COAL: 1998 Jaguar XK8 – Meeting Your Heroes.

At the end of my MR2 COAL , I told you that I received a call from R, my friendly neighborhood wheeler-dealer, asking to buy the white MR2 back and offering a dream car in exchange. Well, this is the story of that worked out. I realize that the XK8 is not a particularly special car in the US or a lot of other countries (I still see runners advertised for around $5000), but things are a little different over here on our little island.

Taxation on engines over 2.0 liters has long been extremely high (on top of the already high standard taxes), so anything bigger is extremely rare here for the most part. This was especially true in the 1990s, when this car was built. Added to that, anything with two doors has long been considered impractical, so people avoid them. Here’s an example: Jaguars have always been fairly popular, and the contemporary XJ saloon was not at all uncommon as a chariot of the very well-off. We easily had between 30-50 examples of the saloon imported over the lifespan of the model. How many examples of the XK made it here? Four.

The first owner of this particular XK was a gent who went to the same school as I did, but was much older. In Sri Lanka we tend to be quite attached to our schools and there are active past students’ associations that people remain active in for decades after they’ve graduated. The XKs first owner was an active member of our school’s association and so could be seen at school fairly often. He had made lots of money in the garment sector, which allowed him to buy the XK brand new in 1998.

I realize this was not exactly a cheap car even in other markets (around $70,000 according to what I’ve seen online) but with our taxes he would easily have paid over $150,000, which made this one of the most expensive cars in the country at the time. It was his daily driver, so I would see it around school and naturally it made a massive impression on me as a car mad 12 year old. I remember just walking around staring at it more than a few times, and if you had told me then that I would eventually own that very car, it would have probably made me laugh at the absurdity of the idea!

To me, there wasn’t a bad angle on the thing

Nevertheless, here I was in 2014 and the opportunity was right there! It had passed through a couple of hands since I used to drool over it at school, but appeared to have been treated quite gently; the mileage was just over 40,000 KM, the paint was bright (it had been resprayed at some point) and the Connolly leather interior was absolutely lovely, with just a few creases on the seats to show age. R informed me that he had recently changed the timing chains and guides  (the biggest known weak point of the AJ-V8 engine) and that everything else was “perfect”.

I probably SHOULD have given it a thorough inspection, but excitement as usual got the better of me and soon the white MR2 was back with him (along with a significantly large chunk of money), and I was driving off in a childhood dream machine. That was truly a “pinch me I’m dreaming” moment, let me tell you! The first night after bringing the car home, I spent several hours sitting nearby staring at it, taking in the details and trying to get my head adjusted to actually owning this thing. I have collected model cars since I was a kid and one of my favorite 1.18 scale models was a Maisto XK8 convertible which I got in 1997, soon after the XK8 was introduced. When the 1:1 scale version arrived, one of the first things I did was take a picture with the model, of course.

Why yes, I am a bit of a dork.

The XK or “The Jaaaaag”, as it soon came to be known, was obviously in a completely different league to anything I had owned before. Getting behind the wood rimmed, leather wrapped feel felt like an event, and the way the interior looked, felt and smelled, the feel of the seats, and many other little details all contributed to an amazing sense of occasion. The first owner had ordered the car with basically every single option available at the time, including upgraded leather upholstery, Harmon Kardon sound system, CATS adaptive suspension, 18 inch wheels and more, most of which still worked pretty well too. All the toys and the sheer presence of the thing also made you feel “yup, this is something really special”

Properly luxurious, and so VERY British.

As always, the first order of business was giving the car a thorough checking over, and also reading up on any potential issues. The prospect of paying Jaguar dealer maintenance prices was very scary, but fortunately I was introduced to an independent mechanic who had previously worked at the dealer and was well versed in how to keep these cats healthy. I’m quite certain that he saved me many thousands over my ownership.

Reading up indicated that another big issue with the AJ-V8 engine, especially in early models like mine was the Nikasil lining used for the cylinder bores. Short drives/low speeds and high Sulfur fuels (all of which were common in Sri Lanka) caused the linings to degrade and would eventually lead to engine failure. Jaguar had even replaced a lot of engines under warranty back in the day, but my car had not benefited, probably because of the low overall mileage. So I figured the best way to avoid catastrophic damage was to always let the car warm up thoroughly every time it was started, and to only do long drives whenever possible.

The V8 with one valve cover off, this was a sight I REALLY didn’t want to see too often!

This led to a weekend morning routine of waking up before the crack of dawn and going for a 30-50 km drive on mostly empty predawn roads around Colombo and the suburbs. Occasionally I’d venture a bit further afield to do some corner carving on rural highways. When the XK8 was new, I remember most of the reviews saying that it would “shrink around the driver”, had “sports car like steering”, “shook off its GT lounge suit and revealed athletic gear” and so on.

