Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

| 6 Oct 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

We came to mock and stayed to marvel.

Sucked into Coventry’s urban sprawl and exhaled onto the road to Damascus (strictly speaking, somewhere in the Cotswolds), the heart counters the head and a long-nurtured aversion to the Jaguar XJ-S melts away.

The sullen months of winter have made way for a crisp spring morning and, as sunlight glints off the golden-hued acreage of bonnet, suddenly it all makes sense.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

Our ‘grand tour’ by Jaguar of the Cotswolds included a spell on country lanes with the XJ-S V12 (left) and XJS 6-litre

This 40-year-old coupé is a good car.

Maybe not a great one, but it’s infinitely better than preconceptions and prejudices might have you believe.

It recalibrates how you feel, and for the better.

But, as one of our party breathlessly enthuses at our first stop: “You should drive the other one. It’s brilliant.”

We realise that this may not be news to some of you.

It’s just that the XJ-S has historically suffered in comparison with the car that preceded it – the immortal E-type.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

Big bumpers dominate the rear of the early Jaguar XJ-S

As such, it was always on to a loser even if it was envisioned as a mile-eating GT rather than an out-and-out sports car.

And let’s not forget the styling, which in period was slated by some amateur design critics. Professional ones, too.

Throw in so-so build quality, worse reliability and hellacious thirst, and it’s no great surprise that the model’s credibility was dented.

The thing is, the XJ-S outlived its natural lifespan several times over. That, and its pariah status.

It became popular with age. It’s just that some of us didn’t notice, or chose not to.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

Beneath the intimidating pipework lies the 5.3-litre V12 engine of this XJ-S

Whatever, it was quite a journey for a car that was conceived before Jaguar lost its independence.

It emerged blinking into the light as British Leyland threatened to implode and was reborn after being freed from the shackles of state ownership.

It went on to thrive under Ford’s protective cloak and remained in production for two decades.

That’s a fine innings, not least for a car that appeared to be heading for the embalming table in the early ’80s, when production scarcely reached four figures in a single year.

Replacing the E-type was always going to be a tough gig, but aerodynamicist-cum-chief stylist Malcolm Sayer began working on a concept as far back as 1966.

Shortly thereafter, however, there was talk of Jaguar producing as many as four different ‘sporting’ cars, one of which would have featured a 3½-litre V8.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

The XJ-S V12’s comfortable cabin is a symphony of brown and black

At one point, there was even a proposal for a mid-engined car, complete with ultra-long rear buttresses, but none of these schemes amounted to much.

Instead, Sayer and his team headed in a different direction entirely.

Sadly, Sayer died in 1970, two years after Jaguar’s absorption into what became BLMC (later British Leyland), the definitive outline being completed in his absence.

With the suits squabbling with each other, and increasing interference from the new paymaster, it is little wonder that what emerged as the XJ-S at the ’75 Frankfurt motor show was compromised.

Borrowing much of its foundations from the XJ-series saloon, powering this brave new world was a 285bhp fuel-injected V12 that was initially offered with manual or automatic transmission.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

Funky ‘roller’ dials are a nice addition

The four-speed ’box was disadvantaged by its lack of an overdrive at a time when most of its contemporaries had five-speed units, and this option was quietly dropped in 1979.

Just 352 XJ-Ss were so equipped, although the British motoring media for the most part evaluated manual cars during the initial flurry of road tests.

Autocar recorded a top speed of 153mph and a 0-60mph time of 6.9 secs.

Not that the all-important Stateside market was ready to take the XJ-S to its bosom just yet.

For starters, the federalised V12 produced 41 fewer horses, which, according to Road & Track, meant that 0-60mph took 8.6 secs.

That was at best average for the period.

The real issues, however, were poor build quality and worse reliability.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

The period silver GKN Kent alloy wheels look great on the Jaguar XJ-S

For starters, the V12 powerplant had a narrow operating window.

It really didn’t like heat, which was a problem if you lived in, say, Arizona.

In time, it wasn’t uncommon to see Chevrolet V8 conversions being advertised in America’s specialist press.

