engine, while the newly-launched Series 3 XJ had earned itself an appalling reputation for unreliability. In April 1980 Michael Edwardes sacked Bob Knight and appointed John Egan in his place, although some sources claim Knight did not finally leave Jaguar until July that year. Knight was the last of the old guard to go; his colleague Harry Mundy retired because of ill health in March 1980, and was succeeded by Trevor Crisp.

Jim Randle was now director of vehicle engineering. Before Knight had left, the design of the XJ40 saloon had been frozen. With Jaguar sales in freefall and the XJ-S close to being axed, a more conservative approach to styling was adopted. It wasn’t all bad news in 1980, though – Jaguar revised the V12 to produce a full-fat 300bhp. The boost in performance was there for all to see.

1981 XJ-S Auto

Maximum speed 155mph
0-60mph 7.3 secs
Overall mpg 13.5

Turning things round

With the introduction of the more economical HE model in 1981 came a raft of visual upgrades...
With the introduction of the more economical HE model in 1981 came a raft of visual upgrades…

As has been well documented, John Egan persuaded the workforce to co-operate in the battle to improve the quality of Jaguar’s products and he took suppliers to task over the quality of components. Egan took every opportunity to use the media to emphasise how much better built and more reliable Jaguar’s cars now were, although there were limits of what could be achieved, bearing in mind the age of some of the production facilities.

It took time for Egan’s crusade to filter through to the car buying public, and the 1981 XJ-S production figure of 1292 was little better than the all time low of 1057 in 1980. However, the run of luck was starting to go Jaguar’s way, and the company made the most of a technical revision to the V12 engine to effectively relaunch the XJ-S in July 1981. When the V12 engine had been launched in 1971 it had combustion chambers in the pistons and a flat faced cylinder head. This was very fashionable at the time and had also been used by Rover and Ford. In the 1970s, Harry Mundy had come across a Swiss engineer by the name of Michael May who had some radical ideas regarding cylinder head design.

For the very reasonable cost of £500,000, Jaguar adopted May’s cylinder head combustion theories, which involved using a more conventional cylinder head, known as the Fireball, which contained the combustion chamber. Jaguar made great play of the benefits of the reworked design – and there were improvements in efficiency – but perhaps in hindsight it was a marketing ploy for what was a basically a more free-flowing head.

The High Efficiency XJ-S, also featured a higher rear axle ratio, suspension changes and wider wheels. The interior was also changed, now featuring all-leather trim and traditional wood veneer. These changes to the XJ-S were combined with a welcome price reduction. As the world gradually hauled itself out of the deep recession of the early 1980s, the XJ-S was poised to take advantage of the pent-up demand for luxury cars, and in 1982 production doubled to 3111. The press loved the XJ-S HE, as journalists regaled their readers with tales of travelling at 100 mph in silence. The XJ-S was on a roll for the rest of the 1980s – and the introduction of the HE would prove to be the turning point in the XJ-S’s fortunes.

1981 XJ-S HE Auto

Maximum speed 153mph
0-60mph 7.5 secs
Overall mpg 16.5

As related earlier, Jaguar had tried to develop a 3.5-litre 60-degree V8. One of the reasons for trying such an unconventional engine was to use existing V12 production tooling. This then led Jaguar in 1972 to design a slant-six, effectively a V12 sliced lengthways – and with a longer stroke to increase capacity. Run in XJ test beds, these engines needed the capacity increase in order to beef-up performance, and made them different enough to need all-new production tooling – as a result, it was cancelled.

Thoughts then turned to updating the existing XK engine. In 1976 Jaguar built three 3.8-litre XKs with a lighter engine block mated to a 24-valve twin-cam head. Performance was satisfactory, but the engine was not light enough. Also, the cost estimates for the 24-valve XK engine were nearly as much as those needed for a completely new design – and in the end that was the deciding factor. It also hit the cutting-room floor.

Third time would prove lucky, though. In 1976 work began on the AJ6, a six-cylinder engine of all-aluminium construction. Harry Mundy led the design team and the first prototype ran in early 1979. The main recipient for the engine was to be the XJ40, so there were two initial variants, a 24-valve 3.6-litre and a 2.9-litre 12-valve budget engine. Jaguar also tested a 3.8-litre version, but for the time being felt the 3.6-litre produced all the performance and economy needed for the task. XJ-S test beds had been used to evaluate the AJ6, and the decision was made to debut the new engine in the XJ-S. For the first time since 1979, it was possible to buy an XJ-S with a manual transmission, this time a bought-in Getrag five-speeder.

