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They look an odd couple, yet there is more to link the early Jaguar XJ-S and M50 Lotus Elite than there is to divide them.
Both were four-place grand touring cars for the 1970s, born into a beleaguered Britain looking for reasons to feel good about itself again, confronting the gloomy automotive problems and predictions of the decade head-on with rational solutions.
Both came strictly in closed form for a more safety-conscious world that seemed to be turning its back on pure sports cars.
In favour instead was a more versatile breed of vehicle that might have to work for its living as a business and family tool, rather than being purely recreational in the way their E-type and Elan predecessors had been.
In replacing those national treasures of the ’60s, the visually controversial XJ-S and Elite probably faced their harshest critics from the more traditional Jaguar and Lotus owners.
Yet both cars sought to attract a new type of buyer. One that was willing to pay a steeper price for a more luxurious and highly specified close-coupled four-seater, cast in the mould of the GT competition from Europe, where luxury held equal sway with urge.
It is doubtful there were many self-righteous ecologists among the ranks of potential Elite owners, but, in building a performance car that was parsimonious with (increasingly expensive) fuel, Colin Chapman judged the mood of the post-petrol-crisis market perfectly with his 25mpg, 126mph grand tourer.
Not so the Jaguar; but then Browns Lane was never likely to build a thrifty GT.
The XJ-S at least seemed to recognise a change in fashion and mood: the need to produce a flagship supercoupé with a new flavour for a post-E-type world.
Its Frankfurt launch, rather than Earls Court, emphasised its international appeal and it was supported by a bullish blanket advertising campaign featuring that famous gauntlet-throwing headline: ‘September 10, 1975. A black day for Modena, Stuttgart and Turin.’
Make no mistake, the XJ-S was a big deal in 1975.
There were as many people who disliked its looks as loved them, and some dismissed the car unfairly as a 153mph/14mpg dinosaur in a world of rising fuel costs and speed restrictions.
This was an ‘exotic’ Jaguar for the ’70s. Based on a stiffer, shortened XJ floorpan, and with the same superbly resolved suspension, its enormously strong long-nose/short-deck body visually owed nothing to any existing Browns Lane product.
The most widely discussed element of its styling were those infamous flying buttress rear quarters, implemented by Malcolm Sayer in the name of air spillage rather than fashion.
Lozenge-shaped Cibié headlamps and sturdy black impact bumpers gave the XJ-S a unique presence, yet one that was still identifiably ‘Jaguar’ in its stance and proportions.
Not very Jaguar-like was the price: at £9000 the XJ-S cost as much or more than many of its conspicuously expensive Continental rivals.
But why underplay the sticker price on this first post-Lyons Jaguar when it was so obviously superior to its rivals in so many ways? Or, as one American road tester accurately put it, so ‘fantastically over qualified for today’s driving conditions’.
In a market made up of very good, mostly German straight-sixes and V8s, nobody really needed a 5.3-litre, single-cam-per-bank, Lucas fuel-injected V12; yet Jaguar gave it to them anyway, producing a wide, low-slung GT that was an almost surreal combination of Ferrari and Lamborghini-type performance with limousine silence and refinement.
On paper at least, the XJ-S made those Italian V12s look rather superfluous, and its BMW and Mercedes-Benz rivals were comfortably outranked, particularly when the likes of the 450SLC were easily as thirsty in return for quite a lot less pace and finesse.
On home turf, leaving aside handbuilts from Aston Martin and Jensen, the Lotus Elite was in some ways the XJ-S’s most credible British rival.
At £6700 in the spring of 1974, the all-new Type 75 Elite was the world’s most expensive four-cylinder car and the upmarket move Colin Chapman had been looking to make for years.
There was no shortage of ambition here. It might have been down on the Jaguar by 130bhp, eight pistons and more than three litres, but it was not long before the Elite’s price-tag had almost caught up with that of the XJ-S.
It seemed every inch a car for its time, a low-drag full four-seater in the modern ‘wedge’ idiom that was hundreds of pounds lighter than its rival.
And, thanks to its low frontal area and relatively high gearing, it required just 41 of its 155bhp to maintain a steady 100mph.
The Elite was powered by the twin-cam, canted-over Type 907 1973cc engine first seen in the Jensen-Healey.
It was a well-massaged blend of established Chapman principles – glassfibre body and backbone chassis – but with important new details such as a highly impact-resistant structure that effortlessly outperformed all the Federal and European crash safety requirements.
The body was formed in two halves along its waistline in a ‘secret’ new process developed for Chapman’s Moonraker boats.
The rear suspension was a classic example of Chapman’s ethos of making one component do two jobs: the driveshaft doubled as the upper link, Jaguar-style.
In service it suffered leaky differential output seals and hub-carrier failure, perhaps the greatest cause of owners’ frustration.
