Has the XJ-S earned its classic spurs?

| 6 Oct 2014

So asks Martin Buckley, long one of the overlooked Jaguar GT's detractors, after a day in a rare early manual.

Even as a nine-year-old boy, I harboured deep reservations about the Jaguar XJ-S. I fully acknowledged its capabilities, but couldn’t reconcile its styling with what I expected a Jaguar to look like, at least in print. The trouble was, it didn’t look any better in the metal: when I saw my first live XJ-S close-up, I remember being impressed but not thrilled by the shape. It was wide and squat, vaguely ‘continental’ and obviously fast, but looked like an attempt to build a corporate Leyland supercar for the ’70s, rather than a replacement for the E-type. No matter how much Jaguar tried to distance itself from its parent firm, the XJ-S seemed, to me at least, very much a part of that British Leyland regime and all of its industrial headaches. It’s telling that it came out in 1975, the year an independent Jaguar board was abolished under BL. 

As a company, Jaguar already had National Treasure status and great things were expected, but the XJ-S was probably the first car that the firm had built for a long time that was not universally fêted by press and public alike. Yet in so many respects there was nothing to touch it as a refined, high-speed express. Powered by a fuel-injected 5.3-litre V12 (widely acknowledged to be among the world’s finest production engines), the XJ-S brought new standards of civility and quietness to its class. It was an almost bemusing combination of qualities, unique in the world of two-door luxury GTs. Here was an awkward-looking coupé that handled better than an E-type, went as well as most Ferraris and rode with the quiet aplomb of a Rolls-Royce. The American journalist Patrick Bedard summed it up best when he wrote in Car and Driver in 1976: ‘The XJ-S is a dark and mysterious product of England’s tortured auto industry, fantastically over-qualified for today’s driving conditions.’

Apart from a certain feline poise to its proportions – achieved by moving the rear suspension forward in the XJ floorpan to give a shorter wheelbase – it was a complete break from the curvaceous sensuality of the XJ family. When Jaguar already built a handsome two-door XJ coupé, the point of the less roomy, less attractive XJ-S was difficult to grasp. In fact, the XJ-S neither filled the space left by the E-type nor usurped the XJC, but was an entirely new type of Jaguar, a low-slung and close-coupled GT where refinement was as important as driver appeal. 

The styling, with its awkward black impact bumpers, ungainly ‘sail panels’ on either side of the bootlid – aiding airflow and adding rigidity – and generally clumsy detailing, was a curious swansong design from the William Lyons/Malcolm Sayer team. Sound aerodynamics had been at the heart of the XJ-S shape from the very beginning – it was certainly a more slippery car than the E-type – but the various distractions of Federal safety requirements must have compromised the purity of the original idea. The looks, however, were only the beginning of a litany of misgivings that swirled around the car. Where the E-type had symbolised optimism, youth and freedom, the XJ-S seemed to align itself with a more cynical and restrictive world where its huge performance – 0-60mph in 6.7 secs and 153mph flat-out – could rarely be used. Instead it distracted its occupants with luxury features such as standard air-conditioning. The gloriously cheesy launch brochure for the XJ-S, shot in hazy, sub-Emmanuelle style and telling the story of a pair of Euro-sophisticates jet-setting across the continent, showed the market Jaguar wanted the new car to appeal to. 

Perhaps the car’s greatest crime in the eyes of Jaguar watchers was that the XJ-S was not a true sports car, the genuine E-type replacement that they had hoped for. Fashionable mid-engined concepts had been rejected and there was not even an open version because it looked as if soft-top cars would be outlawed in the North American market. By the time the threat of this new legislation had receded, the XJ-S was too far down the developmental line to be anything other than a coupé.

The fuel crisis was still fresh in people’s memories and perspectives on the future of big, fast cars were almost universally gloomy when the XJ-S was launched in September 1975. The idea of a 150mph, 12mpg 2+2 seemed vaguely antisocial in an atmosphere where the motor car was beginning to be heavily legislated against as a killer and a polluter. 

Neither was the XJ-S as keenly priced as Jaguars had traditionally been. This was to be a fully specified flagship product, priced at double the money Jaguar had asked for the last of the E-types. In fact, it was only a few hundred pounds (rather than several thousand) cheaper than its German rivals – which probably caused critics to judge the XJ-S more harshly than they might have done otherwise. 

I certainly judged it harshly. Perhaps, in my nine-year-old brain, the image the XJ-S conveyed just did not compute. The bravado of the launch advertisements – ‘September 10 1975. A black day for Modena, Stuttgart and Turin’ – set out its aspirations as a credible British alternative to European exotica, yet for me it was neither special enough, exciting enough nor beautiful enough to rival Italian supercars. Nor even sufficiently rational to match the elegant practicality of a BMW or a Mercedes-Benz. 

With its GKN Kent alloys and minimalist interior (no token wood), however, it came from another era and had the right vibe, especially in launch colours such as solid white and red that instantly take you back to scenes from Return of the Saint and The New Avengers. This was the glamorous international image that Jaguar was lusting after, to tempt wannabe Mike Gambits and Simon Templars out of their fashionable European GTs. The other great thing about the early V12 XJ-S is that 354 of them were built as four-speed manuals through to 1980. This car is one of them. “I’ve always had a fascination for ’70s GT cars, with a particular weakness for the pre-HE XJ-S,” says the owner, a London businessman who also owns an Interceptor. “It’s the non-wood interior and enormous black bumpers that give the car its period charisma and set it apart from the later variants.” 

