Driven: The Jaguar XJ-S V12 HE

With the Jaguar XJ-S enjoying a resurgence on the global classic market, AutoClassics take the cream of the crop out for a spin – Jaguar's V12 HE

When the XJ-S was launched in 1975, the reception couldn’t have been colder. The outgoing and beloved E-type may have been hideously outdated, but as a relic of a bygone decade the XKE possessed an aroma of myth, veiling the design flaws and reliability issues brushed under the carpet by devoted enthusiasts. Following such a colossus was never going to be easy, with a shifting world refusing to accept change as hyper-inflation and an oil crisis stalked the land.

Once exposed to the public, the Jaguar XJ-S was shunned like an automotive pariah, lambasted for its styling and alienated for offering the sporting credentials of Fatty Arbuckle in wellington boots. However, respective journalists missed the point. Based on a shortened XJ6 chassis, the XJ-S was never designed to be an out-and-out adrenaline machine, rather the spiritual successor to Jaguar’s V12 E-type Series III.

While the drivetrain and 5.3-litre V12 powerplant packed a brutal punch when provoked, it was far better suited to cruising; either in town at 30mph or on the autobahn at 140mph. This upset the gentry, as they predicted the boffins at Jaguar would launch the next trend-setter. It upset the purists who longed for a raw tarmac monster and it left the community uneasy; it was different.

The lozenge-shaped haunches and stunted curves remained trademark Jaguar, yet the low, ground-hugging lines were pure sports car; creating a GT cruiser with more grunt than an enraged puma. Yet, despite the admiration currently lavished on the XJ-S, it took nearly a decade before the shape matured enough to find acceptance with those likely to purchase one from the showroom.

Build quality and image were so poor when first launched that even the bigwigs at parent company British Leyland turned them down as company cars, with publicity in Return Of The Saint and The New Avengers doing little to aid sales figures. As a result, barely anyone noticed that production all but stopped during 1980 through 1981. The tales of build quality woe kept potential purchasers firmly in German company.

It wasn’t until the introduction of the HE in July 1981 that fortunes changed. Swiss engineer Michael May’s Fireball combustion chamber upped horsepower and increased fuel economy – you could now achieve a whopping 20mpg if you were careful. It was far from frugal on the jungle juice even with the new High Efficiency (HE) engine, but then this was a GT capable of 150mph. Dependability was also improved, with various driver complaints acknowledged and amended.

For the same year, the XJ-S received cosmetic changes to the exterior and an upgrade of electrical components, amid a wave of styling changes to the cabin. There were new five-spoke wheels, chrome inserts on the upper lips of the bumpers and a colour-coded boot lid plinth rather than the slab of black from the original design. As the 1980s bowed out to the Waif look and welcomed in a new world with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the design once shunned and mocked was grieved for, the last example rolling out the Browns Lane gates in 1996 as a national treasure.

Time’s passage and resultant change in fashion has not dimmed the beauty or svelte lines of the Jaguar XJ-S V12 HE. If anything it’s more beautiful than ever – and with E-type prices now out of reach for us mere mortals, enthusiasts are left experiencing ownership of the big cat no one loved. Which is just as well, as it’s a better all-rounder than any E-type.

As soon as the driver’s door is whisked open, the smell and presence of leather and wood soothes the soul. It may appear cramped, but as a silent cocoon, with the road stretching out past that sculpted, never-ending bonnet, the entire car seems to shrink around the inhabitants while you press on. It’s similar to relaxing the posterior in a wingback chair as the world screams past, with only a distant grumble of the internal combustion mayhem seeping through the bulkhead.

For two people the space is ample. While there are rear seats with seatbelts, they are only suitable for children or those with paper-thin legs. Perfect for a suitcase or case of Bollinger, however. Throwing the XJ-S into a corner may appear violent from the outside, but the tranquillity within is unruffled. You could drive through the effects of an ongoing earthquake or a rioting crowd and feel unperturbed enough to start questioning that day’s politics, or whether it’s worth booking the Alps for another skiing holiday.

Delving under the bonnet reveals a work of art. The 5.3-litre V12 engine is just plain magnificent, tuned for the perfect cocktail of smooth acceleration when pottering around and outright power under duress. The growl on tickover when firing up from cold remains inebriating, with a vigorous snarl omitted from the exhaust upon blipping the throttle. Pulling away on an almost silent wave of power stirs up an overwhelming feeling of command, the steering light to the touch as the leviathan swings its nose around to start your journey. It’s all stately and demure – until you put your foot down.

Prodding the big cat with a stick results in a shock to the system. The once sterling dignitary becomes a bare-knuckle boxer, jabbing at the bends and powering forwards as though demented. It may look like Grandad’s Jaguar, but it shifts like a hungry, steroid-packed Lioness. Reaching 60mph from a standstill takes less than seven seconds, a huge achievement for a coupé of such vast girth. If you are feeling brave or want to lose your license with style, it will continue beyond the realms of sense to 150mph. Even at this speed, the caviar wouldn’t move from your blini.

Handling varies on the precision and balance of your skills. Fling the hull round an undulated curve and you’ve got a tail-happy monster on your hands. Stopping is no issue, either – with responsive brakes that bring all two tonnes to a clean, sharp stop from any national speed limit. Returning home after a blast on the tarmac creates a potent blend of adrenaline and serenity, a feat very few modern cars, let alone a 30-year-old cash-strapped design, can accomplish. There’s a reason Frank Sinatra was so fond of his.

With the HE V12 XJ-S, Jaguar turned a car that was increasingly being bought by the heart into one that could also be justified by the head. As with its worshipped predecessor, the XJ-S has been forgiven the original teething issues to become an outright hero of the classic car scene. Broad in shoulders and butch when plundering the cityscape, the XJ-S HE then appears slender and sophisticated when traversing the quieter B-roads, striking that balance of rare breed and homely feline to create a beast destined for your empty garage space.

Photography by Andy McCandlish

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