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Jaguar XJS

Published: 1st Apr 2014 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Great car, poor clothes is how the XJ-S will always be remembered – plus the fact it wasn’t an E-type. Should all be forgiven almost nearly 40 years on?

It almost verges on animal cruelty. Here’s a cat that’s mostly unloved and neglected while its relatives are pampered and cherished – and all because it doesn’t look as cute and cuddly as a Jaguar should. We’re talking about the XJ-S, of course – the Jag that refuses to become a classic thanks to the curse of the E-type.

Has any Jaguar since been so mis-judged? Launched to replace the aging but iconic E-type, the XJ-S was on a hiding to nothing from the very outset however it looked, yet it remains the car’s biggest talking point. That stumbling point together with the car’s tarnished reputation is so off putting for many still that they are now inclined to jump a generation of Jags and go for the E-type-looking XK8 instead. A sad act of prejudice to a model that, in its heyday, was hailed as the world’s greatest GT. There’s a lot of utter tosh talked about the XJ-S, not least the fact that it was a replacement for the E-type. It wasn’t and was never intended to be. When the go ahead for Project XJ27 was given the green light in late 1970, the sports car world had moved on considerably since the E-type’s launch a decade earlier. Performance was only one essential criteria – now discerning buyers also demanded comfort, refi nement and safety as well – things that the elderly E-type understandably now lacked.

Ironically ,it was the last factor which was to halt the XJ-S in its tyre tracks before even getting into gear. America had foolishly ‘banned’ open top cars; British Leyland, playing by the rules, as a result designed the Jag purely as a coupé – as it did with the TR7. But in 1974, the United States had a change of heart just as this pair of Brits were in the fi nal stages of development and it was too late to change tack.

So where’s the f-type?

Calling the car the XJ-S and not the F-type was an entirely logical rather than emotive move. After all, the new Jag GT was based upon the excellent XJ saloon, itself a signifi cant improvement on the E-type’s platform. This caused instant disappointment and disapproval. Add the car’s curious ungainly styling – the fi rst not penned by Sir William Lyons himself – and the XJ-S was already on the back foot no matter how good it really was. “September 10 1975. A black day for Modena, Stuttgart and Turin”, hailed Jaguar’s announcement advert and nobody could deny that the XJ-S certainly went better than it looked thanks to the exquisite XJ chassis and that magnifi cent V12 engine. Shame that the mid 70s and its soaring fuel prices weren’t ideal times to launch a £9000 150mph, 15mpg super car… Also the ghost of the recently departed E-type Roadster that February (the Coupé had been dropped since 1973), was never far away despite the fact that sales of the old timer had dropped to a mere handful.

What went wrong?

While plaudits for the new V12 Jaguar came gushing in, sales didn’t exactly follow suit and, after an enthusiastic start, dropped to worrying levels by the end of the decade. Jaguar had so many unsold that it started handing them out as company cars and even thought of dropping the model entirely by 1981 after suspending production. It wasn’t simply the car’s massive thirst that caused all the trouble – after all Ferraris are hardly frugal – and you couldn’t entirely blame the car’s looks because beauty is in the eye of beholder and all that. No, into this unfortunate mix you had to add frequent BL strikes and the car’s lamentable build quality and reliability. But was the latter British Leyland’s fault rather than Jaguar? The accepted view is that it was but, sorting out the fact from the fi ction tells a somewhat different tale. Jaguar’s reputation for supplying great cars at unbeatable prices was legendary but it came at a price as dealers frequently told William Lyons himself. Cheese paring and cost cutting by Lyons with materials to keep the screen prices amazingly low came at the expense of build quality and longevity – something Browns Lane could only get away with it for so long. By the 1980s, Jaguars simply weren’t up to BMW or Mercedes standards and buyers could patently see it.

