The XJ-S was Jaguar’s longest-lived production model and its best-selling sports car. Like the brilliant XJ saloon with which it shared its underpinnings, the XJ-S offered impressive performance, class-leading comfort and unrivalled value for money. Fittingly, it was the last project to receive input from Sir William Lyons. Despite all this, the XJ-S wasn’t universally well-received as the E-type’s successor. The big, thirsty coupé was launched during a period of economic stagnation and rising fuel prices. And its styling, though not without its admirers, didn’t fit in with the public’s preconception of what a Jaguar should look like.
Many felt that Jaguar had failed to capitalise on the marque’s sporting legacy and it wouldn’t be long before British Leyland build quality threatened further brand damage. But the XJ-S deserves to be assessed for what it is, rather than what it isn’t – and in this light itdoesn’t disappoint.
Heralded as ‘the most exclusive and expensive Jaguar ever produced’, it delivered a package arguably unavailable elsewhere at any price. Its appeal was strengthened over the years by performance and economy enhancements, plus a significant midlife restyling. The car that bowed out in 1996 had developed and matured into the quality product that was always its goal.
The steel monocoque incorporated a shortened and strengthened version of the XJC floorpan. It was designed not only to meet all existing safety regulations, but also to anticipate future requirements, particularly in the US. Doors incorporated reinforced hinges and side-impact resistance and the fuel tank was located between the boot and cabin for maximum protection.
A V12 remained the only XJ-S option until the introduction of a straight-six in 1982. Jaguar’s aluminium alloy SOHC 60° V12 debuted in the Series 3 E-type in 1971 and in the XJ saloon in 1972. In XJ-S guise, it featured Lucas indirect injection and Opus MkII electronic ignition. An improved HE version debuted in 1981, offering a 10-20 per cent reduction in fuel consumption and improved performance. It featured ‘Fireball’ cylinder heads designed by Swiss engineer Michael Mays, split-level combustion, high compression and a lean fuel mixture. The engine delivered the highest torque output of anything on sale in the US, while its dramatically improved fuel economy kept it below the threshold for a new ‘gas-guzzler tax’. The engine was hopped up to 5994cc in 1993.
Ahead of the steering wheel are vertically calibrated oil, water, fuel and voltage displays, a large speedometer and a rev-counter. A full 18 ‘idiot lights’ are sensibly colour-coded with red indicating a major issue and amber advising early investigation. With that wonderful view down the bonnet, the rest of the cockpit feels more like a fighter plane - especially with that trip computer.
Check for rust around the rear arches, the suspension radius arms, behind the bumpers and on the floorpan. Also, don’t be surprised to find your original headlamps corroding – and if it smells damp inside, it’s probably because the sunroof drain channels need clearing out. Finally, make sure it doesn’t have rusty rear buttresses, sills or wheel arches.
The suspension is wonderful, but complex. The front crossmembers can rot through, and the rear suspension mounts are prone to corrosion, particularly the radius arm mountings. Also check the inner wing below the damper mount.
On V12 models, the rearmost pair of spark plugs are hidden by plumbing, and can only be changed after hours of dismantling. Guess what – most don’t get changed, and end up being damaged. The good news is that the big, complex V12 is very reliable if treated and maintained with respect. Look for cars that have had oil changes at least every 3000 miles.
On six-cylinder cars, the coolant needs to have been changed every two years without fail or the block will sludge up at the back, overheat, blow its head gasket and possibly warp its cylinder head.
Interiors are largely well made, and are solid enough, but when they start to get shabby, they can cost a fortune to put right. The leather faced seats are straightforward to restore, but other items such as door trims and plastic fittings can be hard to source replacements for. The wood veneer needs to be restored properly to look its best.