Capsule Review: Jaguar XJ-S V-12 "HE"

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Why did we have an eleven-year-old, scratch-and-dent, no-maintenance-records, twelve-cylinder Jaguar on our lot? Blame our naive sales manager, who always paid top dollar for trades. In his haste to revolutionize the way people bought and sold luxury cars in Dublin, Ohio, “Steve” tended to ignore the established car-sales playbook. At the time, I thought he was bold; I now realize he was stupid.

It’s famously said that the SCCA road-racing rulebook is “written in blood”. Every rule in the book is a lesson learned from a tragic occurrence. By the same token, every rule in the car-sales biz is written, not in blood, but in red ink. There’s one rule in particular that is written in so much ink that it’s bled through the page, and that is: Don’t take used cars to customer homes for test drives. If you look closely, you will see an asterisk to that rule, added by me, and at the bottom of the metaphorical page, I’ve written: * this goes double for Jags.

The history of the Jaguar XJ-S could fill a book, and in fact it’s filled a few books. As the Seventies dawned, it was commonly believed that the sportscar era was about to come to a permanent halt. The affordable race-on-Sunday ragtop was an early casualty of Arab oil prices, American safety regulations, and California emission controls. Jaguar believed that a move upmarket would be required to stay in business (the more things change…) and the XJ-S was created to replace the aging XKE (E-Type to us USians).

Surely fifteen years of depressing, timid, default-retro Jags have taught us to appreciate this automobile for what it is: a unique and stunningly proportioned grand tourer. It was never rapid off the line; until the six-liter XJR-S arrived in the Nineties, it was impossible to push any of the sleek cats to sixty miles per hour in under seven seconds. Top speed, however, was 145 or better in an era when most family sedans on the Continent struggled to break the “ton”.

The original 5.3L V12 was smog-strangled to just over two hundred and forty horsepower in the States, but again, this was in an era where American five-liter V8s often claimed one hundred and twenty horsepower or less. The “HE” revisions debuted in 1981 and significantly increased fuel economy, bumping power by about ten percent as well.

Seventies-era Jaguar twelves are, to put it mildly, nightmares to own. Mechanically, they can be fragile and service access underneath the long bonnet is difficult. There are miles of wiring required simply to make the XJ-S start and run, with some of that wiring located in places seemingly designed to burn or damage it. On a whim, I downloaded a community-generated service manual for the XJ-S off USENET back in 1996 and printed it out; it was over two hundred pages and in many places consisted simply of a friendly word and a few admonitions not to give up in the face of adversity. Do not expect to operate any XJ-S built prior to 1991 as a daily driver. It’s as simple as that.

Naturally, I did not provide the above caveats to the Ohio State adjunct faculty member who arrived on the dealership lot early one Saturday morning to examine our light blue ’83. Even at a somewhat-reasonable $7995, the Jag hadn’t attracted a single “up” in months. This fellow looked like a solid candidate. Not unlike the car in question, Mr. Customer was pallid, sad-looking, and clearly well past his best days despite only being in his early thirties. I fetched the jump-start cart while our incandescently sexy assistant manager distracted the fellow with a coffee and a flip of her skirt. Wonder of wonders, it fired right up and I pulled up for the test drive…

…only to find that the customer had left his driver’s license at home. No tickee, no drive-ee, as they say. Panicked at the prospect of losing the only warm body to ever point a bewalleted derriere at the car’s cracking left front seat, the assistant manager promised that I would bring the car by tomorrow for a private test drive. She then told me that the dealership would pay me a flat spiff of five hundred bucks if I could move the car. Count me in.

I picked up the keys at noon on Sunday and pointed down Route 71 to the not-quite-professor’s home in the precious little suburb of Clintonville. I’d never driven an XJ-S before and was keen to take the ride, actually. First impressions: it was surprisingly like my father’s old ’86 Vanden Plas, but it had even more weight through the steering and drivetrain. As mentioned above, it wasn’t quick, but it also didn’t run out of steam on the freeway the way my VW Fox did. I was well past one-twenty and simply hammering down the left lane, sweeping traffic out of my way with an authoritative flash of the quad headlamps, enjoying the outrageously solid stance and almost complete lack of aerodynamic instability, when all the instrument needles dropped to the pegs and the engine Just. Funking. Quit.

