The Jaguar XJ Story
The news that Jaguar has decided to bin the proposed new electric XJ saloon brings to an end a dynasty of cars that spans seven decades. It was a car that arguably defined Jaguar in the post- E Type era from the early 70s to the present day. But how did it start and how did Jaguar keep it going?
Here’s the full story of the iconic Jaguar XJ saloon.
In The Beginning
In the early 1960s Jaguar was on a roll. The E Type was filling showrooms with younger customers and the Mk2 was making its, well, mark in a lucrative sector it had single-handedly created: the compact luxury sports saloon.
All should have been rosy. But it wasn’t. Jaguar’s factories were busy but it wasn’t making much money. The massive MkX was turning out to be less cash cow than hangman’s noose, draining cash in Jaguar’s lucrative American market. Despite its post-war drive for volume with the compact Mk1 and Mk2, Jaguar was still a small player in a big market.
Like all car companies, Jaguar needed new models to survive. Having successfully made over the Mk1 into the Mk2, the firm knew how to eke out value from old designs. In a bid to extend the life of the aging Mk2 and expand sales, Jaguar used the car’s basic design to spawn four different saloon car ranges, each aimed at a slightly different market niche. This helped sales but meant that by the mid 60s Jaguar’s range was complicated and confusing.
These new models were only ever meant to be a stopgap. What Jaguar needed was a brand new saloon. The successful launch of the E Type in 1961 meant that it inevitably became the starting point for development. This made commercial sense because everyone loved the E Type. These photos of an early two door E Type coupe show how Jaguar planned to evolve the design. There are clear precursors to the first Jaguar XJ.
Jaguar’s plan for its new saloon was simple. It would consolidate all of its saloon cars into one model that would be larger than the Mk2 but smaller than the gargantuan MkX.
Those plans were nearly scuppered in 1966 when British Motor Corporation, a congomerate consisting of Morris and Austin car companies, bought Pressed Steel, which made all of Jaguar’s car bodies. Overnight Jaguar risked losing access to a supplier that was critical to its survival.
Jaguar had little option but to merge with BMC, creating British Motor Holdings, the fore-runner of British Leyland. While this decision arguably saved Jaguar from oblivion, as we will see it also risked killing the firm and its new saloon by a thousand cuts.
The First XJ
The first Jaguar XJ (retrospectively known as the Series 1) was launched in 1968. Despite utilising relatively old technology in the form of the independent rear suspension from the MkX and front suspension from the 1955 Mk1, it was a revelation. Jaguar’s engineers had developed a car that rode like no other - smooth over rough surfaces and yet precise in corners.
It also looked amazing. Thanks to that E Type DNA it was low and long, curving in ways that executive saloons had never done before. It also went and handled quite well, although the light steering meant this was a world away from the Mk2's getaway car image.
The engines didn’t quite live up to the hype, being 2.8 and 4.2 litre versions of Jaguar’s now quite long in the tooth XK motor. They were also straight six, in an era when Americans - the car’s main market - wanted V8s. But that would be fixed - for now Jaguar had a car that drove better, rode better, was equipped better and cost less than the competition. And it had twin fuel tanks.
But why XJ? The unusual name, which has since become a byword for big executive saloon, actually stands for eXperimental Jaguar - the design team's code for the new car.
In 1972 Jaguar launched a long wheelbase version to address criticisms of rear seat space - particularly compared to the Mercedes S Class - and unveiled its ace: the superlative 5.3 litre V12 engine.
Until then only exotica like Ferraris and Lamborghinis had V12 engines. This was rarified stuff - in a mass produced executive car. Jaguar had deliberately eschewed a V8 because it wouldn’t deliver the smoothness they felt a Jaguar saloon ought to have. And it really was smooth - reportedly you could balance a coin on the engine while it was running.
The V12 was amazing. The extra legroom fixed the car’s only real weakness. The stage was surely set for world domination?
Series 2 XJ
A year after launching the V12, in autumn 1973, Jaguar facelifted the XJ and created what has become known as the Series 2. This car is mostly easily identified by the raised front bumper and redesigned grille. The engine line up remained broadly the same, but with the asthmatic 2.8 replaced with a 3.4 litre version of the XK engine.
On the inside Jaguar improved the heating and ventilation and dashboard lighting, but little else changed for the better. Unfortunately quite a lot of things changed for the worse.
