1978 Jaguar XJ12C

The List Jaguar V12 dream on trial. Your dream drive made real. Citroën DS21 owner Chris Brown appreciates refinement, so we put him in a Jaguar XJ12C to put its legendarily slick demeanour to the test. Words Sam Dowson. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.

Sam Dawson Written by Friday, 21 February 2020 14:35
1978 Jaguar XJ12C - road test 1978 Jaguar XJ12C - road test 2020 Jonathan Fleetwood - and Drive-My EN/UK
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Additional Info

  • Year: 1978
  • Body: Coupe
  • Cd/Cx: 0.41
  • Type: Petrol
  • Battery: 12 volt
  • Engine: 5.4-litre V12
  • Fuelling: Lucas OPUS
  • Aspirate: Natural
  • Power: 244bhp @ 5250rpm
  • Torque: 269lb ft @ 4500rpm
  • Drive: RWD
  • Trnsms: Automatic 3-spd
  • Weight: 1902kg
  • Economy: 13mpg
  • Speed: 139mph
  • 0-60mph: 8.8sec
  • Price: £26,000
  • Club:

 

‘It’s the smoothest engine in the world’

The List Reader Chris Brown tests the legendary refinement of the Jaguar XJ12C

Will driving this XJ12C woo a Citroën DS owner?


Growing up in the Eighties and reading car magazines, I recall realising how special V12 engines are,’ says Classic Cars reader Chris Brown as he enjoys a tour of Jaguar restoration specialist WinSpeed’s engine workshop with proprietor Peter Hugo. ‘Only a few manufacturers made them – Ferrari, Lamborghini, Jaguar and then later on BMW – and the Jaguar V12 (Daimler Double-Six) had a reputation as the smoothest engine in the world. Added to that, of course, Jaguar put them in such beautiful cars.’


1978 Jaguar XJ12C
1978 Jaguar XJ12C

Chris appreciates good aesthetics and Jaguars with equal enthusiasm; his garage contains a Citroën DS21 and he drove from Scarborough to Surrey today in his 5.0-litre XK. ‘I’ve had a V12 Ferrari, but I’ve never experienced that Jaguar V12 and I need to know what that kind of refinement feels like. Period XJ road tests suggested its ride quality was on a par with Citroën’s, but of course Citroën never had the engines. And my Jaguar’s only got a V8!’

‘You can feel how powerful it is, but it delivers with a turbine-like whoosh’

Peter has a great sense of theatre, and gradually builds Chris’s sense of expectation as he guides him through workshops where XKs, E-types and XJs are being restored, towards a gleaming white XJ12C. ‘I bought this from a retired schoolmaster,’ he says as Chris gets comfortable in its deep, squashy leather driver’s seat. ‘I dealt with some rust in the door bottoms and resprayed it from a nasty bright white shade that’d been applied in the Eighties, but otherwise I was gobsmacked by its condition. It’s always been Dinitrol-injected and has only covered 70,000 miles. It’s one in a million – no rust under the vinyl roof, and grey headlining rather than the green they go thanks to oxidisation. This is the closest you’ll get to the way an XJ12C was in the Seventies.’

Chris settles in with ease, tilting the chromed automatic shifter’s T-handle towards him, selecting Drive, and guiding the car gently onto Surrey’s tree-lined country lanes.

‘I’ve always wanted to drive one of these because XJ12s have always been on my radar,’ says Chris as he lessens his grip on the thin wheel rim, shifting from palms to fingertips as he realises how light its power-assisted steering is. ‘My DS has always been my first love, car-wise, but XJ12s – Series 3 saloons in particular – always seemed like such good value.’

We reach a series of S-bends that threaten to upset the XJ12’s composure, but Chris tees up a racing line, looking to minimise roll and sharp steering angles. ‘The steering’s going to take some getting used to, but I’m already adapting to it. As you own and drive cars, they tell you a bit about yourself. I used to have a Porsche Cayman and loved it when I first got it, but as time went on I realised I wasn’t some apex-clipping helmsmith who got up first thing on a Sunday morning to tackle some bends. It made me realise I was more of a GT man – and the XJ12 is the very epitome of a grand tourer.’ We pass a sign welcoming us to a place called Normandy. ‘It’s such a good long-distance cruiser – look how far we’ve come already!’

‘I think whoever coined the term ‘louche’ must have been looking at one of these, its pillarless windows dropped, at the time,’ Chris muses as he relaxes into the seat back. ‘I get an instant impression of a car’s character when stepping into it for the first time, before the engine is even started, and the XJ12 is just lovely.’ He points out details like the deeply reflective gold-and-bronze badging, the clear written signage on stainless steel fillets around the steering column, and the satisfyingly chunky centre-console buttons. ‘It’s a genuinely pleasant place to spend time in, and it subconsciously massages your expectations – you just know that a car with seats this comfortable will have light steering, for example, thanks to that thin, tactile wheel rim. The brakes could be described as ‘louche’ in their own way too, although I suppose they’re just of their era.’