Where the XJ-S came in just one level of trim with few options, the Elite, with its ItalDesign fascia and hatchback, was a three-car range at first: denominations 501/502/503 indicated power steering, air-conditioning or a combination of all three respectively. And from 1976 there was even an automatic Elite 504.
Some cars grow into their looks.
For all its charms, the edgy, angular profile of the Elite seemed to fall out of favour quite quickly and by 1982 (with 2500 built) it had been killed off in favour of the Excel, which was in effect a much improved version of the Éclat with the same booted fastback shape that was less characterful but perhaps more widely acceptable.
Yet it is the dramatic ‘mini Espada’ feel of Oliver Winterbottom’s Elite that has best stood the test of time; ditto the original 1975-’81 rendition of the XJ-S, to my eyes at least.
John Egan’s better-built, thriftier 1981 XJ-S High Efficiency saved the model from extinction, but it lacks the ’70s ‘supercar’ feel of the original.
With its bold primary external colours (they all seemed to be red, white or yellow, somehow), classic GKN alloys and minimalist interior, the early XJ-S made profile-raising appearances in television shows Return of the Saint and The New Avengers that are very much part of its appeal.
The most collectable of the early cars is, of course, the 352-run special-order manual version, only available on the pre-HE cars.
They were built not only to keep a die-hard ‘sports car’ element of buyers happy, but also as an acknowledgement that the early Borg-Warner Model 12 automatics were not really a match for the V12’s 285bhp.
It was no accident that most of the early road tests are of manual cars, rather than the B-W automatics.
With the GM400 fitted, the self-shifting XJ-S became a much nicer car and, when you drive one, it’s easy to see why the manual was so rare.
I can speak from experience, because BEG 42T (made in 1978, in Cotswold Yellow with super-rare steel sunroof) is my old car – and I never liked driving it quite as much as the not-very-rare automatic XJ-S I had at the same time.
Then again, it’s a much better car now since its bare-metal restoration by XJ specialist Keith Partington on behalf of its current owner, Adrian Massey, who also owns the famous pre-production XJ 2.8, MWK 28G
Mindful that if you are going to restore an XJ-S it makes sense to rebuild the sought-after four-speed, Massey used BEG on a daily basis until the engine fatally coughed.
“I decided on a full rebuild when the cooling system went and blew the head gaskets,” he says. “When Keith took it apart there was hardly a component in the cooling system that worked.”
You feel cocooned inside its low, leather-swaddled cabin, with those revolving minor instruments and a blank in the warning light cluster that should have housed an indicator for a proposed two-speed rear axle.
The seats are skinny and Modernist, not the usual Jaguar semi-armchair type, but it’s hard to see why the driving position was so widely criticised.
The low whine of the starter flows into the hum of the tickover in a way that is unique to this engine and you almost need to look at the rev counter to know the car is running.
You are soon urged forward by an engine that makes none of the usual V12 cacophony but is simply a vague, aspirating mechanical presence that wafts the car forward in a series of smooth lunges.
Unless you feel the need to use 6000rpm, the low gears of the slightly ponderous transmission generally make more noise than the engine, and the XJ-S flows down the road with a creamy potency that makes the rate of progress deceptively undramatic.
The weight of the clutch you soon forget and gearchanging is largely optional, with a delicious flow of top-gear torque combined with delightfully smooth and accurate throttle control.
Not so the Lotus Elite, although in this later post-1980, Type 912 2.2-litre form (front spoiler, bigger rear lamps and square numberplate chief among the visual tell-tales) it is much more flexible than you might imagine.
It’s well capable of taking full throttle from 20mph in fourth gear on its flatter and fatter torque curve.
Not that you’d want to treat it like that too often, because the Getrag five-speed ’box is pleasant to handle. It is more positive than the old Austin Maxi-derived unit in the 2-litre model while giving 60mph in second gear and 83mph in third, should you wish to avail yourself of the full 7000rpm.
Even lower slung than the XJ-S, the Elite has similar rear vision issues caused by the massive C-pillars but makes better use of its space, with adult-sized, deeply cushioned back seats.
Its rear occupants sit knees-up, but the Jaguar’s is more a perch that is really only good for teenagers.
A rare full-leather cabin lifts the tone of this Elite’s interior considerably and, being one of the more exclusive Riviera versions, there is a lift-out roof panel above the front seats. A glass divider between the rear seat and the rather short boot helps to banish fuel and exhaust fumes.
Elite owner Angus Watson, a retired engineer who now lives in Stroud, became interested in Lotus and his hero Jim Clark from the age of six and is still passionate today.
“I grew up in Tyneside,” Watson says, “and I remember getting beaten up at school when Graham Hill won Sports Personality of the Year rather than a footballer because I was the only one who knew who he was…
“I was forever getting into trouble drawing Europas on my school books and was fascinated by Chapman’s theory of elegant simplicity – the aerodynamics, the plastic technologies.”
