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The cat roars: 1980 Jaguar XJ-S V12

17 September, 2009


Published in New Zealand Classic Car Issue No. 226

This replica of Tom Walkinshaw’s famous TWR Jaguar XJ-S will be one of the official cars on this year’s Drive NZ Classic tour

When the XJ-S was launched in September 1975, Jaguar was on a hiding to nothing. For a start, the world was reeling from a major oil crisis; not the best time to introduce a new, gas-guzzling V12-powered car. Secondly, at the start of the XJ-S’ development cycle it looked very much like impending federal requirements would mean the end of the convertible car in the US — and the US market, ever since the days of the XK120, took a large slice of Jaguar’s production pie. In short, the XJ-S would be engineered as a fixed-head coupe.

Thirdly, the XJ-S was intended to replace the legendary E-Type — and how could Jaguar replace what was arguably the best-looking sports car ever built — by any manufacturer — with a tin-top coupe that featured a droopy rear-end and a Spartan (by Jaguar standards) cabin.

Finally, of course, the XJ-S entered production during the dark days when BLMC was calling the shots.

With all the above in mind, it can be seen that the XJ-S didn’t exactly debut on the crest of a wave.

However, when the first examples of the XJ-S began to hit the road, opinions began to change. Sure, most still criticised those controversial rear sail panels; the massive battering ram bumpers (another requirement foisted on car makers by US legislation); the weird instruments — which were set in a dull and rather plain metal dashboard — and, of course, the V12’s prodigious appetite for valuable Middle Eastern elixir.

XJ-S History

Based on a shortened Jaguar XJ saloon floor-pan, the XJ-S is really a product of the late’ 60s, for it was at that time that Jaguar began seriously working on an E-Type replacement. From the start, the XJ-S was developed as a coupe, and an open top version would not appear until 1985.

Jaguar’s V12 was always part of the XJ-S equation. This engine had been seen in prototype form in the infamous XJ13 and subsequently saw service in the XJ12 and the last of the E-Types. For fitment to the XJ-S, Jaguar discarded carburettors and utilised fuel injection.

The XJ-S was the last Jaguar design to be influenced by Sir William Lyons and aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, who penned the car’s infamous flying buttresses. Sayer died in 1970 well before the XJ-S’ debut. To many, the XJ-S represented the only serious styling errors made by Lyons and Sayer.

However, both men had the last laugh, as the XJ-S would remain in production for 20 years and seven months, the final XJS (the hyphen between XJ and S having been dropped in 1991) rolled of the line on April 4, 1996, making way for the new XK8.

During its long life-cycle the XJ-S went through many variations — including a cabriolet and, a few years later, a full convertible. More traditional wood trim came in 1981. In the same year, now under the reviving influence of its new boss, John Egan, Jaguar also introduced the XJ-S HE, with the V12 engine taking advantage of Michael May-developed Fireball combustion chambers in its cylinder heads. This relatively low-cost conversion — it cost around £500,000 for Jaguar to retool for the V12 HE — allowed Jaguar to fit a more relaxed, higher diff ratio to the car without sacrificing overall performance.

Other big changes came when Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR company joined forces with Jaguar to form JaguarSport. Under Walkinshaw’s guidance the XJ-S was developed into a well appointed and very quick GT, while the venerable 5.3-litre V12 was stretched out to 6.0 litres for the XKR-S — this larger capacity engine becoming a standard fitment in 1993. Lister, famous for the Lister-Jaguar racers, went one further than the factory, enlarging the V12 to a mighty 7.0 litres.

And, of course, Jaguar also produced a series of lighter, more nimble six-cylinder models, at first using its 3.6-litre six, followed by a 4.0-litre unit.

All these many changes transformed the XJ-S. It may have started life as something of an anachronism, but it ended it days as a very desirable — and still largely underrated — grand touring car. Indeed, while many admired its eventual replacement, the XK8, there were just as many who mourned the passing of the XJ-S, which cut one of Jaguar’s final, physical links with Sir William Lyons.


Purchased from a second-hand car dealer, the present owner of this car, Roger Phillips — the brains behind Drive NZ Classic — doesn’t really know a huge amount about this car’s previous history other than the fact that it was originally imported into New Zealand in 1988. The Jaguar’s body received major attention some time in the late ‘90s in Wellington and, at that time, the then owner spent considerable cash fettling the car’s V12 — and repainting it the same colour scheme as the TWR Jaguar XJ-S raced at Bathurst in 1985 by Tom Walkinshaw and Win Percy.

Outwardly, this XJ-S is virtually a carbon copy of Walkinshaw’s James Hardie 1000 pole-setting Jaguar — the only real major difference being that this car is saddled with the standard three-speed GM400 Turbo auto gearbox rather than the five-speed manual used by the TWR cars.

