Replacing the E-Type Jaguar was always going to be a tough call, and when the XJS appeared in 1975… enthusiasts weren’t impressed. The 14-mpg, 5.3-litre V12 GT with no convertible option launched in the teeth of a global oil crisis. Worse still the ‘flying buttresses’ in the rear, huge 16-foot length and rubber bumpers made it seem like a clumsy shadow of the pert and delicate E-Type. Some say the XJ-S was a classic example of a car designed by committee, and British Leyland (then controlling Jaguar) weren’t very good at finessing the details. Only a bunch of soulless accountants would have called the historic Brown Lane Jaguar Factory – Large Car Plant 1. Yes, really.
But the V12 engine was a gem, whisking the XJ-S to 153 mph in serene silence. The ride quality was much better than any contemporary Mercedes and almost as smooth as a Rolls Silver Shadow. It was a proper wafter, with discreet grunt from its 285bhp engine that could more than keep up with a Ferrari Dino or Lamborghini Urraco. Only a handful of V12 manuals were built, so they’re rare and very collectible.
In 1991 the HE appeared with a High Efficiency (and slightly less thirsty) engine. Jaguar spent half-a-million developing improved combustion chambers on the V12 lump as a sop to the US market, which was buckling under the strain of the OPEC fuel crisis. Mpg on the HE was up to 15.6 and top speed up to 155 mph. Then, in 1983, Jaguar made a wise move and dropped in a 3.6 engine. This change transformed the XJ-S.
With a lighter handling balance, crisp five-speed manual gearbox option and a removable targa roof, the 140mph XJ-SC was a delight. These 3.6 cars can return low 20s mpg if driven carefully, and you can still pick them up for five grand. They really make clever buying as they’re less complicated, and rare. Not many people know this, but Jaguar only built 5,000 XJ-SCs so they’re one of the most exclusive examples of the breed. In 1988 Jaguar rolled out a proper V12 convertible and these silky smooth ragtops are the best-looking XJ-Ss of all. Good ones are still fine value at around £10k, though, and we can’t see them staying cheap for long.
But if you do want to take the plunge (Will Best really fancies a manual 3.6 Cabrio and Alex Riley has his heart set on an early V12) make sure you buy a really fit low-mileage car with plenty of history. There are tons of XJ-Ss on the market,so be fussy and insist on having any prospective purchase checked over properly. These are complicated (particularly the V12s), rust-prone cars with lots of electrical gremlins, so never buy the first one you see. Prices really do look tempting and the XJ-S has been in the shadows for far too long. Buy one now – and £5-7k secures a cared-for car – and you’ll be entering the market at its lowest point before XJ-Ss start appearing on everybody’s radar. We really do think the XJS is a deeply cool 70s GT and one of the classic car market’s rare underrated bargains.