50 years of the Jaguar XJ

When Jaguar launched the original XJ in September 1968 it’s unlikely anyone involved in its design envisioned quite how long a shadow it would cast.  50 years on and Jaguar has only just shed the styling cues that the car established. That is a remarkable achievement and one repeated by few cars. Lets take a look at the XJ’s evolution and why it stayed the same for so long.

1. Series 1 XJ (1968-73)

The original XJ had a daunting task – to replace Jaguar’s disparate and confused range of saloon cars, which included the aging S-Type and vast Mark X.  A wholly new design, it proved a revelation – long and low like a sports car, smooth and refined like a luxury saloon.  It was justifiably lauded as the most beautiful saloon car in the world, with ride quality to rival a Rolls Royce.  With straight six and V12 engines, the XJ trounced the opposition in virtually every area – and was excellent value. This really was a new era for Browns Lane. The Series 1 sold well, but Jaguar’s merger with British Leyland proved its Achilles Heel.  As BL milked its luxury brands for profits to funds its ailing mass-market models, Jaguar quality – never that great in the first place – suffered significantly. 

Great Escape Cars’ experience: We really like the original Series 1 XJ at Great Escape Cars.  We’ve run a few 6 cylinder versions, including currently this lovely Daimler version.  They’ve proved reliable, durable and are utterly gorgeous to drive – like piloting a very nice sofa. 

2. Series 2 XJ (1973-79)

Minor tweaks to specification and a switch to a standard long wheelbase resulted in the Series 2 XJ – more luxurious and with a redesigned front end to suit US safety legislation. The Series 2 didn’t move the game on much, except to cement the car’s reputation for abysmal quality and reliability. Demand always outstripped supply, but that was more to do with production problems and strikes than the market. The Series 2 is notable for the arrival of the beautiful XJ coupe, a pillarless two-door built on the standard short XJ chassis that somehow managed to be even more attractive than the saloon.

Great Escape Cars experience: We’ve run coupe and saloon XJ6 Series 2 models.  The saloon doesn’t work as well for me as a LWB  – cramped up front you feel like you’re piloting a ceremonial limousine.  Our car, this low mileage Sable-over-avocado example, won our hearts but dug into our pockets.  The Coupe, meanwhile, is one of the few cars I wish I’d never sold. 

3. Series 3 XJ (1979-92)

Despite the success of the original XJ, its replacement (the XJ40) was continually put back due to lack of funds. This meant the car had to live on well beyond its natural life.  To achieve this Jaguar went to Pininfarina and created the Series 3, which with subtle tweaks to the roofline and bigger bumpers managed to haul the 11 year old design into the 1980s.  By then the only way to sell it was on the heritage ticket, a technique that worked particularly well in the USA where the residents at the time imagined Brits wandering around in top hats and smoking pipes. The Series 3 added more refinement, luxury and better quality to the XJ offer.  The six cylinder models soldiered on until 1987, the V12s until 1992.  Despite the creaking underpinnings, sales were healthy – the Series 3 was by far the most popular version of the original car.

Great Escape Cars’ experience: We ran an early, manual XJ6 Series 3 for a short while on our fleet. It proved problematic, mainly due to the injection system, and the manual gearbox really didn’t suit the car. It was also surprisingly spartan inside.  A well sorted, later (higher spec) XJ Series 3 would make a good classic choice.

4. XJ40 (1986-94)

Originally due for launch in the late 70s, the XJ40’s arrival was put back due to lack of money and the success of the Series 3. It was clearly intended to build on the style of the original car but with a smoother and more modern approach.  But by the time it arrived it didn’t look modern anymore – it just looked retro, so Jaguar dug in with the ‘heritage’ theme.  Beneath the retro looks was a fairly modern car with advanced electronics, excellent new engines and, Jaguar claimed, much improved quality.  The XJ was a decent car, but one hampered by those ambitious electronics (which failed – a lot) and terrible quality.  That it also borrowed much from the original XJ also proved its strength and weakness – the cabin was cramped and the boot shallow and impractical.  Only available as a six cylinder, the XJ40 struggled in America against home-grown V8s, which meant Jaguar had to keep building the V12 Series 3 alongside it.

5. X300 (1994-97)

When Ford took over at Jaguar they immediately identified the issues with the XJ.  Quality was improved and interiors modernised. This created the X300, which is essentially a XJ40 in a party frock.  This meant that the compromises inherent in the original XJ chassis – primarily a cramped, narrow driver area – were carried over.  And, 26 years on, the design was full of other shortcomings, including road noise, damping and ride.  The X300 was available as a six or 12 cylinder.  It was more reliable than the car it replaced but with five fuse boxes, the electrics remained a problem.  The supercharged XJR, however, signalled a future that wasn’t all walnut veneers and trips to the golf club. While not quite a match for the all-conquering BMW M5, the XJR was quick, looked good and brought back the high speed prowess that made Jaguar so successful in the 1960s.

Great Escape Cars’ experience: Our XJR, pictured here, alternated between a hire car and daily driver.  Good to look at and fantastically quick, it proved difficult to live with on a daily basis thanks to the harsh, tram-lining ride and sub-20 mpg consumption. I also found the driving position uncomfortable – the handbrake in particular is oddly placed.