There are two generally agreed-upon rules when it comes to buying a used car on Craigslist: don’t buy someone else’s project, and don’t buy an old Jag. In typical fashion, I have just bought an old Jag that was somebody else’s project and then road-tripped it to Oklahoma to visit my grandmother. Clearly there was nothing that could go wrong with this plan.
The Jaguar XJ-S began its reign of terror in 1975 as a successor to the oft-lauded E-type. Note that I said “successor” and not “replacement”. This is an important distinction as the E-type was very much a sports car whereas the XJ-S was designed as a forward-looking grand tourer built in anticipation of a changing market. Unfortunately they misjudged their consumer base and the XJ-S was very largely panned upon release for not being a sports car– for not being an E-type. Regardless, outside the context of the E-type and within the context of grand touring coupes the XJ-S was very good at what it did. So good that the basic design persisted for 21 years, ceasing in 1996 and being replaced with the Jaguar XK after a run of 115,413 vehicles.
As a grand touring coupe the XJ-S had several design goals: be brisk, be smooth, be competent and confident on the back roads of England, leave a visual impression in the mind of the observer and provide a comfortable quiet ride for the driver. To that end the XJ-S is equipped with a hood best measured in acres, a 2+2 seating configuration, leather interior, a large trunk (or ‘boot’ to those in the country of origin), independent rear suspension, A/C, power steering, and a V12 engine. 7.6 seconds to 60 and a top speed of 143mph were the headlining numbers for this 4000 pound luxury car thanks to 282hp and 300lb*ft of twist coming from the 5.3 liter fuel injected V12. Unfortunately the Bosch fuel-injected V12 had a habit of hoovering wallets with a voracious appetite for both parts and fuel leading to a mid-cycle “High Efficiency” refresh of the XJ-S in in 1981 followed by a significant facelift in 1991. Unfortunately neither of these facelifts cut the mustard for many owners and the concept of a JTR conversion or “Jags That Run” became incredibly commonplace as it was found that American V8s, typically of the Small Block Chevy variant would nestle very nicely into the spacious XJ-S engine bay.
So there’s the facts, now for what I think.
Appearance/Curb Appeal: 90/100
90/100 may seem like a lofty number and I admit I am certainly not without bias but the XJ-S has an old-money elegance and grace that is very uncommon in the new-money flashiness of modern luxury cars and contemporary domestics. If you’re playing along at home you probably just got “bingo” for auto-journo review tropes. The flying buttress design and immense hood real estate sets it far apart from the amorphous blobs where hood blends into windshield with creases and overwrought styling elements abounding in a desperate attempt to set Crossover #1 apart from Crossover #4 apart from Luxury Crossover #397. The thin pillars and low roofline of the Jag define a shape that has all but disappeared from auto manufacturers minds as safety and efficiency regulations have made such designs expensive or impossible to execute.
Of particular note I’d like to point out the wheel and tire fitment. The tire fills the wheel well to the brim with minimal wheel gap to give the 4×4 ‘truck’ appearance many stock vehicles have, but remain inset enough to have a reasonable amount of suspension travel.
And, really, just look at it. The amount of attention this car gets is remarkable. I pulled up at a stop light alongside a pristine second-generation Corvette in a similarly striking shade of red with a very healthy sounding cammed V8. From the nearby gas station we heard a man yell “Hey!” and both looked over. “Nice Jag!” he continued and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of superiority over the undoubtably much-more-expensive Corvette that failed to elicit such a reaction. For sure, this car will do unhealthy things to my ego.
The interior of a Jaguar XJ-S is probably a very nice place to be. The interior of *this* Jaguar XJ-S has certainly borne the brunt of the last 40 years with dignity but those years certainly show. The once-couchlike leather seats have become uncomfortable deflated metal frames covered in leather with a hole worn in the driver bolster. The carpet has been removed after getting soaked in condensation from the A/C, a common malady that occurs when the far-too-small drain tubes get clogged which has the interesting side effect of the floors rusting into oblivion due to the moisture. Wear spots on the driver door and sill are evident and a strip of leather has been haphazardly wrapped around the driver door pull, presumably disguising years of friction wear.
Of particular note is the size of the dashboard. It’s not very deep. Perhaps 4 inches of dash pad and then the windshield is right there. In today’s world of heavily-sloped windshields with acres of vinyl or hard plastic collecting dust and encroaching on engine bay space this is certainly an unusual thing. Bonus points awarded to this particular XJ-S for the headliner being intact. The foam-backed fabric is notorious for falling down and requiring complete replacement, as re-gluing will just result in the foam failing above or below the glue.
