I admit…I love dropping hints. This whole COAL thing is fun. Remember, at the end of one of my COALs, when I said my ex had a Town Car and that it was “an interesting counterpart to the other contemporary, large luxury FoMoCo sedan we had in the driveway?” Well…
I even dropped a different, more subtle hint, a short while later. I penned an article here on the oft-unappreciated-yet-highly-interesting X350-generation (2004-2009, in the US) Jaguar XJ, also known as the Last Retro Jag. And again, it was the other large luxury sedan that was under the FoMoCo corporate structure at the time (Ford owned Jaguar under its umbrella of Premier Automotive Group brands). The only reason I knew so much about the X350-generation XJ, really, is because I owned one. While I found it to be much more suitable to my taste than that moldy old Town Car, it was not without its faults.
I’d always had a fascination with Jaguar’s big cat, and its blend of distinguished and athletic looks. It started with a forgotten 1994 Disney movie from my childhood called Blank Check, in which the main antagonists (which include the infamous Tone Lōc) steal a ton of money and then proceed to terrorize a kid in a newly acquired XJ6 Series III, after he swindles them out of their ill-gotten gains. The kid uses a strawman employer and the then-novel Macintosh voice synthesizer, to cover up the origins of his new wealth. Hilarity ensues. Around the same time I first saw that movie, my cousins’ very-wealthy grandparents had a new 1996 XJ of some sort in the driveway.
As to the X350-generation XJ, specifically, the first time I saw one was at the local mall, which often had cars from the local luxury dealers prior to the pandemic. I must have been 11 or 12 at the time, but I remember going up the escalator and gazing down at the shapely car, which was to my preteen eyes was the perfect amalgamation of retro and modern. This one was likely a 2004 Vanden Plas, just like my eventual one, and I was in love.
Not long after that, the movie Monster-in-Law hit theaters, featuring a woman named Charlie (Jennifer Lopez), who ends up engaged in a secret war with her new fiancé’s problematic mother-in-law, Viola (Jane Fonda), hence the movie title. Throughout the movie, Viola has her personal assistant, Ruby (Wanda Sykes), driving her around in a black 2004 era XJR, which looks about as sinister as Viola’s intentions.
Several years later, during my senior year of high school, I found out my not-particularly-well-liked newspaper/yearbook teacher had one, a red 2005 XJ Vanden Plas, that she’d bought when it was lightly used. Ironically, the woman went by the name “Kitty,” and, to tie it to Monster-in-Law, she became my good friend’s mother-in-law monster-in-law shortly after that…where she proceeded to be just as problematic as Viola, in a similarly WASP-y, passive-aggressive way. Kitty got claws, as they say. I am reliably informed that Kitty accidentally crashed her XJ into a tree six or seven years ago, totaling it. After that, she took the XJ’s hood ornament and had her husband install it on that car’s replacement, a new Chrysler Town & Country, and then christened it the “Jag Van,” in hopes of pressuring her son and my friend into giving her grandchildren. Which didn’t work out for her.
Why do the villains always drive XJs?
But I digress.
Anyway, I had admired the X350 XJ from afar, but never so much as sat in one. Fast forward to October of 2019. I was fresh off the heels of the Tiguan debacle and convincing the Volkswagen dealership to take back my brand-new, pre-wrecked 2019 one and replace it with another of like spec. Since I had a generous amount of savings by then, the $4,000 check the VW dealer gave me, as an apology, was burning a hole in my pocket. And I’d never really had a “fun” car.
I don’t know how I ended up finding it, but a couple of days later, I was test-driving a 2004 XJ Vanden Plas at a local small dealership. This example was gold, with a 2003 build date, meaning it was one of the very first X350s on our shores. It had all of 150,000 miles on it (not bad, for a 15-year-old car), and seemed to be in reasonable, but not great shape. The 4.2-liter AJ33—my first ever V8—made 294 hp and 303 lb-ft of torque, and it felt like most of that was there. Granted, the car was aluminum and very light. And the 6-speed ZF transmission had nary a stutter nor a misstep.
