Man and machine… The unlikely rally cat Ed Abbott used to build racing Saabs but loves the XJ-S… Words and photography Paul Hardiman.
As a putative rally car, an XJ-S isn’t the obvious choice. But when you were on the development team, and you know them inside out, the prospect looks less daunting.
Former Jaguar development engineer Ed Abbott - best known for building race- winning Saabs with brother Lionel at the wheel - isn’t so much keen on the XJ-S as evangelical: ‘It’s one of the greatest Jaguars ever made, but it’s got a poor reputation.’
As an insider, Ed knew what he was looking at when he found this one five years ago. ‘It wasn’t rotten, and it was one of the rare 10:1-compression cars made for a year before the 12.5:1-compression HE appeared in 1981. They started in 1976 with 9:1 and 285bhp. It didn’t handle or go particularly well but it had potential. It’s got perfect suspension, adjustable for castor and camber.’ Before Abbott Racing was formed in 1982, racing first Fiestas and then Saabs, Ed had rallied an A40. ‘But Norman [Dewis, Jaguar’s chief tester] said I had to give that up as I needed to be working seven days a week. We were preparing and testing all the press cars, and the XJ-Ss had to be faster than the XJ12s.
‘The XJ-S’s biggest claim to fame was as The Saint’s car until Tom Walkinshaw started racing them. But Jaguar had homologated the model for Group A well before that, with the option of a five-speed manual gearbox and eight axle ratios, the first rally we did was the Three Castles in 2016, to convince my wife it was safe. I’d had a big accident in my MkV Jag on the 2005 Rally of the Tests, crashing into a river and nearly drowning, so she banned me for a bit.
‘Our first proper event was the Three Legs of Man. You need a bit of space to get it wound up. We came second in class, which surprised a lot of people and gave me the confidence to do more rallies. We mostly do HERO events - the Winter Challenge and the Rally Monte Carlo this year, and we’ve just won our class on the Summer Trial.’
The V12 runs cold-air intakes that add about 15bhp, as used on the press cars, and it even has working air-con. The press cars’ systems were modified to disengage the pump on acceleration runs, but Ed thinks none of the journalists at the time knew that.
‘It was one of the first things I got working as you have to be comfortable on long rallies. Sometimes you’re driving from 7am to midnight, which is magic as I like driving in the dark. I’ve got a manual ’box for it, but I don’t think it’ll make the car any faster than with the auto, which I’ve rebuilt for snappier changes. It’ll do 60mph in first and 100 in second, thee navigator can spread his maps out and not have them knocked all over the place by the driver changing gear.’
So, does it make a good rally car? ‘Really I should be rallying a Saab. But the Jaguar handles so well, despite its size, and it’s strong. Plus the V12 is addictive on full chat.’