He has owned this example for just over a year and its previous owner but one had the car for 20 years, during which time he re-shelled it and rebuilt it, hence the unusually good condition of the body. Nevertheless, the car still felt a bit “wobbly”, so specialist KWE rebuilt the suspension, steering and brakes and also carried out some reliability upgrades including an engine ‘perishables service’ that replaces all of the coolant hoses, drive belts and ignition leads, along with a chemical flush of the cooling system, an electrical makeover and a cunning fuel-rail re-arrangement to stop the usual design flaw of poor hot starting due to vapour lock in the fuel rail and regulators. The result is an elderly XJ-S that is capable of withstanding the rigours of regular use around the capital. 

It’s amazing how many respectful looks this car gets. The XJ-S in this launch form has clearly moved beyond glam-banger status. You think of it as being quite a big car, but it isn’t by today’s standards. The cabin, which you have to stoop significantly to slide into, is darkly intimate and you feel dwarfed by modern saloons and off-roaders because you sit so low. 

I like these slender early seats and even the rather brittle facia that, to me, looks cleaner and more purposeful without the timber that HE versions used to please American tastes. In a sense this is the first ‘modern’ Jaguar dashboard, designed around ergonomic principles rather than an endearing plank of wood with switches and dials arranged across it like a fighter aircraft. Shame about the wooden wheel – it’s a bit naff. It should have the pleasingly thin-rimmed corporate wheel framing those slightly cheap-looking instruments. The deeply hooded 160mph speedo and rev counter are separated by water temperature, oil pressure, fuel and charging gauges with needles that move vertically. When all is well, and the fuel tank is half full, the needles form a single yellow line across the panel.

The delightfully refined pre-engaged starter motor winds the V12 to a creamy idle at a flick of the key and the XJ-S whispers away from the kerb and merges with the traffic. It does not indulge in the contrived, adolescent fruity exhaust notes of so many of today’s GT cars. Its twin exhausts emit only a seamlessly aspirant hum of power as the car surges forward, the only clue to it working hard being an unseemly whine in the two lower gears that is curiously out of character with its otherwise suave persona. Not that you really need gears in this car, so flexible is its emollient delivery of urge. It will pull away in top with the absolute minimum of clutch slip, although I didn’t try the old Autocar trick of winding it away from rest on the starter with the gearlever in fourth for the ultimate in one-gear motoring. Unlike most of the original ’70s testers, I enjoyed the manual ’box. It gives the XJ-S an extra edge of authority to its acceleration (and, at the time, put its performance figures in the true supercar league) and it’s pleasing to manipulate the sturdy lever around to get instant access to that pace, although the clutch is heavy. It’s a notchy but positive shift, with long movements and a second gear that will give you a heroic 85mph should you be tempted to wind the V12 towards its redline. 

You can hear it when it is revving hard, but this engine is never much more than an insistent murmur, thrusting the Jaguar on with a shallow curve of progressive potency that pushes you firmly but not aggressively back in your chair. It feels impressive, but in no way dramatic and always gentlemanly. And you could say the same of the handling. The XJ-S is subtly more responsive than the XJ saloons, but it is hard to pinpoint how. With a notch removed from the rack and a little less assistance, the power steering is more alert and less over-light. Because you sit lower, the impression of body roll is lessened and, with the manual ’box to give you full and accurate command of the engine’s torque, the XJ-S feels a niftier, smaller car than you remember. 

In the dry there is adhesion to spare and it’s quite an effort to persuade the car out of its state of gentle understeer. It is a satisfying thing to drive quickly, without ever tempting you into the realms of hooliganism. We drove three-up through town in this low and silent Jaguar, noting that the rear seats were well-shaped but lacked headroom for fully formed adults. We also noted how close the ’screen is to the steering wheel without the usual half-acre of swollen plastic we have become used to in modern cars. The ride is so outstandingly supple and quiet that it’s only after getting out and riding in a modern car that you register just how refined the XJ-S still is in this department. It dismisses potholes and ridges, the aftermath of icy winter weather, with the effortless disdain of a limousine, while letting in little noise from its tyres.

Thirty-five years on, I’m still not sure what to make of the XJ-S. Not long after I started secondary school, Jaguar was on the point of killing it off, so lame had its sales figures become. Yet, by the mid-’80s, it had turned the XJ-S’ fortunes around: the HE was the more thrifty, chrome-bumpered and better-built model that buyers wanted in a world that had a new taste for fast luxury cars. Six-cylinder versions and open-topped models broadened its appeal, so what had looked like an embarrassing disaster turned into a Jaguar success story as memories faded of the early cars, with their rust and their thirst. 

Indeed, the XJ-S became the longest-serving Jaguar of all: I felt I’d almost grown up with it when production ended in 1995. Later cars were certainly better and more complete but, flawed as it is, the pre-HE XJ-S is still the only variant that has ever held any attraction for me.

This article was originally published in the June 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Martin Buckley; pictures: Maclolm Griffiths