The 10 Best Jaguars
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
The other day I came to a strange realisation: Great Driving Days has the UK's - possibly the world's - largest fleet of classic Jaguars to drive on public roads. None of this trackday stuff, where there are instructors to control what you do: actual classic Jaguars on actual public roads.
And that is quite odd, because when I set up the business in 2006 I made a decision not to have Jaguars. I wanted a fleet comprised of cars you couldn't get anywhere else.
I quickly realised how silly that was. Within a couple of years we had several Jaguars. Now we have 10 on the fleet, from 1960s Mk2s to 1990s supercharged XJRs. Half of our fleet is made up of Coventry cats.
There are lots of Jaguars on lots of classic car hire fleets because Jaguars are the cars people want to drive. I'd actually go as far as saying there are more Jaguars on more classic car hire fleets than any other make.
There's another reason why we have so many Jaguars, of course: the firm has made some truly great cars. While other car makers, like Porsche, have done very well making one iconic model, Jaguar has churned out lots of icons. Not just sports cars but saloon cars too.
Running Great Driving Days means that I've been extremely lucky to drive many different Jaguars. Here are my 10 best Jaguars: yours may differ, this is mine.
10. Jaguar XF
The XF is the car that made Jaguar's continued existence possible. It pulled off the unenviable task of ripping up the Jaguar design rulebook - which stated that every Jaguar saloon had to look like a 1960s Jaguar XJ - whilst still looking like only a car that Jaguar could design.
And it looked great. The flowing, sinuous form was svelte, pretty and distinctive like a Jaguar should be. Purists hated it, everyone else loved it. The XF's basic shape has gone on to underpin every other Jaguar since, from the F-Type to the F-Pace. Some may have been more successful than others, but each one has an essential 'Jaguarness' that make it distinctive from other brands.
It is tempting to attribute the launch of the XF to Jaguar's new owners, Tata, but it was developed and launched under Ford's eagle-eyes. And there's a lot of Ford architecture under those flowing curves. BMW's 5-Series may be dynamically superior and the Audi A6 better built, but neither has quite the character of the XF.
The XF had to happen, because without it Jaguar would have continued to sail up a heritage dead end, churning out ever-lower numbers of cars for an ever-decreasing audience of traditionalists. The new car reached out to new buyers and by so doing it saved Jaguar.
9. Classic Jaguar S-Type
The original S-Type was one of those fudges that only Jaguar could pull off.
In the mid 60s Jaguar desperately needed a new saloon to replace the popular but aging Mk2. The answer was to create a confusing range of different saloons, all based on the Mk2's central glasshouse, but with different fronts and backs and aimed at different niche segments of the compact executive saloon market.
One of these was the S-Type of 1963, which looked a lot like a Mk2 with a nose and bum lift. The styling tweaks gave it some features borrowed from the larger Mk X. It wasn't unattractive, just not remotely as attractive as the Mk2. Which was very attractive and, confusingly, still available to buy.
What puts the S-Type on this list is its clever rear axle, lifted - as the car's name subtly implies - wholesale from the E Type. In place of the Mk2's live rear axle, the S-Type got fully independent rear suspension. So now Jaguar had a car that handled as well as it went.
Despite being more agile than the Mk2, thanks to weight gains the newer car wasn't as fast so it struggled to make its way out of showrooms. Those rather ungainly looks didn't help either. It was popular with one particular group of customers, however - getaway drivers. It's a common misconception that in the 1960s Britain's bank robbers used Mk2s - as The Sweeney demonstrates, they actually drove S-Types because they handled better.
The S-Type may not be as lovely to look at as a Mk2, but shorn of that association it is undeniably a lovely looking car. It was also the first Jaguar to drive as well as it looked, thanks to that clever rear end.
8. Jaguar XJC
The idea of building a coupe version of a saloon is a good one. Lots of car makers were doing it when Jaguar launched the XJC and many have continued to do it ever since.
It was a less good idea for Jaguar. In fact it was quite a silly one. Because, when the the firm launched the XJ Coupe in 1975 it already had a very good saloon-based coupe: the XJS. The two cars shared the same oily bits, from suspension to engines.
This seemingly nonsensical situation owes a lot to Jaguar's mercurial founder, William Lyons, with an added measure of typically British car engineering hutzpah thrown in. In the 1960s Jaguar was developing four different sports cars, including the XJS and XJC. Lyons believed that there was a market for a traditionally styled coupe, the XJC, and a more upmarket sports car, the XJS. Had one car preceded the other, this argument might have carried, but continuous delays developing the XJC meant it launched two years later than intended at exactly the same time as the XJS.
But I'm glad Jaguar's cantankerous founder persevered. Because the XJC is achingly beautiful. It also drives as well as it looks - forget wallowing Rolls Royces, this is how a saloon car really should ride. I owned one for a while and it remains the only car I would buy back in an instant. It may be troublesome - those retracting rear windows are notoriously unreliable - and beset by all the quality issues associated with the Series 2 XJ saloon, but, well, just look at it.
