The birth of the modern Jaguar

Jaguar, by most measures, has achieved a dramatic renaissance in recent years.  New models, new technology, investment in heritage and burgeoning sales.  Hoorah.

Most people chart that recovery back to the mid-noughties XJ and XF, two fine-looking saloons that reinvented what being a Jaguar meant.  Out went the recycling of history, in came fresh, svelte lines, but ones that were clearly Jaguar.

I see the change, however, starting a little earlier.  With the XKR in fact.  Jaguar’s late-90s coupe may have made more than a nod to the company’s design heritage, in particular the E Type, but it also moved the game on considerably in terms of performance.  Finally, here was a kick-ass, 400 bhp V8 sports car that could take the fight to Mercedes and BMW.

And it did.  The XKR sold well, particularly in the USA where it re-established Jaguar’s place in the lucrative sports car market in a way that the venerable XJS never quite managed.  It was well built, pretty reliable and easy to live with.  For once you didn’t have to just love Jaguars to want a Jaguar.  Without it, it could be argued that Jaguar wouldn’t have had the platform to relaunch with the XJ and XF.

But that’s the history.  Great Escape Cars has just added an early XKR convertible to its fleet, which will be exclusively available to drive on its popular road trips and classic taster experiences.  So it seems timely to revisit a car that languishes on the periphery of classic and modern status.

Designing A New Jaguar Sports Car

The XK Jaguar had a rather convoluted and protracted birth.  Jaguar began designing a replacement for the XJS in the late 80s (called the XJ41/42) and in fact got very close to launching a stylish, smaller sports car.  The Ford take-over scuppered those plans, the new owner choosing – probably wisely – to focus on improving quality.  So the XJS lumbered on for 8 more years, receiving a facelift and new engines.  This revamp proved so successful that the replacement car was continuously shelved, delayed and rethought.

During this time, or so legend has it, Jaguar design supremo Ian Callum came up with a stunning sports car design – called the XJR XX – that was progressed to clay mock up.  On a tour of the design studio with executives from Ford’s new acquisition, Aston Martin, the design caught the eye of Tom Walkinshaw, who ran TWR, Jaguar’s racing arm.  He persuaded Ford that this was just the car to rejuvenate Aston Martin, which at that time was trying to convince an unconvinced world to buy the ungainly and slow-selling Virage.

The bold gambit worked and became the XJS-based DB7.  You can read the full story here.

Below is the XJR XX.  See whether you think it became the DB7..

Back to the Drawing Board

Aston’s win, of course, was Jaguar’s loss.  The firm lost a stunning design and valuable time, meaning the XJS replacement got pushed back again.

The genesis of the XK8 lies in Aston’s ‘theft’ of the original design.  The new design had to be rushed, and also cater to a committee-based commitment to certain ideas and features.  So quite a lot of the design owes something to the XJ41 and 42, which feel a little bland in comparison to the DB7.  Where the DB7 is clearly a fresh and individual design, the XK8 owes a lot to the E Type.  But that committee insisted on a big boot to carry golf clubs – so the rear of the car appears over-long – and work to the XJS floorpan – which exacerbates the short wheelbase, long car dimensions. It’s a good looking car, but one that feels a little rushed in the detail.

The preoccupation with heritage extends inside with acres of leather and wood.  The slab-like dashboard echoes the Jaguar Mk2 rather than the E Type.  But it is distinctive, luxurious and very Jaguar.

Launched in 1996, the XK8 was popular, appealing to Jaguar’s traditional markets in European and the USA and proving to be worthy successor to the XJS.

The XK Experience

To drive the XK is a revelation.  The XJS floorpan is essentially a cut down XJ6 saloon, so this late 90s car can trace its lineage back three decades to 1968.  But that doesn’t matter because the original XJ and XJS offered ride and handling far superior to anything else on the road, even a Rolls Royce.  30 years on, it remained a benchmark.  Even with sportier XKR suspension settings – and the big 20 inch wheels of the Great Escape Car – this is a GT car that rides exceptionally well.  Road undulations are damped very well, but not at the expense of handling.  The XK is set up for cruising rather than ultimate driver feedback, but that just makes it a very relaxing car to drive.

The XKR’s party piece, of course, is its supercharged 400 bhp 4 litre V8 engine.  This engine was new to the XK range and Jaguar’s first V8.  Unashamedly aimed at the US market, it is nevertheless a superb motor – smooth but with effortless grunt when the supercharger kicks in.  It’s quiet too – there’s none of the wind noise or exhaust drone of lesser executive expresses.

All of which makes driving a XKR an occasion.  The interior may be more gin and tonic than whisky and soda but it delivers.  Whether it’s the acres of wood, the cream leather seats or the endless switches and dials, sitting in this Jaguar feels special.  And because driving it fast is, if you so wish, simply a matter of twirling one finger on the edge of the wood-rimmed wheel, it’s relaxing too.  So you can enjoy the ride, rather than hunting for the next apex.

And it is an infinitely better car than the DB7.  The Aston may be one of the most beautiful sports cars of recent times, but it is a pretty dismal driving experience.  Where the XKR is properly engineered, the Aston feels ever inch of its small-volume, low budget roots.  Sit in a XKR and you don’t really notice the Ford minor switchgear.  But in the Aston you’re confronted by vents and switches and knobs straight out of a Ford Fiesta, nestled between strips of wood that aren’t so much designed in as bolted on.  I’ve been lucky enough to drive DB7s and XKRs back to back.  There’s one clear winner, and it’s not the Aston.

The Great Escape Cars XKR is quite a special example.  It has a rare factory fitted body kit that, to my eyes, much improves the car’s lines.  The four-exit exhaust emits a nice warble and the big fat wheels somehow look right, even when they really shouldn’t.

The car joins our exclusive experience fleet.  So it is only available to drive only on our road trips and classic tasters.  This is part of Great Escape Cars’ move towards driving experiences rather than daily hire – a trend that reflects the popularity of these packages.

You can find out more about our road trips and tasters on our website at or call 01527 893733.  Mention this article and claim 10% off.


Graham Eason

#classiccarexperience #classiccardrivingexperiences #jaguars #classiccars #jaguarxkr

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