1983 saw the introduction of the XJ-SC - the first factory open-topped XJ-S. Under the bonnet you could specify it with the brand-new AJ6 3.6-litre engine...
1983 saw the introduction of the XJ-SC – the first factory open-topped XJ-S. Under the bonnet you could specify it with the brand-new AJ6 3.6-litre engine…

The 3.6-litre XJ-S, codenamed XJ57, appeared in 1983 to mixed press reviews. Jaguar claimed a top speed of 145 mph, but the best the road testers managed was 137mph. The untried 221bhp AJ6 suffered in comparison with the V12, but then again most engines did. However, in many journalists’ opinions, the refinement of the AJ6 XJ-S did not compare with that of rival manufacturers’.

1983 XJ-SC 3.6

Maximum speed 137mph
0-60mph 7.2 secs
Overall mpg 19

At the same time the AJ6 made its debut, the company also unveiled a cabriolet version. Jaguar’s US dealer network was screaming for a convertible, and now that the model was on the up, the options for an open-top version were explored. Given the codename XJ58, the convertible was intended to be only available to special order – in AJ6 form only and supplied with just two seats. The new model, christened XJ-SC, was in a sense a half-hearted affair, a tentative return to the ragtop market.

The XJ-SC used the existing coupe bodyshell, which was then taken to the Park Sheet Metal Company in Coventry where it was modified. This involved the removal of the flying buttresses and the addition of underbody strengthening. The ’shells were then returned to Browns Lane for painting, installation of mechanical parts, electrics and interior trim. After road-testing, the cabriolets then ventured to Aston Martin Tickford Body Works at Bedworth, Nuneaton for the roof trimming and hood to be fitted. Then it was back to Browns Lane – again – for fitting of exterior trim and road testing.

This tortuous production route illustrates how Jaguar had been hedging its bets by outsourcing the conversion work to others. The XJ-SC itself had two roof panels, which when the sun was shining could be removed and fitted in the boot. The cabriolet also came with a high equipment level. Jaguar at last had the open-topped six-cylinder its American dealers so wanted … except it was never exported there.

After privatisation …

In August 1984 Jaguar was privatised. The Thatcher government embraced the free-market philosophy that argued that it was not government’s task to employ people. Both Jaguar management and enthusiasts wanted privatisation as well. John Egan’s era had propagated the concept that BL had been stifling for Jaguar; and the roots of the Coventry firm’s woes could be placed at the door of government control within the unwieldy giant.

In 1984 Jaguar made a thumping £91.5m profit and was held as a shining example of what British manufacturing could achieve. The company produced 6028 XJ-Ss during the year, although demand for the XJ-SC had been low – only 178 were produced in the whole of 1984. Despite this, V12 Cabriolet was unveiled the following year to widen appeal. Codenamed XJ28, the V12 cabriolet used the same codename as the aborted convertible during the original XJ-S’s development.

With the arrival of the XJ40 in 1986, technical cross-fertilization between new and old generation took place. The XJ-S’s 3.6-litre AJ6 was much improved and was now available with the impressive ZF4 HP22 four-speed automatic transmission. Demand for the manual 3.6-litre coupe had in reality been disappointing; the ‘enthusiast’s choice’ was not in tune with what the paying customer wanted. Fourth gear was effectively an overdrive, and the increasing sophistication of the new-generation automatics made manuals less desirable on larger-engined cars.

Behind the scenes, Jaguar decided it had got it wrong over the AJ6 engines’ capacities. As the 1979–80 energy crisis became an increasingly distant memory, demand for larger capacity units increased. Work began on new versions of the AJ6; a 3.2- and a 4-litre, the latter eventually finding its way into the XJ-S. Also in 1986, the Cabriolet was finally exported to the USA, but only in V12 form. The Americans would have to wait until 1993 before they got their hands on the six-cylinder XJ-S.

Although 5012 Cabriolets had been produced, the model had not proved popular. Jaguar had actually started developing a proper convertible in 1985, but the company’s American subsidiary needed something in the showrooms much sooner. As a stop-gap, Jaguar Cars Inc. commissioned Cincinnati coachbuilders Hess & Eisenhardt, a company whose experience dated back to 1876, to convert coupes to convertible form. H&E had an 18-month contract, completing their first car in late 1986. Altogether 838 H&E convertibles were built, tiding Jaguar over until the factory car became available in the USA.

