There are many car manufacturers which can be traced back to one individual’s vision and drive, and which then show through in the product. Names like Ford, Chrysler, Morris and Citroen come to mind. But few were as dominated as fully and successfully as Jaguar by Sir William Lyons. Describing the cars as succinctly may not be as easy, especially for the last one Lyons created himself, the Jaguar XJ6 and XJ12 and their Daimler equivalents.
The 1968 Jaguar XJ6 has to be considered as the zenith of the Sir William Lyons’s career as the founder and leader of Jaguar. It was the last Jaguar whose development Sir William Lyons personally directed; it used a six-cylinder engine that was originally designed immediately after the war for the XK120 sports car; that engine was manufactured using machine tools built for the manufacture of rifles in the Great War; its twelve-cylinder engine is considered to be one of the great engines of the last 50 years; it was the only new Jaguar (apart its direct derivative, the XJ-S) produced during the BMC/BL ownership of Jaguar (1966-1984); it replaced four different Jaguar saloons; and it was the first luxury car to win the Car of the Year (in 1969).
The creation of the XJ series was not managed without major challenges. Up until its release, the Jaguar saloon range was complex, with essentially four models (Mk 2, S-Type, 420 and 420G), two of which (the Mk 2 and 420) came in Daimler versions as well, of which the most modern (the 420G) was not the biggest seller, while the mechanicals of the others dated back to the 1950s. While Jaguar’s plan for the confused range of saloons was simple (use one car, in two wheelbases, to succeed them all), the cost to develop the forthcoming replacement, known within Jaguar at the time as XJ4, proved to be burden.
There was also a potentially bigger problem to address: in 1965, the supplier the company’s unit bodies–Pressed Steel Fisher–was purchased by BMC. Lyons, always an astute and shrewd businessman, could see that this would relegate Jaguar’s status and leverage within Pressed Steel–indeed in early 1966, Jaguar were advised Pressed Steel could not meet the required timescales for the XJ–and so agreed to a (generous) takeover offer from BMC in 1966.
Lyons struck a hard bargain–not only a good price and the slot of Deputy Chairman, but also an agreement that he would retain full control of Jaguar. Indeed, it was not until BMC had merged with Leyland and then been taken under government control in 1974 that Jaguar was run by anyone not closely associated with Lyons. Lyons may also have judged that his hand was stronger with the weak BMC than with the alternative: the financially stronger Leyland group.
Size wise, the new XJ6 was pitched pretty well in between the Mk 2 and the Mk X/420G–it was ten inches longer than the Mk 2 and twelve inches shorter than the Mk X; the wheelbase was 109 inches (Mk2 107, Mk X 120 inches) and width was 70 inches, between the Mk 2 and Mk X.
The new car was effectively a distillation of all the good things Jaguar had achieved in the previous twenty years–it used the XK engine again, initially in 2.8 and 4.2 litre configurations, with rear suspension was based on the Mk X, front suspension from the Mk 1 of 1955 and Girling disc brakes all around. Its classic styling, finessed by William Lyons himself, covered an interior with a full treatment of traditional English wood and leather, and the whole package was a stunning value to boot.
The design concept began as a four door saloon version of the E-Type, but you sense that Jaguar (or Lyons) judged this style was either not sufficiently original or not sufficiently timeless, or maybe not redolent of the earlier saloons. The four headlight style adopted was close to that the Mk X and the 420G. Overall, it was definitely Jaguar, and proved to be pretty timeless, which is just as well given the long life it had.
The XJ6 hit the British market in September 1968, followed a year later by the more expensive Daimler Sovereign version with minor trim differences only (badge engineering in Britain–we’ve heard that before!). The launch included TV advertisements featuring Sir William Lyons describing the car as “the finest Jaguar ever.” By the end of 1969, all the old Jaguar and Daimler saloons had gone.
In the UK, XJ6 ownership could start at £1797 for a 2.8 litre; a 4.2 litre automatic, the most popular model and the better of the 6 cylinder options, retailed for £2398. The Rover 3.5 litre with the ex-Buick cost £2174, the Mercedes-Benz 280SE was £3324, the BMW 2800 was £3245. Jaguar had clearly passed the value for money test, again.
Jaguar had something else lined up for the XJ6: the first V12 engined saloon since before the war and the only V12 outside the Italian supercars. Jaguar had been considering a V12, initially as a variant of the XK family since the 1950s and later as the lead engine in a new family of engines to replace the XK. It was large for Europe, at 5.3 litres and was originally expected to have a V8 derivative as well, at around 3.5 litres.
In 1972, Jaguar first showed the XJ12 and Daimler Double-Six (reviving an old Daimler name). Although the car and engine had always been designed for each other, unlike the V12 E type for example, the engine was still a very tight fit and great lengths had to be taken to keep everything cool–the battery had its own cooling fan, for example; the radiator fan spun at faster than the engine at low speeds; and additional valves fitted to the fuel system controlled vapour lock.
