Welcome back to In Plain Sight, where I make myself late for things to stop and admire one of the many fascinating, Jalop-worthy cars parked right on the street amidst the hustle and bustle of New York City.
Speaking of being late, I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to do another one of these! If you are fortunate enough to live elsewhere, you’ve probably heard tales about how awful New York City summers can be – shoes melting on manhole covers, people being cooked alive while waiting for a subway that never came, or children drowning in their own sweat in A/C-less apartments. I assure you they’re all true, and thus I try to flee whenever possible. But now I’m out of money and vacation days, so it’s back to work.
So anyway, between the terrible road conditions, dense street grid, abundance of pedestrians, and maniacal cabbies and panel vans, New York is not a friendly environment for cars. So it’s always a surprise when you come upon something unique and unusual braving the conditions, and such is the case with this 1991 Jaguar Classic Collection XJS.
That’s right everyone, it’s a bona fide Jaaag, and dare I say one of the most attractive models the company has ever produced. For some reason it calls to mind a scene from Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving it, which takes place mostly in England. The beautiful and vampiric Lucy tries to seduce uptight and engaged Jonathan, promising him a “raw, unbridled, sexual frenzy.” “But Lucy,” he replies, “I’m British!” “So are these,” she shoots back, squeezing her considerable… assets. Honestly, the look on his face is pretty similar to mine when I see an XJS in person.
It’s no E-Type, of course, but still – the car’s very existence is an undeniable repudiation of the stereotypes of British restraint and dullness, automotive or otherwise. Its seductive low profile, long sloping hood, and iconic buttressed C-pillar all come together in a design that is almost sexual in its appeal – and don’t forget that alluring V12 badge up front. Park it next to a shit-brown Austin Allegro from the mid-1970s, which is when the XJ-S debuted, and it’s hard to believe the same country (and company, technically!) produced the two at the same time. But of course, like most greats, the XJ-S was underappreciated in its time, and to understand why we must take a trip down the rabbit hole that is Jaguar’s history as a company. Grab a bus buddy and hang the fuck on.
Jaguar, or Jagyouare to British people, was a small car manufacturer making big waves in the decades after World War II as Europe was still getting back on its feet. The successful launch of the XK120 roadster in 1948 established the company’s postwar reputation for alluringly beautiful performance cars, an image they cemented with the follow-up XK140, the Mark series, and the E-Type, which in convertible form is the most stunning production car of the last 60 years. They were all powered by variations on the venerable XK engine, an inline-6 designed with help from founder Bill Lyons himself that remained in production for over forty years.
So Jaguar is pretty much killing it, having a great time making sexy cars for sexy people in the sexy sixties, when suddenly the realities of the market economy came in and stomped all over the party. See, in the 1950s, the big British car manufacturers all bought their car bodies at varying degrees of completion from independent body suppliers. Then they realized that they needed to actually make entire cars themselves in order to compete in a globalized economy, so the big boys started buying up all the suppliers. By the 1960s, there was only one independent supplier left – Pressed Steel Company – and they happened to manufacture Jaguar bodies. The writing was on the wall – in 1965, the British Motor Corporation bought Pressed Steel, and Jaguar knew they were about to get royally screwed by the new owners. Their time as an independent outfit had come to an end, and a couple of seemingly-safe mergers later they were part of the notorious British Leyland conglomerate that Top Gear is always ranting about. In twenty years Jaguar went from a small, innovative company to a tiny fiefdom fighting for scraps in a massive, unwieldy empire.
At the time of these mergers, Jaguar offered the E-Type and a slew of sedans, with several new models in planning stages to replace these cars by the end of the 1960s, but the financial difficulties of their new overlords brought their work to a screeching halt. The new XJ sedan series launched relatively on time in 1968, but the V-12 engine it was supposed to boast was three years behind schedule. The bosses at British Leyland were also unimpressed with the updated E-Types in progress, codenamed XK21 and XK17 – the E-Type, while beautiful, was not a high-volume seller and spending lots of money to develop what was essentially a niche sports car just wasn’t in the cards as BL continued to stumble.
