PH Heroes: Jaguar XJR-S
It's no E-type, but you can't pretend you're Tom Walkinshaw in one of those...
A Jaguar E-type 3.8-litre coupe purred through my little town the other day. Red. Svelte. Feline. Gleaming in the sunlight. The guy driving it was trying his best to hide his smugness, but it was there in the slight upwards curl at the corner of his mouth. And I don't blame him; if I owned an E-type, I'd have 'smug' tattooed on a visually obvious body part. Because, damn, that is one beautiful car...
Most of you would agree, I'm guessing. So imagine the sense of dread disbelief when in 1975 Jaguar released the E-type's successor, the XJ-S. People must have thought that Jaguar had left the disguise panels on when they painted the prototype. The automotive equivalent of a mash-up, a pack of disparate styling elements were splattered onto a shortened XJ saloon floorpan to form Frankenstein's coupe.
Plus, it was on the telly. No, you certainly can't judge a car by its appearance on the haunted fish tank, but the XJ-S had associations with some of the era's more suave characters, or so we thought at the time...
Jaguar had turned down the opportunity to supply an E-type for the original of The Saint, condemning Roger Moore to drive around in a Volvo P1800 coupe (nice car, but not very aristocratic). But, realising the error of its ways, fixed it for Simon Templar (as played by Ian Ogilvy) to drive a white XJ-S in The Return of the Saint. And when Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt) needed wheels to impress young bob-haired Purdey (Joanna Luvverly), he also rocked up in an XJ-S. (If only Steed hadn't trumped him with an XJC with Broadspeed racing arches, he might have stood more of a chance with the ladies.)
Liveried in red and black and plastered with the name of the main sponsor, Motul, Mr W's Jag had a slightly shaky start to the season, but rallied in the latter races and almost won the championship. Although on the pace from the off in 1983, so were the Jag's rivals, in particular the BMW 635 CSi, although it was the tussles with the Rover Vitesses that the home audience is likely to remember more. For 1984 Jaguar formed an official partnership with TWR Sport and Walkinshaw's missiles, with a little help from Cosworth under the bonnet, set about dominating the European Touring Car Group A championship: the team won seven times, twice managed 1-2-3 finishes, Walkinshaw and Win Percy were victorious in the Spa 24-hour race, and Walkinshaw waltzed off with the year's driver's trophy.
By 1988 Jaguar decided to bring the XJR-S in-house. Well, sort of in-house: TWR still modified the cars and they were still to TWR's spec (though the 6.0-litre wasn't offered initially), but now they were being sold as JaguarSport products - this was a 50:50 venture between Jaguar and TWR.
As has always been the way with the XJ-S, you don't want to stare at it too long or dissect its details - you'll only get upset with its absurdly overstretched overhangs and the bitty nature of its lines and design flourishes. Yet at a glance, the large two-door still has road presence, still has bearing and visual authority - in Manningtree several passers-by with clearly no general interest in cars glanced long and hard at it. I can't make up my mind whether or not the TWR body kit adds or detracts from the Jag's style, but having once tried to max-out a 6.0-litre model on the banked bowl at the Millbrook test track, I can vouch for the stability it brings at 160mph.
Hemming you in further is a fat transmission tunnel. And there's not vast headroom. And you sure wouldn't want to try sitting in the back, not even for a mile back from the pub. Yet with the wood and the leather, the small, plain instruments and vaguely quaint minor controls, there's a unique quality about the Jag's cabin, a sense that by wrapping you so tightly with a veil of luxury, that somehow the whole focus of the driving experience is about you.
Maintaining Jaguar's equally legendary ride quality must have been a challenge when TWR dropped the ride height and firmed up the suspension, yet even at low speed on urban roads the XJR-S is gentle on your joints. TWR's efforts with the steering feel are much appreciated, too, as it's sufficiently light to make a 1.7-ton coupe wieldy around town, but also meaty enough to allow you to place the car's long prow pretty much exactly where you want it when the road gets wiggly.
Not that the XJR-S is a natural in the tight stuff. Too big. Too much nose. It prefers broader A-roads, sweeping corners, conditions where it can show off its poise, its ability to shrug off mid-bend bumps and other surface nastiness. And its considerable grip, which the feelsome steering gives you a fine sense of.
Undoubtedly the most heroic XJ-S models that TWR produced were those icons of European Touring Car racing. The road cars can't really replicate their raw drama. Yet even now, if fuel money were no object, I'd happily jump into an XJR-S and glide off down to the south of France, smiling all the way.