Of course, there’s more to a car than the engine and transmission, as I soon found out.
But I was young and inexperienced, so—without having thoroughly had the thing inspected—I bought it, for just $3,600. I immediately christened it “Jacqueline,” or “Jackie O,” because, like her, the XJ was stylish and sophisticated. There were lots of things I loved about it. I liked the dramatic dash-to-axle ratio, the round quad-signature headlights, the generous doses of chrome all over the exterior, the acres of wood inside, the stitched-leather airbag cover, the J-gate shifter, the growl of that V8, the switchblade key with its Tibbe-style blade, and even the polite two-note warning/seatbelt chime. As an avowed Anglophile, I was also pleased to be driving an English car with an English personality.
Over the next couple of days, though, the fog of instant gratification began to dissipate, and I noticed several things wrong with it. For one, the headliner had begun to sag. Now, this wasn’t an anomaly, because pretty much all X350 XJ headliners eventually fail, apparently. There was something about the glue Jaguar used that caused the foam backing in the material to disintegrate, after which the fabric would droop and come away. I distinctly recall my dad having this issue in his 1992 Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight LS, and his solution was to just rip the fabric away, leaving us staring at a roofboard with orangish-brown foam-and-glue remnants that would rain all over us if so much as touched.
Other issues: that lovely hood ornament was prone to just falling off. Turns out, the original swing-away one—which bolted through the hood and onto a nut-and-washer beneath—had fallen off; the one currently on the car was an aftermarket eBay reproduction that plopped down onto the hood with a 3M backing. It turned out the sunroof didn’t really work, either, unless you wanted it to leak onto the headliner, contributing to the sagging. Something in the assembly had broken, so it would move partially, jam up, and then have to be manually closed. The electronic trunk latch was also kaput, so pressing the button above the driver’s side kneeboard to open it didn’t work, nor did the button on the trunk lid; you had to go to the back of the car and physically unlock it with the key. Like a peasant! The air conditioning was kaput. There was suddenly a pronounced clunk from the transmission area when moving it in and out of gear that I’d swear hadn’t been there before. And, the heated driver’s seat and heated steering wheel, which were linked with a single button, got so hot that they’d practically burn your skin off.
But the car was a big hit with friends, especially my best friend Austin, whose taste was similar to mine when it came to cars of a certain…style. At the ripe age of 23, he’d bought himself a used 2005 Ford Thunderbird, for example. It was also a hit with my friends and acquaintances who lived in the so-called “hood.” For those of you not acquainted with hood culture, there’s nothing quite as effective in garnering attention as a flashy yester-decade luxury car, especially a retro Jaguar.
And then the big problem came: the air suspension. For those not in the know, the X350 employed Jaguar’s first-ever air suspension system, replete with the brand’s Computer Active Technology Suspension (CATS) adaptive dampening. Well, I decided to take the Jag to work the morning of our first serious cold spell one November, and the thing was On. The. Ground. On all four corners. I started it up, to be greeted with a red status light and a “VEHICLE TOO LOW” message light in the instrument panel. Then, I heard the air compressor kick in and realized I’d heard that noise quite a bit while driving the car, which research revealed wasn’t really supposed to happen…unless the struts were leaking. Fortunately, after 30 seconds or so, the struts aired up and lifted the car enough to cause the error to go away, but it rode noticeably rougher. When I got to work, I had a good view of the car from my window, and within a couple of hours of being parked, the rear was back on the ground.
