As the XJ6 reaches 50 years of age, Glen Waddington celebrates a car that is arguably not only the finest Jaguar but also the best saloon ever made
Words: Glenn Waddington. Photography: Matthew Howell.
Just a mile or so is all it takes for the driver to realise that the early XJ6 demonstrates all of Jaguar’s finest marque-defining qualities. There’s grace in the way it moves, slurring over imperfections in the road surface yet never leaving you feeling out of touch, and cornering keenly, with great balance, yet unafraid to lean on its supple, long-travel coil springs.
There’s grace in the styling too – indeed, so much grace. Is it only me who aches while drinking in the XJ6’s slender shape, dainty proportions and delicate detailing? It’s an all-time great, yet maybe over- familiarity had dulled our responses to it. This was a full-size luxury saloon – if one of a different stripe, importantly, and we’ll come back to that shortly – yet today it appears so compact, so lean and so low.
Even so, there is space aplenty. Not the bikes-on- roof, tents-in-boot, blended-family-inside kind of space that’s such a requirement these days, but the more civilised type of parents-and-kids-plus-luggage arrangement that used to suit most.
And there’s pace, of course. Forget the grindings of your typical late-1960s rep saloon as it struggles to attain the legal limit; here you’ve got seemingly endless soaring revs, with a redline set at 6000rpm, accompanied by the cultured snarling of Jaguar’s pure- bred and race-proven XK twin-cam straight-six.
It’s the kind of recipe that humbles such adversaries as... well, what? The Maserati Quattroporte? A touch rare-groove in comparison to this mass-produced masterpiece. Lagonda Rapide? Hardly. Rolls Shadow? Another great car, a rung or two up, certainly in price.
No, in 1968, you might have bought a Mercedes- Benz 280SE, though it would have been far, far pricier, in the UK at least. More in line with that Rolls. There was no BMW 7-series back then; the ‘New Six’ saloon arrived at a similar time to the XJ6 but didn’t cause nearly so many ripples in the saloon-car pond, and was nothing like as refined. And Audi? Didn’t they build funny two-stroke things? It took several generations of ‘the teacher’s Mercedes’ before luxury-car buyers accepted the V8 and subsequent A8. The XJ6 didn’t only define Jaguar. It invented a whole class of car: the sporting luxury saloon.
The car in our pictures is a 1970 XJ6 2.8. We might call it a ‘short-wheelbase’, only the slightly stretched version (4in let into the wheelbase to increase rear legroom to adult proportions) didn’t arrive until 1972. With its manual-plus-overdrive transmission, this is an early XJ6 in almost its purest form.
Why almost? Well, being a 1970 model it differs from the 1968 launch version in detail changes, such as relocated tail-light reflectors and black instrument bezels, which replaced the original chrome ones that proved distracting in sunlight.
And it looks gorgeous. In a world replete with exotic names for paint colours, Jaguar was remarkably restrained in naming this one Pale Blue. It seems to glow from within and couldn’t be more ‘period’. The contrasting interior (with Dark Blue leather seats) feels intimate yet enormously stylish.
As we cast out along the North York Moors, it feels entirely at ease on these sinuous roads, as if we’ve wound back the clock to suit the car. The view from behind that veneered dash, with its generous array of instruments and bank of rocker switches, puts you in mind of a warplane, while the swages and curves in the bonnet give you a sightline via which to concentrate. Combine the aesthetic with the snarling backing track and the whole effect is enormously evocative. This car oozes the kind of charisma that generates an emotional response from driver and passengers alike.
We need a destination in mind, and our plan is a fairly circular route that takes in some of Britain’s finest roads and scenery, via the North York Moors out to the coast that faces across the North Sea towards Europe, and back to base via the kind of dual-carriageway trunk roads that were the pre-eminent means of cross- country travel in the XJ’s early years. Quite a few miles to put on the odometer of this 2.8, and plenty of time (it’s the end of June) before the sun goes down so that we can truly understand its measure.
I ease the lever – plastic-topped, with a sliding switch for overdrive on third and top – into first gear, grow the revs and let out the smooth if slightly stiff clutch. For town duties you might prefer the slushy Borg-Warner auto. Building speed up onto the moors, the sweet and revvy nature of the short-stroke straight- six strikes you: it feels more modern than the numberplate would suggest and is wholly different in character from the torquier, long-stroke 4.2 that was the alternative.
In fact, had Jaguar had its way, the XJ would have been launched with a choice of two less-closely related engines: this 2.8 (possibly uprated to a 3.0-litre) and the 5.3-litre V12. The latter would ultimately make the XJ a truly world-class car on its introduction in 1972, while the smaller straight-six was good for the tax breaks offered in Europe. In the end, just weeks before the XJ6’s launch in 1968, Jaguar had to concede that the V12 wouldn’t be ready. And so the car went on sale with the straight-six in two sizes, the larger being the 4.2 familiar from the E-type and the XJ’s luxurious saloon car forebears, though not in triple-carb S-spec.
And what of those forebears? The XJ6 (actually developed under the XJ4 code name) was all about rationalisation. Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons was keenly aware of the market pressures building around him and, while cars such as the E-type had been a huge success, Jaguar was reliant on a diverse range that shared too few common parts.
