With the XJ-S celebrating its 40th anniversary, Donn recalls a memorable North Island drive to watch the lusty TWR racing versions of a special Jaguar model
n a late January day 29years ago, on near-deserted roads, the Jaguar XJ-S was living up to its reputation as a superb luxury grand tourer. Never had I enjoyed the Auckland–wellington drive so much, and the relaxed return journey would prove just as pleasurable.
This was all so appropriate, as the Jaguar XJ-S was having its international racing swansong on two North Island race tracks in the summer of 1987 — almost 12 years after the car had first broken cover. My near-new, 1986, 6000km V12-engined coupé, loaned by Jaguar, closely matched the green livery of the two Tom Walkinshaw Racing (TWR) XJ-S machines we would be watching in action on the streets of Wellington and, a week later, at Pukekohe. Our road car was in its element, eating up the kilometres, magically shrinking distances as it transported us in style to the Nissan Mobil 500.
A four-year run of the XJ-S in competition had not always been successful for Tom Walkinshaw, and, at Wellington, its ills continued, although some measure of redemption came later with a second place at Pukekohe. Yet, brilliant moments included the XJ-S finishing first and third in the 1985 Bathurst classic and outright victory in the European Touring Car Championship in 1984.
Jaguar officially gave up racing in 1985, but the wily Walkinshaw persisted.
While my standard XJ-S produced 220kw, the TWR cars had been uprated to 373kw by the time they reached New Zealand — indeed, Walkinshaw had been clocked at 290kph on Bathurst’s Conrod Straight in his Jaguar. Group A homologation for the car ended less than a month before the Wellington race, but the Jaguars were still able to run and wow the crowds with their ferocious performance.
Walkinshaw arrived in the capital with a container load of equipment and gear, 300 tyres and two spare engines. Win Percy teamed up with Tom in one of the TWR cars and was running second when forced to retire with a differential failure, while Denny Hulme drove with Armin Hahne in the second car. Despite using the hardest compound available, tyres were a major problem for the Jaguars. Denny recalled the amount of grunt from the 5.3-litre
V12 engine as “staggering”, making the TWR machines the cars to beat on the tight Wellington street circuit.
“The Jaguar was lifting the left-hand rear wheel coming through the gate around the section onto the wharf, and we were experiencing a lot of wheelspin,” he told me. “That powerful engine has enough zip to break away the limited-slip differential, and bags of wheelspin wore tyres out at the inner edge.”
By the end of the weekend, the two Jaguars had suffered five punctures, with one of them launching Hahne into the guardrails — and retirement — just before he was due to make a pit stop. A third XJ-S, driven by the local team of Allan Prince and Mike Hourigan, suffered an accident in practice.
Hulme found it hot work wrestling with the bulky race car around the Wellington street circuit, the only concession to comfort being a cooling water-jacket vest and skull cap — an expensive American device meant to pump cool water to the driver. The problem was that the chillybin containing ice sat over the hot exhaust and ultimately pumped hot water, rather defeating its purpose.
This was of little consequence to those watching the spectacular Jaguars.
Hulme recalled, “In Wellington, the car’s gearing was ideal. With so much torque and power, it was not so critical to have gearing dead right. The 12 cylinders simply dragged the car out of corners.”
Stylist Malcolm Sayer had begun working on the XJ-S project as early as 1966 but died five years before the car finally went into production. I was living in England when the XJ-S was launched 40 years ago to a not-altogetherreceptive audience. Many of my peers thought it simply awful, but I wasn’t so sure. For some, the car’s unique and controversial flying-buttress styling fared poorly against the immortal E-type, leaving them to question whether Jaguar had lost its way. Who would have thought in 1975 that the XJ-S would endure a model life of almost 21 years — longer than any other Jaguar — or that it would be more highly regarded in old age than when new?
Ironically, today the XJ-S is on a roll, and slowly rising values are surely a sign of increasing classic status, something considered almost unthinkable in the mid ’70s and early ’80s. With its voracious thirst, the car was born at the wrong time into a world worried by rising fuel prices and the threat of petrol rationing. For the size of the car, the cabin was cramped, and, as the years unfolded, the dodgy build quality and poor reliability made the situation worse, while the V12 engine gained a reputation for being expensive to rebuild.
When the last examples were made, in April 1996, the production tally of all variants had reached 115,413, and it is estimated that only around eight per cent of those are still on the road. Yet, there were several times when the car faced a premature end only to be revived. Indeed, the XJ-S was fortunate to survive the early ’80s after demand plummeted from 3396 sales in 1978 to 1760 in 1980, a year in which Jaguar actually stopped production and made only 1057 examples. The record low of just 1199 sales came in 1981, but three times as many XJ-SS were sold the following year and, by 1987, annual sales had lifted to 9538.
Initially, demand was shared 50:50 between Britain and export markets, but the car soon gathered increasing interest outside the UK, with three-quarters of buyers in other countries.