Chris flicks the XJ12 through another S-bend and over a humpbacked railway bridge, prompting another observation. ‘The ride quality is superb. Don’t get me wrong, the Citroën DS is still a ridequality benchmark, but it can make a right meal out of something like that humpback bridge. You have to anticipate the suspension rebound and think ahead about how it’s going to pitch and roll. Not so with this – you feel more bumps in it, but not harshly and as a result it’s even more effortless for the driver than the DS, as you don’t have to constantly think about what the car’s going to do and what you’ll have to do to counteract it. You just point the XJ12 where you’re going and it’ll deal with whatever it encounters smoothly and without fuss.

‘Ride quality is such an underrated facet of vehicle engineering; I can’t understand why car magazines don’t spend more time evaluating it,’ Chris muses. ‘Not every drive you make in a car involves pushing the envelope of its performance or encountering the limits of its handling. However, most drives test the ride quality. It’s the hallmark of a well thought-out car.’

‘The ride quality is superb. It’s even more effortless than the DS. You just point it where you’re going and it’ll deal with whatever it encounters, smoothly’

Chris brings the XJ12C to a halt by a country churchyard with a deserted car park, so he can better study it in isolation, and pops the vast bonnet open, marvelling at the complexity beneath. ‘What’s impressed me right from the start is how modern the engine feels,’ he says. ‘It starts quickly without fuss, it’s almost completely silent at idle, and even though you can feel how powerful it is, it delivers the power with a turbine-like whoosh.

I know that’s such a motoring-journalism cliché, but it’s true. ‘However, the view under the bonnet is just a mass of wires and pipes achieving this. I’m not mechanically-minded and I wouldn’t know where to start to understand how all this works, but I can see that the refinement of the engine is at least in part down to the complexity of its fuel-injection system – such a rarity back then that Jaguar advertised it on the bootlid. In fact, I’ve just realised there’s no sound-deadening on the inside of the bonnet, and yet I still can’t hear it idling even when I’m stood next to it! Such is the inherent balance of 12 cylinders, and that injection – although seeing several Lucas badges under the bonnet wouldn’t exactly fill me with confidence!’

We take a walk around the car, taking in its finer points. ‘It’s a very demonstrative car for something so refined,’ Chris notes. ‘As well as the Fuel Injection badge, someone at Jaguar must have taken the decision to write ‘TWELVE’ in capital letters on the badge at the front, and ‘HALOGEN’ on the headlights, for example. And when you think about it, in 1977 hardly anything had power steering, so it made sense to make it so light to underline the fact the car had it. You can imagine an XJ12 driver wafting into a car park, making parking manoeuvres with one finger on the wheel while drivers of things like Ford Escorts and Vauxhall Vivas hauled on theirs. It must have felt like something from another world back then. Twin fuel tanks too – that was considered so exotic, so excessive. But I suppose it was yet another thing that Ford Escorts didn’t have, so this needed them – that’s the kind of thinking that underpins this car. I love the way the exhausts snake out of the bodywork too. Snakes under the bonnet, snake-hipped styling, snakes at the rear – it’s that kind of car isn’t it?

‘It’s a great shape too. I like saloons, and even though this is a coupé, it’s a classic two-door saloon by the standards of the Seventies. I much prefer it to the XJ-S in the same way that I prefer Maserati’s Quattroportes to their various GTs. It’s a testament to the stylist’s art – it’s far easier to make a cramped coupé look good. But to make something that’s a practical four-seater look this good is properly clever. I can really picture myself in one of these, wafting along on a sunny day with all the windows down.’

We set off again, this time heading for a road laden with infamy so far as Jaguars are concerned. The Hog’s Back is a soaring four-lane high-speed route through the Surrey hills, but it was here – months after securing his Formula One World Driver’s Championship – that Mike Hawthorn fatally crashed his MkI during an impromptu race with Rob Walker’s Mercedes-Benz 300SL. However, today its high-speed nature gives Chris the chance to stretch the XJ12.

‘The automatic gearbox’s changes are almost imperceptible,’ he notes as the XJ12 slides into its highest ratio. ‘It’s not snappy in its changes and it doesn’t kick down like a modern automatic, but that’s not the point – it does what it needs to, which means being smooth. It’s not a car that’s trying to be exciting, but everything about it is extremely good, and that’s a great thing. “Exciting” cars are usually massively flawed in several areas, whereas I simply cannot find fault with this car.’

Unfortunately though, as Chris edges the XJ12C over 60mph, he finally finds a gripe. ‘That’s a shame; as we increase speed I’m having to raise my voice – not over the engine note, but the wind whistle from the window seals,’ he shouts. It was always the XJC’s Achilles’ heel – those frameless, pillarless windows proved impossible to seal properly and kept the coupé away from production for nearly two years. ‘It’s annoying because otherwise roads like this are the XJ12’s natural habitat – I’m at the speed limit and there’s a lot more throttle travel to go.’

As Chris directs the XJ12 back towards WinSpeed’s workshops, he ponders whether he’d add one to his collection. ‘I would, but I think mine would be a saloon, simply to avoid that wind noise,’ he says after a long pause. ‘That said, I still love the idea of a pillarless coupé, wafting down to the south of France with all the windows open. However, it’d accompany my DS, not replace it. They’re very different cars really – the Jaguar achieves the Citroën’s refinement, but uses much more conventional ingredients to do it – apart from the incredible engine, of course.