For this, I decided to consult some experts. I found a well-regarded local husband-and-wife shop that had been around since the 80s and that specialized in various Jaguar models…and that was recommended to me by my friend, Nate, who himself specialized in selling various vintage British and European cars, including Jaguars. They determined that three of the four struts were leaking out in cold weather within 2 hours. Their solution was to replace all four struts with Arnott units. Arnott is a well-known vendor for aftermarket air struts on pretty much everything, and at the time, it would have been $4,200 for the shop to purchase and install those. And that was a deal compared to the OEM Bilstein units, which collectively would have approximated the price of a base-model Corolla. Like most shops, they had their preferred vendors and didn’t take outside parts or use other vendors. So it was either the Arnotts or the OEMs.
Faced with the prospect of spending more than I’d paid for the car on just air struts, I got brave and creative. This was a good time to learn. Arnott itself had a video on its site showing how to remove old air struts and install new ones, and it seemed simple enough if you had access to a lift, or access to jacks and jack stands and some space. (I still lived in an apartment and had none of that, but Austin was willing to let me use his garage and his time, and I could buy the jacks and jackstands). For the struts, I located a kit on eBay from a brand called Suncore that also made replacement air struts, and their kit was $1,200 for fronts and rears…still dear, but a bit over a quarter the price of the Arnotts. So, we decided to do it.
First off, getting the struts wasn’t as easy as we’d thought. Just getting the wheels off proved to be trouble, because of the lug nuts, which were a) extremely overtorqued, and b) had weird chrome covers built onto them. And the OEM tire iron cracked when we tried to use it. I can’t remember how, but I ended up essentially ruining the lug nuts to get them off. After that, it was back to the hardware store for new lug nuts and because we didn’t have the right-size HUGE star bit to unbolt the control arms, or anything with enough torque to free those bolts. And then, after ten or eleven hours on what should have been a three-hour job, we got everything back together. I started the Jag up and waited for it to activate the air compressor and air up the new struts…only for nothing to happen. I pulled fuses, reset the battery, tried to put it in gear and drive it a short distance…it didn’t respond, and remained firmly on the ground.
The next day, I called a different local shop that specialized in European cars in general, rather than Jaguars, and explained the issue. They said they’d worked on X350 air suspensions before and let me know I could drop the car off after hours. “Great!” I said. That evening, I decided to get the Jag there. Only…I didn’t call a tow truck. Oh, no, I decided to just nurse it there with the hazards on, while it was still on the ground, with Austin following me in whatever he was driving at the time (I think it was his current car, a 2016 RX 450h). If you’ve ever driven a car with no suspension, it’s no fun. The thing shucked and bucked the three miles to the shop at a robust 25 miles per hour. Then, when we got there, I went into the shop’s parking lot the wrong way and wound up high-centering the Jag on an incline. Whoops. The next morning, I called and explained it was my car that was blocking their exit, and if they could please free it and begin working on it, that’d be great.
Several days and $560 additional dollars later, that shop had replaced the air compressor, which I guess had burned out from airing the old struts up so much…? Maybe? I’m still not sure about that one; the timing was too perfect, considering it had worked immediately prior to the new struts. Fortunately, that shop was highly amenable to taking outside parts—they just couldn’t warranty them—and so they let me source and bring them a known good compressor from eBay. They also got the A/C working, which seemed to have a slow enough leak that a simple evac-and-recharge fixed it.
After that, I got it home and immediately set about trying to replace the trunk latch. A previous foray had revealed why the electronic latch wasn’t working: the motor had burned out and had melted the plastic casing. To make a long story short, the replacement latch I bought was also bent and broken, and this attempt ended with me locking myself out of the trunk…then having to break into the trunk from the inside of the car by undoing some rivets behind the seat to open the pass-through…then using a reach extender to snag the emergency escape cable inside the trunk and open it that way. I admitted defeat, sent the defective replacement part back, and reinstalled the old burnt-out latch, resolving to have to manually open the trunk every time.