The factory convertible completed the XJ-S's journey from sow's ear to silk purse...
The factory convertible completed the XJ-S’s journey from sow’s ear to silk purse.

Work began on the factory convertible in May 1985. The project was carried out in partnership with Karmann, a German coachbuilder whose best known work in the UK is the Triumph TR6’s styling. Highly experienced in designing convertibles, Karmann took the standard route of stiffening the bodyshell to compensate for the loss of the roof. The new roofless XJ-S weighed an extra 100kg, but looked immeasurably better. The new car made it debut in 1988 – just as the last Cabriolets and H&E convertibles were delivered.

To maximise Jaguar’s investment, the convertible was only available in range-topping V12 form. The engine was now detuned to 291bhp, but that was still enough to propel the car to 60 mph in 8 seconds and on to a top speed of 146mph. The new model met with enthusiasm and by as soon as 1989, it was accounting for 57 per cent of all XJ-S sales – 11,207 overall, and the best year yet.

The model proved popular in the important American market, where sales peaked in 1987 at 5380. Although the XJ-S declined sales-wise in the USA from this point, the convertible arrested this decline, stopping many buyers from defecting to other brands.

For a car that originally had production target of 3000 units per year, the XJ-S was proving remarkably resilient. However, Jaguar’s luck ran out. The company’s new found reputation for quality was beginning to take a beating. The XJ40 may have been extensively tested, but that proved insufficient for all the gremlins to be ironed out. Cars built in 1986 and 1987 suffered from electrical, steering and suspension problems. Predictably Jaguar blamed the suppliers, but there were also design faults – most notably, the electrical system, which was simply not robust enough.

XJ40 production peaked at 39,432 in 1988, but dropped back to 32,833 in 1989 as Jaguar’s reputation for quality took a hammering, particularly in the USA. This coincided with a rise in the strength of sterling, which made British exports to the USA more expensive. Jaguar’s profits began to evaporate away. The company had built a new technical centre at Whitley, and that had cost a whopping £55m. Work had also been ongoing on the XJ41/42 F-Type, which was meant to replace the XJ-S. A facelift XJ-S proposal was also in the offing, but all of these projects were being overshadowed by crippling XJ40 warranty costs.

Jaguar was running out of money and urgently needed a partner to finance new models. It was 1966 all over again …

Welcome Uncle Henry

The addition of the souped-up XJR to cash in on Jaguar's Le Mans success was a welcome one.
The addition of the souped-up XJR to cash in on Jaguar’s Le Mans success was a welcome one.

All this was common knowledge in financial circles. Sir John Egan courted General Motors, who wanted to take a minority stake, but rival Ford soon showed its hand, by declaring that it wanted complete financial control. A Jaguar spokesman rejected Ford’s overtures, revealing what senior management thought of the bid – and probably sealed their fate, post-take over, in the process.

Ford moved quickly and by November 1989, Jaguar was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company at a cost of £1.6bn. Ford ordered a thorough review of Jaguar, but moved rapidly in approving the XJ-S facelift as penned by the company’s styling team, led by Geoff Lawson. Just before this, Jaguar had announced an enlarged 4-litre AJ6 engine for the XJ40, although rather strangely, the 3.6 remained in production for the XJ-S.

In July 1990 Sir John Egan departed Jaguar, after a decade in charge. He had joined the company when its reputation for quality was rock bottom and it had no money – and he left it in a similar state, but the decade in between had seen a rollercoaster ride and Jaguar’s pride restored. Ford parachuted in Bill Hayden, who was reportedly shocked by the antiquated equipment and methods at Browns Lane, to replace him.

In May 1991 Jaguar announced a facelifted XJ-S, or XJS as it was now to be called, complete with the 4-litre 223bhp AJ6, and available with a five-speed manual gearbox or the new ZF 4HP 24E automatic transmission. The V12 continued, but was fighting a losing battle against increasingly stringent emission regulations as power was now reduced to 280 bhp. Visually, apart from the re-shaped rear side windows, the facelifted XJS looks little different to the outgoing XJ-S, but most of the changes were underneath the skin. The main aim of the re-jigged car was to make it easier and quicker to build, by using fewer panels and also improving quality. In addition to this the car’s interior was completely revised. This facelift cost Jaguar £50m, though it was probably Ford who footed the bill.

