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PANTHERA ONCA
2018-09-26 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

Panthera Onca

Fifty years since its unveiling, the Jaguar XJ6 remains without equal. 

 

The spirit of any marque of meaning ought to be found in its product. History, marketing and anecdote obviously come into play as well, but any car manufacturer of significance must have an automobile among its products that not just speaks for itself, but says it all. 

In Jaguar’s case, the company’s most famous product unquestionably was and always shall be the E-type. Yet that car, despite its countless qualities and immense popularity, is not the heart and soul of Jaguar. It is but a facet of the British company’s nature. Its essence, however, is the XJ saloon.

 

 

Due to its heroic stature as a sporting, competition or simply hedonistic device, the sports car in general always lends itself as the ideal canvas onto which automotive legends are painted. The saloon, what with its obvious catering to mundane needs through its four doors and inherent conservatism, does not invite the same kind of exaltation. However, the Jaguar XJ makes a good case for the saloon being just as worthy of iconography as any legendary sports car.

In order to understand the XJ, one must know that Sir William Lyons, Jaguar’s founder, managing director and chief stylist, did not carry any loose change with him. This was not an effect of some plutocratic braggart attitude, but due to Sir William’s reluctance to allow coins to deform his trademark tailor-made double-breasted suits. A penny pincher of the highest order in most areas, Sir William refused to make any more concessions than absolutely necessary when it came to matters of aesthetics - regardless of whether the fit of his suits or the shape of his automobiles was concerned. 

 

 

Lyons did not draw the cars he envisaged, neither did he build any scale models. Instead, he explained his ideas to his fabulous team of tinsmiths (most notably Fred Gardiner and Bob Blake), who then went and built life-size mock-ups, which were always painted black and, once finished, transported to the driveway of Sir William’s stately home, Wappenbury Hall, for inspection. Walking along each the mock-up, Sir William would observe the movement of light on the surfaces, judge the stance and muse about the coherence of it all. These findings he shared with his small gang of artisans, to be incorporated into the amendments that would be the subject of the next such Wappenbury Hall meeting.

This most peculiar procedure would have a startling effect on the XJ in particular. For the car started its life not as a sleek saloon, but a tentative response to the personal luxury cars that were all the rage in the US, which happened to be Jaguar’s most significant market. Yet over the course of quite a few of those Wappenbury Hall front yard meetings, the initial four-door E-type evolved into something else entirely.

 

 

Of course, the Jaguar XJ’s looks did not come out of the blue. Its rear haunch was clearly E-type influenced, whereas its front aspect was a modernised, more assertively proportioned take on the Mark 10 saloon’s snout. Yet Lyons’ most significant source of inspiration clearly was the Franco Scaglione designed Alfa Romeo Giulietta SS. The basic shape of that car’s sinuous rear, applied to the Jaguar’s body, ensured that the XJ’s back side turned out to be far more than a truncated E-type tail. However, the addition of more formal rear lamps the shape of gothic church windows ensured that, despite its obvious Italian influence, this Browns Lane saloon - like the best of Saville Row suits - ended up exuding a decidedly British sense of elegance.

 

 

The XJ is unquestionably more than the sum of its parts, yet some of these parts are of the utmost significance. There is, for example, the small canopy formed by the bonnet above the round headlights. This discreet protuberance certainly does not aid aerodynamics, but helps lending the Jaguar a forward-leaning frontal stance. Moreover, its partial covering of the headlights results in the XJ’s front possessing a slightly arrogant quality - albeit of the mischievous, bedroom eye Sean Connery kind, rather than evoking the stilted haughtiness of a Jacob Rees-Mogg. The startled look of the superficially similar X300 generation of the XJ unveiled in 1994 highlights the importance of what might otherwise appear like some minor detail.

 

 

Certainly not minor, but enormously important to the XJ’s magic is its overall stance. Even five decades since it was first shown to the public, the XJ exudes none of the (often charming) awkwardness that characterises so many cars that have become classics over the years. That sometimes fragile, sometimes boxy and almost always weedy classic car appearance, which the coveted E-type also features, is completely alien to the XJ, which looks delicate in a modern context, but also planted and assured. This is to some extent due to the still large (albeit rubber-heavy) dimensions of the wheels fitted to the Jaguar (originally bespoke tyres developed by Dunlop), but also a direct result of the saloon’s wide track width and the resultant unsurpassed track-to-greenhouse ratio. 

Like the cut of a suit Sir William would have preferred, back in his day, the XJ’s form never aged. Not just for aforementioned technical reasons, but also because it combined style with taste.

 

 

 

Particularly when Jaguar’s 5.3 litre V12 engine, which had been designed specifically for the XJ, is installed does the XJ take on the form of a Gesamtkunstwerk. For the smoothness of its ride and the effortless urge (almost devoid of any mechanical rumblings) of the engine form a beguilingly coherent whole with the Jaguar’s styling. 

The restrained flamboyance that all of Sir William’s finest creations exhibit is not just clearly in evidence on the XJ too, but reaches an altogether new level. Being more athletic and elegant than any of its saloon forebears, yet eschewing the E-type’s blunter aspects, the XJ must be considered the finest hour of Jaguar and Sir William Lyons. And one of the finest automobiles from Britain, or anywhere else.

 

 

If, at some point in the future, someone was to research what was fine about the automobile of the 20th century, the Jaguar XJ would serve as an appropriate subject. Not just for its qualities, but also because it highlights what has been lost since 1968. And because this outstanding motor car illustrates that it does matter if one cares about having loose change at hand. 

Fashion comes and goes. Good taste endures. 

 

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

 

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Christopher Butt

 

car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

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