The Mk2 saloon dated back to 1959 (and even, as the retrospectively named Mk1 from which it developed, to 1955). The Daimler 250 featured the Mk2 body with Daimler’s compact V8, while the S-type and 420 were developed from the Mk2, with E-type-style independent rear suspension and revised styling. There was also the vast and luxurious Mk10, revised to become the 420G, yet these were all cars that had their origins in the decade before the Swinging Sixties. Sales were in freefall. Jaguar needed something modern, something more exportable, something cheaper to produce.
By 1968, even the E-type – Jaguar’s newest car – was already seven years old, and enthusiasts of the marque were ready for something new, and possibly something radical. Radical? There’s little about the XJ6 that hadn’t been done before. But what was so astonishing was its combination of talents and the price that was charged for it. The XJ6 arrived with a tag from £1797 for the 2.8 to £2398 for the range- topping 4.2 automatic. Even the Rover P5B – launched only the year before – cost £2174, while German competitors weighed in at £3324 for the Mercedes- Benz 280SE and £3245 for the BMW 2800.
Sir William Lyons once said: ‘If you really want to credit me with anything I’m proud of, it’s that we’ve never fallen below a 50% export ratio.’ He was a modest man: Jaguar is a legendary marque for lots of reasons, yet he had steered it through challenging times. And those times were changing. In 1966, Jaguar had merged with BMC and Pressed Steel, in a move that would guarantee production tooling and greater investment, and by May 1968 there was a further merger that resulted in British Leyland.
Those other saloons gradually dropped away, and Jaguar began to formulate an E-type replacement based on the new XJ. Range rationalisation, platform-sharing and merger: Lyons was certainly a prescient thinker.
And his latest product arrived to a rapturous reception, whether or not it had done so with the range-topping engine intended for it. As Autocar wrote: ‘If Jaguar were to double the price of the XJ6 and bill it as the best car in the world, we would be right behind them. Dynamically, it has no equal regardless of price.’ And LJK Setright, writing for Car, said: ‘To my mind the Jaguar is not merely remarkable for what it is, but also because it makes redundant all cars that cost more.’
There was an instant 12-month waiting list and sales figures were back to where they had been at the beginning of the decade. If it hadn’t been for the industrial action that blighted the British motor industry during the 1970s (ultimately hobbling it for good), the tale would have been rosy for all the years that followed.
Still, none of that can take away Jaguar’s achievement with the XJ6. The best car in the world? In so many measurable and objective ways, yes. It rode with a comfort and silence that were alien to other cars of the day, save perhaps the Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, yet it also handled with the kind of balance that normally came only with a smaller, harsher sports car.
Jonathan Heynes, son of Jaguar’s technical director Bill Heynes, was an apprentice development engineer on the XJ6 project. ‘I worked MWK 28G up into a press car, and it was probably the best of them. In June or July 1968, just a few weeks before the XJ6 was launched, I drove the still-camouflaged 28G out to Le Mans to meet the journalist Michael Sedgwick, who was borrowing it for a magazine feature. A weld on the exhaust downpipe fractured and we had to get it brazed-up locally – it wasn’t a big deal but typical of the problems we had to deal with on the hoof. We were such a small team, it’s amazing how well the car worked out! It really didn’t give a lot of trouble.’
So much effort had gone into getting the XJ6 right from the off. Yes, the independent suspension was, in concept, the same that had been in operation for years with the E-type, S-type and Mk10, and the XK twin- cams were well-proven since their introduction in 1948. Bob Knight, Jaguar’s chief engineer, led a team that painstakingly worked through every aspect of the XJ6’s running gear that could cause noise or permit vibration and eliminated every single possible source. Suspension mounts, engine mounts, the thickness of anti-roll bars, tyre size (on radials, rather than comfort- orientated crossplies), the route of the exhaust pipe, all came under scrutiny during a development programme that was granted grace of a year or two as production tooling couldn’t be made available any sooner.
And boy, did it work. Those words written by road- testers in the late 1960s still hold true. The XJ6 is a breathtakingly refined car. It rides with an uncommon suppleness, not merely softness, as every movement of wheels and body is kept in deft control by exquisitely judged damping. The steering, often criticised for being over-light, is also quick, accurate and perhaps less unusual in its weighting in today’s world of dead-feeling electric systems. And the engine, capable of a claimed 180bhp, feels so zingy and surprisingly potent in such a large car. Its 0-60mph time of 11 seconds and 117mph potential don’t tell the whole tale: no hot rod but I’m sure Rolls-Royce would describe its performance as ‘adequate’.
These days, it’s quite a clever choice. The 4.2 was far more numerous (only 22,555 of the 98,227 Series 1s of all types made were 2.8s; there were just 4113 XJ12s) yet many of the better survivors seem to be of the 2.8, possibly because they’ve been overlooked in the past by people who sought greater performance and gradually wore out the supply of original 4.2s.
