Jaguar XJRS

From the outside it was a clear case of design by committee, but underneath the Jaguar XJRS had all the class of a true supermodel. Andrew Frankel remembers a Ferrari beater

It started out like any other group test. It was December 1990 and we left London in filthy weather for Castle Combe, a four car convoy of Porsche, Ferrari, BMW and Jaguar. The plan was to spend two days away in winter weather to find out not simply which was the most exciting or quickest, but also which made most sense all year round and in all conditions. By the time they returned after time not just on the track but on roads that covered the length and breadth of Wales they had been driven on ice and in snow, through fog, sleet and slush. And one had proven clearly better than the others.

It was the Jaguar XJRS, cheapest and ugliest of the lot. To say we were surprised scarcely does it justice. The Porsche 928GT was well-known as the best all-round sportscar of them all, the BMW 850i was brand new and fearsomely equipped and the Ferrari Mondial was, well, a Ferrari. On this occasion, however, all were bludgeoned into submission by a rather old and ungainly jaguar with a reworked version of an even older engine on board. No one was more flabbergasted than me. I had never been a fan of the XJS be it open-topped or closed, with six cylinders or twelve.

To me, its creators misinterpreted its role and created a fat, soft boulevardier when it should have been creating a lithe, taut sportscar. Perhaps we should not have expected too much after the indignities the E-type had been forced to suffer after British Leyland walked in. Even so, while I have always appreciated their creamily smooth ride quality and the punch of the V12s from early ’80s, I never found feelings greater than grudging respect for the car. The XJRS changed all that and not simply because the now defunct JaguarSport — the part-Walkinshaw owned business that was charged with the job of turning the XIS into the car it should always have been — went to work on the engine alone.

By the time they were finished, not just the engine but the chassis entire had been transformed for the better. The result was a 6-litre, 318bhp (though later to boast 333bhp) supercar which, despite the aerodynamic efficiency of an office-block and ill-advisedly short gearing, still pushed the XJRS through the air at 160mph, with the engine turning at some 800rpm beyond peak power. The noise was splendidly rich and complex, perhaps lacking the mechanical howl of a similarly configured Ferrari motor but also possessing a sight more soul than the V12 under the bonnet of any BMW or Mercedes road can Better still, 3621b ft of torque meant that, for the first time in its history, the XJS had an engine that really did mean there was no need for any more than three speeds in its gearbox.

The best way to drive it hard was to tug the selector back into second and leave it there to provide an uninterrupted surge of power all the way from 40-120mph. Remarkably, however, far from proving the highlight of a long drive in the )(PIS, this engine in fact only provided the basis upon which its other talents could build. It certainly wasn’t brute power, for instance, which the was held around Castle Combe by the Ferrari.

It was raw grip. It’s as hard to believe now as it was at the time but the simple truth is the old, frontengined Jaguar was just better at the business of getting around a corner on a race-track (and the open road for that matter) than a mid-engined Ferrari. While the Italian was busy slithering and skittering from entry point to apex, the Briton would barrel through the corner with no discernible effort and be gone. Inside, the driver would detect no sense of drama, just a whiff of easily corrected understeer when finally the grip of the then mighty Dunlop D40 M2 tyres was exhausted.

Suddenly, almost 30 years on, we realised we were looking at the true successor to the E-type; a car capable of doing to the likes of the Mondial what the E had done to the 250GT.

Yes, it wasn’t E-type beautiful, in fact it was even less attractive than the standard XJS but as it was chased across the Brecon Beacons by the Porsche, Ferrari and BMW, that mattered no more than the fact that the interior looked like what it was: a ghastly seventies refugee which had no business anywhere near a British sportscar of the 1990s. All that mattered was this three speed, automatic Jaguar was covering the ground faster than all the others, the five speed, manual and more powerful Porsche included.

Yet, unlike in the 928GT, there was no fuss, no drama, no deafening din of tyres on bitumen; there was just calm, relaxed and blindingly fast progress. Though the Jaguar XJRS didn’t live a lengthy life, it was around for long enough to hint that jaguar was getting serious about building proper GTs again, cars with more than just impressive ride and refinement qualities; cars to thrill the heart as well as soothe the soul. Though I don’t remember anyone spotting it at the time, there was within the XJRS a sizeable pointer to the future and not simply because, in a rather roundabout fashion it pointed the way forward for today’s splendid Jaguar XK8.

We should have realised that if the XJRS was what resulted when TWR was allowed to tinker with the XJS chassis, then the promise of another car developed almost from scratch by Walkinshaw’s boys using the XJS only as a base was considerable. And so it proved. Jaguar’s parent, Ford, decided to call it the Aston Martin DB7 and it was to become the car that saved one of Britain’s finest sportscar manufacturers. Verdict Good.