Essay : Not their finest hour – Jaguar XJ6 Executive (South Africa 1979-80)

Chris Cowin looks at a version of the Jaguar XJ6 that departed some way from the original vision of Sir William Lyons.

One could be forgiven for thinking the ‘enhanced’ Series 2 XJ6 4.2 pictured (in blue) was a one-off. But no, this is a factory model, that factory being Leyland South Africa’s Blackheath assembly plant.


From Browns Lane to Blackheath

Jaguar XJ6 Executive
1979 Jaguar XJ6 4.2 Executive – South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Sedgefield Classic Cars)

Jaguars were assembled in South Africa for many years. However, one consequence of the merger between Jaguar and the British Motor Corporation in 1966  was that production was transferred to the BMC (later Leykor/Leyland South Africa) factory in Blackheath, Cape Province – from 1967 onwards, all Jaguars were assembled there.

During the 1970s the Jaguar XJ6 4.2-litre four-door gave Leyland South Africa a rival to the BMW and Mercedes-Benz models also built in the country and, for most of that time, it looked almost identical to UK market cars.

There was little to differentiate a South African Series 2 XJ6 of 1977 from its British counterpart. The Series 2 XJ6 3.4 and XJ12 5.3 litre were not offered in South Africa, although the Series 1 XJ6 2.8-litre had been until 1973.

Jaguar XJ6 Executive
The Series 1 Jaguar XJ6 was assembled in South Africa in 2.8 and 4.2-litre form. Afrikaans text says ‘A class apart’ (loosely translated)
Jaguar XJ6 Executive
The Series 2 was also assembled in South Africa, but only as a 4.2-litre automatic – as seen here, the ‘Executive’ name had been introduced by 1975 to denote the top level of trim

A lingering departure

However, future assembly of the new Series 3 models was not envisaged and so, as direct imports, the Series 3 cars would incur heavy import duties in the 1980s. Leyland South Africa was therefore in no hurry to drop the locally-assembled Series 2 XJ6 from production, probably because they had large stocks of assembly kits in hand.

Even though the Series 3 models were unveiled in the UK in April 1979 (later than once planned), South Africans could still buy a locally-assembled Series 2 car through 1979, 1980 and 1981, with the imported Series 3 models not arriving until late 1981 – such time lags were common in the South African market which was, at that time, rather isolated both politically and geographically.

It should be added that, unlike some models such as the Mini, Marina and Triumph Chicane/2500 which were manufactured in South Africa from mostly locally produced components, the Jaguars were assembled from UK-supplied kits, which were still subject to quite a high import duty. As Declan Berridge has explained, the South African Government came close to forcing a halt to Jaguar assembly in 1976 as a consequence of the cars’ relatively low local content. However, Leyland South Africa was able to negotiate a stay of execution.

The import duty meant that the Series 2 XJs were expensive cars, priced at around 23,000 Rand in 1980 when the locally-manufactured Mini 1275E was priced at just over 4,000 Rand.

Bumped into a facelift

Perhaps because South Africans could read about the Series 3 available elsewhere, or perhaps because it was felt the existing Series 2 car needed to be freshened to remain competitive, what amounted to an interim facelift took place, first announced in October 1978.

As seen, the biggest change was the fitment of impact bumpers which are the same (or almost) as the items which had been fitted to North American specification Series 2 cars since 1973.

These were not required for regulatory reasons in South Africa, which was still building Minis and Marinas with no alteration to the bumpers, but the aim was to create a new look in an attempt to keep up with the Germans who dominated most of South Africa’s luxury saloon market by 1978.

Were those big bumpers left-over American market items shipped from Coventry – or were they cobbled together locally?

Jaguar XJ6 Executive
1979 Jaguar XJ6 4.2 Executive – South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Sedgefield Classic Cars)

Those North American-type impact bumpers give Series 2 cars so equipped a look similar to the Series 3 XJ6 from some angles, although the heavy black impact protection does not wrap around the sides. They had evolved a little over the years with earlier models (like the 1974 USA car pictured below) having ribbing on the rear rubber block. However, later cars had a solid smooth rubber block, as shown on the pictures of the South African cars.

It’s not always understood that such 5 mph bumpers were designed to conform with federal regulations intended to prevent damage to bodywork and lights in low speed collisions such as parking bumps, rather than to protect the car’s occupants from harm in collisions at higher speeds. Keeping lights operational aided safety of course, but those bumpers also kept insurance costs down in the USA.

Jaguar XJ6 Executive
Early versions of the impact bumpers – shown here on an American specification car – had a ribbed surface
Jaguar XJ6 Executive
Later versions of the impact bumpers – here on a South African XJ6 Executive – had a smooth surface. Note the  ‘Executive’ badging

Package of changes

As well as those bumpers, the 1979/80 South African Series 2 Jaguar XJ6 Executive also featured a matt black grille, body-colour wheel trims and a side-rubbing strip, the latter two items being very similar to the contemporary Mercedes S-Class. Body colour wheel centres are something difficult to get right and on the XJ6 Executive they are a little jarring.

They had US style side-marker lamps (not actually required by law), ‘Executive’ badging at the rear, colour-keyed seatbelts, a leather-bound steering wheel and the ‘leaper’ hood ornament appears to have been standard, while I am told the front seats differed from earlier Series 2 cars.