On top of that, the air suspension began acting up. This time, it would sit too high, making the car look like it had a minor lift kit on it. After a bit, the air compression would air the struts up too much, make the ride relatively harsh, and trigger a persistent orange status indicator and an “AIR SUSPENSION FAULT” message in the instrument panel. This was annoying. I took it back to that same shop that had done the prior work, because they said they’d look at it for no charge. They had it for a month. In that time, they tried various things to get it to work, including a recalibration, a new air-line valve block, and even a new rear body computer. All to no avail. Eventually, they threw their hands up and said there was nothing they could do, but they let me leave without a bill (which was very kind of them), and I was able to return all the parts. The original shop, the one that specialized in Jags specifically, did not want to touch it, and only suggested replacing all of the struts with Arnott units. I myself tried replacing the ride height sensors, to no avail. And I wasn’t able to return those, because they’d come from the JLR dealer and I’d already opened them.
I thought that perhaps if I drove it enough, it would solve itself, so I began leaving the Tiguan at home and driving the Jag to work, and I began to hear a knocking sound. But I wasn’t sure what it was. One fateful day, on my lunch break, I was turning out of a 7-Eleven here in Edmond, OK. I turned right, and then got into the far turning lane, when I felt the left front corner of the car drop and saw my wheel flying past me. It bounced across the median, into oncoming traffic, over the sparse number of cars that were driving by, and onto the grassy berm on the opposite side.
I got out of the Jag and could not believe what I was seeing. The hub was still there, although the brake disc had been shattered from hitting the ground and being driven like that. In addition, the wheel—on its way out of the party—had been driven back into the paper-thin fender and crumpled it and shredded the wheel-well liner, then bent the rocker panel cover. It looked like it was going to be the end for the Jag.
I called the police, who dispatched a tow truck, which cost me $150 for a couple of miles. (I now have AAA.) The driver assessed that the studs had sheared off, probably because the wheel was not seated fully on the hub. That’s the knocking sound I’d heard. I was curious how he was going to get the Jag onto a flatbed without further damage. His solution was to pull out two of the broken studs from the hub, then use two replacement studs from a different wheel to resecure the wheel, so that the car would at least roll. I had it towed to, where else, the shop that had done the work. I realized I was the last person to touch the car and I hadn’t properly torqued the wheels when I’d replaced the ride height sensors, which was my (and the wheel’s) undoing.
But the Jag lived another day. The accident had done no damage to the strut or to any of the pricey suspension bits. I had the shop put a new hub and brake disc on, and—for total peace of mind—asked them to replace all twenty lug nuts on the car with OEM Jaguar ones from the dealer, at a cost of $14(!!) per unit, or $280(!!!!) total. For the body damage, I decided to fix that myself. That was the first fix I’d done that was successful. Austin lent me his garage—though not his time—again, and I removed the wheel, front clip, fender and wheel well, then replaced the damaged parts with replacements, all from eBay. I managed to find a new fender there that was the same gold as my car, and the match was perfect.
Satisfied, I decided to put any more repairs on hold, because I was within a few weeks of closing on my first house. That meant the Jag would continue to display that “AIR SUSPENSION FAULT” message, and to ride an inch higher than it was supposed to. It occurs to me now that I could probably have just adjusted the ride height sensors or modified them to read a higher value, so that the air compressor wouldn’t air them so high, but I didn’t think of it then.
After the house closing in early 2020, it was back to working on the Jag, especially now that I had a garage of my own (albeit a tricky one for ingress and egress). I decided to try and tackle the headliner and the sunroof in one fell swoop. A YouTube tutorial showed me everything I needed to do in order to remove the headliner, and that was easy enough. I couldn’t find one in good condition, but I ordered fabric that looked close to the original stuff and figured I could scrape the board bare and start over. Easier said than done, and I ended up abandoning that attempt. As for the sunroof, that was a unit from Webasto, a preferred supplier for FoMoCo, and it so happened that the Lincoln LS and Jaguar S-Type used the same basic one. There was a repair kit to replace all of the broken pieces. That didn’t go well either. I don’t know what happened other than that I was disorganized, and found myself unable to figure out how it went back together. (This was an affliction from which I’d suffered as a child, causing me to earn the ire of many friends and parents when I’d convince them to let me take apart their computers, and then be unable to reassemble them.) So, I got frustrated and reinstalled the sunroof, after first gluing the glass in place. That solved the leaking. Then I disconnected the motor, so that it couldn’t accidentally be triggered. And I found someone to finish the headliner job for me, using the fabric that I’d supplied.