Later in 1991, technical director Jim Randle left Jaguar. No reason was given for his departure, but as the man who oversaw the XJ40’s development, his standing with Jaguar’s new owners cannot have been helped when reliability issues with the saloon came to the fore. In Randle’s place came Clive Ennos from Ford.

The final fling

The 1991 XJS featured countless changes under the skin.
The 1991 XJS featured countless changes under the skin.

When the facelifted XJS was announced in 1991, a six cylinder convertible had not been in the range. This was rectified in 1992. Another anomaly dealt with was the absence of the six-cylinder cars from the American market. Once the 4-litre car was available Stateside, they began to outsell the V12. While all this had been happening, the V12 XJS had been neglected, with top end power now down to 280 bhp, top speed was now 147mph and the 0-60mph time was 7.8 seconds – similar to the series 3 E-type.

With multi-cam, multi-valve engines now all the rage, the V12 had lost some of its attraction. To restore the appeal of the V12, Jaguar lengthened the stroke and produced a 6-litre version of the engine. Initally, the 6-litre V12 had been available through Jaguarsport, a joint venture between Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw Racing between 1990 and 1993, but these cars had been modified at Jaguarsport facility near Oxford. The new big-bore V12 was the official factory engine and had two applications, the XJ81 (Ford’s re-engineered version of the XJ40 fitted with the big engine) and the XJS.

When installed in the XJS it produced 308bhp (as opposed to 318 in the XJ81), but this was still enough for a top end of 161mph and reduction of the 0-60mph dash – down to a credible 6.6 seconds. This revised engine was mated to a GM 4L80-E four speed electronic automatic transmission, the fourth gear being an overdrive ratio, which helped fuel economy. There were other modifications and styling changes to keep the XJS competitive – and they seemed to work, as sales picked up after diving in the recession of the early 1990s.

Also in the summer of 1993, Ford spent another £50m replacing Browns Lane’s ancient production line. Jaguar was finding out that in order to compete at the highest level, it had to invest serious amounts of money. The XJS now had to soldier on, as Ford cancelled the XJ41/42 F-type; and work started afresh on an AJ26-engined sportscar, codenamed X100. This car would retain the XJS floorpan, and work on it commenced in 1992 – initially without Ford’s official backing. Because of this, Jaguar began to investigate a more radical facelift of the XJS, using the forthcoming AJ26 V8 engine.

In the autumn of 1994, the X300 (1994-1997 XJ6) appeared – powered by a revised AJ6 engine, now re-christened AJ16. It boasted slightly improved power (238bhp) and torque, and the uprated engine soon found its way into the XJS. Jaguar’s sales and marketing men worked hard to generate public interest in the XJS, as it became common knowledge that the end was nigh.

Towards the end, the V12 engine was quietly dropped from the range – demand for it in the USA had now virtually evaporated – but was still available to special order. Like the Mini, the XJS managed to reach classic status while it was still in production, with a new generation of journalists drooling over its combination of refinement and handling.

The end finally came in April 1996 when a blue 6-litre V12 coupe rolled off the line at Browns Lane to become the last XJS of them all. The ultimate incarnation of a run that lasted an amazing 115,413 cars – a figure Jaguar arrived at only after a recount. In October 1996 the AJ26 engined Jaguar XK8 went on sale as the replacement for the XJS, targeting younger buyers with styling cues taken from the E-type. But if the XK8 was meant to have a more sporting image than the car it replaced, there was one legacy from the XJS – buyers expected the XK8 to offer serious refinement.

The XJS was a member of a very exclusive club, a BL car whose reputation survived the bad times. Initially underdeveloped, unfashionable, out of favour with the press, it shrugged off two recessions and being badly-built on outdated facilities to flourish and become one of the most successful cars to ever wear the Jaguar badge.

