History has not been kind to the Jaguar XJS. Rather like Bryan Adam’s earworm Everything I Do, I Do It For You, its very success – it easily outsold the E Type for example – has done nothing to bring it in from the classic car cold.
For a lot of enthusiasts the car represents all that was wrong with Jaguar in the 70s. As a replacement for the E Type, the XJS suffers by comparison. Where the earlier car has a hewn-from-stone, fully realised simplicity, the XJS, at least initially, seemed to be less than the sum of its disparate parts. The buttresses, borrowed from the Ferrari Dino, the low rent XJ saloon-derived interior and the bulbous headlamps all suggested a car developed by too many people over too long a time. And, in fairness, that was the reality.
And yet, look past all that and the XJS was and is a highly competent grand tourer. Where the Mercedes SL was heavy, squat, stripped out and bland, the XJS had a magic carpet ride, decent handling, distinctive styling and practicality. Plus that superlative V12 engine. Those qualities are what I think make the XJS perhaps one of the best classic cars you can buy – and they’re bargains.
Launch & Development
The XJS’ development was delayed due to the usual British Leyland machinations, finally appearing a full 9 years after the XJ6, on which it is heavily based. The aim was to create a proper GT car for the American market that would be relatively cheap to produce – using shared components – but sold at a high price. Where the E Type was a car in search of a market, the XJS was the result of market research, focus groups and bean counting.
Despite all that, and the inclusion of the brilliant V12 engine, sales were poor. By the mid-70s Jaguar’s reputation was on the floor and the XJS’ looks, price and standard auto gearbox alienated customers hoping to trade in their E Types. By the late 70s it was virtually dead in the water, with a mere trickle of sales – in 1980 just over 1,000 XJS’ left the factory.
An inspired rethink by Jaguar saved the car from the gallows. Keen to fatten the company up for sale, Jaguar took its meagre war chest and titivated the XJS. Quality improvements and the introduction of the (relatively) fuel efficient V12 HE engine were followed by a 3.6 litre straight six version then a cabriolet and finally a full convertible. By the late 1980s the XJS had been made over, a dusting of chrome and wood veneer finishing off the showroom tinsel.
Repositioning the XJS for the golf club and gin-n-tonic set was a masterstroke. So much so that when Ford bought Jaguar in 1989 it quickly shelved the well-advanced plans for the car’s replacement. Under the Blue Oval’s ownership the car received another shot of adrenaline with a well-executed facelift that saw it receive new engines and survive until 1996. After 21 years and 115,413 cars, the XJS had significantly outsold and outlived the E Type (72,515 sales and 12 years).
The fundamental ‘rightness’ of the XJS probably explains why its basic architecture underpins the later XK8, even surviving two iterations of its successor.
The XJS has a contrary place in Jaguar’s history. It doesn’t look like a traditional Jaguar in the MK2, XJ or E Type mould, and yet arguably it is the last ‘proper’ Jaguar before Ford took over. As such it drives superbly, the balance of ride and handling rarely surpassed by contemporary or even modern cars. Smooth is the word.
The XJS’ V12 engine is often overlooked despite this being the only mass produced 12 cylinder engine of modern times. If it was under the bonnet of a Ferrari it would be held up as a national treasure. Because this really is one of the world’s greatest engines – ultra smooth, effortlessly quick and a revelation to anyone who has previously made do with 4, 6 or 8 cylinders. The straight six engines are impressive but it is the V12 that pushes the XJS into a class of its own.
There is real sense of occasion with a XJS – it’s long and low and you sit in it rather than on it, the view our along the bonnet not quite E-Type-esque but not far off. This is an extremely relaxing and quiet car to drive and one that effortlessly munches miles. 1980s cars are well equipped, with cruise control and heated seats alongside the obligatory ‘trip computer.’
The XJS’ demerits are chiefly around the interior, which never really improved throughout the car’s life. The dashboard is slim to the point of invisibility and the instrument cowl on all but the final cars is about as low rent as they come. That aside, the three speed auto is probably the car’s biggest failing – it is a poor match for any of the engines, particularly the V12, and blunts what would otherwise be a fine drivers car.
Which One To Choose
There are essentially three periods of XJS – early, mid-period and late models. The early cars are getting rare and are prized for their purity and scarcity. But lined up alongside later cars, this really is the only reason to love them – the Federalised bumpers are ungainly and the interiors spartan.
Mid period cars gain wood, chrome and significant improvements in build quality, plus the choice of cabriolet or convertible bodies. 1990s cars have the best build quality and many prefer the smoothed off styling to the earlier cars – it has certainly stood the test of time. The interiors are also better, with more wood and proper dials replacing the earlier vacuum-operated gauges.
