Coventrys’ fantastic GT Early and late XJ-S compared. After a day spent touring middle England in a pair of XJ-Ss, Richard Heseltine falls for the charms of Jaguar’s off-maligned bargain GT. Photography Tony Baker.
Coming Of Age Jaguar’s biggest bargain Driving the sublime XJ-S. We revisit Jaguars grandest tourer, the much-maligned XJ-S
We came to mock and stayed to marvel. Sucked into Coventry’s urban sprawl and exhaled onto the road to Damascus (strictly speaking, somewhere in the Cotswolds), the heart counters the head and a long-nurtured aversion to the Jaguar XJ-S melts away. The sullen months of winter have made way for a crisp spring morning and, as sunlight glints off the golden-hued acreage of bonnet, suddenly it all makes sense. This 40-year-old coupe is a good car. Maybe not a great one, but it’s infinitely better than preconceptions and prejudices might have you believe. It recalibrates how you feel, and for the better. But, as one of our party breathlessly enthuses at our first stop: “You should drive the other one. It’s brilliant.”
We realise that this may not be news to some of you. It’s just that the XJ-S has historically suffered in comparison with the car that preceded it – the immortal E-type. As such, it was always on to a loser even if it was envisioned as a mile-eating GT rather than an out-and-out sports car. And let’s not forget the styling, which in period was slated by some amateur design critics. Professional ones, too. Throw in so-so build quality’, worse reliability and hellacious thirst, and it’s no great surprise that the model’s credibility was dented.
The thing is, the XJ-S outlived its natural lifespan several times over. That, and its pariah status. It became popular with age. It’s just that some of us didn’t notice, or chose not to. Whatever, it was quite a journey for a car that was conceived before Jaguar lost its independence, emerged blinking into the light as British Leyland threatened to implode and was reborn after being freed from the shackles of state ownership. It went on to thrive under Ford’s protective cloak and remained in production for two decades. That’s a fine innings, not least for a car that appeared to be heading for the embalming table in the early ’80s, when production scarcely reached four figures in a single year.
Replacing the E-type was always going to be a tough gig, but aerodynamicist-cum-chief stylist Malcolm Sayer began working on a concept as far back as 1966. Shortly thereafter, however, there was talk of Jaguar producing as many as four different ‘sporting’ cars, one of which would have featured a 3 ½ -litre V8. At one point, there was even a proposal for a mid-engined car, complete with ultra-long rear buttresses, but none of these schemes amounted to much. Instead, Sayer and his team headed in a different direction entirely.
Sadly, Sayer died in 1970, two years after Jaguar’s absorption into what became BLMC (later British Leyland), the definitive outline being completed in his absence. With the suits squabbling with each other, and increasing interference from the new paymaster, it is little wonder that what emerged as the XJ-S at the ’1975 Frankfurt Motor Show was compromised.
Borrowing much of its foundations from the XJ-series saloon, powering this brave new world was a 285bhp fuel-injected V12 that was initially offered with manual or automatic transmission. The four-speed ’box was disadvantaged by its lack of an overdrive at a time when most of its contemporaries had five-speed units, and this option was quietly dropped in 1979. Just 352 XJ-Ss were so equipped, although the British motoring media for the most part evaluated manual cars during the initial flurry of road tests. Autocar recorded a top speed of 153mph and a 0-60mph time of 6.9 secs.
Not that the all-important Stateside market was ready to take the XJ-S to its bosom just yet. For starters, the federalised V12 produced 41 fewer horses, which, according to Road & Track, meant that 0-60mph took 8.6 secs. That was at best average for the period. The real issues, however, were poor build quality and worse reliability. For starters, the V12 powerplant had a narrow operating window. It really didn’t like heat, which was a problem if you lived in, say, Arizona. In time, it wasn’t uncommon to see Chevrolet V8 conversions being advertised in America’s specialist press.
Amid crippling industrial unrest and upheaval at the top, Michael Edwardes was parachuted in to try to right the ship. And then salvation: Edwardes’ appointee John Egan persuaded all parties – including suppliers – to raise their game. It was make or break time.