8. Jaguar XK8
Jaguar's attempts to replace the XJS are well documented. Throughout the 80s it devoted millions of pounds and thousands of hours to creating a coupe and convertible, only to have them kiboshed by new owners Ford at the end of the decade. Then to face the ignominy of having all that work mildly breathed on by TWR to become the Aston Martin DB7, arguably the Jaguar that Jaguar really needed.
So by the early 90s it was back to the drawing board. That the XK8 arrived a few short years later, fully formed and highly saleable, is a mark of just how talented the Jaguar team was back then.
The XK8 got to market quickly because underneath it was mostly XJS. But that was a good thing - because what made had made the XJS so popular with buyers and road testers was everything underneath its rather awkward bodywork.
The new car was carefully designed to a clear brief and for a certain type of customer: someone, probably an American, who like big, powerful cars that drove smoothly. On that it delivered.
It was also attractive, combining E Type styling queues with a character of its own. And it went well, thanks to its new 4 litre V8 engine, a Jaguar first.
The XK8 is one of the nicest Jaguars of the last 40 years, a car that is distinctly Jaguar but also takes the fight to its rivals.
6. Jaguar XJR
In 1959 Jaguar, with the Mk2, invented the idea of the fast executive saloon. The Mk2 was as sporting as it was luxurious.
In 1968 Jaguar moved the game on with the XJ, a car that brought Rolls Royce levels of refinement to a mass market.
While the XJ6 and 12 were quick and handled quite well, cornering on the door handles wasn't really their game. The new Jaguars were all about sedate, serene motoring; cars for sitting back, firing up a woodbine and slapping into Drive.
And that, pretty much, is where Jaguars remained for 30 years. There were half-hearted attempts at sporting versions, like the incongruous spoilers TWR foisted on the startled XJ40, but for the most part by the 1990s Jaguars had become big, luxurious cars for pot-bellied executives.
All that changed with the XJR. The car makes this list because, like the XF after it, it helped reinvent what a Jaguar car really meant. Bolting a big old supercharger to the excellent AJ6 4 litre engine transformed the svelte X300 XJ saloon into a BMW M5-chaser. Thanks to some TWR fettling, the XJR was lower, stiffer and handled better than the softly sprung standard car and that forced induction meant it catapulted to 60 in around 5 seconds. There was also, shock horror, a no-cost manual version. Although very few of Jaguar's louche buyers saw the point of expending unnecessary energy on changing gear and so only a handful were sold.
The X300 on which the XJR was based was not much more than a XJ40 in a party frock, which meant it could date its engineering to around the invention of time. So it never seriously bothered M5 and RS6 owners. But it didn't matter. After the XJR every Jaguar had a R-badged performance version. Jaguar was back, with it's fastest ever saloon car and one specifically aimed at press-ahead drivers.
5. Jaguar XK150
Until the XK150 and its XK120 sibling, Jaguars had always been attractive. But the XK was absolutely gorgeous. Nowadays it tends to live in the shadow of the E Type, but to many the XK is the better and more beautiful car.
It also has pedigree. This was the first production application of the venerable XK engine, a motor developed and refined for racing at Le Mans. Where it won. The XK production cars cleverly aped the styling of those race cars - and their 120 and 150 names alluded to their almost magical top speeds. This was an era, after all, when humble family saloons struggled to top 80 mph.
The XK is beautiful, fast and does its intended job of GT cruiser very well. This is a car for hurtling down to Cannes rather than sliding round Brands Hatch, although it is surprisingly nimble too. It's also comfortable, spacious and relaxing to drive.
4. Jaguar XJS
The Jaguar XJS story is well known: the unloved E Type successor that ended up staying in production longer and selling more. Only now, 45 years after the first ones left the factory, are we beginning to realise just how good it is.
And it is very good. Forget the E Type associations and you get a very refined GT car that rides like a XJ saloon - which is to say, very well - and handles neatly too. When it was launched Jaguar compared the XJS to contemporary Ferraris, which caused much laughter. But drive one now and it's easy to dismiss the scoffing: a V12 XJS is more refined, more relaxing to drive and more capable than a Ferrari 400. And still much cheaper. In many ways the XJS delivers on its brief far better than other sporting Jaguars, including the E Type.
Those looks are also mellowing too. The buttresses may still look a bit ungainly, but there's no denying the characterful XJS is distinctive.
There's also a XJS to suit most tastes: several different body styles and many different engines. The auto boxes, which blunt enjoyment, and the scarcity of manual versions, are really the car's only downsides.
XJS values have increased markedly in the last couple of years so they aren't quite the bargain they once were. But they are still cheap. Buy one and discover one of Jaguar's best cars.
3. Jaguar Mk2
For a car that was really just a facelifted version of another car, the Mk2 has cast a very, very long shadow. The reason is quite obvious: it single-handedly invented the notion of a high performance executive saloon.
