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A brief history of the Jaguar XJS

With the Jaguar XJS celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, we took a look back at this iconic car’s somewhat turbulent history.

In a league of its own

Design plans for the XJS got underway in 1965, with the first production car being sold in 1975. The car was primarily designed by Malcolm Sayer, with input and control from Sir William Lyons. With Jaguar struggling financially at the time, the XJS needed to be a big success.

The highly anticipated XJS was seen by many as a direct replacement to the very popular E-Type. However, when the XJS was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1976, it was clear that the car was intended to be in a league of its own.

Externally, the XJS is most noticeable for its ‘flying buttresses’, sweeping from the top of the rear roofline down to the rear of the wings. Although initially widely criticised, this design gave the XJS an excellent drag coefficient – better than the E-Type, and allowing the XJS to reach speeds of comfortably over 150mph.

Original XJS launch poster

Original XJS launch poster

The XJS meets its critics

First impressions weren’t great, as the XJS’s design shocked many show goers and journalists, who voiced their dissatisfaction at the car’s ‘unusual’ appearance. Many believed the car embodied everything that was wrong with seventies car design. Gone were the E-Type’s curves, replaced by a more rectangular frame.

Motor Magazine summed up mixed reviews of the XJS in 1976, pondering whether the car was “a tank or a supercar”. The magazine went on to answer its own question, stating: “A bit of both. It’s large, heavy, thirsty and cramped in the back. It’s also superbly engineered, sensationally quick, very refined and magnificent to drive – a combination of qualities that no other car we’ve driven can match at that price”.

Jaguar very much believed that the days of the two-seater sports car were over, and built the XJS to compete with luxury vehicles, such as the Aston Martin DBS, Jenson Interceptor and Mercedes SL. These rival carmakers had already successfully proved that creating a Grand Tourer was a way of moving into a lucrative global market – something that Jaguar longed for.

Financial woes and Jaguar’s saviour

Initial sales were slow, with just 1245 units produced in 1975. In 1974 things took a turn for the worse, as sales began to trail off dramatically and just 1057 cars were sold. Jaguar bosses held a crisis summit to review the car’s future, and decided whether to drop the model from its line-up for good. Thankfully for the XJS, a saviour was found in the form of John Egan, Jaguar’s newly appointed manager, who earned the company, and the car, a stay of execution.

Egan led a major drive to improve build quality, performance and boost the public perception of the car. These improvements were a huge success, and within three years production was up by 400% while the company turned a loss of £47.3 million into a profit of £50 million.

John Egan and Sir William Lyons

John Egan and Sir William Lyons

The XJS sent out a strong message to its competitors: Jaguar was serious about expanding its range, serious about modernising, and serious about making cars. The car maker continued developing its GT and a sports handling pack for the 3.6-litre engine went on sale in 1987, followed by a full convertible in 1988. The XJS had helped turned Jaguar around.

By no means an easy ride

Throughout its life course, the Jaguar XJS experienced many changes, both internally and externally, as summarised below:

  • 1975 – The XJS GT Coupé V12 5.3-litre was unveiled to the public costing £8,900 with rubber bumpers and an alloy or black interior.
  • 1981 – The High Efficiency (HE) model goes on sale with chrome bumpers, interior veneer and chrome surrounds to the rear light. Fuel consumption was improved by 20% as a result of a modified cylinder head design and a better ignition system.
  • 1983 – 3.6-litre Coupé and Cabriolet launched as Jaguar goes on major product offensive to fight closure.
  • 1991-1993 – Facelifted XJS introduced and the V12 evolves from 5.3 to six litres while engineers also work to increase the 3.6 to a four-litre unit.
1991 XJS 5.3 V12 in metallic blue

1991 XJS 5.3 V12 in metallic blue

Arguably, the history of the XJS mirrors the history of Jaguar itself. From the outside it looked like business as usual, but under the skin constant revisions were being made. Both Jaguar and the XJS had to adapt if they were to survive.

Modern day investment potential

Throughout its life, the XJS was a car that confounded critics but won over enthusiasts and succeeded in returning its investment to the company. Considered by many as an unworthy successor to the E-Type, it proved its worth by achieving a longer production run and outselling its predecessor by 43,000 cars.

The XJS has arguably become more desirable than ever before, and even at 40 its price continues to rise. Autocar & Motor hit the nail on the head when it said: “The XJS has suddenly become very completed, very desirable and more of a driver’s car than ever before”.

If you would like to experience the pleasure of driving an exquisite XJS for yourself, get in touch with KWE Cars – the classic car restoration experts. For more information call us on +44 (0)1635 30030, ‘like’ us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

9:02 am KWE Cars


  1. Robin Hibbert-
    May 13, 2015 at 10:04 am

    I am the second longterm owner of a1970 model year XJS V12 HE; chassis number: * SAJJNAEW4BC10648*;
    which is a lhd car built for and exported to Germany where it was used by a young Saudi Arabian university student.

    After completion of his studies the young student had driven the car back to Jeddah.
    I purchased the car in Jeddah where I was working for my USA based employer.
    When I purchased the car it was an overdue for service runner which I had serviced at a very efficient Japanise run local garage.

    Having already owned several similar and older aged now “classic” cars I was immediately motivated towards taking out the manual gearbox which I myself replaced with a German “Gatrag” 5 speed box and clutch.

    At the end of my assignment I shipped the car back to Antwerp which was my home base. My wife and I did some touring in the XJS in UK, Holland Germany and Switzerland and then shipped the car to SW Spain where it has been in dry storage since.

    I am now in retirement and am planning to retire to Belgium complete with XJS.

    For some unknown reason, when I first purchases the car it had no spare and the ever efficient Japanise garage simply fitted a suitable pressed steel rim and correctly sized non Avon tyre.

    Can you provide a correct alloy spare rim and Avon tyre?

    In anticipation I am, yours sincerely Robin Hibbert

  2. Robin Hibbert-
    May 13, 2015 at 10:14 am

    XJS HE 1970 Chassis number *SAJJNAEW4BC10648.
    Can you supply me with the correct rim and tyre as my car did not have a spare wheel so I used a correctly sized pressed steel rim.
    Sincerely Robin Hibbert

  3. Chris Knowles-
    May 13, 2015 at 11:58 am

    Hi Robin,
    I’m afraid we don’t sell spare parts, but in any case we don’t have any spare wheels for an XJS of that age – I expect it was a ‘Kent’ alloy.

  4. J.P. Summers-
    September 23, 2015 at 11:05 pm

    I have owned a 1985 XJS 3.6 Coupe for 18 years (72000mi.) The Gatrag Trans. is leaking from the rear due to a failed rear bearing. I works wonderfully well except oil is blowing out the rear and on to the inboard brakes.
    I live in Atlanta, Georgia USA. I can find no one to repair this transmission. There are almost no 3.6 cars in the U.S. Most Jag. dealers today have never seen one. Can you repair this gear box?
    If so what would be the time frame once you had the transmission?
    Also do you have any idea what it weighs so I can check with UPS to see what shipping would be. Any advise would be appreciated.
    Thanks in Advance,
    J.P. Summers

  5. Chris Knowles-
    October 6, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    Hi, yes we can get these gearboxes repaired in the UK. Could you please contact me at chris.knowles@kwecars.com and I can give you fuller information. Rgds, Chris

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