Bangernomics: A Scottish adventure in our £500 XJ40

In the previous instalment, our Jaguar completed an epic reliability run, but warned of engine trouble. Can it make the journey back to the border?

If your car has ever broken down in a crowded place, that crushing feeling of mechanical isolation will be familiar. Spare a thought, then, for those who find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do but pray as encroaching darkness prevails.

That was the situation in which I found myself as I crawled over the cattle grid at Dunnet Head, having already suffered what felt like a mild heart attack. When that bottomless and hollow strike churns your stomach upon the knowledge that somewhere under the bonnet there is trouble, the world can suddenly turn into a spiralling mess of worst-case scenarios. For me, it was the unwelcome glare of the orange ‘check engine’ light.

However, when I pulled over and gingerly opened the bonnet, expecting a cloud of smoke, oil and steam, there was nothing. All the spark plugs were in place, the belt appeared tight and fluid levels were healthy. Turning the ignition key produced the 3.2-litre straight-six’s gruff engine note without a whiff of protest – and silenced the warning module in the process. Considering I’d been hiding on the back seat, rocking back and forth predicting a head-gasket or oil-pump failure, I suddenly felt like a fool.

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We powered away towards a warm bed in Thurso’s Muthu Royal Hotel, and the 20-mile journey provided no cause for alarm. The only thing I could put the issue down to was a dodgy sensor reading.

The early-morning start threw up no cause for concern, either, even if I had paced the floor at 3am suffering visions of the XJ40 igniting near the local petrol station, leaving a flaming crater where Thurso had once been.

Instead, after yet another fuel stop and £90 bill, the Jaguar turned about and faced straight into the oncoming gale. As the car sliced through sleet and road grime, tucking into the tight bends on otherwise deserted roads, the cabin ambience kept Mother Nature’s worst firmly at the door. Only when the greasy road surface kicked out the rear end, which was already suffering from severely worn suspension, were the conditions fully realised.

As chaos whipped a riot outside, the sole audible noise – bar the soothing tones of David Bowie – remained the distant throb of torque from beyond the bulkhead.

A welcome break

In typical Scottish fashion, all four seasons were served up in one day – and, amazingly, not all of them felt like winter. We left Helmsdale pursued by strong winds and heavy rain, but by the time the town of Brora’s welcome signs passed by the Jaguar’s snout, sweltering rays of sunshine were mated to a light breeze. It was the perfect opportunity to stop and admire what London, Peterborough and other cities of slog sadly lack – space and calm.

Having pottered around the local piers and enjoyed the company of bemused locals fawning over such a leviathan of yesteryear, it was time to continue the journey. As I climbed back behind the wheel, the words of a passing retiree stuck with me: ‘You used to see these things everywhere, then they all vanished. I had a friend with one and he had no end of trouble with it. Rust, electrics – it eventually caught fire.’

Here’s hoping that wasn’t an omen.

Back into the real world...

Mist encased the mountain-tops as the car whisked through the beauty of the Cairngorms National Park, waving off Kingussie, Newtonmore and Pitlochry as the A9 opened up to traffic near Perth.

The difference was blistering. With the tranquillity of the Scottish Highlands still fresh in my mind, suddenly finding myself in gridlocked traffic and on clogged, unfriendly motorways was more than a comedown. What had been a largely uninterrupted journey now felt like an insufferable commute, with one eye constantly scanning the wide array of dials within the dashboard binnacle for signs of trouble. Despite the XJ40’s impeccable behaviour, there was still a breath of unease after the suspected sensor problem at Dunnet Head.

Impatiently tolerating 40 minutes of near-stationary traffic, it felt wise to investigate the map for a suitable escape. Realising that Easter Bank Holiday traffic was to blame for such disruption near Greenloaning, I traced a route that travelled through Dunblane and around the east of Stirling before returning through Glasgow and onwards to my destination of Stranraer.

The exit I required was within sight, but reaching it took an extra 20 minutes. There was no sign of fellow motorists ahead on the single-track road as I planted the accelerator on a wave of irritability. Then I clocked a load of cars in my rear-view mirror – they were following my getaway plan.

They clearly assumed I was a local resident who perhaps knew the exact route to avoid congestion. Their illusions were shattered when I led some 12 cars into a tight, dead-end lane. Performing the three-point turn of shame and passing the array of scowling drivers, I got the Jaguar firmly stuck on the verge. There simply wasn’t sufficient room for two cars to pass.

As large tails of mud spouted from underneath the XJ40’s thick rear tyres, I realised sheer power was never going to get me out. Instead, I placed the gear selector in second and let the car’s forward crawl under its own torque pull its bulk out of the dank muck. It was pure fluke that we wriggled free; I didn’t favour the chances of those following in my tyre tracks.

The big cat was streaked with various parts of Scotland, and the windscreen was filthy. And now, as we approached the outskirts of Glasgow, yet another fuel stop beckoned – the last 40 miles having been covered in the petrol gauge’s danger zone.

The on-board computer estimated that we had seven miles left before progress would halt. I very much doubt this was accurate; the real range was probably far less. I shudder to think – but the worst never happened, as a forecourt thankfully hove into view.

Traffic eased off after we passed through Ayr, and the daylight began to waver through damp clouds. The area was enveloped within a prickly brightness that required sunglasses for comfort, despite the absence of direct sunlight. Without sun visors in the Jag – the headlining and all attachments were still missing – keeping a focus proved highly difficult.

Another warning from the engine

Travelling through Girvan and onwards towards Cairnryan provided a break from the monotonous dual-carriageway, with the twisting coastal roads upping the adrenaline. Considering such spirited driving, it was perhaps inevitable that the light warning me to check the engine should flutter for the second time – and oil pressure did seem rather low.

As I coasted up to the driveway at the home of my Land Rover-obsessed uncle and long-suffering aunt, I experienced a sense of relief that the oil pressure had died so close to somewhere the family clan have roots. Thankfully, my uncle is also a fine mechanic, and would be more than truthful with me upon looking over the car.

‘Oh god…’ was all I heard.

Regardless of what lay on the horizon for Team XJ40, the Jaguar had another causal eight-hour drive under its belt – largely without a hitch. Only God knew what the final leg of the journey held in store.

Calum’s tribulations with his XJ40 will continue later in the month

All credit for the ‘Bangernomics’ term goes to journalists Steve Cropley and James Ruppert

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