Curbside Classic: 1989 Jaguar XJ-S – Cat O’ Nine Lives

Can it be that we’ve not had a fully-fledged CC on the Jaguar XJ-S? We can’t have that! It may have its issues and its detractors, but this big old cat saw its maker through extremely troubled times, surviving in the range for over two decades. So if only for that reason, it deserves a deeper look.

And that’s one of the things that many thought at the time, too: why did the XJ-S not look better? Most Jaguars were handsome as well as fast and luxurious (I have reservations about the S-Type, but that’s just me), but when it debuted in 1975, the XJ-S was met with muted acclaim, to coin an understatement.

The problem with the XJ-S was that it was born in particularly inauspicious circumstances. First off, it was to replace the legendary E-Type – a true masterpiece is a hard act to follow. Secondly, the mid-‘70s were a tough time for any carmaker whose main target audience was in the US due to that market’s regulatory peculiarities.

This meant massive shock-absorbing bumpers were applied to all models, no matter where they were sold, and that the planned convertible died in the womb (only to be resurrected years later). Sealed beam headlights, on the other hand, were reserved for US consumption and other markets got their XJ-Ss with composites that looked a little bit better.

The First Oil Shock did not help things, of course. Nor did the second. The Jag’s thirsty 5.3 litre OHC V12 was not known for being the most reliable, either. Yet it took Jaguar eight years to include a 6-cyl. variant of the XJ-S. The old XK engine was suitable enough for saloons, but no longer fit the bill (or the low hood) of the sporty coupé, but its 3.6 litre replacement, the AJ6, took many years to get into production.

But then the XJ-S itself took a while to get the green light. In the late ‘60s, Jaguar were in a state of flux. The carmaker’s treasury was running low and the number of planned models was ballooning well beyond reason: Jaguar was to launch a V12 and a related V8, reinstate a unique Daimler saloon, complete the XJ6 range with a drop-top, launch a smaller “sports sedan” to replace the Mark 2 and three variants of the E-Type’s successor. It’s amazing how little of these plans actually came to fruition, but then this list was established circa 1968, right when Jaguar boarded the Titanic that was British Leyland, albeit in a first-class cabin.

Jaguar stylist Malcolm Sayer headed the project for the E-Type’s successor and worked very hard at the aerodynamics of the design, but a number of problems were encountered along the way. One was that the front end needed a complete redesign when Jaguar learnt of draft US legislation to outlaw retractable headlights. Another was that Sir William Lyons, the company’s founder and director, was clearly thinking more about retirement than anything else. To compound this grim tableau, Malcolm Sayer died suddenly in April 1970.

The result of this protracted and difficult birth was a very difficult first few model years. The V12 was a groundbreaking achievement, as it potentially put Jaguar in the rarefied realm of Ferrari and Lamborghini, but Jaguar had spent a fortune on its development and failed to develop a V8 from it. They even attempted a slant-6 (i.e. half a V12), but this was also deemed unsatisfactory. The old XK block and the completely unrelated V12 were thus what Jaguar had to work with, especially since they had already discarded the Daimler V8s.

The V12 was a powerful beast, at least. In European spec, the early XJ-S had 285hp (DIN) to play with. Customers on the other side of the pond had to make do with 244hp, but the improved aerodynamics did help. But sales remained rather dismal: just under 4000 XJ-Ss were made in 1977, but by 1980, after Oil Shock number two, production dropped to just over 1000 units.

But Jaguar were in no position to give up. For starters, they were part of the (now nationalized and in steep decline) British Leyland experiment, so they lacked the autonomy to make these sorts of decisions. But they did not sit idly on their hands: Jaguar listened and decided to give their peculiar grand tourer a makeover for MY 1982, including a welcome return of a touch of chrome on the bumpers and the introduction of wood in the cabin.

But the big change was under the hood, with the “high efficiency” (HE) engine. A new head was devised that simultaneously upped the V12’s output to 300hp (in Euro-spec cars) and improved fuel consumption. This was enough to bring global sales back up to the 3000-unit mark, which was the XJ-S’s aim. But then Jaguar didn’t stop there: for 1983, the new all-alloy 3.6 litre 6-cyl. was made available in the XJ-S, and a so-called XJ-SC Cabriolet was added to the range. The XJ-SC failed to make much of an impression, but sales gathered pace all the same, leaping to over 6000 units in 1984, even as Jaguar was surgically removed from the rotting corpse of British Leyland.

Even more wood found its way into the console for 1988, as sales plateaued north of 10,000 units for that year and the next, just as a genuine convertible finally made it into production. By this point, the V12 was detuned to 291hp, but the Jag’s extra glitz meant this did not matter much to anyone.

The rest of the story is probably familiar: Ford bought Jaguar in late 1989 and pressed ahead with the big coupé’s planned (and somewhat overdue) second facelift, which was unveiled in the spring of 1991 and included a new tail, along with other changes under the skin to make the car cheaper to build. The nameplate also lost its hyphen in the process, for some reason. Now the XJS, it carried on until April 1996.

Personally, the XJ-S is not in my top-ten. The rear end is just too awkward for my taste. But I’ve warmed to it considerably over the years, especially the first facelift cars like this one. I’m clearly in the minority. Judging by the number one still sees around Tokyo, it seems as if a lot were sold here new and many are cherished, just like any 12-cyl. coupé ought to be.

Kudos to Jaguar for having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with the XJ-S. Five years into its run, the car was in a rut. Any other carmaker would have probably thrown up their hands and taken the loss, but Jaguar were in no position to do so. Failure was not an option. So they listened to the critics, pulled a couple of surprises and turned what was a potentially fatal misstep into the cat’s pyjamas.


Related posts:


Mom’s Curbside Classic: 1995 Jaguar XJS Convertible – T-Bird Substitute, by Tom Klockau

CC Outtake: Jaguar XJS – Still Iridescent Five Years Later, by PN

CC Outtake- Jaguar XJ-S, No California Cachet, by David Skinner

Driveway Outtake: The Jaguar XJ-S Gives Way To The New Family Member, by PN

Snowyside Outtake: Jaguar XJS Hess and Eisenhardt Convertible – “IV Sale”, by Brendan Saur

CC Outtake: Big Miss Sunshine, by William Stopford

Vintage R&T Intro: New Jaguar XJS, by PN

Vintage R&T Review: Jaguar XJ-S – The Brougham-Era Replacement for the E-Type, by PN

Vintage Review: Range Rover , Lister Jaguar XJ-S NAS, by Yohai71

COAL: 1993 Jaguar XJS – BRG, Biscuit and Bond, by Michael Ionno

COAL: 1988 Jaguar XJ-SC – 1 of 41 Crazy Cats, by Importamation