Some cars are destined for greatness, some are destined to live in the shadow of greatness. Such, sadly, has been the lot of the humble Jaguar XJS since its launch in 1975. Here at Great Escape we think it’s time for a change.
Conventional wisdom has it that the XJS is Not An E Type, which of course is hard to argue with. Jaguar replaced the gorgeous E with what many considered to be the visually challenging XJS, a car based on the XJ saloon that was bigger and heavier than the svelte E Type. Ergo, not as good. Except, not quite. Anyone who has driven a decent XJS will know that here is a hugely capable car that properly fulfils its goal as a GT car. Compared with other GT cars from Porsche, Ferrari and Jensen it is quite possibly the top cat.
The mistake most observers make is to assume that Jaguar intended to directly replace the E Type with the XJS. That wasn’t the plan. During its production run Jaguar tried to push the E Type upmarket into the GT sector but struggled because the car was too small. This hampered sales in the critical US market and despite initial success in the 60s the E Type faired less well in the late 60s and early 70s. Cue the XJS. Jaguar wanted a proper GT car that was also cheap to make based on XJ mechanicals.
The problem for the XJS is that it had to follow the E Type. Although designed by E Type guru Malcolm Sayer with input from William Lyons it is fair to say that the first XJS suffered at launch from poor detailing, which entrenched already negative minds. The flying buttresses and slabby sides were so anti-E Type that it felt almost like a deliberate slight against the earlier car. But look beyond the duff bumpers and low rent interior of those first cars and there is a cohesive, attractive shape at play. Here was a mass-produced V12 super car with Dino-esque buttresses and a sleek profile. Sayer and Lyons surely deserve praise for taking a bold new approach rather than endlessly re-hashing the same thing. A lesson modern car makers might do well to learn.
It has, I suggest, worked. The ugly duckling survived nearly being killed off in the late 70s to become Jaguars longest serving model, finally bowing out over 21 years after it was launched. In that time progressive improvements to quality, specification, model choice and design turned it from a lemon into a key part of Jaguar’s history, enabling the transition from sports cars to profitable GT cars like the current XK. Jaguar’s sports cars have continued to ape the lines of the E Type but this only highlights how distinctive the XJS was.
Look anew at a 1980s onwards XJS in a decent colour – some of the options available hardly helped its cause – and you’ll see a cohesive design that stands well against contemporary GT exotica. The long bonnet with its twin lamp cowls, the sweeping buttresses of course and the neat rear lights all work well. Less effective is the interior, although the later addition of wood helps brighten things up. It’s not a bad place to be, just a bit of a parts bin special with a not entirely attractive binnacle for the dials.
On the road is where the XJS really impresses and not just because of that silky V12 motor. The XJS is really just a shortened XJ saloon so the ride and handling are superlative. It is smooth, grippy and forgiving. The XJS is a heavy car but one that is easy to hustle along; whereas the super light steering of the XJ saloon augers against spirited driving, the more direct and weighted set up on the XJS makes twisting B-roads a joy. Whatever your speed and whatever the road surface the XJS is unruffled. This is a truly brilliant long distance GT car. It is as engaging as you want a transcontinental GT car to be but not as fidgety or demanding as a sports car.
It would achieve this with or without the V12 engine. To my mind if you’re going to buy a XJS you might as well have the V12 one. 3.6 and 4.0 litre motors were available but it is the 12 that really fits the car’s character. There’s no logic to this as the smaller engines are nearly as quick and much less thirsty; but in an age of fuel austerity everyone needs an indulgence. And the V12 Jaguar engine is an indulgence. This is one of the world’s greatest engines, effortlessly smooth, very quick and, shock of shocks, reliable too. The engine bay may look more complicated than Stephen Hawking’s homework but the basic unit is robust. Fixing problems can be expensive due to the labour involved in dismantling and accessing everything but parts are cheap and plentiful.
The only real downside of the XJS is the automatic gearbox. The Borg-Warner 3 speed unit, lifted straight out of the XJ saloon, is robust and trouble-free but ill suited to the torquey V12. It is reluctant to kick down and hunts between gears if you press on. A shame really as this fault was noted when the car was launched but never addressed. It doesn’t really alter the XJS experience but makes you wonder what could have been.
At Great Escape Classic Car Hire we have been hiring out XJS’ since 2007. Back then they spent more time waiting for customers than with them. Today the story is very different and they are popular hire cars. Which suggests that opinion is changing around this oddball from Jaguar’s history file. The convertible makes an excellent and dependable weekend away car while the coupe is great for a longer holiday, with space in the back for children.
Prices are also beginning to reflect the car’s re-evaluation but it remains a super car bargain. Good convertibles are now in five figures while decent coupes are in the high fours. And yet there are still a lot of XJS’ around, which compresses values. If you’re wearing your risky trousers you can pick up a solid V12 coupe with MOT for just £1,200. Which is exactly what we have just done.
On Friday I went to collect an engine from specialist Just XJS in Derbyshire and came away with a complete car too. Our latest addition will be on the fleet in 2014. It’s a sky blue metallic pre-facelift coupe (which I prefer in terms of looks) with 11 months MOT and 59,000 miles on the clock. The welding it needs has been done it just needs paint and a spruce up to make it suitable for hire.
At these prices you can understand why garages like Just XJS find it is more profitable to break cars than renovate them. But that is changing very quickly as the price of good cars increases. The £15,000 convertibles on sale now would have been £8,000 a few years ago.
It is easy to see why. The XJS really is the super car you can service down the road at everyday prices. The parts are available off the shelf rather than hand tooled by an artisan in Modena and you can do mega mileages on the engines without needing a rebuild every year.
Go on, spoil yourself. Get into the last ever V12 super car before the prices follow E Types. You can dip your toe in the water by hiring one of our V12 convertibles in Yorkshire or Cotswolds for £199. Mention this article and claim 10% off. Visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk or call 01527 893733 for more details.