By this time, I was pretty disheartened with the Jag. First of all, I realized that I’d much rather have the longer-wheelbase model, which didn’t come out until 2005. Second…this one was particularly neglected, and that would have been plainly evident to me if I hadn’t been in such a hurry to buy it. The Jag was perhaps even worse-off after my half-assed repairs on it. It was September of 2020 and coming up on a year since I’d bought it, so I resolved to sell it. But I didn’t think I’d get more than $1,500 for it with the air suspension so obviously out of whack. A bright orange light and an “AIR SUSPENSION FAULT” message meant that even the most idiotic person wouldn’t be able to ignore it, and that’s a major component. So, I had to fix it.
But…rather than sorting the air suspension, I decided to bypass it. For the reasonable sum of $650, Suncore—that same vendor—had a coilover kit that would allow you to replace all four air struts. It also had a module you plugged in under the seat that would trick the car into reading normal values from the ride height sensors, so that the compressor never activated and the computer never triggered a fault. I had the shop install that for $750, all-in. I was able to sell the air struts for $500. It definitely didn’t ride the same, but it was more comfortable than it had been with the struts acting up. I also spent $100 on a new transmission mount to solve that clunking issue, which I installed myself, with the help of my now-ex, who was staying at my new house more often than not by that point.
When it came time to sell the car, I decided to try a tactic. I went to a newly constructed house that was on the market, meaning it was unlikely to be occupied. I parked it in the driveway, and took some really good photos. I was surprised at how photogenic it looked, especially because the house sort of matched the car, color-wise. When I put it online for what I’d paid a year ago, $3,600, I realized my repairs meant I’d be taking a large loss as it related to the value of the vehicle, but it was a small loss because it wasn’t worth much to begin with. I got a lot of interest, but the first person to test-drive it—coincidentally enough, in the parking lot of the mall where I’d spotted that gleaming new white one all those years ago—ultimately wound up buying it, for $3,500.
And that was all she wrote for the so-called “Jackie O.” I didn’t properly assess it before I bought it, and I spent a lot more time fixing that car than I did driving it, and I threw good money after bad. Still, I really liked the styling and the way it drove, when it worked, so I was open to finding another one…in better condition.
I’ve mentioned this, but around the time I was buying my house, February-ish of 2020, a local CC-er posted about his 1992 Citroën XM, inviting anyone who was interested to come take a look. Of course I was interested in an obscure French car, and so I met him—he gave me a short ride to his garage in an immaculate 1996-era Cadillac Fleetwood—and took a good look at the car. I genuinely was getting ready to make an offer, but then I remembered the troublesome Jag. I also had the 1993 Mercedes-Benz 500 SL that Austin and I co-purchased together, which had a leaky hydraulic power top system. And the Citroën had a leaky liquide hydralique minéaral (LHM) system, so its oil-based suspension was also bad. Between that and the Jag, did I need another expensive European car with unignorable drivability or usability issues due to leaking oil and/or air? Probably not. So, I decided to forego the XM, sadly. That said, I believe my friend Nate (the one that specialized in selling Euro cars) ended up buying it after I told him about it.
At that time, I also had a third yet-unmentioned project car, because I just never know when to quit. That car was purchased in essentially non-running condition so, unlike the Jag, I didn’t have high expectations for it. But it was another pricey European prestige luxury car with air suspension, and it was an interesting experience. You’ll read about that on my next COAL. Until then, stay safe, and—for the love of god—please torque your wheels down properly.