PH Heroes: Jaguar XJR-S

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.

And yet somehow the XJ-S managed to wheedle its way under our collective skin. After all, it was a bit good. Rode and handled well. Performed with gusto. Creaked at its (sometimes badly built) seams with the type of gentleman's club ambience only the British motor industry could genuinely create. It won a few group tests, too, against the technocrats from Germany. Had soul.

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.)

But it was in a non-fiction role that the XJ-S impressed most on the box, certainly from a PistonHeads perspective. And it was a role that brought it into mortal and spectacular combat with heroes of the Touring Car world - the BMW 635 CSI, Rover SD1 3500 Vitesse, and even the Porsche 928, amongst others. The XJ-S didn't hit the track in any meaningful way until quite late in its career, when in 1982 Tom Walkinshaw thought the 5.3-litre V12 Jag would make a good project for competing in the Group A class of the European Touring Car Championship. The big coupe's appeal, apparently, was in its well sorted all-independent suspension - although Walkinshaw's TWR team lowered the ride height, stiffened the springs and fitted gas-filled dampers, the suspension geometry was left unchanged - and the fact that it could wear the widest tyres permitted in the regs.

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.

Ever the shrewd businessman, Walkinshaw capitalised on the enormous amount of exposure his company was getting by creating his own tuned road car version of the XJ-S, built and developed under the TWR Sport banner, although it had nothing to do with the team's motorsport operations. Launched in the wake of Walkinshaw's 1984 championship win, the XJR-S featured a body kit that was developed in a wind tunnel and said to give a 12 per cent improvement in aerodynamic efficiency, a set of distinctive 8 x 18in Speedline alloys, lower, stiffer suspension, and power steering recalibrated for greater feel. The 5.3-litre V12 H.E. (High Efficiency) motor was largely left alone, although a sportier exhaust system was claimed to add another 10 per cent power to the standard 295bhp. TWR Sport also offered a 6.0-litre V12 with more thoroughly reworked internals, good for 380bhp and 170mph.

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.

And the 5.3-litre XJR-S pictured here is one of the early batch of cars from the then newly formed JaguarSport. Scour the PH classifieds and you'll discover that XJR-Ss aren't exactly thick on the ground, so while it might have been nice to be out and about in one of the final-fling 6.0-litre models, we're lucky even to have found this 5.3 - for sale at Manningtree-based Atlas Autos (01206 391913) for £9975.

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.

What I had forgotten, however, is what a heavyweight the XJR-S is. Although the door handle clicks and clunks very mechanically when you operate it, there's no echo from inside the door void; and when you get to haul open the door its meatiness explains why. Flumping down into the Jag's low-slung armchair of a driver's seat, you have the sense of being inside the diametric opposite of the Tardis - it's a monstrously large car on the outside, yet has a tiny cabin. Perhaps we ought to call it snug, because it's certainly fulfils that description, too, but when you reach out to adjust your reach for the steering wheel, chances are you'll bang your knuckles on the very upright windscreen. And you may even keep on doing so, because while the shock of striking the glass really should serve as an education, another part of your brain will insist that no car could possibly have a windscreen that close to the wheel.

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.

With visions of Walkinshaw thundering around Europe's great race circuits fresh in my mind, it's mildly disappointing that the V12 doesn't growl and spit into being when you first crank it over. But then, Jaguar road cars of the era - even the sportiest of them - were ruled by refinement and were disciples of the company's ethos of 'grace and pace'. Even Walkinshaw, it seems, wasn't allowed to mess with Jaguar's heritage.

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.

The modern motoring mind-set needs some adjustment to tune into the way the V12 performs. As mentioned earlier, it's no bellowing beast, even when ragged hard. Nor does it seem especially fast. Not to begin with. That's because it has lots of torque - 294lb ft at 3500rpm - and torque is like a speed mask. Especially when operating through a three-speed automatic. Maybe it's just me, but unless an engine is bouncing off a 7800rpm rev limiter, I find it hard initially to judge its pace. In the XJR-S you have to be observant, watch how the view shifts out of the side glass, how the speedo is responding. Then you realise that it remains genuinely rapid; it also explains why the new BMW 6-series behind is going to stay behind...

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.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (186) Join the discussion on the forum

  • 300bhp/ton 06 Jun 2011

    Nice article and write up smile

    Always admired the XJR-S although I must confess to preferring the looks of the standard or latter facelift regular XJS's.

    Not too sure on this bit though sort of does the XJS a bit of a disjustice:

    PH said:
    The XJ-S didn't hit the track in any meaningful way until quite late in its career, when in 1982...
    The XJS was highly successful in the hands of Bob Tullius and his Group 44 race team. Gaining the drivers championship even without factory backing in the SCCA Trans Am series and latter also gaining the manufacturers title too.

    Edited by 300bhp/ton on Monday 6th June 07:47

  • JohnGoodridge 06 Jun 2011

    Years ago (1980something) I was told that the diametric opposite of the Tardis is called a 'Sudrack'. Don't know how much truth's in that though.

    Nice car BTW, always had a soft spot for the XJ-S.

  • Ex Boy Racer 06 Jun 2011

    my Dad had loads of these. So smooth and quiet. He finally lost patience with XJS's when he bought a convertible (monstrously expensive then) and it started bending as the cab lowered itself to the road. Not enough strengthening it seemed...

  • Chicane-UK 06 Jun 2011

    Great article.. really nicely written.

    Sadly I can't muster much love for the XJS. Has just never done anything for me!

  • Zumbruk 06 Jun 2011

    I really wanted an XJS until I looked under the bonnet. Absolutely terrifying.

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