25 Years of the Jaguar XK8
Updated: Sep 21
25 years ago Jaguar unveiled its first new sports car for 21 years - the Jaguar XK8. With styling inspired by the classic E Type and a brand new 4 litre V8 engine under the bonnet - the firm's first eight cylinder motor - the new car set out to blend heritage with modernity. That over 90,000 models left the factory over 10 years - compared to 115,000 XJS' over 20 years - suggests Jaguar got the formula right.
At Great Driving Days we love Jaguars - because our customers do - and so we've had XK8s on our fleet for several years. Our current model gets more popular every year on our Classic Tasters and Road Trips (find out more here). Here's why we think that's happening - and why you want a XK8.
But First, Some History
The XK8 may have hit showrooms running, with strong sales from the start, but the car's gestation was anything but smooth. Jaguar had been developing a replacement for the XJS since the early 1980s, a project that meandered and waivered, the proposals getting gradually more luxurious, bigger and heavier until Jaguar's new owners Ford pulled the plug in 1990. At that point the proposed coupe and convertible - code named XJ41 and XJ42 - were virtually production ready. Cancelling them took Jaguar back to the starting blocks after nearly a decade of work.
Or almost. On a tour of the Jaguar workshops after Ford's bought the firm, Tom Walkinshaw, who headed TWR, Jaguar's independent racing partner, spotted the XJ41 and XJ42 prototypes. Conscious that Ford-owned Aston Martin needed a new model he proposed that TWR productionise and help manufacture a low volume Aston-branded sports car based on the Jaguar prototypes. That car became the Aston Martin DB7, launched in 1994.
Jaguar's design and engineering team could presumably only watch in vague horror as their longstanding project became another company's car. But there was little time for navel gazing as Ford still wanted a replacement for the XJS, albeit one developed to a stricter brief than the woolly XJ41 and 42 project. Design work on the new car began in late 1991.
The TWR/DB7 episode did have one upside. It convinced Ford, and in turn a reluctant Jaguar, that it was possible to base a new and competitive car on the existing XJS running gear. This made a new Jaguar coupe cheaper and quicker to develop and therefore made the project much more viable.
The new car had to be big like a GT car and more luxurious than the XJS, which had always had a slightly cheap and cramped interior. It would be powered by a new V8 engine and styled to suit Ford's heavily retro-themed interpretation of Jaguar's future. This meant a car that looked quite a lot like an E Type.
The shillyshallying with the XJ41 and 42 project meant that by the early 90s the XJS was extremely long in the tooth. To eek out some extra time before the launch of the new car, the XJS got a late life makeover in 1991, a very successful revamp that kept the car in production until 1996.
The rush to develop the new XJS replacement meant that it had to borrow a lot of the underpinnings of the car it was due to replace. Although this meant using engineering and parts developed at the dawn of time - the XJS was essentially a short wheelbase version of the original 1968 XJ saloon - this wasn't in fact a bad thing since even in the early 90s, the XJS' ride and handling combination was still class leading.
Under Ford's leadership, the new car was developed to a strict brief, right down to ensuring the boot size was big enough to accommodate a golf bag (this accounts for the car's slightly compromised extended rear overhang).
The new XK8 was announced in March 1996 and launched in autumn of that year, an extremely quick turnaround for an important and - mostly - new car. It fitted neatly into the late 1990s fashion for retro design and received very positive press reviews. Here was a car that nodded to the E Type but was very clearly its own car, albeit one that could only be a Jaguar.
Coupe and convertible versions of the XK8 were available and although innumerable trim and paint combinations were offered, there was only one engine - the 290 bhp 4 litre V8 - and one drivetrain - an auto box, but with Jaguar's J gate that allowed the driver to control sequential shifts. In 1998 a supercharged version, the XKR, was added in both body styles, tweaking output to 400 bhp and offering 5 second 0-60 sprint times.
The XK8 continued largely unchanged until the launch of its replacement in 2006. Later cars got 4.2 V8s and tweaked styling, but unlike many of its rivals, there is little difference between the early and late cars.
What's It Like to Drive?