Amid crippling industrial unrest and upheaval at the top, Michael Edwardes was parachuted in to try to right the ship.

And then salvation: Edwardes’ appointee John Egan persuaded all parties – including suppliers – to raise their game.

It was make or break time.

What really helped turn around the XJ-S’ flagging fortunes, though, was the new Michael May-designed, freer-flowing cylinder head, which lent the V12 greater refinement.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

‘As sunlight glints off the golden bonnet, suddenly it all makes sense’

The XJ-S HE (High Efficiency) also featured a higher rear-axle ratio, suspension tweaks and wider wheels.

The interior was given a make-over, with all-leather trim and timber where previously there had been none.

Launched in May 1981, this new strain won over the press and public alike to the point that, in 1982, production was double that of the previous year.

Jaguar had rediscovered its mojo, a 3.6-litre six-cylinder engine being added to the line-up in 1983 with the arrival of the new roll-hooped Cabriolet.

This was in turn replaced by a full convertible in 1988 (seven years after Lynx Motors first sliced the roof off an XJ-S).

There was even a race programme, Tom Walkinshaw fielding Jaguars in the European Touring Car Championship from 1982, the Scot claiming the drivers’ title two years later.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

The Jaguar XJS 6-litre was happiest where it could stretch its legs

Jaguar was privatised in 1984 and five years after that, more than a decade after the XJ-S first broke cover, the model enjoyed its best-ever year with sales of 11,207 cars.

In November ’89, Ford acquired Jaguar and the Blue Oval went on to invest millions in improving the XJ-S, with the Geoff Lawson-masterminded restyle emerging in May ’91.

And when the curtain finally descended in April ’96, production of all types amounted to a remarkable 115,413 units.

The blue car pictured here was the final XJS (no hyphen from 1990) to roll off the Browns Lane assembly line.

While ostensibly an evolution of the ’75 Earls Court motor show car alongside, it looks infinitely more youthful.

Indeed, at one point during our photoshoot, an onlooker identified the gold car from 10 paces away but didn’t realise its sibling was a Jaguar despite them sharing the same basic outline.

Maybe he didn’t have his lenses in. Who knows? What is clear is that the XJ-S has aged well.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

The later car’s interior feels lighter and has better ergonomics, too

For all the brickbats levelled at the car when it was revealed in Germany 40 years ago, the styling doesn’t appear controversial now.

Sure, the chunky buttresses, long overhangs and plastic bumpers don’t do it any favours, but it instantly conjures images of 1970s glamour as viewed through a soft-focus lens.

It’s hard not to envisage Ian Ogilvy see-sawing at the wheel of his white XJ-S (in a straight line) as he rights wrongs in Return of the Saint, or Gareth Hunt fishtailing his red example in pursuit of assassins in The New Avengers.

The later car, in contrast, looks more cohesive, the rear end being particularly accomplished.

That said, it doesn’t so much evoke images of international men of mystery as Pringle-clad golfing types.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

The XJS has a 6-litre V12 engine that gives 301bhp

Stoop to enter the ’75 car and you are rewarded with leather and vinyl upholstery, rocker switches, groovy vertically calibrated instruments and no fewer than 19 warning lights.

Those, and an ugly steering wheel with a huge central ‘impact face’.

It is clearly a car of its time, and not a particularly spacious one at that.

The younger version, in comparison, couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in both looks and feel.

Sure, it has the same lack of headroom, and the same blind spots for that matter, but the extensive use of burr walnut and leather lends it the ‘Ye Olde Gentleman’s Express’ reference points once expected of a Jaguar.

The two cars could not be more different to drive, either.

The gold XJ-S is barely audible at idle. You wouldn’t expect it to be otherwise.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

More modern multi-spoke alloys for the XJS 6-litre

As is so often the way when a photographer is on point, our ‘grand tour’ of the Cotswolds entailed driving on motorways, B-roads, rutted country roads and gnarly farm tracks.

It wasn’t fazed, the all-round independent suspension offering a reasonable compromise because it cushions most dips, bumps and ruts while displaying excellent stability at high(ish) speeds.

That, surely, is what you want from a proper GT car.

