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CAT IN ABSTRACT, PART I
2017-03-28 09:19:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

Cat In Abstract, Part I

No other product of this British marque was ever as crucially misunderstood as the Jaguar XJ-S. A shame, as it combined fine tradition with avantgarde boldness. 

The 1970s was a period of immense change - in the United Kingdom even more so than elsewhere. Following the swing of the sixties, the country was in for a long stint of sobering social and economical turmoil. This meant the former cultural and economical world power was rapidly decaying into ‘the sick man of Europe’. Given these circumstances, one had to wonder what this imploded empire would stand for anymore.  

Even her Majesty’s most potent secret agent had undergone a crisis of confidence by that point. Just a few years ago, Bond, James Bond had been jet setting across the globe in his Conduit Cut three-piece suit, not so much obeying the rules of good taste and style, but setting the standard for both. Now, he suddenly seemed to be out of touch with the finer things of life. Film enthusiasts certainly cocked both eyebrows, once a visibly aged Sean Connery appeared on screen in a pink shirt, with wide sideburns and a tie of American slice o’ pizza proportions. That his hunt for a camp incarnation of his arch-enemy, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, wasn’t as smooth an affair as in the past only added insult to injury. Not to mention the movie’s setting in the capitol of vulgarity, Las Vegas. 

Given these circumstances, one had to wonder what a paunchy Bond, sporting the looks of a used car dealer, would stand for anymore.

Meanwhile those in charge at Jaguar in Coventry were also looking for a new direction. Sir William Lyons, founder and ultimate reference for all things style-related, was heading for retirement, while the Pounds Sterling earned through the sale of world-class products like the E-type and XJ saloon went to parent company British Leyland, where it was redirected in the direction of loss-making mass-market brands, such as Austin and Triumph. 

It was up to ingenious aerodynamicist, Malcolm Sayer, who had hitherto been in charge of the styling of all Jaguar racecars and the E-type convertible, to come up with a shape for the company’s all-new coupé. Due to an impending ban of convertibles on the all-important US market and shrinking profit margins in the sportscar sector, it was clear that the new car would have to be significantly different from its E-type predecessor. 

Given these circumstances, one had to wonder what a Jaguar-style coupé would stand for anymore.  

Actually, there was some indication as to where the two-door Jaguar was heading, after the big V12 engine had been transplanted into the E-type, which lent the erstwhile dyed-in-the-wool sportscar more than just a whiff of Gran Turismo character.

 

The new coupé (there were no plans whatsoever for any kind of convertible version, due to the generally depressing outlook for topless motoring on the US market) would have to be even less sporting, but with more jet set appeal instead.  

Given this premise - and the fact that the coupé would have to be built upon the XJ’s chassis -, Sayer devised a GT of classical Jaguar proportions: long bonnet, enormous rear overhang, low cabin. Yet it was the shape that clad these proportions that would tear at the Harris Tweed of traditionalist enthusiasts of the marque for decades to come. To the greenhouse of XJ27 (the internal moniker given to the coupé project), Sayer added fins in a style reminiscent of flamboyant Italian sportscars, which he dubbed ‘sail panels’. These actually weren’t supposed to be some fashionable frippery, but had a clear aerodynamic purpose - as could be expected from the work of an aerodynamicst, who didn’t model shapes based on some aesthetic perspective, but calculated them, based on mathematical formulae.

In the wake of Sayer’s premature death, quite a few decision makers at Browns Lane were ill at ease with this modern coupé shape though. To some, it was pandering to Italianate trends, while others identified vulgar, American tendencies. By any account, Sayer’s remotely geometrical shapes constituted a break with Sir William’s flowing Lyons Line. 

Before the car could be unveiled, Sayer’s successors would have to deal with some of the new coupé’s detailing though, which they did with varying levels of success. At least they had more time to do so than expected, as shortages at British Leyland’s Pressed Steel Fisher body plant delayed the Jaguar’s production by two years.

Delayed and unloved, the XJ-S finally got to see the light of day in 1975: with sloppily-fitting black rubber bumpers (which had been devised after Sayer’s death) front and rear, an interior made of black plastic (featuring printed silver accents in the style of cheap mass-market fare) on its inside and a V12 engine with the drinking habits of a Bullingdon Club member under its bonnet. Right amidst two major oil crises.

Just as Connery with silly tie and sideburns had become unacceptable in the role of James Bond, the XJ-S’ stint at the top of the Jaguar range’s tree seemed to have come to an end, too. By a hair’s breadth, the Jaguar GT would have been only available as a second-hand car in the 1980s - if it wasn’t for Jaguar’s new managing director, John Egan, who fought like a lion for a second chance on behalf of Malcolm Sayers final creation

Thankfully, the XJ-S seized this opportunity. Thanks to constant improvement with regards to quality and engineering, and two major stylistic upgrades in particular, which lent it more comely chrome applications on the bumpers and some burr veneer for the cabin, the unloved outcast turned into a winner in the contested GT sector. A more efficient six cylinder engine, in addition to the rebranding of the V12 as a new H.E. (for High Efficiency) model - which was mostly of symbolic value - certainly added to the Jaguar’s rejuvenated appeal. And in stylistic terms, the XJ-S finally gained the prerequisite flair it had previously been lacking during the Seventies.

Sean Connery, by the way, eventually returned to the screen yet another time to as James Bond in the early Eighties. This time around, he left the wide tie at home and instead turned up the self-mockery and put on a grey hairpiece. For the first time, Bond was thus allowed to visibly age, which helped turn this particular revival into a success. After all, it’s all about charisma.

Meanwhile, by mastering the rocky road to success, the much-maligned XJ-S gained that most elusive of traits: character. By now, the XJ-S combined classical chrome and wood elegance à l’Anglaise with a hint of Bertone-like raciness - and in the process even managed to incorporate the boot lid’s art déco ornamentation in surprisingly satisfying fashion. The end result of this pupation process may not be the last word in terms of detail perfection (as proven by a quick glance at the vinyl-clad area behind the rear side windows) or coherence. But, as we've seen, charisma doesn’t rely on either of those qualities.

At its heart, the XJ-S’s thoroughbred Jaguar nature had always been beyond reproach, just like Sean Connery’s credentials as MI6 agent were never in doubt.

This Jaguar’s driver had always been sitting low, at eye level with sports car drivers, overlooking an artfully modelled bonnet landscape, whose enormous size acts as a canvas for intriguingly distorted reflections of the actual landscape passing by. Just as with the XJ saloon or E-type. 

In terms of space efficiency, the Jaguar’s cabin was hardly a paragon design (which is a bit of a surprise, given Malcolm Sayer’s tall stature); its clumsy instruments, which aim for fashionable looks and fail at it, are similarly disappointing. But even when taking these failures into account, there’s no question that the XJ-S boasts an ambience of typically Jaguar-like, sophisticated cosiness, that should even be met with approval by the Harris Tweed faction.

By the beginning of the Nineties, the XJ-S turned into the XJS. In the process, it not only lost the hyphen, but also its art déco boot lid and the sweep of its sail panels. In return, it gained a galvanised bodyshell and a Knight Rider-style rear aspect. It was as though Connery had gone under the knife, in preparation for yet another return to the silver screen as double-oh-seven, this time with a tummy-tuck and a face-lift.

The XJ-S’ final overhaul was proof that there were limits to the amount of amendments even this car could take. By this point, the losses began to outweigh the gains. Eventually, enough was enough.

 

Recommended Reading: The ultimate history of the Jaguar XJ-S can be found at www.driventowrite.com

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Christopher Butt

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