The XK8 is a very Jaguar sort of sports car - it's a sporting car, rather than a sports car. The E Type may be regularly seen being ragged around historic race tracks, but owners know that really, at heart, it's a GT car, not a sports car in the Porsche 911 mould. The XK8 fits neatly into that tradition, one established by the original XK cars of the 1950s.
That means the XK8 handles well, it has more than enough power and it looks good. But a Porsche 911 will run rings around it.
But let it. Because while the Porsche driver is rattling his bones, obliterating his eardrums and constantly adjusting the jittering steering wheel, the XK8 driver can simply engage Drive, subtly adjust his deep leather seat, perhaps spark up a cigar if he feels so inclined, and gently prepare for the drive ahead. A journey that will definitely be brought to him (or her) by the word 'unruffled.'
Unlike the 911, the XK8 is smooth, relaxing, quiet and comfortable. Inside there is a lot of wood - the dashboard, shaped to resemble a Spitfire wing, has metres of the stuff - and many, many cows laid down their lives so that each XK8 could be built.
Which is not to suggest that the XK8 is not engaging. It does handle well, it does propel you down the road quickly and it can be engaging. But there is a reason why Jaguar didn't offer it with a manual gearbox.
Many manufacturers have tried to build cars like the XK8. The BMW 6-Series and Mercedes SL are both working in the same ballpark. But good as they are, neither have quite the sense of character and smooth progression that the Jaguar brings to the party.
The XK8's trick was to take what was very good about the XJS - a quick, relaxing GT car - and make it even better. Principally by combining better looking metalwork with a really beautiful interior.
Do You Want One?
The XK8 is the type of car that splits opinion. If you don't get it, you probably never will. And that is absolutely fine - if we all liked the same things the world would be a much duller place.
But anyone who has had a passing interest in Jaguars will like the XK8. It plays to what has traditionally been great about the marque - luxurious, stylish, relaxing, comfortable. And fast. In many ways it is one of the best Jaguars ever built. It's certainly one of the easiest to live with.
There is, of course, a downside to all this. Although the XK8 was an expensive car, it wasn't built entirely well. So it rusts - floors and rear arches in particular - and things go wrong, usually electrical. The gearboxes tend to go pop if the service intervals are not absolutely strictly adhered to and the engines, particularly the supercharged versions, suffer head gasket failure. Fixing the XK8 can also be expensive, in part because 'Jaguar' and in part because replacement parts are not easy to get hold. A set of adjustable shock absorbers, for example, will set you back £600 for a pair.
The upside of all this is that you won't have to pay through the nose to buy a XK8. There are a lot about, they're only just being recognised as classics and their reputations as troublesome Jaguars are well established. Scruffy MOT'd cars start at £3,000 for a coupe, roughly twice that for a convertible.
None of this should put you off if you want a XK8. Because every 25 year old car has its fair share of problems. The trick is to know what they are, do your research on any car you want to buy and go in with your eyes wide open. Buy the best you can afford and set aside money to fix things in the first year.
The reward will be a sports GT that, as we move to battery powered motoring, will probably never be repeated; a big-engined V8 car that genuinely feels special, in a way that a BMW or Mercedes never quite manage. The other upside is the superb Jaguar community that it gives you access to - aside from the big clubs there are many smaller organisations such as the excellent Jaguar Breakfast Club that meets monthly at Gaydon.
At Great Driving Days we have been running XK8s and XKRs on the fleet for the last 10 years. And not without problems. We've found that the supercharged XKRs are the most troublesome, suffering head gasket problems that are expensive to repair. And while an extra 100 bhp is never to be sniffed at, the standard car is plenty quick.
Our cars have also suffered gearbox problems, rust and electrical maladies. The last of these is probably the most frustrating - the XK8 has so many electrically powered items and so many fuse boxes that keeping them all working and in a row is not an easy task. Seat functions and random dashboard warnings are, we have found, common.
But our cars do work hard, with many different drives, so our experience may not be typical.
Despite these problems we've kept one on our fleet not just because customers love the XK8 but because we do too. Few cars deliver a sense of relaxed occasion quite like a XK8. And certainly far fewer do for the money you can pick them up for.
Great Driving Days has the largest fleet of classic Jaguars that you can drive on public roads, from the 1960s to 1990s. This includes an early 1997 Jaguar XK8 coupe to hire.