Fortunately, when you give the British lemons, they say Cheerio! and make a goddamn Pimm’s Cup. E-Type designer Malcolm Sayer had advocated for a GT coupe based off the new XJ platform before it even launched, and with their true roadsters apparently dead in the water, Jaguar poured their limited resources into developing this car, which would become the XJ-S. The styling was a radical departure from anything they’d done before, the result of Sayer’s obsession with aerodynamics and input from Sir Lyons himself.
Contemporary critics were lukewarm on it when it finally launched in 1975, and I suppose everything looks different in its own time, but come on, it’s a classic. The bonnet slopes gently before diving down to meet a small grill with a slight rake, the narrow headlamps protruding at the corners. Standing just over four feet tall, the roofline sweeps down the boot of the car along the iconic buttresses, which end in the largest taillights Jaguar had ever put on a car. And despite a large number of so-called fan sites that call these flying buttresses, they sadly are not. These are; there has to be a gap. I can only suspect that everyone thinks it’s fun to say and write flying buttresses. You know what, it kind of is.
The XJ-S a large and heavy grand tourer, not what many Jaguar enthusiasts were expecting, but backed by the finally-completed V-12 engine, it could go from 0 - 60 in under seven seconds and topped out at 153 mph. The engine was originally developed for Le Mans use, but engineers had redesigned the head to give it better performance at low speeds and RPMs. Yet even with all that muscle under the hood, it was impressively comfortable and quiet in the cabin at high speeds, drawing comparisons to the Citroen SM. Unfortunately, it turns out that when you double the cylinders in a Jaguar, you also double the maintenance, and combined with the legendary quality problems of late 70s British Leyland cars (the consequence of terrible labor relations) made the XJ-S a very expensive car to own. Stuffing a production V-12 in a slightly-too-small engine bay made sensitive components vulnerable to heat damage and gave mechanics little room to maneuver.
The XJ-S had a fair amount working against it when it first launched, including a fuel crisis that made people distinctly not want to buy a car that got single digit MPG in city driving, and a mistaken belief that the U.S. was about to outlaw convertible cars that led to the cancellation of an open top version. Sales were a whopping 949 the first year, way below the target of 3,000, but gained momentum by the end of the 1970s and the car continued to sell relatively well throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, until production finally ceased in 1996. Other than some cosmetic and handling tweaks (bigger wheels, improved suspension), a few more engine choices and upgrades (a redesign in the mid-80s improved fuel economy dramatically), and a true convertible option added in 1988, the car basically ran unchanged for twenty years.
So how did this unloved middle child come to be Jaguar’s longest-running model? Well, there are a couple of reasons. The company itself went through some turmoil in the 1980s, reprivatizing and then selling out to Ford in 1989 as unfavorable exchange rates and slowing demand wreaked havoc on their profits. Their efforts to update the XJ sedan lines during this time were stymied by money woes and further reliability problems, and they still couldn’t afford to develop the next generation roadster they were always promising. They had a good thing going with the XJ-S, especially once the convertible was added, and decided not to mess with it. Which is fortunate, because by the 1990s this strategy resulted in a classic body with substantively improved mechanicals underneath. It actually went out on a high note, something that rarely happens to cars.
Despite the singular styling, it’s easy to tell that this one is a 1991 because it has the Classic Collection badge on the back, a trim level that was only available that year. It was just a combination of classic paint jobs, interior colors, and special accoutrements like colored piping around the seats and a leather gear shift knob. I know I’ve used the word “classic” a lot here, but it’s really the only way to describe the waves of British Racing Green enveloping the tan doe skin interior. I’ve seen this car before, and it stands out in a most wonderful way in person. Maybe too wonderful…
You can see that someone decided, for reasons unknown, to take a key to the hood of this beauty. It’s a damn shame, but considering the condition of the rest of the car I’m guessing the owner will have it fixed soon. When I was taking these pictures, an Englishman walked up to me and asked if I was the owner gathering evidence for insurance. I said no, and remarked how awful it was that someone did this. He fixed me with an angry stare – “You know who it is, don’t you? It’s those underprivileged kids, jealous of things they can’t have.” I gave him an awkward little “Heh” and went back to scanning my pictures. Was he just an asshole, or a man undone by the sight of this mistreated British beauty?