Finally receiving the respect it arguably always deserved, the Jaguar XJS makes an excellent a grand tourer, with presence and performance in equal measure. Here’s our buyer’s guide
A car that divides opinion and generates controversy from day one isn’t always a likely contender for a long and successful career. In the case of the Jaguar XJS, however, what was originally seen by many as a poor substitute for the E-Type ended up maturing into a highly desirable range. Indeed, so well-executed were the XJS’s various updates, it managed to remain in production for an impressive 21 years, beating the E-Type’s sales record by attracting more than 115,000 customers worldwide.
At the time of its launch, of course, not everyone appreciated the XJS’s styling (particularly its trailing rear buttresses), nor the fact that the only power option was Jaguar’s less-than-frugal 5.3-litre V12 at a time when the most recent energy crisis was still fresh in everyone’s mind. But despite a slow start, Jaguar didn’t give up on the XJS; and through a long-term process of updates, the company’s sportiest model began to prosper.
Given the longevity of the XJS, we often forget that it was in danger of being dropped from the Jaguar line-up as early as the start of the ’80s, with just 1,057 cars sold worldwide in 1980 compared with 3,890 three years earlier. Instead, however, Jaguar focused on improving both the car’s design and its overall quality and reliability, as well as expanding the range to appeal to a broader spread of customers.
Jaguar XJS development
The summer of 1981 (three years before Jaguar was separated from BL and became an independent company once again) saw the launch of an updated version of the V12 engine, featuring a Michael May-designed split-level combustion chamber for greater efficiency. The effect was dramatic, with an increase in power being a welcome bonus, alongside an all-important improvement in fuel economy; the XJS HE (for ‘High Efficiency’) was suddenly capable of up to 20mpg on a run.
Buyers who craved an open-top version of the Jaguar XJS had to wait a further two years for the launch of the XJ-SC, a model that featured targa-style removable hardtop panels and a fold-down rear window; it was the closest that Jaguar had come to creating a ragtop version of its sporting coupe, but many enthusiasts still craved a full convertible.
Their prayers were eventually answered in 1988, when the logically-named XJS Convertible arrived to replace the XJ-SC, bringing with it a newly strengthened bodyshell to ensure extra rigidity. And what an impressive looking vehicle this was, finally providing XJS fans with one of the most elegant soft-top experiences of the time. At long last, what many had perceived to be an ugly duckling thirteen years earlier had matured into the proverbial handsome swan.
One of the most important developments in the history of the XJS, however, occurred at the same time as the XJ-SC’s debut in 1983, with the announcement of a new six-cylinder engine. No longer was the classic 5.3-litre V12 the only power option, with the all-new 3.6-litre 24-valve AJ6 straight-six unit helping to significantly boost sales. Although the V12’s power output of 291bhp (for the 1983-on HE model) was always the ultimate, the AJ6’s initial 221bhp was powerful enough for most buyers’ needs.
The arrival of a six-cylinder XJS did wonders for sales, helping it to remain competitive and popular well into the Nineties. Updates continued during that decade, with 1991 bringing a subtle restyle for the coupe, which now featured larger-looking glass areas and a modified rear end for a touch of extra elegance. The six-cylinder engine was upgraded to 4.0-litre capacity that same year, while May 1992 saw the legendary V12 powerplant become a 6.0-litre unit – with power increased to 313bhp as a result. But with the new XK8 waiting in the wings, the final XJS rolled off the line in 1996, bringing to an end one of Jaguar’s most successful sporting sagas.
Not surprisingly, one of the XJS’s biggest enemies nowadays is rust, making it essential that you carry out thorough checks before purchase. Underneath the car, start your inspection with the jacking points, as rot here can result in holes and general weakening of the area; push firmly around the jacking points for signs of weakness, and be suspicious of any uneven surfaces or fresh underseal.
The XJS’s floorpans are also prone to rot, particularly around the coupe model’s seatbelt mounting reinforcement, where a strengthening plate on the outside allows water to get trapped; this then rots the floor, creating major problems.
When it comes to outer panels, the bottom of each front wing (where it meets the sill) is particularly vulnerable to corrosion. Check that the bottom of the wing is flush with the sill; if it isn’t, then assume that a less-than-perfect repair has been carried out. The wings also need checking around their headlights and wheelarches, as well as along their top edges; new wings are available (at around £485 per side from SNG Barratt), but are you really looking for a project car?
Rot around the rear wheelarches is common, plus the front lower edge of each rear wing (where it joins the sill); if there isn’t an obvious seam here, then the area has been poorly repaired and filled over. You also need to check each sill, as these can rot through; examine the sill closing plates from under the wheelarches, and look for any signs that cover sills are hiding rusty originals. You should also check each door for signs of rust or repairs, as corrosion to both skin and frame isn’t unusual; a new door skin will cost you around £178 from SNG Barratt.
Even the galvanized, post-facelift (1991-on) XJS isn’t immune to rot, one of the most common areas being around the windscreen scuttle, which is tricky and expensive to repair properly. And on post-1993 cars in particular, there is often rust on the forward edge of the roof, where it meets the stainless steel fastener.