‘But there’s something else important about the XJ12 which draws me to it. It’s the story of Jaguar’s struggle. It dates from a time when Jaguar was fighting for its independence within British Leyland. So with the XJ12C it had to build a car that embodied all of Jaguar’s values completely. And it succeeded.’


Light power steering means fingertip control of slender wheel. Dashboard detailing and cabin ambience impressed Chris. Three-speed auto feels low-geared at speed. Complex V12 pipework includes rare-for-the-time fuel injection. No bonnet sound-deadening means quiet engine is doubly impressive. Pillarless coupé looks great and whistles along at higher speeds.


 

Thanks to: WinSpeed Ltd, where this car is for sale for £49,500 (winspeedmotorsport.com)


 


 

1978 Jaguar XJ12C

Engine 5343cc sohc per bank V12, Lucas OPUS electronic fuel injection

Max Power 244bhp @ 5250rpm

Max Torque 269lb ft @ 4500rpm

Transmission Three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Brakes Servo-assisted discs front and rear

Suspension

Front: independent, wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.

Rear: independent, wishbones, trailing arms, dual coil springs, dual telescopic dampers Steering Power-assisted rack-and-pinion

Weight 1902kg

Performance

0-60mph: 8.8sec

Top speed: 139mph

Fuel consumption 13mpg

Cost new £11,755

Classic Cars Price Guide £9000-£26,000



 

CHRIS’S CAR CV

This Citroën fan likes high performance too

CITROËN AX10 DEBUT

‘My first car, bought to go with my first job. It did everything I needed, proved cheap to own and run, and I learnt about the importance of maintaining momentum at all times.’

CITROËN DS21 PALLAS IE

‘I’ve wanted one ever since 1989 when my dad bought an XM. It’s more than lived up to my expectations. Just an utter joy.’

ALFA ROMEO 156

‘Bought nearly new at a substantial discount. A great-looking car and surprisingly reliable in the five years I owned it – the notorious Selespeed gearbox never went wrong!’

PORSCHE CAYMAN S

‘Everything I read about them suggested it was the perfect car for me. It was great in so many ways, but it did prove to me that I wanted a bit more long-distance comfort.’

FERRARI 456

‘I loved the 456 from the day of its unveiling. Circumstances meant I was fortunate enough to buy a 1995 example in 2015, knowing that I would not be able to afford the running costs long-term. I only kept it a year, but definitely meet your heroes – it was just an epic car.’

JAGUAR XK 5.0

‘Proved to be the relaxed and comfortable cruiser that I currently need a car to be. Doesn’t make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, but such a good car in almost every area.’



 

CHRIS’S DREAM DRIVE LIST

Aston Martin Lagonda

‘Utterly outrageous looks and electronics – and Aston Martin went ahead and built the thing!’

1959 Cadillac Series 62

‘If ever a car represented the mood of a country, this is it. Nothing could stop the American dream in 1959.’

Citroën SM

‘More amazing to look at with each passing year. Didn’t let reality get in the way of technical optimism.’

Citroën CX Prestige

‘Space-age looks, a collection of clicks, hisses and wheezes from the hydraulics – this is the car Darth Vader would drive!’

Citroën XM

‘In 1989 my dad bought one of the first in the country. This car introduced me to the world of big, hydraulic Citroëns.’

Ferrari 456GT

‘I never really ‘got’ Ferraris until this came along. This first of the Luca di Montezemolo era cars wowed me with its looks and reviews.’

Jaguar XJ12

‘A beautiful car with a sublime V12 – as worthy of legendary status as the E-type in my opinion.’

Lamborghini Miura

‘The most beautiful car in the world. Simply being in the presence of one makes my heart beat that little bit faster.’

Lamborghini Countach

‘When I was growing up it played the role of ultimate supercar better than any other.’

Mercedes-Benz R129 500SL

‘Superb engineering, very advanced and with subtly understated good looks – surely the car that best reflects the Mercedes slogan: ‘Engineered like no other car’.

Sam Dawson

Old cars expert

People in this conversation

Comments (4)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

It is pretty. Is this not the most beautiful big car ever?

Maxus Noavakov
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Nice styling and superb interior materials as well as very durable exterior paint on these early '70s Jaguars. I still have a six cylinder version of this as a winter car. A 1977 XJC6 V (similar to the UK Daimler 4.0). Unfortunately the performance of either the V12 or the I6 is greatly deficient when compared to most modern cars.

Antonio Ghini
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I really like the classic XJ Coupe design (unlike new Tata derivative) but this gen. Has front grill looking awkwardly BMW-like. Also it's road abilities and unmatched grace and smoothness reward the driver and passengers(pedestrians too),but performance of a 5.4-liter V12 is a bit poor. Fuel consumption not to mention...

Comment was last edited about 8 months ago by Bimmer Trimmer Bimmer Trimmer
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Rare car out of UK roads. Strange marketing derivative of mid-70 S Jag company. We have XJS Coupe with same engine+gearbox and same measurments... Strange politcs...

Malcolm JAG McKay
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