XJ-S facts and figures…

One of the first off the line at Browns Lane...
One of the first off the line at Browns Lane…

Jaguar XJ-S production, 1975-1996

1975 1245
1976 3082
1977 3890
1978 3121
1979 2405
1980 1057
1981 1292
1982 3111
1983 4808
1984 6028
1985 7510
1986 8838
1987 9537
1988 10,284
1989 10,665
1990 9255
1991 4649
1992 3638
1993 5192
1994 6643
1995 5802
1996 3361

Jaguar Project Codes Relevent to the XJ-S

XJ8 E-type 2+2
XJ21 1968 E-type
XJ25 E-type Series 3 2+2
XJ26 E-type Series 3 Roadster
XJ27 XJ-S Coupe
XJ28 XJ-S Convertible
XJ41 F-type Coupe
XJ42 F-type Cabriolet
XJ57 XJ-S six-cylinder Coupe
XJ58 XJ-S six-cylinder Cabriolet
XJ63 XJ57 with projected Getrag manual gearbox
XJ71 XJ-S mules for XJ41 development programme
XJ77 XJ-S V12 Convertible
XJ78 XJ-S AJ6 Convertible
XJ87 facelift V12 XJS Coupe
XJ88 facelift AJ6 XJS Coupe
XJ89 facelift XJS Cabriolet
XJ97 facelift V12 XJS Convertible
XJ98 facelift V12 AJ6 Coupe
Keith Adams


  1. From the day I first saw one in white in a central London showroom as a teenager in 1975 I wanted one. I finally made it come true in 1996 when I bought a used 1992 XJR-S with the 6.0 litre V12. What a machine and I still love it and it still continues to impress all and sundry. Quiet, fast and accelerates as if propelled by a rubber band.

  2. I’ve always loved the shape of the XJ-S – from the early ones, featured in The New Avengers and Return of The Saint (still have the toy version), to the final, very well evolved, rounded and resolved model. I’d love to have a drive in one, especially an early V12!!!

  3. great article 🙂 I think the XJs has probably been a dream car for many teenage boys not to mention many adult boys. I particularly like the final fling title picture above of the XJS convertible with the xj40 styled tails lights. these cars are economically priced now second hand and now is probably the time to buy one worth restoring. Keith – forget the SM get the XJs. alex

  4. Early and original for me…..with the matt black panel on the rear and rotary dials. just fantastic, you can keep your e-types for clarkson

  5. Hi
    A great article. I am currently building an XJS Le Mans V12 which will be styled the way an early XJS would have looked had the chaps at Jaguar not had to fall in line with american safety rules, and been so stifled by money worries to be able to produce the european version. Also, it won’t have the three speed auto!

  6. Since writing this article something has occured to me.
    Was the aborted 60 degree 3.5 litre V8 intended for the XJ-S ?
    When the later AJ6/AJ16 engine was fitted it did wonders for the sales and the subsequent XK8’s and F-Type all offer different engine options.

  7. Once sorted this was the car that offered a unique combination of Italian supercar performance with Jaguar refinement for a lot less money than a supercar. I was delighted in the early eighties when quality and sales really improved for the XJS as this was a unique car.

  8. Thank you for publishing this review of my all time favorite machine. I currently own 3, 1982,1984, 1986 coupes, all upgraded electrically and mechanically. The V12 is a wonder, power and torque, with the smoothness of a turbine.
    The timelessness of the design speaks well of M. Sayer and Wm. Lyons as an expression of great taste, and sophistication not duplicated by many of the contemporary machines of its time. Today in 2013 are we now encountering automotive design that elicits such admiration. Thank you Jaguar for a great design.

  9. Agree completely with Mr. Krainock’s remarks. Have a 1994 in the garage and think the design gets better with age. People who see it for the 1st time are blown away because cars don’t look this good anymore.

    Sayer & Lyons were visionaries and the XJS a natural evolution of the E type. Form follows function with the XJS which is why it feels so planted @ 100 MPH and looks like it’s going that fast even when parked. Sayer & Lyons are gone but what a legacy they left behind.

  10. Got a mint 3.6 manual amazing car, it dwarfs most modern cars in length and as for car design….cars arent designed like this anymore, infact cars arent designed anymore!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Long live the XJ-S and it getting the appreciate it deserves

  11. As a kid in the early eighties I loved them. Way ahead of their time in styling and aerodynamics – they made any another car look like nasty boxes.

    I am a proud owner of a mint 1990 pre-facelift V12 2-seater convertible. Miles of burl walnut and leather, super quiet smooth V12 engine. With the roof down on a sunny day, the entire experience feels more like you’re at the helm of a luxury speed boat!

