Friday, 25 January 2008

Classic - Jaguar XJ-S

The British motor industry, such as it was, reminds me of myself as a child – full of grandiose and elaborate ideas, ambitiously embarked upon yet swiftly showing them to be harder and more complex than first anticipated, resulting in a half-arsed finish that would generally lead to much tutting and headshaking from parental quarters. (In the spirit of maintaining the simile, you can picture the British motor industry’s parental figure to be pretty much any car manufacturer or conglomerate that springs to mind, such was the voracity of the administrative buck-passing).

The Jaguar XJ-S is exactly the sort of car that my teenage self would probably have thought was a really good idea. It was doomed from the start; how on earth could one possibly hope to replace the iconic E-Type? It was tremendously, achingly sad to lose her but, well, it’s better to burn out than it is to rust. Neil Young said that. He knows a thing or two about longevity. Anyway, what sort of machine could ever hope to carry the torch of such a legend? A lithe, slippery superleggera Adonis, perhaps? A sinuous bruiser in the muscle car vein? A stripped-out race-car-with-number-plates affair…?

No. It was a pointy Coventry brawler with flying buttresses.

Still, on paper it was a winner. Avant-garde styling (for the seventies anyway), opulent and luxurious interior, Ferrari-baiting performance from the lusty V12… all of the ingredients are right. That said, one could postulate that Vera Lynn, Amy Winehouse, Siouxsie Sioux and Maria von Trapp have all shown themselves to be reasonably accomplished singers within their own genres, but mashing their vocals together in some sort of girl band might not be all that satisfying. Well, depends what your idea of entertainment is, I suppose.

For the mid-seventies, a 0-60 time of 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 157mph were not to be sniffed at and, Jaguar being Jaguar, the XJ-S was taken racing and made rather a name for itself. In the 1977 Trans Am series, for example, a car that was effectively a tweaked production-spec XJ-S made an impressive job of embarrassing its lightweight silhouette-racer rivals. With the combination of near-Italian power levels and a solid track reputation stemming from decades of racing heritage, the new car couldn’t fail, right?

Hmm. Unfortunately for Jaguar, they decided to launch a thirsty 5.3 litre V12 monster in the swirling aftermath of a pretty crushing fuel crisis, meaning that it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing most people were able to consider. Those that did shell out quickly discovered that Jaguar seemed to have fired their entire assembly-line workforce and were painstakingly and ham-fistedly relying on senior management to glue the cars together according to some annotated blueprints they’d seen in a marketing meeting once. Probably. As a PR exercise, Jag provided XJ-Ss to various TV shows to show how lovely and desirable they were; The Saint, for example, and The New Avengers. Such was their lack of faith in the cars’ reliability that they provided three cars for the latter to fulfil one role. This tells you all you need to know about Jaguar in the 1970s.

Buying one now is a risky business, unless you want to splash out £50k-odd for a modernised Knowles Wilkins car. Early models will rust pretty much anywhere, suspension bushes fail, coolant leaks out at random, as does power-steering fluid and transmission oil, and the electrics are a mystifying nightmare with pretty much anything with a wire in it likely to fail at some point. Head gaskets frequently blow, oil pressure unexpectedly disappears, blah blah blah… come on, old cars are like that. It’s easy to knock the XJ-S for its many, many faults, but take a step back and think about it objectively: you can get a good condition V12 XJ-S for about five grand. That’s tremendous value for money. For all its foibles, there are few feelings more special than that of sitting in a luxurious British grand tourer with a truly epic engine under the bonnet. And think how good you’d feel every time you glance out of the window and see it on the driveway – OK, it’s no E-Type, but it has flair, panache and brooding menace in spades.