Jaguar XJS Tragically Flawed Beauty 1975-1995OK, so you missed out on used Ferraris when they were selling for the price of new Toyotas. You blew it when you could have bought that nice older Porsche 911 for less than a new Geo Metro. Now, even decent Alfa Romeos have risen beyond your modest classic car budget. Yet there is still a car that offers nearly everything a car fanatic could want for less than you'd spend on a set of 18-inch wheels and tires and a cat-back exhaust for your Volkswagen Jetta. It has twelve cylinders, a swoopy aerodynamic profile and a racing heritage that includes a half-dozen Le Mans victories. It is the often maligned and notoriously unreliable Jaguar XJS.
Excellent GenesJaguar has always built beautiful cars. From the elegant and aggressive pre-war SS100, to the stellar XK120 and C- and D-Type racing cars of the '50s, to the sexually suggestive E-Type in the '60s, the company's products defined the term "desirable." In the early 1970s, financially beleaguered Jaguar was owned by the equally destitute British Leyland. The E-Type, once a svelte and eager six-cylinder sports car, had grown into a V12-powered tourer, and a replacement was needed. This was outlined in a 1968 memo from Jaguar's legendary aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer to founder Sir William Lyons. A new project was undertaken by Sayer and Lyons, and the resulting XJS was launched in 1975 as a replacement for the E-Type.
Big And BrawnyOn paper, the new Jaguar XJS looked like it was the real deal. As with Jaguar's previous sports cars, it borrowed heavily from the company's sedans, in this case the newly introduced XJ6. Its front suspension used semi-trailing wishbones and coil springs with a subframe that also carried the engine. The rear suspension, lower transverse wishbones with the halfshafts used as upper links, was also carried in a substantial subframe and had twin rear coil springs and shock absorbers. The front disc brakes used four-piston calipers with vented rotors and the rear had inboard disc brakes with two-piston calipers. Steering was by rack and pinion, and 15-inch VR-speed rated tires gripped the road. The 5.3-liter V12 engine was essentially carried over from the E-Type, but with a Bosch-Lucas fuel injection system it produced 285 bhp at 5800 rpm and 294 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm. That was enough to propel the two-ton four-seater from zero to 60 mph in 6.8 seconds and to a top speed of 150 mph.
In Its DayFrom the start, the Jaguar XJS was criticized by purists for not being as pretty as the E-Type. It was too modern, it had too much flat-black trim and its rear flying-buttress styling was singled out for the most severe criticism. The XJS was a big heavy car whose massive V12 engine had a prodigious thirst for fuel. Driven carefully, the U.S. versions with a Borg Warner automatic transmission (replaced by a GM TH400 in 1977) could get 17 miles per gallon. Driven hard, fuel economy figures could easily fall into the single digits. It was a good thing the XJS came with a 24-gallon gas tank. Yet if you could afford one you were rewarded by silky smooth and effortless performance that made 12-cylinder engines legendary.
Although the XJS was hardly a sports car, Bob Tulius' Group 44 Racing put one to good use, beating Corvette and Porsche to win the SCCA Trans-Am Manufacturers Championship in 1978. In 1982, a XJS-HE version of the V12 engine used revised cylinder heads to help improve fuel efficiency, although U.S. emissions regulations reduced fuel economy (if that's the right word for the thirsty V12) to the same levels as the earlier cars. To ease the burden, a 3.6-liter six-cylinder version XJS was available from 1983 onward. In 1987, the XJ-SC Cabriolet (a quasi-convertible) appeared, although Hess and Eisenhart had built convertibles in the U.S. from 1986 to 1988. In 1989, the factory built its own convertible and added anti-lock brakes and, in 1990, a driver-side airbag. In 1994, the 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine was standard and a 6.0-liter version of the V12 an option through the end of the car's life, when the XJS was replaced by the XK8 in 1996.
The Harsh Realities Of OwnershipOwning a Jaguar XJS, especially in the 1980s, was not a satisfying experience. First, the company's resources were severely strained after it was cut free from the dysfunctional British Leyland of the 1970s. The quality of the components that went into the cars, along with the outdated concepts of build quality, left the cars with dozens of problems small and large to be sorted out by long-suffering Jaguar owners. Everything electrical is suspect. The bodies are rust-prone, even with cars built well into the late 1980s. The rocker panels, rear wheel arches, driver and passenger footwells, the base of the windshield and inside front fenders are particularly bad, but almost any other part of the car could also rust. The battery lived in the trunk in the XJS and spilled acid could result in corrosion. The engine itself is mechanically robust but produces lots of heat. This can damage the myriad vacuum lines and electrical components under the cramped and crowded hood. An oil change for the big V12 takes no less than 12 quarts of synthetic motor oil, costing close to $100. Jaguar parts for the V12 are available and are not inexpensive, but a bigger problem will be finding a mechanic with the necessary experience to know which parts to replace. This is not a car for the do-it-yourselfer to learn about auto mechanics. The six-cylinder XJS models, although rarer, are much easier to work on, although they also suffered from the ravages of rust.
Why Would You Want One?Are you kidding? We are talking about a beautiful, (subjective I know, but they are so '70s) exclusive, 150-mph sport coupe with a V12 engine that you can buy for as little as $2,000. Sure, at that price the car will be a complete basket case and probably won't be running, but think of how envious your friends will be when you tell them about your V12 Jaguar. Prices do seem to be all over the board, between $2,000 and $20,000, and many of these cars have less than 80,000 miles on them, which ought to tell you something about their dubious reliability. If you do decide that you want an XJS, the best advice as always is to look at lots of cars (they are plentiful on the market as Jaguar built more than 115,000) and buy the absolute best one that you can find with all of its electrical and mechanical parts working. Later cars got better and better, or less bad, depending upon your view. Finding a good one won't be a guarantee that it will keep running, but at least you will have a reasonable starting point.
OrBut there is another way to buy an XJS, one that I think may, in the long run, be the smarter move. Find a car with a good body and a nice interior for as little money as possible, secure in the knowledge that its V12 engine is so complex and troublesome that you will never get it running properly anyway. Have your new Jaguar towed to your garage and position it carefully in the center, away from the lawnmower, kids' bikes and lawn tools. Then, whenever you need a car fix, all you need do is go out to your garage and sit in your Jaguar's supple leather seats, looking over that long low hood, and reflect on the grand history of the marque. You can even open the hood and look over the intricacies of that glorious V12 engine, more complex in its own way than the Apollo spacecraft, and revel in the fact that it's all yours. You may never get your car running, but at least you will be among the lucky few who own a V12 Jaguar.