Car Stories: Jaguar XJS
For classic car enthusiasts, the story of the XJS feels as familiar as an old winter coat. It's the car that was meant to replace the E Type, but didn't. And was ugly to boot.
If that's been the soundtrack whenever you see a XJS, sit back and prepare to have, if not your mind blown, certainly your perception mildly altered.
Here's the story of the Jaguar XJS, plus some history on our own Jaguar XJS V12 hire car.
In The Beginning
In the late 1960s Jaguar was busy. E Type was a bonafide hit: everybody wanted one. The trouble was, Jaguar wasn't entirely sure why. The E Type had evolved first as a Le Mans racer and then as a low volume replacement for the D Type. There was no customer research to back up why it looked the way it looked.
It also didn't help that the E Type, never having been specifically designed for a particular customer or market, didn't really fit any particular market segment or customer. It looked like a sports car, but drove like a GT, it drove like a GT but had the cramped confines of a sports car.
When it came to planning its successor, therefore, there was confusion. Should Jaguar simply updated the styling and give the world another E Type, or hive off the replacement into a small range of more focussed sporting cars that better suited the different GT and sports car markets?
Jaguar chose the latter route, planning a direct replacement for the E Type that would be the firm's sports car and a larger car that would appeal to GT customers.
Unfortunately these plans were scuppered by British Leyland's parsimony. Jaguar was told to choose between developing the E Type replacement and engineering the V12 engine in the E Type Series 3: it chose the latter. This left just one sports car project - the GT car.
Jaguar's plans for the GT car were clever. It would share the underpinnings of the successful XJ saloon - with a shortened floorpan - as well as much of the mechanicals. With the XJ breaking new ground in the executive sector for its ride and handling, it provided an excellent basis for a more focussed GT car. Sharing componentry would also make the car easier and cheaper to make - and therefore more profitable.
The job of designing the new car went to the man who created the E Type - Malcolm Sayer. He prioritised aerodynamics, favouring shapes that put function over form. But there was a snag: when the E Type was being developed there were few expectations. This was a car designed for Le Mans, and possibly a small production run to meet the race's entry criteria. It was never intended as a serious revenue stream. So it had evolved in a small corner of Jaguar's engineering department, with little interferences from the rest of the company. Consequently the car that emerged was the product of a very focussed team. This was most evidence in the design: had more people been involved then the doors would have been bigger to make it easier to get in and out of, the interior would have been better designed and various other compromises would have been made to alter the uncompromising design.
The XJS evolved in an entirely different way. For Jaguar, the car had to be a success. In the late 60s the firm only had consolidated down to the XJ model and the E Type, the latter clearly long in the tooth. It needed the new GT to be a success in order to fund future model development - and remain as independent as possible under BL.
The XJS was designed by Sayer but with a lot more interferences. He also died before it was finished, resulting in some areas being rushed or not fully evolved. The finished XJS was long and low and had cutaway doors just like the E Type, but it didn't look like a Jaguar in any other way. There were buttresses - at the time a popular aerodynamic device used by Italian supercar makers - and there were strange trapezoidal headlights. Inside there was no wood, just vinyl and lots of it. Where the XJ had a lovely sculpted dashboard, the XJS' dials seemed thrown together in a fit of anger the day before the launch event.
It has become commonly accepted fact that nobody liked the way the XJS looked when it was launched. But even a brief reviewing of contemporary news reports suggests otherwise. Whilst not going as far as to praise how it looked, reviewers weren't actually critical of it and recognised a capable GT car when they drove one.
And the XJS was a very, very good GT car. Supremely smooth, very quiet and with that superlative V12 engine effortless powering you forward, here was a car that was so much more useable than an E Type. Jaguar made a big play of comparing the XJS to GT cars from Italy, and with some justification: where Ferraris were temperamental and expensive, the XJS was just very, very, very good.
Unfortunately, being very good and people wanting to buy one are not always mutually compatible concepts. And nobody bought the XJS. In its first six years the original XJS sold less than 15,000 units, with sales dwindling to three figures in the last years of that period. For comparison, during the final three years of production, the aging E Type managed the same volume. This was well below Jaguar's expectations and led to the XJS nearly being canned.
The reasons were, in hindsight, extremely obvious. Buyers loved the E Type. But Jaguar had fumbled its replacement plans and launched the XJS instead, a car that was certainly distinctive but could never be described as beautiful. It was poorly specified too: there was no wood, very little chrome and the interior was low rent. Factor in the mid 70s fuel crisis and you have a toxic mix.
Instead of pensioning the XJS off, Jaguar made a canny decision. In the early 80s it decided to give the car one last roll of the dice, developing a 'High Efficiency' (H.E) head for the car that would improve fuel economy and also making over the exterior and interior with chrome and wood. The changes were relatively inexpensive - no metalwork was changed - but they transformed the car.
During the 1980s the XJS also gained a new, smaller engine - the 3.6 litre straight six - as well as cabriolet and then convertible body options. Suddenly the ugly duckling had become a swan: the styling, once derided by customers, was now considered distinctive. The XJS became the car to be seen in on Sunset Boulevard.
The XJS got another lease of life in the early 90s when Jaguar's new bosses, Ford, ditched the firm's long-developed plans for a XJS replacement (that car became the XJS-based Aston DB7) and invested in another revamp of the 17 year old car. The XJS gained plastic bumpers, redesigned side windows and a four litre engine and sauntered through until 1996 when it was replaced by the XK8 (which was also XJS based).
Our Jaguar XJS V12 Coupe
We have had a few Jaguar XJS convertibles on our fleet but it is the XJS V12 coupe that has stood the test of time. Lovely as the convertibles are, it is the coupe that delivers best on the GT promise of that styling and V12 engine.
The Great Driving Days XJS coupe came to us from a Jaguar XJS specialist in 2013. It is a 1988 facelift car and came with low mileage and a MOT, but it needed paintwork. We resprayed the car and since then it has clocked up 40,000 mostly trouble free miles, defying the model's reputation for being troublesome. It has needed a further restoration to address creeping rot and various damage caused during hire. We have retrimmed the driver's seat and replaced the headlining once - it is due again this winter - and we have also scheduled to replace or refurbish the wood veneers during winter 2021/22.
Mechanically the car has been largely trouble free, apart from a recent issue with the injectors. The main problem with the car is the handbrake. Although it is unnecessary on a car with an automatic gearbox (in Park the brakes are locked up of course), it is required by the MOT. Unfortunately its unusual 'fly off' design confuses some customers, resulting in them driving with the handbrake on. In a powerful car such as the XJS, this is very easy to do. This burns out the back brakes within 100m so we regularly have to drop the rear subframe, extract the inboard rear brakes and replace them.
The XJS is a car that consistently surprises customers with just how good it is. Extremely smooth, refined, quiet and comfortable it is hard to imagine a better 1970s GT car that wasn't built in Italy. And one that you could reasonably expect to get you to your destination.
You can hire the XJS by the day, weekend or week or by the hour as part of our Classic Taster experiences. It is also available on our full and half day Jaguar Driving Days. Find out more at www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk or call 01527 893733.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733