With the XJ, in particular the improved Series 2, Jaguar had a world beater on its hands. There were waiting lists for cars. But there was a problem, a big one. Jaguars had always walked a fine line between quality and value. Under penny pinching British Leyland ownership, the line was less walked than regularly stumbled over.
In line with most other BL products - and, in their defence, most other British cars of the era - Series 2 XJs were catastrophically unreliable. The complicated V12 didn't help, but even the tried and tested six cylinder models suffered electrical gremlins, rust problems and the general disintegration of interiors.
It wasn't all doom and gloom. In 1975 Jaguar belatedly launched the beautiful - and short lived - two door XJC coupe, which featured complex pillarless side windows. Despite its obvious charm it was a car in search of a market, particularly when sold alongside the new XJS, and it quietly disappeared three years later.
Series 3 XJ
During the 1970s Jaguar worked hard on plans to replace the aging XJ with a brand new model. But, as with many BL projects of this time, there weren't enough funds to actually put it into production. So the car - which became the XJ40 - remained in development limbo.
To fill the yawning gap left by a brand new model, Jaguar turned to Pininfarina and commissioned a revamp of the XJ bodyshell. The result was the Series 3 of 1979, a clever restyle that retained the presence of the original but provided extra rear headroom and integrated modern impact bumpers into the design.
The new lease of life coincided with a change of management at Jaguar, which saw quality improve and sales follow suit. This didn't come without a few stumbles: early buyers of the new Series 3 were limited to the choice of colours they could buy - white or yellow - because these were the only paint finishes that the firm's brand new paint shop could reliably produce.
The Series 3 retained the same engines as the Series 2 but there was a concerted drive to push the car upmarket with posher interiors - translation: more wood veneer - and luxury Sovereign and Vanden Plas versions. Alongside these improvements Jaguar began to heavily push a 'heritage' message in its market, which helped explain why it was still selling a 1960s design in the 1980s.
The trick worked, with the Series 3 outselling the previous versions and surviving, in V12 form, into the 1990s.
In 1987 Jaguar finally unveiled the XJ replacement, a car that it had been working on since the early 1970s. The XJ40 was late to the party but aimed to move Jaguar's game on, if not visually - it looked a lot like a XJ - but technically. There were new six cylinder engines and, inside, a whole lot of tech, including that most 80s of fashion accessories - a digital dashboard.
The new car was the equal of the classic XJ, with a great ride, neat handling and a mean, low driving position. The XJ40 range was comprehensive, offering a mix of engines and trim to appeal to a wide audience. The car was distinctive in a crowded market - clearly a Jaguar but designed to compete with modern saloons from Mercedes and Audi.
But that emphasis on tech was ill-advised for a company seemingly only just mastering the art of building cars reliably. The XJ40 quickly gained a reputation for breaking down. And rusting. The car also seemed to lack the distinctive character of the earlier XJ - by recycling the basic idea of the XJ without creating something more beautiful, Jaguar seemed stuck in a rut.
The XJ40 may have been a car designed for the 70s and sold in the 80s but it proved successful. It remained in production until 1994 with 208,000 sold.
To suggest that the XJ40 went out of production in 1994 is slightly misleading. Thanks to, once again, a lack of funds, the basic XJ40 architecture in fact survived until 2003, spawning two 'new' models and ushering in a new era for Jaguar.
The first XJ40-based development was the X300 of 1994, which grafted a new front and rear onto the XJ40's centre section and underpinnings. The new car, developed quickly under Ford's ownership of Jaguar, returned some of the traditional XJ-isms to the car, including fluted bonnet with quad headlamps and a longer, curving tail. For many, the X300 is the most beautiful XJ saloon, surpassing even the original.
The X300 was little more than a XJ40 with a nose and bum job - inside the car was virtually identical to the XJ40 - but it worked. Buyers lapped up the rejuvenated car, particularly when it came alongside significant improvements in quality.
The introduction of a high performance XJR supercharged version returned Jaguar to the top of the fire breathing saloon league table, a place it had vacated ever since the Mk2 and the Mk2-based S Type 3.8 models went out of production. There had been a high performance TWR version of the XJ40 before, but it was a very limited run and expensive car that it barely registered with most buyers. The new car was also honed by TWR but available in showrooms alongside the bread and butter models.
