XJS: from ugly duckling to swan

8w ago

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Nobody really likes surprises. We might say we do, but actually, when the chips are down, most of us would rather avoid the 'ta-ra' moment. It's better to know.

So imagine how each of the journalists felt who were called to British Leyland HQ in May 1975. They were there to witness the successor to the E-Type, arguably the most beautiful car of the last 15 years. They would have been tense, but excited. They were here to see the new car from Jaguar, designer of not just the E Type but some of the most desirable and stylish cars ever to grace British roads.

What they got was a surprise. The XJS. A car that, to some, looked like it had been designed by several different people, all of whom had started in different corners before meeting, for the first time, in the middle. It was long and low, in the finest Jaguar tradition, but it was also wide and squat, with strange trapezoidal headlamps and, perplexingly, buttresses across the rear deck. Cathedrals had buttresses. Not cars. And particularly not Jaguars.

The inside offered little respite. There wasn't any wood - which was fine, because E Types didn't have wood - but there was an awful lot of vinyl instead.

The journalists praised the car's V12 performance, its magic carpet ride and its unruffled Jaguar-ness. They were less enthusiastic about the detailing - that vinyl and the under-designed dashboard - and criticised the V12's thirst. This was, after all, the height of the fuel crisis. And neither they nor would-be buyers could quite get over the way it actually looked.

Jaguar worked very hard to sell the XJS, largely unsuccessfully. Initial production targets of around 100 cars per week were swiftly lowered to 40, but even those proved optimistic. It is easy to blame the fuel crisis, but rival Jensen was still selling thirsty Interceptors (it was the unreliable Jensen-Healey that brought that firm down). Instead the controversial looks, the lack of a convertible and Jaguar's burgeoning reputation for dodgy quality probably played their parts. By 1979, four years after the new car had been launched, sales were so slow that the firm seriously considered dropping it.

Luckily they didn't. The car got a reprieve and in the 1980s spearheaded Jaguar's overseas drive, gaining a more efficient version of the V12 engine - with marginally better fuel economy - as well as a drizzle of chrome and wood to please Jaguar traditionalists. A cabriolet and convertible version also arrived, together with a cheaper and more economical straight six variant.

It worked. 10 years on from the demise of the E Type, that car cast less of a shadow over the XJS. Buyers began to see it in a new light. It still looked awkward but now that felt distinctive rather than off-putting. By the mid 1980s Jaguar was selling 10,000 XJS' a year, ten times the volumes of the late 70s.

Yet its legacy as the 'ugly Jaguar' cast a longer shadow. After the XJS Jaguar chose to play it safe, following a 'heritage first' design philosophy for its saloons and sports cars right up until the new Millennium and the fresh-faced XF. The S-Type, X-Type, XK and a run of XJs all recycled common styling themes from Jaguar's illustrious history.

The XJS soldiered on until 1996, 21 years after its launch and 17 after it was nearly killed off. it may have outsold and lived longer than the E Type but even it remained a bit of an ugly duckling. Where E Type values continued to climb once production ended, XJS values drooped as badly as their headlinings. Until recently you could pick up a decent coupe for a few thousand pounds, a convertible for little more.

That is beginning to change. And with good reason. Because what the XJS lacks in E Type-standard looks it more than makes up for in driveability. Despite those early press misgivings, the XJS was never intended to replace the E Type. It was always meant to be a supremely competent mile-munching GT car. And it meets that challenge head on.

Few cars are as effortlessly driveable as the XJS. Thanks to its shortened XJ6 saloon car underpinnings, it smooths out even the roughest surfaces such that it simply glides along. Those borrowed bits also mean it handles well too, much better than its light steering and impressive weight suggest. The superlative V12 engine helps of course - it is effortlessly powerful but also near silent, delivering its performance with little drama. But the straight six 3.6 and 4 litre engines are equally impressive.

Today those looks seem less troublesome. Sure, it's not a drop-dead looker, like an E Type. But it does look distinctive.

In fact, there is a reasonable case to argue that the XJS is a better car than the E Type. The E Type's trump card, its beauty, can blind us to its shortcomings. It's too small to be a true GT car but too big to be a sports car. Its narrow track limits handling and the long bonnet limits passenger space.

None of which should be off-putting to the E Type enthusiast. You don't buy an E Type for its imperfections. But the XJS, unlike the E Type, was built to a specific brief - to be a great GT car. And it delivers on that promise entirely.

The XJS may have surprised those journalists back in 1975 but its evolution into a swan shouldn't surprise us. Depth and capability always shine through and the XJS has those in spades.

Buying a XJS

If you've caught our enthusiasm for the XJS you can read our Buyers Guide here.

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Graham Eason. Great Driving Days. 01527 893733

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