Bangernomics: How reliable is our £500 Jag?
1500 miles over two days without a breakdown. Can our £500 Jaguar XJ40 complete its reliability run without protest? Time to find out…
As I set off from the AutoClassics office located deep inside Bicester Heritage, it would’ve been deceitful to claim that anxiety hadn’t twisted my stomach. I’d not yet had any occasion to really get to know our XJ40; all I knew about were its issues – and there were plenty of them. On paper, this Jaguar wouldn’t have the puff to cover more than a dozen miles before the electrics caught fire or the rear suspension collapsed entirely.
Yet here we were, about to attempt a whopping 730-mile journey in a single sitting. Alone. There would be no photographer, no sound guy and no back-up vehicle. AutoClassics isn’t Top Gear, but we are thorough. To prove that our £500 Jaguar is a reliable hack, I was going to venture towards the British mainland’s most northerly point – Dunnet Head.
Due to uncertainty, I hadn’t chosen to travel via Birmingham and the often-congested M6. Rather, the Jag would be (hopefully) purring up the A1 – mainly because I’d broken down there so often in the past, I knew where the nearest garages were.
My fears were unfounded, however. The beast sailed up past Peterborough, Doncaster, Wetherby and onwards towards the picturesque A66 without so much as a hitch. Unlike the car’s more desirable V12 stablemates, fuel consumption wasn’t tear-inducingly awful. While far from being frugal, I could just about stomach 26mpg as the engine settled into its comfortable cruising range of 60-65mph.
And on into Scotland...
The miles flew by in gentleman’s club comfort, as we passed over the Scottish border near Gretna Green and pressed on up the M74. It was all going suspiciously well. The only issue that presented itself was the frequency with which I had to employ a petrol pump.
The central belt came and went, along with the Forth Replacement Crossing. As we travelled up into the Highlands, the sun even came out – remarkable considering that the entire area had been buried deep in snow only one week before.
However, as civilisation fell away and the A9 stretched for dozens of miles without so much as a local fuel station, the weather began to set in. Roadside warnings of incoming snow became ever more frequent, and the winds blew in some of the darkest clouds known to man.
As Inverness became but a distant memory, and with yet another tank of fuel purchased and my lunch of chocolate and crisps long since devoured, the going started to get tougher. Our solid progress was now hampered by road conditions that threw all kinds of mud over the wings and tested the age-old wiper motor to within a fraction of its life. The rain became so heavy that the lack of a headlining meant water hitting metal sounded like the direct beat of a drum.
However, with such a grandly dilapidated cabin ambience and new tyres providing adequate grip on greasy roads, my stomach butterflies didn’t return. Instead, I merely consumed more chocolate and ramped up the classical soundtrack. It felt like the most suitable manner in which to drive a big old Jag without resorting to bank robbery or a police chase.
The edge of the world
The road stretched away caked with frozen mud, as the winds lashed at the dark streaks of heather that peppered an otherwise desolate landscape. There was nowhere to hide; the raven-black sky stalked our every move with dank flurries of rain that pelted off the Jaguar’s snout. With every fast-evaporating spate, stems of vapour plumed off the razor-sharp bonnet lines, whisked away by gusts that slammed hard against the XJ40’s barrel sides. It could only be Scotland in the springtime.
The rear tyres emitted fine rooster tails of road grit and spray, as the front wheels tucked under the wings to help retain a healthy momentum through each bend. As we approached a sharp, uphill hairpin through the damp mist, the gearbox’s quick downshift saw the engine note change from a sonorous growl into a wild snarl. The 3.2-litre straight six delved deep into its rev range as the gradient increased on the apparently never-ending climb. Thick woodland masked the summit; held back by lengthy crash barriers, it was almost akin to fevered spectators egging the big cat on up the hill.