It also handles better than you might imagine. It rolls, as cars once did, but proves utterly faithful once you learn to trust it.

Sure, it lollops a bit, yet the power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is light and responsive.

It also boasts a short turning radius, which comes as a welcome surprise.

On the flipside, it doesn’t feel as though it’s packing 285bhp.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

Build quality also improved under Ford’s ownership

Things start to happen at around 3500rpm, and it pulls cleanly towards 6000rpm, by which time the V12 takes a turn for the choral.

It’s only under kickdown that you feel as if you’re really moving, though.

The issue, if you can call it that, is the transmission. The three-speed Borg-Warner Model 12 auto ’box changes up long before the engine gets into its stride, which is frustrating.

The all-round disc brakes, meanwhile, scrub off speed well but it’s hard to effectively modulate pedal pressure.

The run-out edition is revelatory, however. There is no lag to be found; no messages are deferred.

This car responds instantly to driver input, not least when accelerating hard.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

The full-width tail-lights were part of the model’s 1991 facelift

Power output over the XJ-S’s lifespan varied depending on what year it was.

Here, it’s packing 301bhp at 5400rpm, but the important bit is the torque figure: 355lb ft at 2850rpm.

Unlike the older car, the unhyphenated XJS doesn’t make like a speedboat when pressed: the tail doesn’t squat, nor does the nose point to the stars.

It merely propels you faster than seems probable from A to B, but with only a modicum of fanfare.

It’s almost eerie, not least because there is little wind noise or tyre roar, unlike in the older car.

You feel cocooned but never detached from the action.

While the early car will stick to its line, there is always the nagging suspicion that, once the tail steps out, it will likely take out a small cottage before you’re able to gather it back up again.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

A Cotswold road trip shined a light on this pair’s forgotten charms

The later car corners flat, while the steering is light yet more communicative.

The brakes – four-piston front calipers as before, but with floating calipers at the rear – also stop the car four-square without it ever threatening to spill.

It feels stiffer (early examples suffered scuttle shake that was alleviated by cross-bracing), but without compromising the ride quality.

Time spent with both Jaguars on all kinds of roads, and in all weathers, leads you to conclude that the XJ-S has been poorly served by history.

It was clearly a good car to begin with, but it matured over time to become the machine it always should have been: a devastatingly capable GT that still stacks up.

The barometer at C&SC, however, is would you want to own one?

Tellingly, more than one member of this parish admitted to scouring the classifieds and online auction sites following our photoshoot.

That should speak volumes.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to: Tony O’Keeffe and Jaguar Heritage

This was first in our July 2015 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XJ-S V12 vs XJS 6-litre: coming of age

Jaguar XJ-S V12

  • Sold/number built 1975-’81/61,209 (all V12s)
  • Construction steel monocoque
  • Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 5343cc 60º V12 with Lucas-Bosch fuel injection
  • Max power 285bhp @ 5800rpm
  • Max torque 294lb ft @ 3500rpm
  • Transmission BW three-speed automatic or Jaguar four-speed manual, driving rear wheels via a Powr-Lok limited-slip diff
  • Suspension independent all round, at front by semi-trailing wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear lower wishbones, driveshafts as upper links, radius arms and twin coilover dampers
  • Steering Adwest rack and pinion, with hydraulic assistance
  • Brakes vented discs, inboard rear, with servo
  • Length 15ft 11¾in (4870mm)
  • Width 5ft 10½in (1790mm)
  • Height 4ft 1⅗in (1260mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
  • Weight 3718lb (1686kg)
  • 0-60mph 6.7/7.5 secs (manual/auto)
  • Top speed 153/145mph
  • Mpg 11-14
  • Price new £8900


Jaguar XJS 6-litre

Where different from XJ-S V12

  • Sold/number built 1993-’96/772
  • Engine 5994cc
  • Max power 301bhp @ 5350rpm
  • Max torque 355lb ft @ 2850rpm
  • Transmission GM three-speed automatic
  • Brakes outboard rear discs
  • 0-60mph 6.6 secs
  • Top speed 161mph
  • Price new £50,500

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