Cover Model Material
Jaguar’s sublime Series I XJ6 steals any spotlight, in any company.
I may have been excited to peruse the February 1973 issue of Road & Track because my beloved BMW Bavaria graces the cover, but it shares that honor with two other cars, the slinky Jaguar XJ6 and the rather dowdy Mercedes-Benz 280, which R&T judged the best of the group. I’ll leave that on their consciences; it’s the Jaguar that’s placed front and center, and for good reason. That XJ6, the Series I version produced from 1969 to 1973, may just be the loveliest four-door car ever built.
Kevin Sturge owns the 1970 XJ6 seen here, an early U.S.-spec car and a ringer for the black car on the magazine cover, and was kind enough to let me bask in its loveliness for an afternoon. R&T gave the XJ6 top marks in styling, noting, “while the XJ’s styling is the sleekest of the lot, somehow the car still comes off looking more elegant than sporty except for its wide wheels and tires which give it an extremely roadworthy look.” To be sure, the Jaguar’s styling is much more elegant than the sternly functional Germans’, but I would argue that it also more convincingly telegraphs athleticism. The most distinctive feature of the Series I XJ is its tall, broad grille; the front end also hunkers low, giving the entire car a taut, tail-up, cat-ready-to-pounce stance—never has a car so convincingly channeled its namesake through styling.
Certainly the Series I is more sporty-looking than its successors, a comparison Road & Track had no way of making. Bumper height regulations imposed on the U.S. market for 1974 forced the restyling of the Series II model, squashing the imposing grille and giving the car a prominent chin of exposed bodywork under the raised bumper. Gone, too, was the stance, which helped meet the regulations but shifted the visual focus from sportiness to stateliness.
The interior also feels much more special than its competitors’. Road & Track praised the lavish use of leather and burled walnut, but criticized the instrumentation for excessive glare and for grouping minor gauges outside the driver’s line of sight, and complained of too many identical rocker switches controlling too many different functions. All fair points, although I would counter that if the instrumentation isn’t ideally laid out, it is at least much more complete than in either German sedan.
But really, it just oozes atmosphere. I was carried away by the distinctive, rich scent of the Connolly leather upholstery, running my fingers across the wool carpeting, enjoying my reflection in the lustrous walnut dashboard. Given the car’s low overall build, I was surprised that the seats were nearly chair-height affairs, affording excellent outward visibility at the cost of sufficient headroom, especially at the rear. My Bavaria has big headrests for rear passengers, but I discovered that the Jaguar has a rear headrest of a different sort: the header panel above the rear window was right where my head wanted to be.
My seat time in the XJ was limited, but I see where R&T came by its complaint that the shift lever for the Borg-Warner automatic is “a rather imprecise affair at best;” I approached the throttle gingerly at first because I couldn’t be sure whether I was in neutral, drive, or low. Once underway (after carefully counting the shift detents), however, the legendary DOHC XK inline six proved a smooth and docile companion, much less peaky than my BMW’s six, with a rich baritone rumble. Both the Jaguar and BMW originally came with dual Zenith carburetors, and both Kevin’s car and mine have had these replaced with Webers for improved drivability and ease of maintenance.
Speaking of maintenance, the XJ’s biggest Achilles heel, both when new and today, is its reputation for unreliability. Road & Track plumbed data from its owner surveys of similar, but not identical, BMW, Mercedes, and Jaguar models to give a reliability ranking in its comparison. While the average number of “problem areas” reported in these surveys for all cars was 11, R&T reported that Mercedes owners reported only three such areas, BMW owners seven, and Jaguar owners a troubling 14. To be sure, even in Kevin’s well-sorted car, engineering complexity can lead to headaches—not one but two fuel pumps (for the dual gas tanks), both running slightly rich on the day that we met up.
At this point, owning any 45-plus year-old-car is unlikely to be free of maintenance headaches—although any car that’s made it that long is likely to have been well maintained in general, and should have had many of the kinks worked out—and the Jaguar’s quirks may be worth it in light of its charms to an indulgent owner today, but I can see where subpar reliability would be a greater annoyance when these were new cars costing the equivalent of $50,000 and up in the 1970s.
Nevertheless, beauty is always made more intriguing by its flaws. The XJ6 is perfectly imperfect, perhaps the ultimate classic sport sedan, and definitely cover model material.
All my gratitude to the Jaguar Associate Group (JAG) club of the Bay Area for putting me in touch with Kevin Sturge, and to Kevin for sharing his exquisite XJ6 with me.