Praise for the CATS adaptive suspension was even more effusive; with words like “telepathic” and “technological tour de force” being regularly used. Well, the XK was my first concrete understanding of just how much bias reviews could contain, especially if they were British magazines writing about Jaguars! In the real world of 2014, the laws of physics ensured that the 1800 Kg roofless Jag regularly reminded the driver about every kilo of weight it was carrying, while the steering was over light and had minimal feedback as far as I could tell.

The car had massive grip thanks to the big wheels and wide tires, but a sports car it emphatically was not. And what about the telepathic suspension? When I figured out that it had just two settings; soft and floaty or firm and jarring I realized it wasn’t going to be anything like what the reviews had led me to believe. Far from being “telepathic”, the system most often randomly switched between soft and firm, so one corner would see the XK rolling like a schooner, the next two would be flat, and then back to roll again, not really a winning combination. It would have been miles better if the driver was just allowed to toggle between the two settings as required, but Jaguar felt they knew better. Some months down the line the system developed a fault that left it stuck on the firm setting, which actually felt much better overall, so I just left it like that for the rest of my ownership.

Always happiest on long sweeping highways.

Since I mentioned faults, I guess it’s time to address the perennial Jaguar question mark, reliability. Surprisingly the XK was nowhere near as bad as the Jaguar stereotype, especially when it came to the electronics. I knew the XK was one of the earliest cars to have full CANBUS electronics, and the thought of 15 plus year old Lucas electronics was admittedly very scary indeed! But it turned out that Ford had wisely opted to go to Japanese firm Denso for the electronics, which meant most of them worked as intended even so many years after they were produced.

The biggest concern was if one of the control modules for the various functions (the car had 8 or 10 modules as I recall) failed, because they were no longer available new. Thankfully I never had to deal with that. I did have some issues with the windows and electric seats that were annoying to diagnose and sort out, but thanks to Pradeep the mechanic, who had the right combination of diagnostic ability, unorthodox thinking and plain old fashioned common sense, we managed to get most of them sorted out.

This was when the windows were being sorted out.

On the mechanical front, the long period of inactivity meant that more than a few things needed to be done. The engine needed an upgraded thermostat housing, as well as many of the seals and gaskets. The suspension needed most of the mounts and bushings, which turned out to be a nightmare of a job at the rear end because it required the whole rear subframe to be dropped. It became quite clear that Jaguar didn’t give much thought to how enthusiast owners would be able to handle DIY work years down the line; every procedure had a precise way to do it, and way too many steps.

Fortunately for me, Pradeep was an old hand, and we had a copy of the service manual to help as well. The running joke among my friend group at the time was that the Jag needed 2 hours of maintenance for every 2 hours of driving time and some days, that really was not that far off. Meanwhile my bank account was getting smaller while my file of maintenance bills was getting taller and taller. The constant concern that something expensive might break meant that I never drove the car too far from home, so its long distance mile munching abilities were never really utilized.

In the process of dropping the rear subframe, a true nightmare job!

The ever growing file of bills.

I really enjoyed the car, but somehow never quite found myself bonding with it the way I thought I would, so around the middle of 2017 I began to give serious thought to selling it. There was plenty of interest, so I didn’t need to advertise, simply putting the word out among known people was enough. I had serious inquiries from a few people and one gent in particular was extra interested because he already had 3 Jaguars from the same period and really wanted to add a convertible to his collection. We went back and forth on the price for a while because my asking was quite high and he wanted a bargain, but eventually an agreement was reached at a figure quite close to what I wanted.

The day he picked up the car and got into it to drive off, it suddenly hit me why the car never felt quite right for me; he was a guy in his late 50s and he just seemed to fit the XK so perfectly, whereas I (in my late 20s at the time), just, well, didn’t. Rakish convertible it may have been, but the XK8 was still very much a car suited to the mature motorist than a callow youth like me. So waving the car off was really not anywhere near as sad as I thought it would be.

Watching it drive off with the new owner.

Over 3 years, the XK and I covered 16,000 Kilometres, which may not sound like much, but was actually three times as much as it had done in the decade before my ownership. Those Kilometres cost me just over 1 million rupees in maintenance costs (around $7,500), which meant they certainly weren’t cheap. Still, thanks to the value of the car going up, I managed to make a decent profit at the point of sale, so the XK8 is one of the few instances where I did not lose my shirt on a fun car. The smart thing to do would have been to save some or all of the windfall but instead, on the very day of the sale I went to a specialist car importer and put a deposit down on something that was in many ways about as different from the big lazy Jag as it was possible to get. It was still a convertible, but that about was as far as similarities went.