  12. The XJ-S and XJS starred in many US TV shows, not just UK based ones, noteably both Dallas and its spin-off Knots Landing had these and were in numerous episodes, so the sports cars were being pushed stateside, along with the Series III and XJ40, which both had equal, (get it) billing with Edward Woodward in the Equalizer, (which by the way is currently in pre production for a new multi dollar movie, and yes the new XJ is looking like a likely partner to the lead character)

  13. The XJS is one of those rare cars that looked better every time it was facelifted, as normally once a car reaches a certain age, the new bumpers, lighting and grill designs have the ‘granny in a miniskirt’ effect!

  14. It’s funny how well regarded the XJS is now. On the old BL management car scheme, the XJS was cheaper than a 1750HL Maxi, and still nobody would take one!

  15. When this car was released I laughed and laughed! What an ugly son of b^*#¥ it was. They stole the early Lambo’s headlights and Winchester Cathedrals flying buttresses. It was as much of a successor to the E Type as a Morphy Richards toaster was to the Austin Seven. This was without doubt the single most hideous piece of styling that had ever been perpetrated upon the motoring public.
    Then I rode in one.
    Then I shut up!
    (Ever since I got out of that superbly appointed luxury leather and wood, totally silent lounge on wheels I will not hear a word said against it).

  16. I never found the styling totally pleasing to the eye, but I had a few fun drives in the one my Friend’s Dad had.

    The amount of controls & dials on the dash impressed me, any more & it would have been like a cockpit!

  17. Jaguar back in those days was very old school,and presided over by schoolmasters. At that time I worked for Doug and helped inpliment the design changes that became the convertible and facelift cars. As a rookie in 1984 I well remember borrowing Charles Linder’s car for a trip to Worthing. He was such a kindly chap and just said ‘Oh take my car dear boy’ and gave me the keys. The trip was from Brown’s Lane to Worthing and after 20 minutes I was hooked on the power and silence – I was used to an MG Metro Turbo after all. There was one stretch of carriageway that was dead straight, completely empty and without any hesitation I just floored it. The big car sat back and launched off. Power and silence remained till the speedo read 135 – and the car just sat there almost saying ‘OK big boy what now?’.I rapidly cut the power as sanity returned. The car was so overwhelmingly impressive I don’t think I’ll ever forget that first trip.

  18. I can remember What Car testing the Jaguar XJS HE against a BMW 635 CSi in December 1982 and saying the BMW sounded strained and frantic compared with the silence of the V12 Jaguar. Now I’d imagine a 3.5 litre BMW engine being very refined compared with most other engines, but even this couldn’t compare with the legendary Jaguar engine.
    Also the article commented on vastly improved quality and fuel consumption compared with the pre HE models, and how the Jaguar stirred the emotions in a way the BMW couldn’t. Coming not long after the Falklands, when the country was undergoing a patriotic revival, it was nice to see one of the country’s most exclusive cars finally not being the subject of a joke, or the test having to be abandoned due to the car breaking down.

  19. What a wonderful article!

    Several weeks ago I purchased my first Jaguar; namely, a 1995 XJS Convertible!

    While I love the car, one item that I can’t stand with regard to styling is the “Black-Out” taillights!

    Is it possible to replaced them with red or clear taillights?



  20. At: Not plain sailing for Jaguar, you write “Nearly there: An XJ27 mock up. Note the chrome bumpers.”…
    Indeed, but, note the non-matching headlights! 🙂 There’s a new trend…

  21. The XJ-S never had flying buttresses, they are plain buttresses.
    An example of a car with flying buttresses is the Maserati Merak.

  22. I worked as a technician in the late 70’s to pay my way through 1st year college. The shop owner bought blown XJS’s by the dozen. They were 76 and 77 models. Some arrived on flat beds with hollow engine bays and some had the front camshaft sockets sheared off the camshafts, all had overheated and dropped valve seats. I used to rebuild them, sometimes, create a running engine out of two engines. What a beast was the process to take the engine and tranny out and it was torture to get one back in. But bringing them back to life paid for freshman and sophomore years. Despite that, I have always had a soft spot in my heart for these cars, ugly and beautiful at the same time. Thirty five years later, I purchase a 94 coupe with the Aj6 and documented 38 K miles. This car came out of a collection and it is pristine and original, as if time has stopped with it. Happy to have a coupe and happier it is not the V12.

  23. I am in the lucky position of owning a XJS Le Mans very low miles and being the second owner i have to pinch my self when i look at this fantastic motor car. Spending a big part of my time undertaking work on these neglected classic master pieces as with all the great cars, it was just before its time and never deserved all the bad press it received. All the troublesome early cars needed was just taking apart and putting back together properly V12 not a very eco car to own and a British one at that,its a fantastic piece of styling and engineering and its a real Jaguar.