What really helped turn around the XJ-S’ flagging fortunes, though, was the new Michael May-designed, freer-flowing cylinder head, which lent the V12 greater refinement. The XJ-S HE (High Efficiency) also featured a higher rear-axle ratio, suspension tweaks and wider wheels. The interior was given a makeover, with all-leather trim and timber where previously there had been none. Launched in May 1981, this new strain won over the press and public alike to the point that, in 1982, production was double that of the previous year.
Jaguar had rediscovered its mojo, a 3.6-litre six-cylinder engine being added to the line-up in 1983 with the arrival of the new roll-hooped Cabriolet. This was in turn replaced by a full convertible in 1988 (seven years after Lynx Motors first sliced the roof off an XJ-S). There was even a race programme, Tom Walkinshaw fielding Jaguars in the European Touring Car Championship from 1982, the Scot claiming the drivers’ title two years later.
Jaguar was privatised in 1984 and five years after that, more than a decade after the XJ-S first broke cover, the model enjoyed its best-ever year with sales of 11,207 cars. In November ’89, Ford acquired Jaguar and the Blue Oval went on to invest millions in improving the XJ-S, with the Geoff Lawson-masterminded restyle emerging in May ’1991. And when the curtain finally descended in April ’96, production of all types amounted to a remarkable 115,413 units.
The blue car pictured here was the final XJS (no hyphen from 1990) to roll off the Browns Lane assembly line. While ostensibly an evolution of the ’1975 Earls Court Motor Show car alongside, it looks infinitely more youthful. Indeed, at one point during our photoshoot, an onlooker identified the gold car from 10 paces away but didn’t realise its sibling was a Jaguar despite them sharing the same basic outline. Maybe he didn’t have his lenses in. Who knows? What is clear is that the XJ-S has aged well.
For all the brickbats levelled at the car when it was revealed in Germany 40 years ago, the styling doesn’t appear controversial now. Sure, the chunk)’ buttresses, long overhangs and plastic bumpers don’t do it any favours, but it instantly conjures images of 1970s glamour as viewed through a soft-focus lens. It’s hard not to envisage Ian Ogilvy see-sawing at the wheel of his white XJ-S (in a straight line) as he rights wrongs in Return of the Saint, or Gareth Hunt fish tailing his red example in pursuit of assassins in The New Avengers. The later car, in contrast, looks more cohesive, the rear end being particularly accomplished. That said, it doesn’t so much evoke images of international men of mystery as Pringle-clad golfing types.
Stoop to enter the ’1975 car and you are rewarded with leather and vinyl upholstery, rocker switches, groovy vertically calibrated instruments and no fewer than 19 warning lights. Those, and an ugly steering wheel with a huge central ‘impact face’. It is clearly a car of its time, and not a particularly spacious one at that. The younger version, in comparison, couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in both looks and feel. Sure, it has the same lack of headroom, and the same blind spots for that matter, but the extensive use of burr walnut and leather lends it the ‘Ye Olde Gentleman’s Express’ reference points once expected of a Jaguar.
The two cars could not be more different to drive, either. The gold XJ-S is barely audible at idle. You wouldn’t expect it to be otherwise. As is so often the way when a photographer is on point, our ‘grand tour’ of the Cotswolds entailed driving on motorways, B-roads, rutted country roads and gnarly farm tracks. It wasn’t fazed, the all-round independent suspension offering a reasonable compromise because it cushions most dips, bumps and ruts while displaying excellent stability at high(ish) speeds. That, surely, is what you want from a proper GT car. It also handles better than you might imagine. It rolls, as cars once did, but proves utterly faithful once you learn to trust it. Sure, it lollops a bit, yet the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is light and responsive. It also boasts a short turning radius, which comes as a welcome surprise.
On the flipside, it doesn’t feel as though it’s packing 285bhp. Things start to happen at around 3500rpm, and it pulls cleanly towards 6000rpm, by which time the V12 takes a turn for the choral. It’s only under Kickdown that you feel as if you’re really moving, though. The issue, if you can call it that, is the transmission. The three-speed Borg-Warner Model 12 auto ’box changes up long before the engine gets into its stride, which is frustrating. The all-round disc brakes, meanwhile, scrub off speed well but it’s hard to effectively modulate pedal pressure.