Engine and transmission
Though many buyers might baulk at the thought of running (and maintaining) a V12, Jaguar’s classic powerplant is an inherently reliable unit – as long as its owner is fastidious when it comes to maintenance. Its coolant must be replaced every two years (using good quality antifreeze), for example, as the radiator tends to silt up quickly. If the coolant in the XJS you’re thinking of buying looks brown rather than clean and green, then find another car.
The V12 is famously smooth, of course, with only the rattle of a loose timing chain (a common feature on higher-mileage cars in particular) to spoil the serenity. If the engine you’re listening seems noisy, then walk away. When buying any XJS, the lack of a service history or proof of maintenance should set alarm bells ringing.
The straight-six AJ6 engine is also a reliable unit, with marque specialist KWE Cars reckoning on mileages of up to 150,000 before things start to get expensive – although, of course, this will depend on just how well-maintained it’s been over the years. Having said that, it’s not unknown for head gaskets to fail after just 50-60,000 miles, so make sure you carry out all the usual checks for coolant in the engine oil and vice-versa. Check that the oil pressure is around 40-50psi once the engine is at normal operating temperature; and listen out for timing chain rattles, as the AJ6 (and 4.0-litre AJ16) unit is prone to this on higher-mileage cars, which might involve replacing both the timing chain and tensioner.
Most XJS V12s come with automatic transmission, a smooth GM400 three-speed unit from the late ’70s onwards, replaced by a four-speed version of the same box in 1993. However, the AJ6-engined models started off with a Getrag 265 five-speed manual transmission, joined in 1987 by an optional ZF 4HP22 four-speed automatic. Whichever automatic gearbox is fitted to the XJS you’re thinking of buying, check for smooth, quick changes up and down the gears, plus non-hesitant ‘kickdown’. If there’s any knocking from underneath, this is usually a problem with the gearbox mount, allowing the box itself to move. On manual cars, check for any crunching of the gears (particularly on first and second) and make sure there’s no clutch slip.
When it comes to areas like steering, suspension and brakes, there should be relatively few issues on well-maintained cars, but you obviously still need to carry out the usual checks. Look for steering leaks and listen for any untoward noises when turning from lock to lock. On the braking front, the all-disc standard set-up is relatively uncomplicated and has no inherent faults; check, however, that the discs and pads aren’t at the end of their life, and ask when the brake fluid was last changed.
The XJS’s twin-wishbone front suspension has top inner bushes that tend to wear out every 50,000 miles or so, allowing the wishbones to move around, which affects the tracking and causes uneven tyre wear. The rear suspension is contained in a subframe that also holds the differential; if possible, try levering down on the subframe mounts (with the body supported) to check for perishing, whilst rocking each wheel side-to-side to check the health of the hub bearings.
Interior and electrics
Any XJS was a well-equipped car for its time, which means plenty of potential for things going wrong. The electrics can be troublesome, so make sure everything is working as it should – including the electric windows, aerial and so on, whilst keeping an eye on any warning light glitches. Make sure the gauges are all functioning, and on convertible cars check that the hood mechanism is working correctly.
The well-trimmed interior tends to last well, but you should still check the leather upholstery for signs of wear and damage – particularly the side bolsters of the front seats. Also inspect the carpets for signs of dampness, which might be caused by a leaking screen or rot around the scuttle. The wood-veneer used on the dashboard, centre console and door cappings can suffer from cracked or even flaking lacquer on neglected cars, so check this carefully as a professional repair will be pricy. If you’re buying a convertible (or the rarer XJ-SC), check the condition of the hood itself, looking for any wear and splits in the fabric.
Maintenance and modification
Servicing costs are competitive thanks to reasonably priced (and readily available) parts from specialists like David Manners. For V12 models, for example, an oil filter will set you back less than £9, a plug lead set costs from just £26.40, and a set of front brake pads comes in at well under £20.
Such is the all-round excellence of the XJS, many owners carry out only relatively minor upgrades (if any). It’s worth investing in a K&N air filter (usually available for less than £85 for the V12), which will improve airflow and provide a mild performance boost. And a stainless steel performance exhaust will also be a worthwhile buy, such as the Falcon complete system (including front pipes) sold by David Manners at £810 and £900 for the 3.6 and 5.3 respectively.
Suspension-wise it’s possible to make improvements, although you need to tread carefully if you’re to avoid ruining the XJS’s impressive ride quality – so make sure you talk to the experts before taking the plunge. Bilstein offers uprated gas shock absorbers for the XJS, although they’re not a cheap option at around £200 each (for the rear).
For a car that started out in life as a disappointment to many, the XJS went on to achieve the almost impossible. Here was a car that frustrated those who were looking for a ‘new E-Type’ upon its launch in 1975, thanks to its hardtop-only spec and controversial styling; but by the early ’Eighties, the XJS finally began to fulfil its potential via roofless options and an extra engine choice, opening up a whole new audience as a result. The fact that the final XJS was produced 21 years after the original was in itself a major feat.
The XJS is now a highly respected grand-touring classic, with the best examples seeing an upsurge in values over the last few years thanks to increased demand. In both six-cylinder and V12 guises, it offers effortless performance, impressive refinement and a great all-round driving experience. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend a project car; but for anyone with the budget for a well-preserved survivor, an XJS should prove to be a rewarding choice.