Values have certainly risen, too. This 2.8 is for sale at a smidge below £20,000, which is towards the top end of straight-six Series 1 values. You might pay, say, £5000 more for an XJ12, and there’s happy hunting for less among the subsequent (1973-79) Series 2, or the final-flurry (1979-92) Series 3. It was a remarkable career that survived even the replacement XJ40 in 1986, as it hadn’t been engineered for the V12 so there was still a trickle of XJ12s and Daimler Double Sixes leaving Browns Lane.
Mind you, there were problems with early 2.8s. ‘I was in Bob Knight’s experimental department and we started hearing about problems with 2.8 pistons on the Continent,’ says Jonathan Heynes. ‘I was sent to the Jaguar dealer in Lisbon in July 1969 with a set of new pistons in my luggage, and I brought a failed set back to [XK engine designer] Walter Hassan. From memory, we had not had piston failure on the experimental test cars nor on the press cars, which were driven hard.’
The investigation took priority, as development engineer Frank Philpott recalls. ‘The 1969 2.8 cylinder heads had a locating dowel deleted in error during assembly, which resulted in slight misalignment with the bores. This resulted in piston tolerances closing and some piston noise. Production pistons were modified by reducing the top wedge angle. This slight modification, which was not bench-tested, in turn compounded a very high exhaust valve temperature, which deposited a fine-grain magnetic chrome ferritic particle on the piston surface. During combustion, this could cause pre-ignition and excessive localised heat spots, which would melt the ferritic deposits and could blow a hole in the piston. We did not have this problem on the larger engines as the extra swept area allowed increased piston cooling.’
The problem took time to replicate and control. Says Heynes: ‘We were a small team but we were the people who’d developed the car, so who better to fix it!’
You can leave those thoughts behind, these days, however. We roll down the coast road, with enough power in command to overtake the buses that would impede our progress as they struggle on the uphill stretches. An extension of the right foot and a quick flick out of overdrive is all it takes. The road surface passes unnoticed beneath and wind noise is well- controlled, the XJ slipping along without the fussiness you’d expect of a 1960s saloon – German opposition always seemed so much less refined by comparison. If Jaguar has definitive brand values, they were all exhibited to perfection here: strong performance, quietness, sporting handling and a comfortable ride.
It’s not an easy combination to manage, and it has taken rivals such as Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW most of the intervening time to get right. It could be argued that they have always traded more heavily on build quality, and it’s fair to say that much went wrong here for Jaguar in the 1970s. Yet there seem no such issues with this early car. It feels solidly hewn, suffers no rattles or vibrations, pulls up straight, and all the switchgear works as intended.
It has ambience on its side too, though it’s little more than a veneer. Leather faces the seats but what looks like hide elsewhere is artificial. There are slim wooden cappings along the doors, and what looks like a slab of wood across the facia (at least it isn’t plastic). What was important was that you felt as though you were just one rung below a Rolls-Royce when, on price, you were merely a step-up from a top-end Ford. And it still gives you a warm feeling. Clever, that Lyons chap.
We glimpse the sea and head back to base via a last odyssey over the moors. The light is changing as the day fades, yet the Jag’s spirit remains as strong as when we’d set off. And it has instilled confidence. Well over 100 miles have passed beneath its wheels and it has never been less than comfortable or brisk. Even tight parking manoeuvres are a doddle, thanks to that power steering. Only my clutch foot feels like it’s had a work- out, though that’s mainly due to the stop/start nature of carrying out a photo shoot.
One final blast into the sunset, and it’s here the 2.8 makes most sense. It might be the baby of the XJ6 range but it’s also the most sporting. Not because it’s the fastest but because it engages you in a particular way. It isn’t heavy by today’s standards and, possibly because of that, it reminds me of the Mk2, a car you could grab by the neck and thrash along the right road.
You can really wind out that junior twin-cam, the sizzle of its combustion and the burble of its exhaust overcoming any mechanical thresh, and in doing so you’ll enjoy the way it hauls against the gears: power peaks on the redline at 6000rpm; torque reaches its crescendo at a high-ish 3750rpm, both of which are rather modern characteristics. If you thought XJ6s were all about wafting along, try one of these. It really suits its manual transmission.
It feels neat and compact through tight corners too, where you can exploit its slender dimensions and enjoy the balance of its chassis. Suspension that works hard to shield you from road shock does an equally splendid job of keeping everything neat. Many a time Colin Chapman has been lauded for his genius when it comes to designing suspension. Similar praise is earned here.
A car that entertains like a Mk2? Must be a sports saloon. Yet it soothes in a way only the absolute best limos manage. That really is unusual. But it’s all in a day’s work for the best car Jaguar ever made. Possibly the best car Britain ever made. And it’s certainly a contender for best car in the world. Always was.
1970 Jaguar XJ6 2.8
Engine 2792cc straight-six, DOHC, twin SU carburettors Power 180bhp @ 6000rpm Torque 182lb ft @ 3750rpm Transmission Four-speed manual plus overdrive, rear-wheel drive Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: fixed- length driveshafts, lower links, radius arms, paired coil springs and telescopic dampers Brakes Discs Weight 1537kg Top speed 117mph 0-60mph 11sec
Thanks to Classic and Sportscar Centre, where this XJ6 is for sale, www.classicandsportscar.ltd.uk.