They were, of course, right-hand drive, and always 4.2 litre automatic cars with air-conditioning.

Jaguar XJ6 Executive
1979 Jaguar XJ6 4.2 Executive – South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Sedgefield Classic Cars)

The side rubbing strips which – in the opinion of most – add nothing to the looks of the XJ6 are another feature commonly seen on North American market Jaguars of this era although, unlike the impact bumpers, they were never original equipment in North America – and not something fitted at Browns Lane.

Instead, American dealers would group them together with the hood-mounted leaper in a dealer-fitted ‘Appearance package’ which could be used to inflate the sticker price of the car by hundreds of dollars and, hence the profit per car. The more cynical American dealers tended to apply this package to all Jaguar saloons in stock automatically, so customers were obliged to buy their car with it or face a long wait. South African XJ6 Executive buyers in 1979/80 seemingly had no choice either.

An established name

In South Africa, the Executive name wasn’t new on the XJ6 – it had been introduced in earlier years when South Africans were offered two versions of the Series 2 XJ6 4.2 – the Sedan and the posher Executive which took the place of the Daimler versions which were absent – for 1979/80, though, only the Executive remained on sale.

Fellow AROnline Contributor, Martin Williamson, has kindly provided some information from consumer guides of the period which suggests that less than 1000 of these facelifted Series 2 XJ6 Executive cars were sold in South Africa in total: 273 in 1979 (which may include some of the previous model), 564 in 1980 and 116 in 1981.

Troubled times

This was in any case a very troubled time for Leyland South Africa overall.

The cars division was very nearly sold off to Sigma Corporation in 1979, in anticipation of which dealers were disenfranchised. Sigma, which built various other brands of car had its own network and Leyland car production halted for a while.

However, that sale fell through. Sigma had primarily been interested in the Rover SD1 2600/3500 then being built after a £10m investment, but came to realise there would be problems localising and/or replacing the V8 engine. Later, in the 1980s, the company acquired the South African interests of Ford.

So, in late 1979, there was a sort of re-start of Leyland South Africa as a car company.

It was also a very difficult time for Jaguar back in the UK, where huge losses were being incurred as a result of the high sterling exchange rate against the US dollar, and where the 1979 launch of Series 3 cars was a disaster, with the Castle Bromwich plant, which produced the bodies, only being able to build them in red, white or ‘taxicab yellow’ due to incompatibility of the new thermoplastic paint process with the body’s lead-loading – unfortunately, that tended to melt at the temperatures required for painting.

Jaguar only built 14,900 cars in 1979 (the lowest figure since the 1950s) and when Sir John Egan took over in April 1980 a long-running strike threatened to be terminal for Browns Lane, while Harold Musgrove was suggesting final assembly of the Series 3 moved to Longbridge.

It was a very troubled period for parent company BL as well – in 1979, the company was faced with a new Conservative Government minded to withdraw support, the high pound hitting exports and industrial troubles of which the infamous ‘Red Robbo’ dispute was just one.

In the circumstances, tweaks to the appearance of the XJ6 by the distant South African subsidiary probably received little attention.

Reversion to direct imports

When the Series 3 Jaguars eventually arrived in South Africa as built-up imports from 1981 to replace those Series 2 Executive cars they, of course, had the revised roofline/C-pillar, much better integrated wrap-round bumpers and larger rear lights among other changes.

The local assembly of Jaguars therefore came to an end.

Jaguar XJ6 Executive
By late 1981, the Series 3 Jaguar XJ6 was appearing in South African advertising (even if they use a UK picture). These Jaguars were imported fully-assembled

Aside from South Africa, the other overseas country which assembled the XJ6 in quantity was New Zealand. Assembly of Series 1 cars (2.8-litre and 4.2-litre) commenced there in 1971, and Series 2 cars were still being built at the Nelson plant in 1978. A small number (just over 100) Series 1 Daimlers were also assembled.

The bulk of New Zealand assembly concerned the Series 2 XJ6 4.2 auto, some of which were then exported onwards to Australia (as were Rover 3500 P6 cars) taking advantage of the free trade agreement between the two nations. Approximately 1500 Jaguar/Daimler XJ6 cars were assembled in New Zealand overall, but as in South Africa, the introduction of the Series 3 coincided with the end of local assembly.

Jaguars had also at one time been assembled both in the Republic of Ireland (by Frank Cavey Limited until 1968) and Mexico (briefly around 1960) – so, not every old Jaguar you see rolled off the Browns Lane assembly line.

In the early days of British Leyland, the addition of Jaguar and Rover saloon assembly alongside the existing Triumph lines at the Mechelen/Malines Triumph plant in Belgium was investigated, but the reduction of EEC tariffs and then Britain’s acceptance as a member, which resulted in all tariffs being phased out by 1977, rendered Belgian assembly unnecessary.

Quite a few examples of the facelifted 1979/80 South African XJ6 Executive survive, certainly enough to verify that the specification of the blue car pictured was common to others. But in the intervening 45 years many have been altered by a change of wheels, deletion of rubbing strips and so on.

With thanks to Martin Williamson, Gary Tame, Declan Berridge, Sheridan Renfield and Sedgefield Classic Cars.

[Author’s Note: Although this article refers to Series 3 throughout for clarity, they were usually marketed as Series III.]

Jaguar XJ6 Executive
South African advertising for the Jaguar XJ6 Executive.
Chris Cowin
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