The price of power
My 1987 road-test XJ-S retailed for NZ$110K, but when the first examples were officially imported in 1977, they cost a mere $35K. Inflation saw prices rise to $55K by 1980, $78K in 1982, and $105K in 1984. By 1989, the coupé was priced at $130K — about $20K more than the 3.6-litre straightsix-cylinder version that had just been introduced. The XJ-S V12 was last sold new in New Zealand in 1992 for an eye-watering $165K, while the six-cylinder equivalent was $155K.
Recent local asking prices have ranged from $7K for a 1989 model to $30K for a ’93 car with an indicated 32,000km. Other examples included $16K for a 1990 convertible showing 76,000km, $11K for a 1989 3.6 coupe with 200,000km, $18K for a
1988 coupé (87,000km), and $23K for a 1993 coupé (71,000 km). Obviously, the wide range of prices is dictated by condition and mileage.
The sensible choice for those with an eye on running costs is the 168kw (225bhp) six-cylinder model, but, when the heart rules the head, the V12 always commands the most attention. And, of course, when it comes to classic car decision-making, logic is rarely a factor.
Most of the early XJ-S British road tests in 1975 and 1976 featured four-speed manual models that lacked overdrive, and, unsurprisingly, it is difficult to find one of these today, as Jaguar built only 352 manuals; a V12 manual option was not even listed after 1979. Anyway, it seems that most buyers did not want a manual, and the fuel-injected V12 worked well in unison with the Borgwarner Model 12 three-speed automatic, accentuating the reasoning behind the XJ-S as a refined, highperformance, fixed-head rather than a sports car in the E-type mould.
After a year of production, Jaguar replaced the Borgwarner transmission with the threespeed General Motors THM400, regarded as superior. average fuel consumption of 20.2 litres / 100km (14 miles to the gallon) was 10-per-cent inferior to the manual, but, with the arrival of the revised HE (highefficiency) Harry Mundy / Michael May freer-flowing-cylinder-head V12 in May 1981, the test average eased to 17.7 litres / 100km (16mpg) — not a huge improvement, but at least a step in the right direction. Still, you could scarcely call the XJ-S thrifty. (143mph) and 7.5 seconds for the 60mph run. Meanwhile, the manual 3.6-litre XJ-S that came later boasted a maximum of 229kph (142mph) and a 0– 60mph time of 7.4 seconds — not far short of a rare manual V12.
The early sixes were sometimes characterized by jerky low-rev running, an indifferent manual gearshift, a heavy clutch, and steering that was too light but were still praised for ride quality, performance, and low noise levels. Later AJ6 engines were smoother and more refined.
While the XJ-S was eventually upgraded, examples from the early years went without the sort of luxury appointment many Jaguar owners expected. There was a lack of wood trim until 1981, no lights in the glove box or engine compartment, no passenger side mirror, and the original plastic gear-lever gaiter looked cheap. All-leather trim and the six-cylinder option were introduced in 1983, allied to the five-speed Rover manual gearbox, with an auto following later.
Not only did quality improve, but also, under a new owner — Ford — many millions were invested in upgrading the model in 1991, rounding off the tail-end shape with slimmer rear pillars — which did little to improve vision — revamping the cabin with new seats and instruments, and replacing the 3.6-litre 24-valve AJ6 engine with a 4.0-litre version of the twin-cam six-cylinder engine. While some tests revealed performance no better than the 3.6, the newer 4.0 coupé, matched to a four-
Lifting the lid
Around 2000 roll-hooped cabriolet models were made between 1983 and 1988 before the arrival of a much better, full convertible, complete with a power-operated fully lined and insulated hood. Engineered and designed by Karmann, the German coachbuilder, the hood could be raised or lowered in 12 seconds.
As well, by 1988, all XJ-S variants were fitted with Teves anti-lock braking as standard, although, certainly, the four-piston front-caliper and rear floating-caliper braking system was always strong. A 6.0-litre version of the V12, introduced in 1993, was never officially imported into New Zealand because it could not run on our fuel.
Some British XJ-S experts say late-model convertibles attract the highest prices, while pre-facelift soft-tops have doubled in price during the last year. Others counter that facelift post-1992 cars are the most desirable, and, when possible, buyers should seek out examples with the newer, albeit rarer, 6.0-litre V12 and the largest 4.0-litre six-cylinder.
In 1987, soft-tops were no longer built with six-cylinder engines, and, although the V12 retained its softer suspension, the 3.6 six was given stiffer springs, Boge dampers, a beefier front anti-roll bar, and a smaller rear anti-roll bar for the first time. The level of hydraulic power-steering assistance was reduced, and a stiffer rack was fitted.
In spite of ongoing development throughout its long life, the XJ-S remained big, heavy, and thirsty but, with care, reasonable economy can be expected from the sixes. Yet, this is a car packed with character like no other, and the years have been kind to the XJ-S, a car which has matured with age. Perhaps good rather than great, this Jaguar began life somewhat odd and unloved yet has ended up a classic.