It took me a moment to really believe that I was sailing down the road on inertia; the V-12 was quiet and smooth enough that at triple-digit speeds the relatively low wind noise was still enough to drown out the mechanicals. I slotted the transmission to “N” and started to think. There was an exit perhaps half a mile ahead, so I eased the big coupe through four relatively empty lanes of traffic, gradually falling from one-ten or so down to fifty-ish. A Chevrolet Celebrity “Eurosport” refused to let me merge into the exit lane with it so I had to brush the brakes and kill some of my precious momentum.

I came to a halt perhaps five car lengths from the stoplight at the top of the ramp. For a few long minutes I sat with my head in my hands. I’d killed the car, I would have to be towed back, I would lose my sale and I’d lose my job, and somehow everyone would figure out that I’d just been driving wayyyy too fast. A worn-out brass cat seemed to snarl at me from the key in my hand. With my eyes closed, I reinserted and twisted the key.

There was silence, then a single crank of the starter. The tach jumped. Although I continued on to the precious little home on Fallis Road, I knew that there wouldn’t be any sale. Call it luck, call it grace, call it the entirely understandable scientific operation of Lucas electrics, but whatever you call it, I’d used it up.

Want to take a chance on the beauty in the photos? It’s for sale at Motorcar Portfolio.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Tabasco Tabasco on Nov 23, 2010

    I've had an '85 XJ-S V12 for the last three years.... and yes, it's a daily driver. The previous two owners must have driven it regularly as well; it has 213,000 miles on the odo. Reliability is great (starts every day). I bought it from a mechanic at a Jaguar delership who bought it off a four year lease from new. He parked it for the last five years after warping the heads and re-grinding them after an overheating episode. He needed room in his garage, and I bought it for $2000. I drove it home after a prolonged leak check. After a front end brake job, tightening a few hose clamps, changing the oil and brake fluid, and a new alternator she became my daily driver. I kept a '94 Volvo 960 in reserve, but after nearly a year of never driving it, I sold it and committed to XJ-S commuting. Since then, I've replaced an intermediate exhaust pipe and a smog pump pulley, and that's it. I thought it would turn heads, and it does... but I was hoping for winsome young lasses, but most of the gawkers are bald fat guys like me. Come to think of it, mine is the head it turns the most as I walk away from it in the garage at work, saying, "Damn, that's a cool car." Don't badmouth the Batmobile... driven daily it will do just that... drive daily.

  • Zeus01 Zeus01 on Oct 09, 2011

    In 1981 I was a recent highschool graduate working at a Jaguar/Rover/Triumph/MG/Saab/Fiat/TVR dealership in Calgary as a lot attendant/car jockey looking for an auto mechanics apprenticeship. The XJ-S and other cars were a pleasure to drive, but the craptastic level of quality and workmanship shone through like a fresh cow pie wrapped in a single sheet of paper towel. The service bays were full of brand new Jags and other British junk that gave our mechanics endless headaches, and the back lot was filled with more junk waiting on the same failed components to arrive from England. But the worst was the arrogant sales and service staff, who stared far down their ample noses at anyone who dared bring a car in for unscheduled warranty service, and who took great pleasure in bragging about the customers they stiffed. That turned me off a career in auto mechanics. I eventually ended up as an AME, fixing whatever the pilots break.

    • See 2 previous
    • CJinSD CJinSD on Oct 10, 2011

      @CJinSD It is almost a relief when a bad dealership closes. The one I worked for was a complete systemts house that prided itself on shaking down every customer for thousands more than they should have paid. Result? They now advertise as 'The Mid-Atlantic's Largest' automotive group. The ethical place people used to travel 35 miles to buy from after learning their lessons the expensive way at our store changed ownership in the past couple years and no longer is the ethical alternative.

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