A few weeks ago we added an Allegro to our classic car hire fleet. Quite a lot of heads were scratched, but it has been popular. Now we’ve brought another motoring waif in from the cold – the Jaguar XJS.
The new XJS means that we now have 10 classic Jaguars to hire from our Midlands site – from Series 1 E Type to first generation XKR.
Like the Allegro, the XJS is one of those cars that, while not quite hated like the All-aggro, is generally sneered at. Its history is familiar to classic car fans – it was the E Type replacement that wasn’t. And that, for many, is where the story ends.
Except if doesn’t really. The inquisitive will know, or soon discover, that the XJS is more, much more, than a failed replacement for the E Type. Which is why we’ve added a second one to our hire fleet – a V12 coupe to complement our existing V12 convertible. Whereas the convertible’s case is easier to argue because it has that extra sunshine-friendly string to its bow, the coupe has always faced more of an uphill struggle. And yet the XJS coupe is, perhaps, the better car. To understand that you need to understand the XJS better.
The original E Type slotted into a particular place and time, one where a relatively small, compact sports car was in demand. The trouble is that small, compact sports cars generally don’t make much money and Jaguar never charged much for them. The E Type shared few components with other Jags so was particularly costly to make. Despite its initial popularity, the original E Type wasn’t really much of a practical proposition – the doors were small, the cabin cramped and the ventilation non-existent. To solve the financial problem Jaguar tried to shunt the car upmarket, creating the larger and more luxurious Series 3 V12, a car that was more GT tourer than sports car. Although an excellent car, the Series 3 could only be a compromise.
Cue the XJS. British Leyland’s blind stupidity has been well documented, but when it came to the XJS the planning and thinking was much less befuddled. The XJS began its life before BL, designed by Malcolm Sayer – who designed the E Type of course – and with input from William Lyons (it was the last car he helped design). From the outset it was conceived to be a luxurious grand tourer utilising as many shared underpinnings as possible in order to keep costs down. So the XJS is essentially a short wheelbase XJ saloon – given that the XJ was possibly the best saloon car in the world at the time, it wasn’t a bad starting point. The body design was intended to maximise aerodynamic efficiency whilst also being up to date. In this it is fair to say that Sayer and Lyons may have dropped the ball briefly. The XJS is certainly a bold design, but it steals a lot of design cues from other cars. It took a long time to create and there is evidence of considerable fiddling around with details, in the process perhaps losing sight of what may have been a more cohesive design. So, on early cars, the overall effect was of a car that seemed to miss the mark somewhat, not helped by being so very different from the E Type.
The XJS also suffered from BL mismanagement, rather inevitably. Besides the ugly after-thought federal bumpers on the first cars (with the original chrome bumpers painted black), the interior felt unfinished. In order to keep costs down Jaguar reused a lot of XJ interior parts, none of which looked particularly at home in the more upmarket XJS. The first cars also lacked wood, something they were criticised for despite E Types never having it either.
All of these foibles tended to overshadow the XJS’ many strengths. The E Type is undeniably gorgeous but is generally outclassed in terms of handling and ride by most of its peers. Until late in life it also featured quite outdated engines. None of these problems faced the XJS. It handled and rode incredibly well, far better than any GT car of the era, and it had the peerless fuel injected V12. Add in a practical cabin with four seats, a good size boot and decent ventilation and you had a good value package that could rival anything from Germany.
The trouble was, of course, that British Leyland rather struggled to build anything on four wheels well. So the XJS, flung as it was into the competitive and demanding world of luxury GT cars, faced an uphill struggle. It rusted, broke down, fell apart and generally disintegrated very quickly. Add in catastrophic fuel consumption during the 70s fuel crisis and you had a recipe for disaster.
By the late 70s Jaguar was seriously considering ditching the XJS due to poor sales. But the company’s new management chose instead to invest in design improvements and an overhaul of the engine to improve fuel efficiency. The XJS of the 1980s was better built and looked considerably better with chrome bumpers and wood trimmed interior.
Jaguar also invested in new variants including a 3.6 litre straight six and a cabriolet, which spawned a full convertible. So, remarkably late in life the XJS suddenly came into its own. 1988 was the car’s turning point when improved specification and wheels and a full convertible became available.
The XJS received another life-giving injection in 1990 when investment by Ford led to a redesign with new bumpers, bonnet and side windows plus a 6 litre version of the V12 and a 4 litre version of the straight six. The 4 litre in particular provided performance comparable to the earlier V12 but without quite the same hefty fuel consumption. This new incarnation lived on into the mid 1990s when the 21 year design was finally pensioned off and replaced with the XK8. A car, incidentally, that was really just a XJS under its svelte new skin.
The XJS’ longevity and late flowering sales success is down to continuous development and a mellowing of the original design. Whereas the E Type was very much a product of its time, one that began to look dated long before its 10th birthday, the XJS proved far more durable. Even in the 90s, thanks to that clever makeover, it still looked relevant and, frankly, pretty good. The car’s innate qualities of silky V12 and magic carpet ride also helped it hold its own amongst younger usurpers.
And yet, only a few short years ago, you could buy a very good XJS for a fraction of the price of an E Type. A shade over four figures would get you into a MOT’d car in presentable condition. Today, while values are hardly startling, they are beginning to lift off the floor.
The XJS will always be the Jaguar that splits opinion. But to the naysayers I say – try it. Approach a good XJS with an open mind and you’ll be surprised at how well it fulfills its Grand Touring brief.
Our latest addition is a 1988 V12 XJS coupe in light metallic blue with a dark blue leather interior. It’s a mid-period car so benefits from aesthetic and quality improvements introduced in the 1980s, whilst retaining the original features and lines of the first cars.
To find out more about hiring the XJS coupe from our Midlands site call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk. Prices start at £150 for 24 hrs.
www.greatescapecars.co.uk 01527 893733