Watson finally bought an S2 Europa, followed by an Elan +2 and an Elan fixed-head. “I’ve always used original Lotus parts and found the cars to be reliable,” he adds.
With a family under way he bought his Ice Blue ex-Mike Kimberley 1982 Motor Show Elite Riviera in 1984 and put 30,000 miles on it in the first year as his everyday car, with factory services every 6000 miles.
“I paid £11,000 when I could have had a Maserati Bora for the same money,” he recalls. “That would be a £200k car now, this is worth about £20,000 and is one of the best.”
The Elite, freshly revived by well-known specialist Paul Matty in Worcestershire, cruises quite peacefully in top but sounds throaty and aggressive when extended in the indirect gears, with a rate of pick-up that is not massively adrift of the Jaguar until you get beyond 70mph.
Where the XJ-S hums like a turbine, the Elite makes healthy, deep-lunged and lusty four-cylinder-type sounds that are the polar opposite of the Jaguar’s suave refinement and effortless muscle.
But while it loses out in absolute straight-line urge, on a piece of road where nature rather than civil engineering dictates the terrain the Elite is probably the quicker car.
Utterly composed, poised and stable, it goes where it is bidden absolutely faithfully with a minimum of body roll, understeer and drama.
Swift progress is not only natural but almost relaxing because the Lotus’ driving position is so good, the ride so comfortable and free from flab, and the responses so predictable.
By tweaking the XJ’s suspension and steering to favour a subtly firmer set-up, Jaguar made the XJ-S feel like a smaller, handier car than its saloon brethren.
Initial impressions are that the accurate steering is about the right weight but not over-burdened with feel, yet somehow that’s part of the velvety, insulated character of the car.
The ride is as soft, quiet and controlled at 10mph as it is at 110mph, and there is an eerie lack of wind noise around its ugly, cheap-looking painted-metal door window frames.
The Jaguar is not as chuckable as the Lotus, and is much heavier and larger, but it’s a supremely balanced and confidence-inspiring vehicle.
It won’t do anything ungentlemanly if you back off in the wrong place or leave your braking too late, but the XJ-S is not a car you naturally drive near its limits. Nor do you deny it the respect it deserves in the wet, because both break the magical spell of its composure and refinement.
I like the Lotus and Jaguar very much, but possibly more as ideas than for the troubled reality of actually owning either of them.
As they enter their fifth decade, however, maybe we can allow ourselves the indulgence of celebrating the concepts rather than lingering on the shortcomings.
We Brits seem to be forgiving of foreign exotica, yet ready to stick the boot in to anything made here in the ’70s.
Certainly there are parallels that can be drawn in the quality problems that made both cars frustrating to own, particularly in the case of the Lotus with its rust-prone chassis and inherently flawed rear suspension design.
On balance I would probably take the Jaguar. Flagship of the British Leyland range, the XJ-S was more a straightforward case of build-quality issues.
It was a marvellous ananchronism, one of the planet’s great luxury cars built by Marxists in donkey jackets, that stuck two fingers up at a world that had written off the strike-torn UK; a car so much better than it needed to be that it was still in production 20 years later.
If the XJ-S was too much of a good thing the Elite was never quite enough, inviting the attentions of Rover V8 engine-swappers who missed the point of what Colin Chapman was trying to do with this light, safe, luxurious and efficient four-cylinder, 130mph four-seater.
This was a project that, I suspect, tested his ingenuity as much as anything he ever put on four wheels for road use. That alone might be a reason for seeking out a good one, although they are few and far between.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Thanks to Shelsley Walsh; Paul Matty Sportscars
Jaguar XJ-S (Pre-HE)
- Sold/number built 1975-’80/14,800
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, sohc-per-bank 5344cc V12 with Lucas fuel injection
- Max power 285bhp @ 5800rpm
- Max torque 294Ib ft @ 4500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by semi-trailing wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers rear lower wishbones with driveshafts as upper links, radius arms, twin coilovers per side; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 16ft (4872mm)
- Width 5ft 11in (1791mm)
- Height 4ft 2in (1265mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
- Weight 3763lb (1707kg)
- 0-60mph 6.9 secs
- Top speed 153mph
- Mpg 13
- Price new £14,472
- Price now £5-18,000*
- Sold/number built 1974-’82/2398
- Construction galvanised steel backbone chassis with glassfibre body
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 2174cc 16-valve slant-four, twin Dell’Orto 45DHLA carburettors
- Max power 160bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 160Ib ft @ 5000rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual (optional three-speed automatic), RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by wishbones, anti-roll bar rear trailing arms, lower links; coilover dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 14ft 11in (4458mm)
- Width 5ft 11in (1816mm)
- Height 3ft 11in (1207mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 1in (2483mm)
- Weight 2429lb (1102kg)
- 0-60mph 7.5 secs
- Top speed 132mph
- Mpg 36.2
- Price new £16,433
- Price now £3-10,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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