Before the Mk2 - and Mk1 - Britain's higher managers had to make do with big, sloppy saloons like the Ford Zephyr and Humber Super Snipe. They were huge, wafty barges that ploughed the country's newly emerging motorways serenely but very softly.
The Mk2 changed all that. Like them, it was luxurious - lots of trees and cows were sacrificed in its making - but it was also very fast. And handled well. The 3.4 and 3.8 Mk2 had over 200 bhp and reached 60 in under 10 seconds. For Britain's executives, used to lazy, soggy motoring, these were figures seemingly plucked right out of the future.
It was also achingly, eye-poppingly beautiful. Not something you could easily say about its competitors.
Jaguar priced the Mk2 well. It really was cheap for a car that offered so much. In the firm's desperation to keep its factories busy, there's probably an argument to say it was too cheap and starved the firm of future investment.
Most saloon cars tend to fade from view on the classic car scene, pushed aside in favour of more glamorous convertibles and coupes. Not so the Mk2. Unlike any of its peers, over 50 years after the last ones left the factory, the car remains highly desirable. Drive a good Mk2 now and the qualities that sold it new still shine through: it's fast, it handles well, it looks good and that interior is a work of art.
2. Jaguar E Type
E Type in 'not my best Jaguar' shocker. Yes, it's true, Jaguar's iconic sports car only makes it to number two on my list.
That is not a reflection of just how very good the E Type is. Applauding its beauty requires casting around for adjectives that haven't already been justifiably thrown at the car. There's many, if any. Lots of flowery words have been written about it but few really do justice to quite how arresting the sight of an E Type is, even to the serial enthusiast. It is a shape that is simply just right.
Like the Mk2 before it, the E Type makes driving a real occasion. The view down the long bonnet, the rumble of the exhaust just below your backside and the functional yet beautiful dashboard all dial up the adrenalin on any E Type drive. After all that, how the car drives may not matter much: but it does drive very well. It's no Porsche 911 but perhaps that's a good thing: it's a sports car in the Jaguar tradition, which means it's relaxed and smooth but fast and agile when it needs to be.
Yet it only makes runner up on my list because the E Type doesn't quite deliver on its brief. It's neither sports car - in the Porsche tradition - or GT car, in the Jaguar tradition. It may have a big boot but those narrow doors and the low driving position mean it's not really designed for long runs. Jaguar recognised the problem early on and persistently tried to address it by making the E Type more luxurious and, eventually, much bigger. Yet the XK before it and XJS after fulfil the GT role much better.
None of which detracts from what is an astonishingly good car. However it's a mark of just how good Jaguar's other cars are that such brilliance is overshadowed by another model...
1. Classic Jaguar XJ
In 1968 Jaguar did something remarkable. From a dark corner of a bomb-damaged Midlands city the firm unveiled an executive car that comprehensively outclassed anything else on the market.
The new XJ wasn't just good, it was astonishingly good.
For starters, the new Jaguar looked superb: long, low and curvaceous it looked unlike any other Jaguar or, indeed, any other executive car. Yet the styling was absolutely right. Inside there was wood, quite a lot of it, and a low driving position like a sports car.
Under the bonnet was a brand new V12 engine, a world first in a mass production car. Only Ferraris had V12s, here was a saloon car with exactly the same specification.
It drove as well as it looked too: some clever suspension trickery meant it suppressed road undulations like a Citroen but remained firm and planted. Unlike a Citroen.
The design and the specification were so good, in fact, that Jaguar made exactly the same car for the next 24 years and then followed the same design template for another 15 years. Even when the final original XJ saloons ended production in 1992, nothing could match their unique combination of ride and handling. What an achievement.
So the XJ gets my top vote because it's extremely good. It also completely fulfils its brief to be a capable, fast and relaxing executive saloon.
The sting in the tail, however, is well known. There is a good reason why Jaguar's other famous saloon, the Mk2, commands values considerably higher than the XJ; and why many XJs are rusty, unloved driveway ornaments.
To say the XJ wasn't built very well would be a major understatement. The first cars, from a time when Jaguar had a lot of control over its own production processes, weren't too bad. The 70s cars - and even those from the 80s - are often truly diabolical. Electrical maladies, rust and engine failures became part and parcel of the Jaguar experience. Original owners often grew so exasperated that they returned the cars to the dealers and dropped the keys on the desk.
None of which reduced the waiting lists for the XJ. The car was so good that everyone wanted a new Coventry cat.
Today, interest in Jaguar's best ever saloon is beginning to nudge upwards. There are a lot about and values remain low, in part due to the level of choice but also because it's a big car that requires a big garage.
I hope that continues. The XJ, particularly the early short wheelbase and final V12 cars, are extremely good.
This is my personal list of top 10 Jaguars. What's yours? Let me know in the comments.
Great Driving Days has the largest fleet of classic Jaguars to hire in the UK, from 1960s Mk2 to 1990s XJR. Find out more here.