For those who labor in the public eye, few things are more difficult than being called upon to replace a legend. Who among us knows the player who replaced baseball’s renowned Babe Ruth? The same applies to automobiles. When the Jaguar XK-E debuted in 1961, the automotive world was effusive with praise. When its replacement, the XJ-S, was unveiled there was an embarrassing silence. Instead of a curvaceous two-seat sports car, on the display stand stood a large 2+2 grand touring car with controversial styling. But the XJ-S persevered, improved, and became Jaguar’s longest-running model.
The XJ-S: A new Jaguar for a new era
At the dawning of the 1970s, Jaguar had a rich sports car heritage harking back to the 1930s with the SS100, through the ‘40s and ‘50s with the XK-120, XK-140, and XK-150, and finally through the Swinging Sixties with the XK-E. As the word of a successor to the fabulous E-type spread, everyone’s imagination ran wild about a car they anticipated carrying on Jaguar’s sports car heritage. The debut of the XJ-S stunned the entire automotive world – almost no one knew what to think. It wasn’t a two-seat sports car; it didn’t resemble any Jaguar sports car of the past; and it had virtually no styling cues from the current Jaguar sedans. It seemed as if Jaguar had taken the V12 engine from the Series III XK-E, and tossed the rest of their sports car heritage into the trash can.
What was difficult for everyone to accept was that it was no longer the Swinging Sixties of the E-type. It was now the Regulated Seventies, where government mandates controlled safety requirements and set exhaust emission standards, requiring new engineering concepts that were incompatible with previous designs. As time marches on, at some point what was done in the past is no longer viable for the future – a point that Jaguar reached with the XJ-S. In order to meet new safety standards, the XJ-S became bigger and heavier than the E-type, and wasn’t even initially available as a roadster, for goodness sakes! How in the world was the stylish man- or woman-about-town supposed to impress the commoners driving an overweight, ungainly-looking coupe?
A new market and leadership for Jaguar
The truth of the matter was that Jaguar had raised the stakes and designed the XJ-S as a GT coupe to compete with the Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC, the Aston Martin DB6, and the Lamborghini Espada. The early seventies were a time of upheaval for Jaguar. The decision was made to abandon the sports car market, and set out for a more upscale and, hopefully, more lucrative market. Jaguar planned to make the XJ-S more refined to sell at a price that was significantly higher than the outgoing XK-E in order to make a decent profit, yet still have a price advantage over most of its rivals.
The decisions effecting the development of the XJ-S were made more complicated by ongoing turmoil in Jaguar’s leadership. Their noted designer Malcolm Sayer passed away in 1970, and founder and inspirational leader Sir William Lyons retired in 1972, leaving critical decisions to be made by British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC), which then controlled Jaguar. The problems with the XJ-S were not limited to the design. In the morass that was BLMC in the mid- to late-70s, labor strife, antiquated production facilities, and low product budgets produced Jaguar cars that were notoriously unreliable – and the XJ-S was no exception. Among other quality issues, the fuel-injected engine could not cope with summer heat, since the electronic ignition system was inexplicably mounted on the hottest part of the engine, with the embarrassing result that the engine would randomly cut out without warning.
XJ-S survives and thrives
The XJ-S was powered by the 5.3-liter V12 fuel-injected engine from the Series III XK-E and was initially available with a four-speed manual transmission or an optional automatic. Shortly after introduction, the automatic became the only transmission offered. To entice prospective buyers in the upscale performance market, the XJ-S came equipped with standard features such as power windows, power door locks, climate control, and full instrumentation. Included also were safety features like five mph bumpers, reinforced doors, and a relocated fuel tank.
Weighing about 3,900 pounds and almost 16 feet long, the XJ-S would never be described as ‘nimble’. However, the performance was competitive with class rivals with a 0 to 60 mph time of 7.6 seconds, or 8.6 seconds in U.S. trim, and a top speed of over 140 mph, thanks to the 285 horsepower (244 in the U.S.) under the hood. Despite appearing to the naked eye to be a bit large and cumbersome, the XJ-S actually had a lower drag coefficient than the XK-E. Designers credit the controversial “flying buttress” rear window design with improving the high-speed aerodynamics of the XJ-S.
First generation XJ-S sales started slowly in 1975 and peaked in 1977 at 3,890 cars. With the ongoing quality issues, sales rapidly declined to only 1,057 cars as the the 1980s dawned. Rumblings within BLMC called for the cancellation of the XJ-S. Fortunately for Jaguar, the British government saw fit to then privatize the British automobile industry, giving Jaguar the opportunity to attend to the production quality issues and acquire new business partners that would help turn the company around.
The XJ-S perseveres
The New York Yankees traded Babe Ruth, the legendary Bambino, to the Boston Braves before the 1935 baseball season and brought in George Selkirk as his full-time replacement. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy said of Selkirk replacing Ruth, “No player ever had a tougher assignment.” But Selkirk persevered and thrived, playing nine season for the Bronx Bombers, finishing with a career batting average of .290 and hitting 108 home runs. During his baseball days, Selkirk accumulated five World Series rings, made the All-Star team twice, and has the distinction of hitting a home run in his first World Series at bat.
Like George Selkirk, the XJ-S persevered and had a noteworthy career. It survived its initial poor reception and refused to surrender to BLMC’s mediocre management, while Jaguar managed to cure the quality issues along the way. Continuing through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, 115,413 XJ-S cars were sold before production ended in 1996. When the final sales figures were tallied up, the true XJ-S believers had their greatest satisfaction – their favorite car had outsold the E-type.
Ate Up with Motor – https://ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/jaguar-xjs-history/
Cooperstowners in Canada – https://cooperstownersincanada.com/2014/10/15/remembering-the-canadian-who-replaced-babe-ruth/
Jag Lovers Model Guide – http://www.jag-lovers.org/modern/mguides/jl0206.html
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaguar_XJS