The suspension, especially the rear, in the XJ-S simultaneously represents an engineer’s wet dream and a mechanic’s worst nightmare. With 1970s suspension technology Jaguar had to be creative to get a car with a 4000+ curb weight to handle in an acceptable manner. Up front is fairly standard but in the rear sits an IRS subframe with two very unusual features, the first of which you can clearly see in the above photo. Rather, it’s what you can’t see. The brakes are an “inboard” style where the brake rotor sits towards the center of the car bolted to the differential with the axles bolted to the outside. This means a reduction in “unsprung weight”, which is a term for weight that is not being supported by the springs. Less unsprung weight means that the wheel has less vertical inertia and is able to be more quickly acted upon by the springs and react quicker to imperfections in the road surface. The wheels on the XJ-S, too, are incredibly light for their size in an effort to reduce that unsprung weight.
The other unusual feature of the Jaguar IRS is the use of four coil-over shocks to save space. Four smaller assemblies can sit lower in the car than two large ones and allow for the whole IRS assembly to be smaller as a result. This also has a secondary function of reducing torsional loads to the chassis through the IRS carrier.
None of this means a thing if the result doesn’t give a world-class ride, however, and as with most things with this car it is important to consider context. For its era the chassis dynamics and handling of the XJ-S is marvelous. Bumps, expansion joints, and railroad crossings are reduced to a soft ‘bump bump’ with no rattles or creaks from the chassis. At the same time, there is absolutely no sign of any floatiness or wallow from the 40 year old (!!!) suspension on this two ton barge. Body roll is present but well-controlled and the car does not simply beach itself on its door handles in corners, but progressively gets stiffer as cornering Gs increase until the driver looks down at the speedometer and thinks “really? In *this*?”.
Unfortunately the handling of my car is somewhat let down by the cheap all-season tires, a decision driven by my financial state after buying the car. It still handles curvy roads with grace and a poise that doesn’t push one to go faster, but isn’t scary or uncertain. Steering feels impressively precise with a surprisingly minimal amount of slop given the amount of wear the rest of the car has.
How can you fault a small-block Chevy V8? It’s the cockroach of drivetrains. The gold standard that is found factory-installed in absolutely everything and unceremoniously swapped into many, many non-factory configurations where the stock powertrain simply didn’t cut the mustard. And cut the mustard the factory V12 evidently didn’t because in its place is an early-80s Chevy 350 bored .030″ over with an Edelbrock 1806 carb, a very mild cam of some description, and a Turbo-Hydromatic 350 3-speed automatic transmission with a ‘shift enhancement’ kit. This iron-block lump of forward motivation is the exact antithesis of the state-of-the-art fuel-injected V12 that previously resided in the Jaguar’s vast engine bay but the hypocrisy is simply too sweet for me. Mashing the ‘go’ pedal on a Jaguar XJ-S is supposed to result in a buttery-smooth surge of power as you waft past the common folk on your way to Important Business. An XJ-S with a 350? Mash the gas and unleash the dogs of Hell as the sound of your exhaust echoes off nearby buildings and scares small pets, the left front corner of the car tilting slightly skyward as the sound builds in intensity until the automatic transmission provides 2nd gear with a chirp of the rear tires and you rapidly approach illegal speeds. Sit at the next stop light with a smug satisfaction in the mayhem in your wake as the “blub blub” of the big V8 lightly tickles your right foot resting on the throttle just waiting for a lesser vehicle to line up alongside you.
Pop your hood at a car show and watch as an endless stream of people briefly gawk at the V8 nestled in the big cat’s chest cavity before briefly regaling you with the tale of they, their parents, or their cousin’s V12 Jaguar that was eventually sold due to engine troubles before sagely nodding and reassuring you of the wise choice the V8 represents for reliable transportation.
The only place this loses points is fuel economy. It’s fairly dysmal. As in, 11mpg. Filling up a 23 gallon fuel tank that frequently is a soul-sucking procedure.
It’s a V8. It makes wonderful V8 noises, then you can roll up the window and have quieter contemplative noises. Points taken off because the radio sucks and there’s a big exhaust leak somewhere in the middle of the car where exhaust systems appear to have been merged together in an unholy chimera of Jaguar and Chevrolet. Kinda like the whole car.
This Jaguar XJ-S represents a “best of both worlds”. To put in amazingly simple terms it can be thought of either as a “reliable British GT car” or a “really, really refined luxury 3rd-gen Camaro”. This particular example is quite rough, as the price reflects, but is amazingly close to a no-compromise mile-munching driving machine. Big, lots of power, handling that won’t scare you, and looks that will turn heads. I wouldn’t have it any other way.