As purchased, the XJ-S was showing signs of wear and tear but, a significant advantage, the big, all-alloy V12 appeared to be in rude health — something that was very evident as the car came fitted with an open exhaust which exited under the driver’s side door. To say that the exhaust was loud would be an understatement; it was deafening!

This decibel meter-bashing exhaust was the first item to be replaced, with a rather more conventional rear-exiting exhaust being fitted — although it still delivers an appropriate roar when the loud pedal is mashed into the firewall.


In order to rein in the power of the V12, Roger fitted new vented and cross-drilled front brake rotors with performance pads and, to enhance the Jaguar’s handling, Nolathane bushes were fitted to the front suspension and a new set of shock-absorbers was also prescribed. Finally, a set of Dunlop R tyres was wrapped around the Jaguar’s massive alloy wheels.

Moving inside the car, Roger tossed out the old and tired upholstery, and the interior was treated to lashings of brand new grey leather.

For its role as part of the official Drive NZ Classic vehicle fleet, the XJ-S was also fitted with a roof-mounted light bar, strobe headlights and a siren.

A thorough going over revealed leaky differential and gearbox seals — since replaced — and, as you’d expect from a Jaguar of this period, Roger is still chasing down the odd electrical gremlin. During our road-test of the XJ-S the driver’s window decided it’d had enough of winding up and down. This was later traced to a burned-out window lift motor; fairly typical stuff for a Jaguar of this vintage.

By the time you read this article, Roger will have given the XJ-S a bloody good shake-down at the season-opening Icebreaker race meeting at Pukekohe. A series of hot racing laps should reveal any other problems, with plenty of time for rectification before the running of Drive NZ Classic.

On the Road

This is not the first XJ-S I’ve driven, having sampled several variations — most notably a cabriolet, a thumpingly quick JaguarSport XJR-S, and an even quicker Lister-modified car. So, stepping into this XJ-S was a little like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

Despite this car’s new leather upholstery, early XJ-S such as this have a rather plain interior. Minor instruments — water, oil, fuel and volts — are a series of aircraft-style revolving barrels. They don’t look very nice but, when everything is operating at normal temperatures (and the fuel tank is half-full), the needles on the dials form a single straight line, so everything can be checked with one glance. The remainder of the instruments are highlighted with a cheap, silver-painted border, giving the XJ-S interior a severe look.

Ahead, the Jaguar’s bonnet stretches out to the horizon and is made to look impossibly long due to low seating position, and a front ’screen that appears to be more of a viewing slit than a windscreen.

However, once you crank the mighty V12 into life, mere aesthetics disappear out through the rear tailpipes.

Many years ago I was lucky enough to drive an early, four-speed manual XJ-S, and the muscles in my left leg still twinge at the memory of that car’s stiff clutch, not to mention its notchy, old-fashioned cog ’box — probably why Jaguar dropped the manual gearbox option on the XJ-S in 1978.

The GM 400 Turbo isn’t a bad transmission but, in comparison to more modern units, it feels clunky and old fashioned. As well, due to its torque convertor idiosyncrasies, it isn’t that easy to exploit the power of the Jaguar’s big V12. However, there is little doubt that there is sufficient performance on offer and, once over 4000rpm, the engine delivers a lovely growl as it hurls the car over the blacktop with an effortless surge of power and torque.

The big cat’s handling and road-holding is still rather good considering its age, and tends towards mild understeer. Under harder cornering the XJ-S switches to easily controllable oversteer and, although it’s not hard to provoke a slide by punching the gas, the Jaguar can get a little messy at the limit as the rear end lurches around a tad. Anyway, on-the-limit driving isn’t really encouraged by the car’s overly light, power-assisted steering — it carries more weight than a contemporary XJ6 or XJ12, but it’s still too light for my taste.

As well, the huge Dunlop Rs fitted to Roger’s XJ-S take a long time to warm up during normal road driving. Before they hit their best operating temperatures they tend to follow even the tiniest road irregularity and, more unnervingly, squirm under braking. Indeed, it was only towards the end of our brief road-test that the Dunlops began to heat up — at which stage they started to indicate their massive grip potential.

All in all, an exciting drive and, as long as you’re prepared to hold the gears manually, a seriously quick car. Roger has considered dropping a five-speed ’box into this car — such an addition would turn it into a real flyer.

If you get a chance to catch up with any of the speed events that make up the Drive NZ Classic tour, watch out for this big, snarling cat.