The X300 was only every intended as a stepping stone to the proper revamp of the XJ saloon - the X308. Outwardly a X300 with redesigned bumpers, the X308 gained Jaguar's brand new 4 litre V8 engine, a first for the firm. This new motor was designed to reinvigorate the firm's car range in its crucial American market, where a smooth V8 was all but essential.
Aside from the new engine, little about the X308 changed over the X300. Inside the car got the interior that the X300 was always meant to have - but time and money prevented - a symphony of wood and leather that did a remarkable job of updating what was, by 1997, a very old design. The guiding principle of the new car was luxury - there was even a long wheelbase version aimed squarely at comatose captains of industry.
The supercharged XJR version of the X308 turned up the performance wick once again, the boosted motor pumping out 400 bhp. This tarmac burner was faster than a 911, yet smooth enough to transport a family in comfort to their weekend Cotswolds bolthole.
The X308 worked very well for Jaguar. It re-established the firm's presence in the saloon market, appealing firmly to traditional buyers of traditional Jaguar cars.
Flush with Ford money, Jaguar launched the all-new X350 XJ saloon in 2003. It was the first ground-up refresh of the XJ since the XJ40 of 1986 and featured advanced aluminium construction and air suspension to provide a relatively light, agile big car that rode just like a Jaguar should. It also gained new engines, including a six cylinder petrol and, for the first time in a Jaguar, a diesel option.
Good as it was technically and dynamically, the problem with the X350 was how it looked. In order to maintain its customer base, which insisted that a Jaguar look like a Jaguar - ie a classic XJ - the firm made over the familiar XJ shape once. And not entirely successfully - where previous Jaguars had been wide and low, in order to meet new safety regulations the X350 was tall and narrow. And the traditional styling, along with the lavish use of wood and leather, tended to detract from how innovative the engineering and construction was.
The X350 was facelifted in 2007 (X358), which eked out the design until 2009. But Jaguar knew it had messed up, creating a car that seemed to back the firm further into an blind alley, appealing to a smaller and smaller audience of traditional Jaguar buyers.
In 2010 Jaguar did perhaps the only thing it could do with the XJ: it entirely rethought how it looked. The X350 had shown that continuously recycling a very old design was a recipe for continuously appealing to an increasingly old and diminishing clientele. Jaguar needed more customers; those customers didn't want a car they perceived to be the preserve of old men.
The hints had been there in the 2007 XF, but Jaguar traditionalists were still shocked when the new XJ was unveiled. It looked nothing like a XJ 'should'.
In fact, it looked amazing. The new XJ looked nothing like a Jaguar and yet it looked exactly like a Jaguar - smooth, lithe, sumptuous and full of presence, it was a car that could only be a Jaguar. Inside the interior was completely rethought - there was lots of wood and leather but it sat alongside cleverly integrated technology, giving the sense of piloting a posh yacht rather than a large executive saloon.
The X351 was actually based on the previous X350 underpinnings, but so extensive was the redesigned that nobody guessed. There were supercharged R versions and long wheelbase models too. It became a staple of high end concierge firms as well as ministerial transport.
By the late Noughties, the XJ was becoming something of an anachronism. Rich people wanted tall cars, like Range Rovers, not long, low saloons. Jaguar continued to sell the XJ but was investing heavily in SUVs.
The Electric XJ
The rise of Tesla and changing legislation across the world convinced Jaguar that the future was electric. Since big saloons were the firm's bread and butter it made sense to base that future around a brand new electric XJ. And it seemed that the new car had a secure future, embodying how Jaguar saw itself under the electric revolution.
It wasn't to be. In early 2021, with the new XJ virtually production ready, the project was canned, seemingly in favour of developing more SUVs. The XJ's problem, it transpired, is that it would be based on a unique platform, one that could not be shared with any other car. That would make it expensive and unprofitable to build. In the cash-strapped world of COVID, expensive and unprofitable weren't appealing.
Jaguar has suggested that the XJ name will reappear, although perhaps not attached to a traditional saloon car. We hope it does. The XJ has been a distinctive part of the automotive landscape since 1968 and arguably one of the greatest saloon cars ever made - perhaps not once, but several times over.
Great Driving Days has run most versions of the XJ saloon on its fleet since we started hiring out classic cars in 2006. Our current fleet includes a X300 XJR and a X308 Jaguar Sovereign long wheelbase. You can find out more at www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk.