Curbside Classic: 1984 Jaguar XJ6 Vanden Plas – The Cat That Saved Jaguar

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The best things in life come well aged, such as fine wine, classical music… and the Jaguar XJ6.  By the time this featured Jaguar was sold in 1984, the XJ6 had already been manufactured for 15 years, and still had three years left to go in its production run.  But what is amazing about the XJ6’s long life is that, while its 1970s-era reputation for poor quality brought Jaguar itself to the brink of doom, the XJ6 ultimately wound up being the product that rescued the company, in a remarkable turnaround both for the car and the firm itself.

Unlike some other cars with long production runs, the XJ6 was far from being fossilized in the past, and in fact sales generally increased throughout the 1980s.  This particular Jaguar is a Vanden Plas, the top-end Jaguar sedan sold in North America.  And the main reason why people bought this car in the 1980s is still fully evident today: a design that is beautiful, graceful and completely unique in a way that few other sedans have been able to match before or since.

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The XJ6 was first introduced in 1969 to replace the bulbous Mark X as well as the more compact 420 and S-Type sedans in Jaguar’s lineup.  In the 1960s, Jaguar offered numerous, overlapping, sedan models, a situation that the XJ6 resolved by superseding them all.  Jaguar’s founder, Sir William Lyons, then towards the end of his long career, led the design and engineering work on the XJ6, which ended up being the last car he designed.

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The XJ6’s lineage extends deep into Jaguar’s history.  Its 6-cylinder XK engine had been used in Jaguars since 1949, and much of the XJ6’s other mechanicals came from the 420.  In other words, it was a glorious example of parts bin engineering.

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Design-wise, the new car looked flowing and graceful, with unmistakable styling cues borrowed from other Jaguars. The end result was an elegant design and a smooth, quiet and luxurious ride.  But the XJ6 was plagued with one major problem: reliability.  Over the first decade of its life, the car developed a reputation as a finicky breakdown-waiting-to-happen.  Consequently, its market appeal was limited to somewhat eccentric buyers who were willing to make substantial sacrifices in order to drive such a stunningly beautiful car.

AD Series I and II

Jaguar XJ6 Series I (left) and Series II (right) advertisements

Early XJ6’s are now known as Series I cars, with updates occurring in 1974 with the introduction of the Series II, and in 1980 with the Series III.  Even though some of the early-on problems (such as chronic air conditioning maladies) were rectified, overall quality was still lacking by time the Series III arrived, and the cars had limited market appeal.  Poor sales led to the near-collapse of Jaguar itself – an outcome that was halted by the appointment of John Egan to be Chairman/CEO of Jaguar Cars in 1980 (he was knighted in 1986 due to his role in saving Jaguar).

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When Egan joined Jaguar, the XJ6 Series III has recently been introduced.  Changes for the Series III were partly cosmetic (grille, tail lights and door handles were redesigned), but there were some significant changes made as well.

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The roof, windshield, pillars and glass were redesigned in the Series III to provide more interior room.  In doing so, the XJ6 received a slightly more angular roof treatment, losing the last traces of the rounded, bulbous heritage of the 1960s-era cars.  The result of these modest changes helped the XJ6 look more modern, while still retaining every bit of its classic shape.

XJ6 Brochure Factory

XJ6 production at Jaguar’s Coventry factory

But as industry observers knew, if the reliability problem wasn’t addressed, none of this would matter, and Jaguar would go broke (the company sold under 14,000 cars worldwide in 1980).

Series III Sales

Source of sales information: “Standard Catalog of Jaguar, 1946-2005”

Egan tackled reliability immediately, mostly through unseen approaches such as confronting workforce/management issues, dealer service indifference, and (most importantly) pressuring his 1,500 parts suppliers to deliver better components.  His efforts paid off.  The Series III XJ6 quickly rose to be a viable contender in the luxury sedan marketplace, keeping the cherished Jaguar quality of British elegance, but in a way that was practical to mainstream buyers.  Sales bloomed, almost immediately, and amounted to one of the quickest corporate turnarounds in modern history.  In the US, XJ6 sales increased fivefold between the Series III’s first year of 1980, and this car’s year of 1984.

Jaguar Worldwide Sales

Source: Jaguar Cars, Ltd. via Chicago Tribune article

Egan knew that US sales were key to keeping Jaguar alive.  Jaguar estimated at the time that three-quarters of all people worldwide who could afford a Jaguar lived in the United States.  The company’s efforts to improve US sales worked quickly; between 1981 and 1982 alone, US sales more than doubled (up to 10,349 units for both the XJ6 and XJ-S coupe), and the US share of global Jaguar sales increased as well.

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One thing that changed very little at Jaguar in the early Egan years was the car itself.  Potential buyers often loved the car and the image it conveyed, but were frightened away by the drivability and reliability problems.

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Egan’s efforts therefore concentrated on fixing the unseen elements of the car – the electrical system, construction quality, paint quality, etc. – realizing that the XJ6 was already a proven winner in attracting attention; it just needed people to commit to buying it.

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Appreciating that the perception of quality was as important as quality itself, Jaguar increased its warranty period from 1-year to 3-years over the lifespan of the Series III.  Additionally, in 1985, Jaguar pioneered the practice of offering warranties on select used Jaguars sold through dealerships (a 1-year warranty); Jaguar and BMW were the only two manufacturers to do so in the mid-1980s.

XJ6 Brochure Trip Computer
While the XJ6 might have appeared like an older car at the time, Jaguar kept up-to-date on emerging trends in luxury cars, and appointed its cars accordingly.  For example, in 1983, Jaguar upgraded seats and the center console, and even introduced trip computers to XJ6’s (then still a novel concept).  All US market cars were equipped with power sunroofs, automatic climate control, and other luxury items deemed necessary in the 1980s luxury market.

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These Jaguars are not without their faults and quirks.  For example, some controls are in odd places, such as the cruise control switch located in the console to the rear of the transmission gear shift.  Where are the rear door power window switches?  At the back end of the front console, of course!  There’s no interior dome light, but instead other lights are tucked into odd places, like above the seatbelt anchors.

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Perhaps the most notable quirk is that the XJ6 has two unconnected chrome-capped gas tanks.  Refueling necessitates either dragging a fuel hose over the car’s trunk to reach the tank on the far side, or moving the car to another pump.  However, car buyers in general were somewhat forgiving 30 years ago, and those quirks were overlooked or accepted almost as quaint relics of the car’s long heritage.

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This 1984 model is powered by a 176-hp, 4.2-liter straight-six engine mated to a 3-speed automatic transmission – enough to glide the 4,000-lb. sedan to 60 mph in a relatively tranquil 12.3 seconds.  No one bought an XJ6 for its acceleration, and hard acceleration seems undignified for this car.  But once underway, the car is almost magically quiet, and rides comfortably yet handles responsively in just about any driving situation.

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This particular car is a Vanden Plas (named after a famed coachbuilder), differing from the standard XJ6 mostly in terms of interior appointments.  Vanden Plas sedans featured upgraded leather upholstery, burled, instead of grained, walnut trim (not just on the dashboard, but on the doors as well), and possibly the furriest floor mats ever offered on a car.

XJ6 Brochure Interior Comparison
The most significant change from the standard XJ6 was to the rear seat, which featured sculpted seating areas rather than a flat rear bench.  Rear passengers benefited from other luxury features as well, such as swiveling reading lamps.

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The 1984 Vanden Plas carried a list price of $34,200 – a $3,000 premium over the standard XJ6.  But the Jaguars were positioned advantageously in the marketplace, occupying a space between the mid-size and large offerings of both Mercedes-Benz and BMW.  Although the German sedans excelled in sophistication and ergonomics, and were generally more polished, nothing could beat the Jaguar’s panache.  Its strategic price point meant that it could easily poach customers from both the middle and higher ends of its competitors’ offerings.

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Jaguar realized that it had a modern classic on its hands, and was careful not to mess with success.  The Series III XJ6 received only the most modest updates over its 8 years in production, and casual observers would be challenged to distinguish between a 1980 and 1987 model.

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Change, of course, is inevitable, but can sometimes be delayed.  In Jaguar’s case, the XJ6’s replacement (known internally as the XJ40, but eventually marketed as an XJ6), initially slated for a 1985 introduction, was pushed back until 1988.  This postponement was in part due to development delays, but Jaguar was clearly not in a rush to replace its successful XJ6.

1989 XJ6 brochure
The XJ40 ultimately missed some of the XJ6’s main selling points.  Although Sir William Lyons once said of one of his earlier creations that “it costs no more to make it pretty,” Jaguar’s 1980s product managers seemed to have disagreed.  Though the XJ40 was a handsome car, it possessed little of the Series III’s charm.  Gone were the sensuous curves, the distinctive shape, some of the Series III’s reliability, and a few customers.  The XJ40 never could match the XJ6 in terms of sales.  Eventually, subsequent Jaguars recaptured some of the Series III’s flair, but even decades later, many enthusiasts still consider the mid-1980s XJ6 to epitomize the essence of Jaguar.

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Whether or not the Series III is the ultimate Jaguar sedan, this car has an enduring legacy: without this car, Jaguar as a company would have been unlikely to have survived the 1980s.  And that’s a remarkable leap for a cat that was born in 1969.