The XJ-S in Competition

Under the tutelage of British Leyland, Jaguar took to the track with the V12-powered XJ12C in 1976 when it entered the European Touring Championship with a team of these big coupes. They proved to be extremely quick, often setting fastest lap and taking pole position but, alas, they proved to be as fragile as they were quick. Despite intervention from Broadspeed and a dry-sumped version of the V12, this early effort was not successful.

Instead, it would be US racer, Bob Tullius, who showed the true potential of the Jaguar V12. Tullius, who had previously dominated SCCA racing in his V12 E-Type, developed and built an XJ-S to take part in the US TransAm Series. On its racing debut at Lime Rock in September 1976, the Group 44 XJ-S absolutely blitzed the V8 competition. Tullius went on to win the 1977 TransAm Manufacturer’s Championship Cup in the XJ-S.

It would be another five years before a properly developed, racing XJ-S would appear in the UK — when Tom Walkinshaw decided to enter a team of cars in the Group A category for Touring Cars. With prior reliability issues sorted, Walkinshaw won the 1984 championship in one of his own TWR Jaguars — marking the beginning of a close relationship between TWR and Jaguar. This relationship would eventually result in Jaguar’s return to Le Mans — where it had scored so many victories during the ’50s — for its ‘come-back’ victory at La Sarthe in 1988.

Closer to home, TWR famously entered a team of three XJ-S Jaguars for the 1985 running of the James Hardie 1000 at Bathurst. The big cats set a blistering pace in practice, with Walkinshaw taking out pole position — a video of his pole-setting lap (freely available on the internet) shows just how committed Walkinshaw was as he punted the XJ-S over The Mountain. In the actual race, the teaming of John Goss and Armin Hahne took out first place with a time of 2:21:86 (average speed, 156.63kph), with Walkinshaw and Win Percy finishing in third — the two Jaguars split by the Roberto Ravaglia/Johnny Cecotto BMW 635CSi. The third XJ-S — driven by Gary Wilmington and Peter Janson — finished in 14th place.

Goss returned to Bathurst in his XJ-S for the 1986 Great Race, but could no better than 24th.

Watching the 1985 James Hardie 1000, I got the impression that the Aussie crowd was none too pleased about its beloved Fords and Holdens being so convincingly thrashed by the Poms. A sentiment that really came to a head when Mark Skaife and Jim Richards won back-to-back victories in their Nissan Skyline GT-R at Mt Panorama in 1991 and 1992.

Infamously, the winning pair was resoundingly booed by the partisan crowd, a reaction which would directly lead to the establishment of the present day Holden and Ford-only Aussie V8 Supercar series.

Walkinshaw may have started a parochial revolt at Bathurst with the TWR Jaguars but, in later years, he would also become involved with the Holden Dealer Team. And, of course, he also essayed one of the most collectible Aussie cars of the’ 80s — the tea-tray-winged VL SS Group A Walkinshaw Commodore.

1980 Jaguar XJ-S – Specifications

Engine V12
Capacity 5343cc
Bore/stroke 90 x 70mm
Valves Two valves per cylinder/sohc per bank
C/R 9.0:1
Max power 214kW at 5750rpm
Max torque 399Nm at 3500rpm
Fuel system Lucas D-Jetronic fuel-injection
Transmission GM-400 three-speed auto
Suspension F: independent by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, torsion bars R: transverse and trailing arms, coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, torsion bars
Steering Adwest Varamatic rack-and-pinion
Brakes Ventilated disc/solid, inboard disc


Overall length 4864mm
Width 1793mm
Wheelbase 2593mm
Height 1262mm
Track F/R 1473/1486mm
Kerb weight 1750kg


Max speed 228kph (auto) 246kph (manual)
0-100kph 6.7 seconds
Standing 1/4 mile 14.5 seconds
Economy 20.2l/100km (14mpg)

Words: Allan Walton Photos: Dan Wakelin

The Jowett Jupiter turns 70

John Ball has always enjoyed tinkering with old boats and cars. He’s old enough to think having gearbox parts on newspaper on the floor of his bedroom, while the relevant car sat waiting on nail boxes, was a normal part of growing up. His passion has always tended towards old British bangers. He reckons he’s fortunate not to have got caught up in the American muscle scene.
John’s love affair with this Jupiter started in December 2015 when, with some time on his hands during a Christchurch trip, he searched online for ‘cars, before 1970 and in Christchurch’.

A passion for classics and customs

In the highly competitive field of New Zealand classic and custom restorations, reputations are won or lost on the ability to maintain consistently high standards of workmanship. A company managing to achieve this is D A Panel beating Ltd, of Rangiora near Christchurch. Is your classic or custom car restoration stalled, or in need of a refresh, or perhaps you are looking for experts to rebuild that recent import project out of Europe or the ‘States?