JAGUARS, SAINTS, AND GAMBITS
Jaguar’s annual sales target for the XJ-S was a modest 3,000 units, but with its lofty price, profligate fuel consumption, and the generally troubled state of world economies, it didn’t reach that goal until 1978. Production for 1975 amounted to 949 units, followed by about 2,600 units a year in 1976 and 1977.
The only substantive change the XJ-S received during that period was the replacement of the original Borg-Warner Model 12 automatic with GM’s superior Turbo Hydra-Matic 400, added in early 1977. Nonetheless, inflation brought the price ever higher. By the summer of 1977, U.K. cars were up to £13,200 with tax while the U.S. MSRP had risen to almost $24,000, enough to buy an XJ12L sedan and a well-equipped Ford Capri.
Quality was another sore point. Even before the Leyland merger, appliance-like reliability had never been among Jaguar’s strong suits, a consequence of offering sophisticated, mechanically complex cars at extremely aggressive prices. By most accounts, the late seventies were the nadir, due in part to the ongoing battles between the auto industry and its labor force, both within British Leyland and at suppliers like Lucas. The XJ-S was also a very complicated car to maintain — the chassis, for example, required a 19-point grease job every 6,000 miles (9,700 km) — and neglecting those chores could have expensive consequences. The big cat was still at the low end of the exotic-car price scale, but it was neither cheap nor simple to run.
Back in the early sixties, Jaguar had famously declined to provide a car for the new ITC television series The Saint, starring a young Roger Moore. By the time the XJ-S came on the scene, British Leyland was eager for whatever positive press it could get, particularly when it didn’t strain the corporation’s already-tight marketing budgets. As a result, the early XJ-S got not one but two shots at television stardom.
The first was a revival of the popular sixties series The Avengers, once again featuring Patrick Macnee as the inimitable John Steed, with Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt as his new cohorts, Purdey and Mike Gambit. Producer Brian Clemens arranged for British Leyland to supply the cars for the show, including several Range Rovers, an MGB, an XJ12C, and Gambit’s red XJ-S, which featured prominently in the title sequence. In later episodes, Gambit traded his Jaguar for a Triumph TR7, but Steed acquired a yellow XJ-S. The cars were all very glamorous, but proved so grievously unreliable that the producers had to rent lookalikes to reduce the risk that the cars’ many breakdowns would compromise the shooting schedule.
Disappointing ratings led to the cancellation of The New Avengers in late 1977, but it was followed by another revival, ITC’s Return of the Saint, starring Ian Ogilvy as adventurer Simon Templar. British Leyland provided a white XJ-S for the series, an early manual-shift prototype with an unusual factory-fitted steel sunroof.
Unfortunately, Return of the Saint was no more successful than The New Avengers, ending in March 1979 after only 24 episodes. Despite their short runs, both television series spawned a surprisingly broad array of XJ-S toys, including plastic model kits and Corgi die-cast versions of both Mike Gambit’s car and Simon Templar’s white coupe.
THE RACING XJ-S, ROUND ONE
Another facet of British Leyland’s quest for publicity was a return to motorsport, from which BLMC, like many automakers, had distanced itself earlier in the decade. Chairman Alex Park hoped to campaign the XJ-S in European Touring Car competition, but British Leyland was unable to homologate it for Group 2 and opted instead for Broadspeed-prepped XJ12Cs, which had a single, disappointing season in 1977. However, the XJ-S got the opportunity to prove its mettle in the Sports Car Club of America’s Trans-Am series, courtesy of Virginia-based Group 44.
The Group 44 team, founded in 1965 by Bob Tullius and Brian Fuerstenau, were longtime SCCA veterans with an impressive record of national titles, first in Triumphs and MGs, later with Jaguars. Bob Tullius had taken the 1975 SCCA National Championship in a Series III E-type roadster, which he ran for part of the 1976 season before switching to the race-prepared XJ-S.
Group 44’s XJ-S racers were noteworthy for their remarkably stock appearance. Although Tullius was originally very skeptical of Jaguar’s aerodynamic claims, he found that the XJ-S body remained quite stable well beyond the production car’s (highly respectable) top speed — a testament to the talents of Malcolm Sayer. The racing engines were surprisingly close to stock as well, although Group 44 traded the production car’s Lucas/Bosch D-Jetronic fuel injection for a sextet of Weber 441DF carburetors, along with new pistons, re-profiled camshafts, and a new dry-sump oil system. The uprated engine produced 475 hp (354 kW), which Group 44 later boosted to around 540 hp (403 kW). There were naturally some suspension modifications, but the racers actually retained the standard power steering.
The Group 44 cars soon demonstrated that they had no shortage of muscle, allowing Bob Tullius to claim the 1977 Category I driver’s cup. Driving a lightened second car with an estimated 560 horsepower (418 kW), he repeated that feat in 1978, also earning Jaguar the manufacturer’s championship. Group 44 later switched to the Triumph TR8 for Trans Am, but went on to considerable success with Jaguar-powered ‘silhouette racers’ in European prototype racing and the IMSA GTO series starting in 1980.