But, as the only mass produced V12 car in the world, it boasted superb levels of refinement, quietness, smoothness and ride comfort. The car was available in standard wheelbase and long wheelbase (four inches longer, all in the rear passenger area) versions. At this time also, the 2.8 litre version was replaced by a 3.4 litre version.
In 1974, largely to meet US Federal regulations, Jaguar revised the XJ with a raised front bumper and consequently smaller grille, with additional intakes below, and with revised switchgear and air conditioning systems. The short wheelbase version was also dropped. This car was the basis for the wonderful XJ-C 2 door coupe range, based on the short wheelbase platform, and arguably one of the best looking cars of the 1970s.
Being BL and the 1970s, the Jaguar XJ was plagued with two big issues–industrial strife and the consequent disruption to production, and appalling build quality, both of the car and the components within it. The list of disputes, usually about next to nothing and concerning a small group of the Jaguar or supplier workforce, goes on and on, and is too depressing to record here. The list of quality issues is just as cheerless–poor paint finish, fragile gear selector, fuel gauges (both tanks), leaking brake fluid, petrol pumps, strange electrical happenings, or the need to replace the engine at 22,000 miles. This was just one car, as recorded by the son of the owner.
The XJ-C lasted only four years (1975-1978), having made it to the market two years after it was first shown. Jaguar never really got the sealing of the doors for noise and water as right as you’d expect, and given the additional costs of manufacture and the clash with the XJ12-based XJ-S from 1976 on, the XJ-C was allowed to quietly retreat. It is guaranteed to get more attention at a car show than any XJ-S now, though.
In 1979, Jaguar teamed up with Pininfarina to create what may well have been the most elegant facelift ever recorded, the XJ6 and XJ 12 series 3. It doesn’t sound like a lot–a revised, more contemporary roofline, new lights, interior revisions, a five-speed manual gearbox for the six cylinder cars–but the end result is perhaps the best looking Jaguar saloon ever, and a true timeless icon. This is the car that Keith Thelen has designated the CC Project Car.
The production issues continued unabated, with the paint range being very limited, for example, as Jaguar worked to get the finish up to anything like a decent standard. Eventually, Jaguar took control of the Castle Bromwich, Birmingham factory that produced and painted the shells, which helped in various ways, including making Jaguar more self contained and preparing the business for sale by BL in 1984. The factory, by the way, was originally built to manufacture the Spitfire, not the Triumph but the Supermarine fighter plane!
Of course, a car like this was always to find life hard going in the early 1980s, with the air of economic difficulties and high fuel prices. A higher compression cylinder head on the V12 helped a bit, as did the strong dollar of the early 1980s.
The six-cylinder cars were superseded by the XJ40 range in 1986; the V12 endured until 1992 before the V12, now in 6.0 litre form, was squeezed into the XJ40. History has that was a difficult task because Jaguar had deliberately designed the XJ40 to be unable to accept a V8 engine, to stop BL forcing a Rover-Buick V8 onto Jaguar. Allegedly. The XJ40, like all other Jaguar XJ variants up to 2009, borrowed heavily on the original for styling guidance, particularly the series III, sometimes with mixed results.
I saw the featured Series 3 Daimler Double Six and Series 2 XJ6 at a small, informal classic car gathering in southwest France last summer, centred around British cars. The French may not buy many Jaguars, partly because of the tax implication of doing so, but they certainly like them.
The British motoring press has always had a soft spot for Jaguar, and still does. In 1969, Motor (now defunct) said: ‘Jaguar sets impressive new standards; a combination of performance, comfort, roadholding and quietness unrivalled at the price with very few faults,” and in 1968, Autocar raved, “Unbelievable value. The best there is… If Jaguar were to double the price of the XJ6 and bill it as the best car in the world, we would be right behind them.”
The one magazine which stood out from much of this underlying, unchallenging attitude to British car industry, and indeed much of the European industry, from the early 1960s onwards was CAR magazine. This magazine took a defiant stand against what it perceived to be lazy, profitable mediocrity (it continually beat up on the Cortina for example, and described the Volvo 144 as being a domestic appliance). On the XJ6 in 1968, CAR said ,“to my mind the Jaguar is not merely remarkable for what it is, but also because it makes redundant all cars that cost more. I can think of no car of which this can be as truthfully said.” When CAR said that, the enthusiasts’ ears were pricked.
In 1977, CAR picked the XJ12 as a clear best saloon car in the world, ahead of the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, Mercedes 450SEL (W116) and Cadillac Seville. Even against the 1980 Mercedses-Benz W126, it was judged to be an even match, with the Jaguar leading on style, comfort and refinement ahead of the Mercedes’s autobahn storming abilities and ABS. Well into the 1980s, CAR was tipping the XJ-S as a better car in many ways than the Porsche 928, and Mercedes Benz SL and S class coupes.
So, perhaps the easiest way to describe the XJ12 is to say that, for most of the 1970s and maybe longer, it was the best car in the world. As simple as that.