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Jaguar XK8: A Classic Reborn

The trouble with great debut albums is that at some point you have to make a follow up. All that expectation and waiting inevitably crushes creativity. From The Stone Roses to Prince and, lest we forget, The Darkness, bands throughout history have struggled to follow up a great start with something better. Or at least any good.

And so it was with Jaguar. In 1961 the firm surprised the Geneva Motor Show with the E Type, a model so perfectly resolved that the normally taciturn Enzo Ferrari called it the most beautiful car in the world. Everyone wanted an E Type.

It stayed in production far longer than planned because work on its successor was continuously delayed. In 1975 the lukewarm reception for that car, the XJS, suggests it wasn't time well spent. The XJS was Jaguar's ill-fated second album. It was so badly received and sales were so dismal that it was nearly canned just four years later. Instead luck intervened and it received a stay of execution. The XJS then stayed in production for another 17 years, benefitting, like many albums that were poorly received at the time, from a sort of rediscovery. Car fans began to realise that while the car lacked the beauty of an E Type, it was possible more rewarding to live with.

Perhaps because the XJS' reception burnt the firm so badly, it took Jaguar 21 years to get round to announcing a third act. Inbetween the firm nearly launched an E Type successor in the late 80s, the accomplished but somewhat bland XJ41 and XJ42 coupe and convertible.

Jaguar XJ41/42 Prototype

To replace the XJS Jaguar wanted a car that echoed the E Type but built on the XJS' more effective GT credentials. This made financial sense too - the E Type may have been popular but it was a stand-alone model that was expensive to produce and failed to achieve the premium warranted by a genuine GT car. The XJS, for all its flaws, cleverly made use of common XJ underpinnings but sold at a premium price.

Jaguar wanted the new car to perform the same trick - relatively cheap to make but expensive to buy. But the resulting XK8, launched in 1996, was not the firm's original E Type successor. That design was what became the Aston Martin DB7.

In the early 1990s, according to folklore, Tom Walkinshaw of TWR Racing was wandering around Jaguar's design centre with Ford bigwigs - the American firm bought Jaguar in 1990 - and spotted the full size mock up of the planned XJS replacement. His firm had a close association with Browns Lane having developed its XJS race cars and nursed the XJ220 supercar into being, amongst other achievements.

Eager to keep his staff busy, Walkinshaw suggested that this very pretty car would make the perfect car for Aston Martin, which was also Ford-owned. And TWR could help design and develop it. This made quite a lot of sense because Aston's model range at the time was seriously antiquated.

The design TWR used owed a lot to the failed XJ41/42 project. But it had been steadily developed by Jaguar and was virtually production ready. So much so that the TWR development work was largely restricted to Aston-ising the front grille. That the DB7 was launched in 1993, not long after Tom Walkinson's factory visit, indicates how close the car was to becomning a Jaguar.

The DB7 theft gave Jaguar two problems. Firstly, it had to go back to the drawing board to create its new XJS replacement. Secondly, the new car had to be distinctly different from the Aston. This was no mean challenge, given that the original car had been designed specifically to reflect Jaguar's own market research and targeting.

Despite having worked on the XJS replacement for about 10 years by this point, Jaguar suddenly found itself having to start again, and to a very tight deadline. A clever makeover of the XJS had injected new life into the ancient design, but everybody knew it was on borrowed time.

The resulting XK8 was developed very quickly and launched in 1996. Given its troubled gestation the new car was a marvel. Although not as jaw-droppingly beautiful as the DB7, it was nonetheless unmistakeably a Jaguar and also, clearly, owed more than a stylistic nod to the E Type. Where the XJS at launch felt clumsy and unresolved, here was a car that looked right from the start and was clearly aimed at a certain type of customer.

The XK8 was not, perhaps unavoidably, an entirely clean sheet design. The rapid development meant clear styling links back to the XJ41 and XJ42 remained. But where those cars now look a little bland, the XK8 has more character and presence.

Beneath the surface the XK8 borrowed from the XJS - and therefore, in turn, the XJ saloon of 1968. But this is no bad thing. The XJ and XJS set the class benchmark for ride and handling and this was still the case in 1996. So the XK8, which clearly set its stall out as a GT cruiser, was as smooth and unruffled on any road as you'd expect from a Jaguar.

The rest of the car, however, was all new. This included Jaguar's first every V8 engine, developing 290 bhp in standard form or 400 bhp when supercharged. The interior was a happy blend of traditional Jaguar style - borrowing heavily from the original Jaguar XK of the 1940s and 1950s - and modern luxuries. While the DB7 may have edged it in terms of looks, the Jaguar firmly won inside. Where the Aston's interior looks like someone has been let loose with some wood trim, a tube of superglue and some leftover Ford Fiesta switches (because, frankly, they were), the Jaguar is a genuinely lovely place to be.

The design largely worked, but it wasn't universally admired. The need to move the car away from the DB7 meant it was longer and wider than originally planned, something that is most obvious in the rear overhang. Supposedly this was also due to Ford's insistence that the boot be able to hold a set of golf clubs. But this is really a minor detail - the XK8, to my mind, is a very clever blend of E Type-influenced nostalgia with modern cues.

What made the XK8 so successful at launch was its focussed approach to its target market. Where the E Type seems to have been a car launched in search of a market, a slightly odd mix of sports and GT car, the XK8 suffers no such compromises. It's defiantly a cruiser. So it has big doors, big comfy seats, excellent noise suppression and it rides smoothly and effortlessly. Unlike the E Type, it's not simultaneously trying to be a Porsche 911 and a Jensen Interceptor. This isn't to detract from the E Type, merely to emphasise how well the newer car delivers on its promise.

Jaguar may dabble with sports cars but has really, at heart, always been about getting from A to B in as quick and unruffled a manner as possible. They are cars to drive whilst dangling a cigar idly twixt forefinger and index finger. This was true of the 1940s XKs and it's the same story with the XK8. Seen from that perspective its the E Type, lovely as it is, that's the abberation. Not the XJS.

Our new Jaguar Coupe Conundrum celebrates two of the firm's best cruisers - the XJS and XK8. Unlike the E Type, these cars deliver precisely on the Jaguar promise - fast driving within minimal effort.

The Coupe Conundrum lets you experience Jaguar's difficult second and third albums over a 2 hr drive - 60 minutes in each car. For just £89. To find out more click here or call 01527 893733

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