In April 1979, the XJ-S distinguished itself in an entirely different sort of competition: the final Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, better known as the Cannonball Run. It was the last of the cross-country outlaw races started by Car and Driver editor Brock Yates in 1971, with 46 competitors matching wits and nerves with highway patrolman across the U.S. The first to reach the destination in Redondo Beach, California, south of Los Angeles, was a black XJ-S driven by British Leyland dealers David Heinz and David Yarborough, who completed the run from Manhattan in only 32 hours and 51 minutes. According to Yates, after the race, British Leyland’s U.S. organization flatly denied Heinz and Yarborough’s request to exhibit the winning car in Southern California, presumably because the duo’s average speed, nearly 87 mph (140 km/h), was at least 30 mph (51 km/h) over the legal limit. However, Jaguar now mentions that victory with some pride in the Heritage section of its official U.S. website.
XJ-S HE, 3.6, AND A BRUSH WITH DEATH
Thanks in part to its racing and television exploits, XJ-S sales rose to nearly 3,400 units in 1978, but business declined sharply in 1979 and 1980 as Jaguar itself flirted with the headsman’s ax. Production had been dropping across the board, in part because of mounting complaints about quality, and sales of the thirsty XJ-S and XJ12 had been hit particularly hard by the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, which led to renewed fears of oil embargoes and shortages. Since Jaguar, like MG, was heavily dependent on the U.S. market, the fall of the dollar relative to the sterling was also painful. Jaguar’s accounts, which had previously shown consistent black ink, now took on a decidedly sanguinary hue. Losses for 1979 totaled £32 million (about $68 million), followed by a harrowing £52 million (more than $120 million) for 1980 as Jaguar’s worldwide sales plunged below 14,000 units.
In March 1980, British Leyland chairman Michael Edwardes appointed John Egan as managing director of Jaguar. Egan had been an executive of GM’s AC Delco division before taking over BLMC’s Unipart logistics division in the early seventies, which he had made one of the few profitable parts of the British Leyland empire. Egan had left for Massey Ferguson in 1975, but Edwardes recruited him back to replace Bob Knight, making it clear that if Egan didn’t stem the losses, Jaguar was not long for the world.
While Egan set about tackling quality issues, cutting costs, and rallying Jaguar’s demoralized workforce, Jaguar took steps to address the V-12’s heavy drinking. For 1980, the 5.3-liter (326 cu. in.) engine traded its outdated D-Jetronic injection for the more sophisticated Bosch/Lucas P-Jetronic electronic system with an oxygen sensor and three-way catalytic converter instead of thermal reactors. The change enabled the compression ratio of federalized cars to climb from 7.8 to 9.0:1, giving 262 hp SAE (195 kW) and 290 lb-ft (392 N-m) of torque. Uncatalyzed European cars, with 10.0 compression, now boasted 300 hp DIN (220 kW) and 318 lb-ft (429 N-m) as well as better fuel economy.
The XJ-S went on hiatus for the 1981 model year, but bigger improvements followed with the arrival in July 1981 of the 1982 Jaguar XJ-S H.E. The H.E. had new alloy wheels, burr elm on the dashboard, chrome trim on the bumpers, Lucas Constant Energy Ignition (replacing the earlier OPUS system), and all-new cylinder heads. Back in 1976, Jaguar had licensed Swiss engineer Michael May’s “Fireball” combustion chamber design, a stratified charge layout that allowed the engine to run lean mixtures at moderate load as well as permitting much higher compression ratios: 12.5:1 in uncatalyzed cars, 11.5:1 in federalized engines. Maximum output was little changed, but the torque peak was reduced by nearly 1,000 rpm, allowing Jaguar to install a lower numerical axle ratio (2.88, down from 3.07). The net effect was much reduced fuel consumption with little sacrifice of performance. The H.E. was now capable of better than 20 miles per Imperial gallon (17 mpg U.S., 14 L/100 km) in gentle driving, no worse than some V8 rivals.
In October 1983, Jaguar introduced the first six-cylinder XJ-S, powered by the new 24-valve, 3,590 cc (219 cu. in.) DOHC AJ6 engine, slated for the upcoming XJ40 sedan. The AJ6’s 225 hp DIN (165 kW) and 240 lb-ft (324 N-m) of torque were well down on the V-12, but the 3.6-liter cars were also more than 250 lb (114 kg) lighter and had a shorter 3.54 axle ratio and a five-speed Getrag manual gearbox; automatic was not offered with the six until 1987. Jaguar claimed the 3.6 could reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in 7.5 seconds and a top speed of 145 mph (233 km/h), the same figures quoted for the automatic V-12. The six was naturally more economical, but some reviewers found it disappointingly gruff, a shortcoming that was finally rectified by the launch of the XJ40. Except for a handful of cars imported for testing, Jaguar did not export the 3.6 to the U.S. American buyers would not be offered a six-cylinder XJ-S until the nineties.
The 1984 model year also brought the factory’s first open-topped XJ-S, the XJ-SC (for Cabriolet). The Cabriolet was not a true convertible; it had a folding fabric roof, but fixed side window frames joined by a steel-reinforced roof hoop like the old Triumph Stag’s. It was an imperfect solution — even with a reinforced floorpan and an extra crossmember, the Cabriolet lost some rigidity and critics weren’t sure what to make of its odd top-down profile. The XJ-SC was initially offered only in six-cylinder form, but a V-12 Cabriolet followed in mid-1985; it didn’t come to the U.S. until the fall of 1986. It sold in modest numbers through 1988, eventually totaling around 5,000 units.