Classic clubs come to the car’s rescue

Salvation for the XJ-S came from the respected Jaguar owners’ clubs of all people. The carmaker swallowed its pride and asked them what was wrong and they were told with no punches pulled. As a result, traditional Jaguar virtues, such as a proper wood and leather trimmed cockpit returned. Jaguar did its bit as well by greatly improving the V12’s fuel economy, and slowly but surely, the tide turned. A return to motorsport under the vibrant TWR banner saw the XJ-S scoop the prestigious European Touring Car Championship in 1984, making up for the disastrous shambles Jaguar made of the factory’s earlier assault with the fat and heavy XJ-C during the late 1970s.

Roofless decisions – and not before time!

Like the TR7, the decision to make a convertible came rather late in the day, but at least with the Jaguar, not too late. The fi rst attempt was the gawky XJ-SC; a curious drophead with a skeleton roof structure, making the controversial coupé look almost gorgeous by comparison. The XJ-SC was a normal XJ-S built without the roof and rear deck before being shipped off the Park Street Metal at Exhall where those buttresses (a result of an original idea of the XJ-S being mid-engined) were chopped off. The car was returned to Castle Bromwich for painting and then to Browns Lane for the mechanical parts to be installed before being taken to Aston Martin Tickford, based in Bedworth, for the roof to be fi tted. All that was now required was a return trip to Browns Lane! No wonder so few were made…

But at least there was a convertible to offer and this, together with the long awaited introduction of smaller, economical straight six cylinder engines, allied to slick fi ve-speed manual transmissions, saw XJ-S sales rise from 4808 in 1983 to 6028 in ‘84 and they increased further once the ‘real’ and undeniably handsome if fl oppy XJ-S convertible surfaced in 1988.

A subtle yet clever restyle for 1991 saw the XJS (as it was now badged) at its very best which was considerable indeed. And to be honest, once the press stopped mentioning the ‘E word’, it started to admire, if not love, the XJ-S. “A genuine GT or a civilised undemanding and incredibly refi ned carriage,” proffered Autocar in 1977, further admitting, “Now we have accepted that it isn’t an E-type’s true successor, the automatic-only V12 stands out as one of the world’s fi nest and fastest GTs,” just two years later.

“Will Porsche and Mercedes-Benz ever beat the XJ-S? They keep trying, but they keep failing”, added Car magazine almost a decade on – strange as it earlier called the original 3.6 version “a Jag with half a heart.”
In total more than 115,000 cars were made, the best year for sales being 1989, 14 years after launch! As unloved as the XJ-S was thought to be, sales easily beat those of the E-type and were twice as many as the XK sports car range of the 1950s.

And now?

Despite several attempts, and false dawns, the XJ-S remains a forgotten classic Jaguar to the masses. The more enlightened know better but the dramatic fall in XK8 values has led to this model picking up the mantle as the E-type’s spiritual replacement. There are still £500 bangers out there and for many, that’s how they’ll continue to view the XJ-S, but get a good one – say a 4-litre for around £4000-5000 – and you’ll be as astonished by its all round excellence almost 40 years on. Improve it, care of modifi cations by KWE Jaguar, and you can make it a better performing car than the average E-type could ever hope to be. As a cheap classic of the highest order, the XJ-S now deserves the recognition it never truly received. Perhaps it is time to take a good look at the ugliest Jaguar ever made – albeit from a different angle?

When The Car Was The Star

According to ITV, good guys drove an XJ-S. First it was Steed’s sidekick Mike Gambit in the New Avengers, played by the late Gareth Hunt, but the car was best known as Templar’s new transport in Return Of The Saint. As Jaguar shunned the fi rst series, it bent over backwards for the 1978 remake, supplying two models in obligatory white, one a rare manual, the other with an even rarer factory sunroof. The new Simon Templar (Ian Ogilvy) loved the car so much that he wanted to drive it back to England from a fi lm shoot in Rome – but the car never made it, burning its clutch out. The real Saint (Roger Moore) got his chance to drive one in the 1979 fi lm (also white) The Wild Geese.

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