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Stephen Bayley on the new design mantra transforming Jaguar

Published: 21 May 2010

XJ is ‘Experimental Jaguar’, a programme launched in 1964 which resulted in the 1968 car that was routinely described as the-most-beautiful-saloon-in-the-world. Indeed, it was so successful an experiment that the imaginations of those charged with designing its successor were hobbled: when the outgoing XJ was launched in Paris there were gasps from the crowd. 

And they were not gasps of delight. The tank of ideas was dry. True, the definition of great design is that it can evolve, but that’s not the same as slavish repetition of architecture, proportions and details. At about the same time M&C Saatchi adman Bill Muirhead told me with Australian bluntness: ‘The brand’s fucked.’ He was bitter at not winning the Jaguar account, but there was an essential truth in his criticism. 

That’s now happily changed, but the new XJ is another experiment.  In brand re-building terms, its responsibilities are enormous.  Is the design strong enough to bear them?  I think very possibly ‘yes’.  The original XJ had a languid feline delicacy and a bold glasshouse with thin pillars, the last opportunity to do such a thing before safety legislation forever changed the assumptions about the metal-to-glass ratios in a car’s appearance.

The new car is a superb piece of automobile sculpture:  it is imposing and subtle at the same time.  This is a shape created by designers who understand the science of form.  Strength is powerfully suggested by well managed radii; the designers have studied and understood the calculus of how light falls on bodies. Jewellery, the designer term for lights and other bright details, has just the right amount of aggressive flare. It’s as if a beautiful woman was giving a very slight twitch of a snarl.

My reservations are sociological rather than artistic. The realities which sustained the Jaguar idea are now a thing of the past. The twinkly Terry Thomas type has gone the way of his camel-hair coat. This new XJ is certainly a bold re-statement of the historic Jaguar proposition: physical elegance with just a whiff of raffish menace. I just wonder whether that proposition is not now itself history. Meanwhile, what a beautiful car.

 


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By Stephen Bayley

Design critic, guru, cultural watchdog, occasional annoyer of Ron Dennis

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