  24. I am fortunate to own several old cars as well as new including a 1973 s3 v12 e-type, 1983 Series 3 Land Rover (real basic motoring), a 1987 Brooklands Capri and a 1992 facelift XJRS several older several newer – but of all in this age group the XJRS is in a class of its own starts on the button quite as a mouse goes like a Jaguar should,fantastic effortless cruising – only downside a bit thirsty so you always have to visit a petrol station or two !! – anyone who knocks them are probably arm chair critics that have never been in one ! Bit like series 3 E-types over series 1 unless you have been in all why have such thoughts any V engined car wins hands down for me

  25. I have a 1993 XJS Cabriolet. It has 73k miles and all original. Have had it for 15+ years, 2nd owner. Red w/tan interior. I get nothing but compliments every time I take it out. Absolutely gorgeous vehicle. I think the ’93 was the best looking one considering the bumpers, subtle lines, etc. It just works. Truly a car loaded with sex appeal. No interest in ever getting rid of it!

  26. Once the car was put right in 1981 with vastly better quality, fuel consumption improved to 17 mpg, a traditional Jaguar wood and leather interior, and performance upped to 155 mph with the kind of refinement found in a Rolls Royce Phantom, the XJS couldn’t go wrong. People who wanted the sort of performance you’d find in a Ferrari but with far more practicality and for a lot less money soon started buying this car. Also product placement in Dynasty must have done wonders for Jaguar’s sales in America.

  27. I had a 4.0 Coupe in 1992, J913RWL. It was TWR Oxford’s demo and I think it had barely 100 miles on it. I did another 72,000 in the next two and a bit years. The only real gripe was a leaky drivers door. They changed the seal 3 times before doing what I asked them to do in the first place which was re hang it and that solved it. It was a great long distance cruiser, at the time I lived near Oxford and had offices in Wembley and Tyne and Wear so I was on the road a lot. It was perfect for that. Traded it for a new P38 which is another story altogether…

  28. Saw the first 1975 XJS manual car at Jenson Motors Auckland New Zealand in 1976…thought I would love one of those…bought one in Shrewsbury UK in owner…still have the same car today…32 years later…still in mint condition.62ooo origonal miles..

  29. A Ferrari might have nicer lines and enthusiasts love the engine noise, but something like a 308 was very impractical, hated driving in traffic, and its engine noise could get tiring on a long journey. This is where the XJS HE stepped in, it offered the same performance as an Italian supercar of the early eighties for considerably less money and more dealers to maintain the car, made long journeys effortless due its almost silent V12 and massive power, and had a decent amount of boot space and two rear seats.

  30. I always thought Roger Moore’s James Bond should have driven an XJS over a Lotus in his later Bond films as it would have suited a more mature 007, who would have appreciated the car’s power, but also its refinement and practicality on his assignments to southern Europe. Jaguar missed a bit of a sitter by not getting product placement in Octopussy and A View To A Kill.

    • I agree the XJS would have suited Roger Moore’s version of James Bond well.

      Jaguar did manage to get an XJS as Simon Templar’s car in Return Of The Saint. Iain Ogilvie did complain that the air conditioning kept leaking cold water over him.

      Ironically Roger Moore played the lead role in the 1960s series, & the makers wanted to use an E-Type, but Jaguar refused to

      • By 1981 the quality issues had mostly been sorted on the XJS, economy was far better than the 12 mpg original car, and they were relatively cheap for a supercar. I somehow could imagine Roger Moore turning up at Max Zorin’s chateau in his XJS HE, although interestingly he was chauffeured around In A View To A Kill in a 1950s Rolls Royce.

  31. It’s interesting to see how poor sales were for the XJS in 1980, with sales close to 1000 a year, and how the car trebled its sales in two years and sales climbed steadily for the rest of the eighties as a more economical version and a convertible were added. The XJS was a true British hero, a car that was close to death after 5 years on the market, but recovered to become one of the best British cars of the eighties and no other car could match it for refinement, ride quality and performance( except a handful of exotics). While yes the Mercedes 500 SEC probably was better made, though not much after 1981, and had better residuals, the Jaguar was the better deal and nothing could match its wood and leather interior.

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