Which era you choose will be down to personal preference and your priorities – straight six cars are more economical and just as quick as the V12 – but obviously less refined – while later cars are better built and more luxurious.
There were three body styles – coupe, convertible and cabriolet. The cabriolet was made between 1982 and 1987 – less than 5,000 were sold – and available as a V12 or 3.6 straight six. Although the roof is targa-style rather than a proper convertible, this does mean the car is a proper four seater. The convertible, launched in 1987, is a fully realised drop top with excellent electric hood. Both inevitably suffer from scuttle shake that detracts from the XJS’ otherwise excellent road manners.
Five XJS engine variants were available – 5.3 litre V12, 5.3 litre V12 HE, 3.6 straight six, 4 litre straight six and 6 litre V12. The 3.6 is relatively unrefined for a Jaguar engine and so the least loved. The 4 litre is an excellent and long-lived unit and the V12 is superlative.
Jaguar made a lot of XJS’ and a lot have survived. The car’s long production run means that the first cars qualify for the MOT exemption while the last ones aren’t even rated as classics yet. So there should be a car out there for virtually any budget or preference.
A word of caution, however. The XJS, like the Jensen Interceptor before it, has languished in the budget classic arena for a long time. It’s only just beginning to surface. This means that there are still a lot of unloved and under-invested cars out there – these are complicated cars that need love and attention. Due to their low values, they haven’t always got it.
Here’s our quick buying checklist:
Look at lots of cars before committing
Get a feel for condition and common problems by talking to owners
The V12 is bulletproof but requires pin-sharp servicing so make sure it’s happened. Two of the spark plugs are hard to reach so often don’t get replaced
Jaguar made lots of paint and trim combinations, not all of them pleasant to modern eyes
XJS’ rust – check the sills, wheel arches and floors in particular; but the later the car, the better the rustproofing
The electrics are notorious – not everything will work but check that what you want to work does
Wood veneers delaminate and are expensive to replace
Avoid modified cars
Manual cars are rare and sought after but the shift is not good and replacing the clutch can be expensive
These are heavy cars so the suspension can suffer – the car should ride smoothly and sharply, if not it will need attention
The handbrake is inboard and prone to wear – replacement is an expensive task so check it works
The XJS’ marmite looks are definitely mellowing with age and its unique position as an affordable, high performance grand tourer is finally nudging up values. Few other classic coupes or convertibles deliver its combination of sheer usability for the same price.
Even an early XJS is the sort of car you can enjoy all year round, rather than just as a Sunday morning tourer. They’re reliable and spares are generally plentiful – but that is changing rapidly as more cars are restored.
Parts prices are increasingly going the way of all Jaguar parts – namely upwards – and some new parts are hard to source. For parts suppliers the XJS is still in no-man’s-land with not all having woken up to the latent demand. This will change but means certain items that are unique to the XJS are not always readily available or only available second hand. The car’s longevity and regular changes in specification don’t help here because it makes some parts uneconomic to remanufacture. For example, there were at least two types of bonnet gas struts used – one pair costs £15, the other £200.
The XJS’ usability probably determines which one you choose – the V12s are inevitably thirsty while the later cars are better built and more economical. But they all deliver the unique Jaguar experience – smooth, svelte and effortless.
At Great Escape Cars we run two XJS’ V12s on our hire fleet – both 1980s cars, a coupe and a convertible. We’ve restored both cars at various times – experience that we’ve begun to put to use for customers – we’re seeing increasing numbers of XJS’ come to us for restoration work.
Our hire cars cover 5,000-10,000 miles a year and these are the main issues we’ve experienced:
The V12 is very reliable but needs regular servicing and careful attention to the coolant mix
They rot – arches, sills, rainwater channels, even the chrome bumpers
Headlights discolour and can be expensive to replace
The electrics are notorious – cruise control,. trip computer, wing mirrors, windows, seats, dashboard lights, all play up
Handbrakes need constant attention – they are fiddly to operate and can burn out within 100 yards if inadvertently left on
Wood veneer trim deteriorates quickly
Headlinings sag and are expensive and complicated to fix – usually require the windscreen to be removed
The auto boxes are very robust but not well suited to the V12
Lattice effect alloy wheels easily discolour
Suspension suffers – ball joints and wheel bearings
Steering rack has failed plus associated power steering issues
Head gasket failure at 110,000 miles on one car – replacement engine sourced for £1,500