During the 1950s and 60s, Jaguar had built itself a fearsome reputation for turning out fast, accomplished and stylish executive cars at astonishingly low prices. The 1968 XJ did not just continue the tradition, it moved it onto another level…
Loved by one and all, the XJ lasted until 1986 in six-cylinder form and went on to 1993 in luscious twelve-cylinder form. To this day Jaguar continue to build cars that are heavily inspired by the Lyons original…
Leaping ahead of all challengers
THIS is a difficult one to write without falling into the trap of resorting to superlatives and cliches. And yet, when one looks at what Jaguar achieved with this car back in 1968, it seems that because the car was so damned good, it traded on such things. Such was the scale of Jaguar’s achievement, that it is almost impossible to wite a sentence about the car, that does not include the words, “groundbreaking”, “pinnacle” or “stunning”. And yet, I am going to try.
At the time of the XJ6’s launch, in 1968, Jaguar been under BMC’s wing for two two years. Unlike previous BMC acquisitions, it seemed as though Jaguar would not go quietly into the night by following Riley and Wolseley through the process of assimilation. The ability of Jaguar’s range was one reason for this, but most was pobably down to Sir William Lyons’ strength of character. Sometimes it seemed as though his one mission in life was to ensure that Jaguar’s interests would be properly looked after in the new regime.
Even before BMH was swallowed up by the Leyland Motor Corporation in 1968, the effects of Jaguar BMC becoming bedfellows were easy to see: for one, out went the upcoming “Big Healey”, as it was considered too close to the E-Type. Once Jaguar became part of BLMC, this arrangement did not change. Austin-Morris may have become Triumph management enclave, but Jaguar remained fiercely independent – it helps to have a friend on the board. Jaguar’s position remained strong: just as the Austin-Healey 4000 had been killed, so then was the Rover P8.
Away from the politics and back to the XJ6. The impact of the XJ6 was not immediate: many pundits criticised it for being cramped in the back, and underpowered in 2.8-litre form. The extremely low price also confused many, who simply could not get their heads around the concept of being able to buy a pukka luxury car like this for such little money. But it was the real thing. The straight-six XK engine was a known quantity, but allied to a more modern body and a new chassis set-up meant that the XJ was a quantum leap ahead of the well respected S-Type cars it supplanted.
But its talents were there for all to see: for one, the suspension set-up was peerless, and although its ride could be bettered by the most esoteric luxury cars out there, none of these could match the XJ’s ability to string together a series of corners. The large saloon was blessed with poise, then, and any car that possessed a chassis of this ability would have gone straight to the top of the class by default. For the XJ though, this was only part of the story: its styling was sublime (and pretty much penned by Lyons himself), managing to remain a Jaguar through-and-through (in a nutshell, it looked feline), and yet move the marque forwards into a new era.
Still there was more: Lyons saw fit to knock the XJ6 out at a price that pitched it against some rather ordinary competition, forcing all of the company’s competition to raise their games.
In simple terms, and thanks to its almost other-worldly mixture of talents, it could well have been the greatest Jaguar ever made. Yet, it failed to pick up the international 1969 Car of the Year award, deferring instead to the solid and dependable Peugeot 504. Mind you, only one two cars in this top ten did pick up CotY awards, so no loss there then.
Jaguar refused to rest on its laurels, though, continuing to develop the XJ6. The Harry Mundy designed V12 engine was added into the mix, to create the XJ12 (which was the best car in the world in its day). The series two version came along a few short years after, answering any remaining criticisms (a long wheelbase version, the graceful two-door and a larger-engined entry level model were all added). Thus created what should have been a perfect range of cars.
Certainly, it was a great car, but sadly flawed in the build quality stakes, thanks to assembly “issues”.
Still, the XJ weathered the 1970s in reasonable shape, ending them with a flourish, thanks to its transformation into series three guise. It can be argued that this version of the XJ6/XJ12 was the nicest looking of all, thanks to its Pininfarina styled roofline, gothic rear lamps and chunkier bumpers. The Americans certainly thought it was the best all-round: after quality and dealer back-up improved during the early 1980s, they bought the series three in massive numbers.
If ever there was a perfect demonstration of how enduring a design the XJ was, this was it – especially considering the unreliability of the ‘seventies, which would have easily killed a lesser car. Like the Range Rover, it seems the Jaguar XJ was good enough to transcend the effects of the bolshie shop stewards.
So there you have it – the Jaguar XJ6/XJ12. The car that raised standards in the luxury car market, one which was good enough to genuinely claim to be the greatest car in the world, and one that almost everyone aspired to. Racing drivers, plurocrats, small time gangsters and film stars; they all wanted one. The XJ was not only a great BMC>Rover, it was also a superior car.
…And we managed to finish the piece without resorting to superlatives and cliches.
The 2004 Jaguar XJ leans heavily on the 1968 original – even to this day, its influence remains massive.
The most advanced saloon car in the world when it came out and sent rival makers scurrying back to their drawing boards. But, with hindsight, also the car that lumped British makers with the ‘wood and leather’ cliché that they’ve been mostly unable to shift since.