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The Jaguar XJ-S

THE Jaguar XJ-S came out in 1975, at a time when family cars were ridiculously tall and the Morris Minor had just ended its 23-year reign of terror and handed over the throne to its even less competent successor, the Marina.

Almost as if driven by some far-fetched conspiracy theory, the British were eagerly running their automotive industry into the ground in the 1970s.

Reputations were collapsing fast and furious and apart from the Ford Escort and Cortina winning hearts and minds in this far flung corner of a former colony through rallying and motorsports, Malaysian automotive interests began to swing East.

Suddenly Mazda was cooler than Morrises and Cressidas had more street cred than Cortinas.

The only thing the British could offer in the 1970s was Jaguar and, let’s face it, Jaguars were really meant for minor royalties, really old money and generally those who cannot really explain their wealth.

The XJ series had made its mark as one of the most beautiful large sedans ever made and by the time they came up with the XJ-3 and those unbelievably simple, yet elegant pepper-pot wheels, motorheads thought no one is ever going to make anything more beautiful on the road, ever again.

Well, at least that was what I thought, anyway.

The competition for the XJ Series 2 was a very large barge in the form of the double-bumper S-Class and the 7-series wasn’t even born yet.

Smack in the middle of the decade, two years after they introduced the XJ Series 2, Jaguar released the unbelievably stunning XJ-S. How can anyone improve on this?

It had a bonnet so long, only oil tanker captains felt at home on the bridge.

And whoever would have thought that flying buttresses could be a feature on anything other than stone cathedrals.

Everything about the car was designed to make it impossibly elegant, almost to the point of impracticality. It was so gorgeous and useless, it was almost French.

Except that the XJ-S had a beautifully engineered in-line six cylinder engine under the bonnet for the poor people and a proper V-12 for those who could afford the cake.

In contrast, by the 1960s, French engines had to be either asthmatic four cylinders or, if they’re feeling really philosophical, two cylinders in constant opposition.

Only the British and Bavarians were still madly in-love with harmonic balance and in Coventry they pray at the altar of times six.


Interior of the XJ-S.

The XJ-S is really not a car at all. It is simply an idealisation of the motorised personal carriage. What every car should be if it only had to be beautiful and didn’t really have to be a car.

Marvel at the perfect size of the wheels and tyres and gaze adoringly at the slim and wide windscreen, the unreasonably beautiful slope of the rear side windows.

Seriously, the bonnet line is so low that the tyres look huge, even though they were running 15-inch wheels.

Forgive the uneven panel gap and brush aside the occasional difficulty of coaxing the half or full dozen into life as character; the flaw that makes it perfect.

Now that is how you run a world-class auto industry into the ground.

Once seated, you can quietly discover that the door is very long and when it opens, the long arm of a primate is really the only convenient appendage for pulling it shut.

You notice how the door really cuts under the A-pillar by some margin, that is not entirely for styling reasons.

If the doors ended right below the A-pillar, passengers could not get in easily because the footwell extends deep under the dashboard.

The footwell needs to extend deep under the dashboard because the steering wheel needed to be within reach, despite the fact that the driver sits on the floor with legs straight ahead, thanks to that gorgeous low roof.

Despite the long bonnet, the windscreen is very much right up in your face.

The result is a cabin that is low and wide and the occupants look ahead through a panoramic letterbox format windscreen, which frames the hills beautifully but is quite hopeless for seeing out when driving fast.

The low driving position also means that the front extremities of the car is never really visible, you sort of guess its width and forward protrusion and, really, just hope for the best.

It’s best parked in front of a nationally significant manor houses with gravel driveways, quite unsuitable for village accommodations.

Before the Humvee, the XJ-S was probably the widest car you could get, most owners fitted telephones in the car so they could speak to the passengers without using their outdoor voice.

The interior consists of high-quality leather, not quite Rolls-Royce or Bentley biscuit leather but almost. The wood was pretty good as well, not quite book-matched either but they are the nicest burl walnut that Crewe didn’t buy.

They’re good enough for the Prime Minister Ma’am.

The rear seats are more parcel shelf than anything else, large enough to take a couple of hat boxes.

While the soft and pliant rides are on first name basis with pampered derrieres, it’s certainly not a friend of twisty tarmac despite its grand tourer credentials.

The chassis is quite untrained on how to properly address an S-bend or a hairpin and is completely glazed over when confronted with a tightening radius corner.

Honestly, the XJ-s is best driven with a half dose of your favourite tipple already in, that way you would drive way too slowly and would do your best to avoid sudden swerves. Both car and driver is happiest this way.

When I say fine handing, I am, of course, excluding any Italian grand tourers from comparison. I have to make that clear in case some crazed Alfisti is reading this and thinks I am a heretic.

By the 1990s, when I first drove it, the XJ-S was just two large, sweet spoonfuls of nostalgia dripping with apologies for insufficient funding for upgrades.

When I first saw it, I was 10 and she was gorgeous and she was everything I wanted.

By the time I met her, she had creaks and creases in far too many surprising places but, thankfully, good childhood memories can forgive almost anything.

So I enjoyed my first drive in the XJ-S and left it at that.

Today, given a choice, I would love to have a 12-cylinder Mark I with the original, fussy, Fuch’s lookalike wheels.

Like many flawed but beautiful cars, she is a work of art but not quite as conventionally beautiful as the E-type that is the Sistine Chapel. She’s more like Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

But a piece of art she is, she has to be, because she is terrible at almost everything else other than purring and being beautiful.

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