The run-out edition is revelatory, however. There is no lag to be found; no messages are deferred. This car responds instantly to driver input, not least when accelerating hard. Power output over the XJ-S’s lifespan varied depending on what year it was. Here, it’s packing 301bhp at 5400rpm, but the important bit is the torque figure: 355lb ft at 2850rpm. Unlike the older car, the unhyphenated XJS doesn’t make like a speedboat when pressed: the tail doesn’t squat, nor does the nose point to the stars. It merely propels you faster than seems probable from A to B, but with only a modicum of fanfare. It’s almost eerie, not least because there is little wind noise or tyre roar, unlike in the older car. You feel cocooned but never detached from the action.
While the early car will stick to its line, there is always the nagging suspicion that, once the tail steps out, it will likely take out a small cottage before you’re able to gather it back up again. The later car corners flat, while the steering is light yet more communicative. The brakes – four-piston front calipers as before, but with floating calipers at the rear – also stop the car four-square without it ever threatening to spill. It feels stiffer (early examples suffered scuttle shake that was alleviated by cross-bracing), but without compromising the ride quality.
Time spent with both Jaguars on all kinds of roads, and in all weathers, leads you to conclude that the XJ-S has been poorly served by history. It was clearly a good car to begin with, but it matured over time to become the machine it always should have been: a devastadngly capable GT that soil stacks up. The barometer at C&SC, however, is would you want to own one? Tellingly, more than one member of this parish admitted to scouring the classifieds and online auction sites following our photoshoot. That should speak volumes.’
Thanks to Tony O’Keeffe and Jaguar Heritage: www.jaguarheritage.com
The XJS is coming out of the E-type’s shadow,” says Knowles, from KWE Jaguars (www.kwecars.com), “with late convertibles fetching – the highest prices. The 6.0-litre cars can make more than £30k, but the pre-facelift soft-tops are rising the fastest, doubling in price over the past 12 months. It’s hard to find one under £10,000, and we expect this to have doubled again within two years.
From a driving point of view, the coupes trump the convertibles every time, with much better handling and comfort. The 1991-1993 4.0-litre straight-six coupes are still the best bet. Affordable, good to look at, fairly economical (30mpg or more on a run) and, with the four- speed automatic gearbox, reasonably fast.
“Check for rust at the jacking points, rear wheelarches and the front wings near the sill. On facelift cars, the scuttles notoriously rust under the ’screen trim, which is expensive to fix.
The V12 and six-cylinder engines are strong and reliable, but the pre-1979 V12 used rather crude fuel and ignition control systems, parts for which are no longer available. For the typical low mileages that owners cover, you will need to budget £1000-£2000 per year to service and maintain the V12 and about half that for the six-cylinder cars.”
Tech and photos
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS JAGUAR XJ-S V12
Sold/no built 1975-’1981/61,209 (all V12s)
Construction steel monocoque
Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 5343cc 60° V12 with Lucas-Bosch fuel injection
Max power 285bhp @ 5800rpm
Max torque 294lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission BW three-speed automatic or Jaguar four-speed manual, driving rear wheels via a Powr-Lok limited-slip diff
Suspension independent all round, at front by semi-trailing wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear lower wishbones, driveshafts as upper links, radius arms and twin coilover dampers
Steering Adwest rack and pinion, with hydraulic assistance
Brakes vented discs, inboard rear, with servo
Length 15 ft 11 ¾ in (4870mm)
Width 5ft 10 ½ in (1790mm)
Height 4ft 1 1/3 in (1260mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
Weight 3718lb (1686kg)
0-60mph 6.7/7.5 secs (manual/auto)
Top speed 153/145mph
Price new £8900
Price now £5,000-30,000
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS XJS 6.0-LITRE (where different)
Sold/number built 1993-‘1996/772 Engine 5994cc
Max power 301bhp @ 5350rpm
Max torque 355lb ft @ 2850rpm
Transmission GM three-speed automatic
Brakes outboard rear discs
0-60mph 6.6 secs
Top speed 161mph
Price new £50,500
‘AS SUNLIGHT GLINT OFF THE GOLDEN BONNET, SUDDENLY IT ALL MAKES SENSE’