Strange, but true - Brave Pill has never previously featured any example of what, by popular acclaim, is one of the riskiest and most bork-prone Jaguars in the marque’s proud heritage of producing risky and bork-prone cars. An omission which is hereby corrected in the stylish form of our first ever XJ40. The fact this one is a Sovereign is also a respectful acknowledgement of this week’s sad news.
For all of its many potential faults, few people have ever accused the XJ40 of being an ugly car. Cynics could argue that Jaguar had plenty of time to make it right. Work on creating what would be a new-generation XJ to replace the 1968 original began as early as 1972, that being a full 14 years before the car known as the XJ40 would actually go on sale. Yet the careful consideration that had obviously been given to its design, despite the modesty of Jaguar’s development budgets during the era, meant that the resulting car subtly updated the original XJ’s stance and proportions in a very handsome way. It was similar, but different.
Having received something close to universally positive coverage when it was first launched in 1986 - one British magazine even running the Jingoistic headline ‘England Expects - and Jaguar Delivers’ the new XJ seemed to have the world at its feet. It was much more advanced than the car it replaced, packed with cutting-edge tech and also very well priced. Jaguar had cleverly stolen a march on less prestigious rivals by launching the XJ with the option of an entry-level 2.9-litre straight six which was priced hard against the top-spec Ford Granada V6 Ghia X and Rover 825 Sterling. Granted, the boggo XJ was slow enough to require more than 10 seconds to get to 60mph, and had a cloth-seated cabin and a dashboard packed with blanking plates. But it was a Jag, and that was still a trump card in the mid ‘eighties.
Not that many of the gutless 2.9s were actually sold. It was a honeytrap designed to lure prospects to showrooms, where most immediately decided it was worth digging deeper for the much more muscular 3.6-litre straight six that sat above it. This made 221hp - more than plenty back then - and combined creamy low-down responses with the sort of muscular mid-range that turned many reviewers’ prose purple. An 8.2-second 0-60mph time might have been a second outside the performance of the Autobahn-storming E32 BMW 750i, but the Jaguar was more refined and comfortable.
It had grace, it had pace - but it struggled a bit more with space. Despite its sizeable exterior dimensions, the basic XJ40 had a tight-fitting rear cabin, this due in large part to the XL-ness of boot and bonnet. Reportedly the less important government ministers who got ferried about in four-cylinder Rover 800s enjoyed more legroom when being chauffeured than their more senior colleagues in XJs. But this was a minor niggle compared to the much bigger issue that the new Jaguar soon became infamous for - electrical issues.
By the time the XJ40 was launched people had already been making jokes about Jaguar’s failure-prone circuitry for several decades. Yet it managed to raise the bar even further, with many of the high-tech features that had won praise in early road tests turning out to be particularly prone to borkage. Our Pill’s advert leaves the pictures to do most of the talking. But the ones that stand out are those showing views of the part-digital dashboard, which is impressively free of the many fault lights and diagnostic readouts early XJ40s are famous for. A friend once bought a near-scrap example for £500, a decent banger but for the unstoppable sequence of error messages that cycled on the right-hand screen, all of which were falsely reporting on things that hadn’t actually gone wrong.
Our Pill is being sold in Northern Ireland, the advert being bigger on blarney than actual details about the car. The images show a fair amount of patina, as you’d expect for anything 34 years old. Inside the lower dashboard looks to have come partially adrift, the magnolia hide is either grubby or slightly miscoloured and the view of the passenger side shows what looks to be a patch of rust on the inside of the front wheelarch - although it might be mud. There are also some minor scuffs and dings and the faded plastics could do with some buffing-up: some people used to recommend peanut butter for dark ‘eighties plastics - is that still a thing?
Yet beyond that, there are lots to like about the visual evidence offered by the snaps, with good-looking paintwork and the reassuring presence of what looks to be a matching set of Dunlop tyres at each corner. Yes, £3,500 marks a significant increase on the price that similar cars were being offered for not long ago - shabby XJ40s getting close to having negative value in the early ‘noughties. But £3,500 is hardly steep compared to the wider market, and a well-sorted XJ is still a very nice place to spend time.
Plus, it’s a Sovereign. That branding indicated an enhanced standard trim rather than an increase in performance, but it did bring plenty of goodies and was distinguished from the prole-grade regular car with single headlight elements on each side rather than twin sealed beams. Sovs also got standard leather, walnut trim, air conditioning, self-levelling rear suspension and anti-lock brakes. Our Pill’s first owner seems to have further enhanced it with both fancy-schmancy power-operated heated front seats and a ‘leccy sunroof.
Even the squarest-jawed PHer surely can’t argue that what seems to be a history-lite XJ40 represents an adrenaline-spiking quantity of risk. The highlights of the potential lowlights include the six-cylinder engine’s tendency to snack on head gaskets, the self-levelling suspension’s habit of collapsing expensively and a high susceptibility to corrosion. That’s before considering the electrics, with issues often down to water ingress, expensively failed control modules or just general awfulness. Turning a bad XJ40 into a good one will be a hugely expensive project - think in terms of heating your house by burning banknotes.
The online MOT history is limited to a single test in May last year. This was, reassuringly, passed with nothing more than advisories for worn front shock absorber bushes on both sides - which is impressively clean for any ‘eighties Jag. The lack of any further record could be because of a registration change, or alternatively because this car is in NI. But while it has only covered 250 miles since the last ticket, this ran out in May - so anybody looking to ship it back to Britain and into the purview of VOSA is going to need to sort out another test.
Rarer and more expensive Jaguars get plenty of love, and the list of cars that are now worth enough money to justify pricey restorations continues to grow. Ten years ago people would have thought anyone throwing serious cash into an early XJ-S or even an XJ Coupe was a bit mad, but now they look like bona fide classics. The XJ40 hasn’t reached that stage yet, but with numbers thinning out, and an increasing appreciation for the cars of the ‘eighties, you could definitely justify it as a stylish wager on both interest and values rising.
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