Beyond the town of Berriedale, the Tarmac levelled out onto a flat plateau and raised the curtain on a coastal view that would leave any iPhone-addicted teenager agasp. I pulled over at the designated viewpoint and opened the driver’s door into what appeared to be hurricane-force winds atop the edge of the world. It was hard not to feel part of an epic film, and I had an overwhelming urge to say something dramatic and poignant. It just felt like the right thing to do.
‘Christ, it’s cold.’
With Mother Nature wreaking havoc around the bottom of the cliffs, thundering waves crashing into the rocks with such force that I could feel the vibrations through my shoes, and horizontal driving sleet breaching my senses, I was relieved to fall back into the Jag’s warm interior. The extreme temperature change stung my cheeks, but the closed door acted like an airlock, keeping the outside world at bay. Apart from the XJ40’s violent rocking, the only allusion to the conditions outside was the slight whisper of wind through the perished door rubbers.
Following the arcane contours of the roads through Dunbeath, Lybster and Whaligoe towards Wick, the A99 ran into flat, open wilderness. While I’d sporadically seen other motorists and villages during the previous segment of the journey, the stretch beyond Reiss felt downright lonely. The only other car I spotted in the final 13 miles before John O’Groats was a battered Renault Clio, nestling off the road in a peat bog, having clearly been in an accident. It’d obviously been there some time.
Finally, 13 hours and 700-plus miles after we’d departed the outskirts of Bicester, the signs beckoning Team Jaguar (well, the XJ40 and I) towards the end of the road signalled a considerable milestone. Despite having undertaken an entire month’s average commuting distance in one sitting, bar the obligatory fuel stops and a quick look out over the cliffs en route, neither my back nor my limbs were sore.
Taking on this trek in a sporty BMW or equivalent Saab of the period would have left my neck strained and my nerves stretched. Yet, mounting the gravel hill that led to the famous John O’Groats sign honestly felt more like I’d undertaken the trip sitting in the local Conservative Club lounge.
The clouds turned from ominous black to out-and-out threatening, plunging a nearby hotel and adjacent car park into a darkened state. The murky atmosphere even drowned the nearby house lights – yet we pressed on, as the reliability run wasn’t over yet.
Contrary to popular belief, John O’Groats is not the mainland’s northernmost point. That title goes to the often-overlooked Dunnet Head, a little over 11 miles west-northwest from O’Groats, and its smattering of tourist attractions. The location was once a minor fortification to protect the naval base at Scapa Flow during World War Two, before becoming an observation point for the Royal Observer Corps throughout the Cold War. All that stands now is a lighthouse.
We departed the ‘Journey’s End’ landmark, gawping at the suddenly gothic sunset while traversing yawning potholes on the single-track B855. The short jaunt marked the end of our trip. The Jaguar crunched through the loose Tarmac chips as the bonnet swung around to a slow halt in the empty car park. The £500 ‘banger’ had made it.
A bleak headstone informed us of our position as the mainland’s northernmost driver and vehicle. As I stood with my hands buried in my warm coat pockets to keep the biting cold at bay, I reflected on the fact that such a trip in any other vehicle would have left me beyond the point of exhaustion and unable to enjoy a view that, on a clear day, takes in Stroma to the east, and Hoy and Orkney to the north. As it was, all I could make out beyond land were white horses upon a dark, rough ocean that dissolved into the blackness.
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With the last of March’s sunlight fading away, and the XJ40 having proven itself as a reliable mode of transport, the 1990s’ leviathan celebrated by flashing the orange symbol of death. Blazing from the dashboard, the Jag was ‘encouraging’ me to check the engine.
With only an automatic lighthouse for company, this isolated spot was not a good place to break down.
You may suspect the kind of clichéd sensationalism so common within the journalism profession, but let me tell you; this is currently being written from the rear seat as the wind continues to pick up. I’ve stalled for time, long enough. Now I must try turning on the engine once again, to see what happens.
Wish me luck.
Calum’s exploits will be concluded next week
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