Car of the year : February 2005
Britain’s best real-world supercar had it all – V12 power and effortless poise.
So why did the oil crisis come just when we didn’t need it? We drive Claire Smith’s wonderful XJ-S and find out just what it is that makes these cars so special…
Supercar of the Seventies…
THE XJ-S was launched in 1975, will forever be known as the car to replace the E-type. It proved a radical departure for Jaguar, which to that point had majored on appearing ‘feline’ and svelte. Out went dainty chrome bumpers, to be replaced by monolithic US-specification slabs. The same could be said about the characteristic ‘haunches’, which featured on the flanks of all Post-War Jaguars to become one of its most defining styling features.
As befitting the flagship of a product range known for being one of the best in the World, the interior of the XJ-S is a very special place to sit. Even before you get in, it impresses – you open the door and are greeted with a pleasantly intoxicating smell – Connolly leather. The first impressions are not fleeting either – the seating position is low, but the view out is excellent, and there’s a wonderful view over the long and sculpted bonnet to enjoy.
The dashboard is clearly calibrated, and although the auxiliary gauges are rather strange (they’re rather like the elevation indicator in an aeroplane), at no point do you not know what’s going on under the bonnet. Switchgear is also very easy to reach, and this serves as a welcome reminder that car designers finally begun to understand the black art of ergonomics in the Seventies.
Although the front is a very pleasant place to sit – you’re enclosed, snug and feel at one with the World – the rear would be claustrophobic for anyone over about six years old. For a car, which occupies such a large amount of road space, this is a major disappointment.
The XJ-S cabin, then, is a tale of two sides: one of the nicest places imaginable for the driver and their front seat passenger, and a nightmare for the kids.
This is a 1977 pre-HE XJ-S, and it goes without saying the overriding story here is its huge appetite for fuel. To be frank, it overshadows every journey.
Not that we’re complaining, because the engine is so smooth, muscular and responsive, it is a price worth paying. In daily driving, the driver of this 1977 XJ-S will be lucky to beat 15mpg – and there are times it is possible to see he fuel gauge dropping when pressing on.
Don’t let this put you off XJ-S ownership, though, because the engine’s ability in so many areas makes up for this shortfall in considerable style.
The XJ-S was conceived in the World of the 25p gallon, to be driven by the sort of tanned gentleman who would consider driving to his yacht moored in Southern Europe at the wheel of his Maserati Ghibli, or Jensen Interceptor, and to whom 12mpg would not pose a problem at all. Today, however, things are so much different, and such romantic imagery is washed away by the spectre of GATSOs, roadworks and traffic jams.
And that means, in the real world, you don’t buy a V12 XJ-S to cover large distances – and if you positively have to, you’d probably consider converting it to run on LPG.
Servicing can be reasonable enough, and if you use a recognised independent Jaguar specialist, it is possible to keep costs down to a realistic level. However, in the event of a major breakage, bear in mind, this is still a supercar, and no car in this class is going to be cheap to fix.
For such a long car, it is reasonable to assume the boot is going to be generously proportioned. However, once the large bootlid is opened, it soon becomes apparent that capaciousness was not at the top of Jaguar’s design priorities. There’s length, but little in the way of depth, and when the enormous spare wheel is in place, even getting a set of golf clubs in would be something of a struggle. Luckily, the backs seats serve as a useful additional storage area, and two-up, the XJ-S could be considered roomy enough.
The XJ-S was designed for people who could afford to have their luggage ‘sent on’…
This is what the XJ-S is all about – effortless progress. Anyone who drives a V12 XJ-S and complains about its lack of performance is obviously living on a different planet to the rest of us.
Stick the transmission selector in ‘D’, take your foot off the brake pedal, and press the accelerator to the floor, and you will be pushed into the back of your seat with a real sense of urgency. 60mph comes up in under seven seconds, and 100mph just over ten seconds later. Maximum speed is an impressive 150+mph, which back in 1975, put it very firmly in the supercar category. At less than half the price of a Lamborghini Espada, the XJ-S offered unrivalled performance for your money, and even today, it can hold its head high. Especially considering the current market values.
What marks the XJ-S as truly impressive is not its accelerative thrust, but its effortlessness. Prod the throttle at low revs, and the XJ-S surges forward with aplomb (and near silence), and as the revs rise, a turbine-like roar adds to the fun.
The XJ-S is blessed with a healthy dose of Browns Lane magic. Low speed ride quality is little short of miraculous, considering it was launched in 1975. To drive one around a typical UK town is an object lesson in how a relatively taut handling car can be given a magic carpet ride.
At higher speeds on back roads, it continues to impress, with its low-roll cornering and masterful damping – body control is simply exemplary. There is no sign of wallow or sloppiness, and it is easy to understand why contemporary testers referred often referred to the XJ-S as ‘the best car in the world’.
However, there is a weak link – its steering. In an effort to tune the XJ-S to appeal to the American market, it was made as light as possible. And that robs it of all feel. In town, it is very pleasant indeed, but on an A- or B-road, it feels like you’re driving on ice, such is its lack of feel.
Confidence will come with experience over time, but it is hard to escape the fact it is a disconcerting steer for the newcomer.
As a GT on sweeping open roads and motorways, the XJ-S is second to none…
Nearly all of the early XJ-S models were equipped with a three-speed automatic – a lazy transmission suited to the car. The transmission may not be especially responsive, but it is exceptionally smooth and quiet. Most of the time, kickdown simply isn’t required for quick overtaking – the V12’s abundant torque means top will suffice for all but the most rapid manoeuvres.
The all-disc brakes are more than man enough for the task of slowing down a speeding XJ-S. In general use, pedal feel is firm and true, but the effort required is never heavy enough to tire the driver. Although the set-up is not vented all-round, with solid inboard rear discs, it is difficult to think of a situation – on the road – where brake fade would become an issue on a healthy XJ-S.
The handbrake is situated unusually by the driver’s right elbow, and its action is not the most positive around, although it is satisfactory enough.
When launched in 1975, many commentators bemoaned the XJ-S’s heavy-handed styling and all-round profligacy in a post-oil crisis World, but time has been very kind to Jaguar’s flagship model.
It looks better today than it ever did, and the styling, once considered boxy and over the top, now seems to fit in perfectly well. Next to a current S- or X-Type, the XJ-S actually looks pretty elegant, and some of the once-controversial styling touches, such as those ‘flying buttresses’ and elongated headlamps now work very well indeed. Just how well it matured can be measured by its 21-year production run – the longest of all Jaguars.
It is always difficult to judge a car like this in objective terms. After all, it could be described as a cramped and excessively thirsty dinosaur, but that would be to miss the point entirely.
The XJ-S is a monument to the hopes and aspirations of prestige manufacturers in the late Sixties (it was originally scheduled for launch in 1971), and it is fast and can cover massive distances extremely quickly without stressing the driver. Usually to buy cars of this ability produced by Jaguar’s Italian rivals, you would be looking at spending over £10,000, and questioning your sanity. With the XJ-S, you only need to worry about your sanity…