The Big Cat goes convertible
It was the summer of 1981 which heralded the arrival of the new broom at Jaguar, John Egan blowing the cobwebs off the range with the introduction of the HE series of V12-engined cars, developments which finally enabled the basically splendid Coventry products to gain the market acceptance they truly deserved. This was achieved largely through attention to painstaking detail and quality control, aspects of the production process which had been sadly neglected in the late 1970s. The recent Jaguar sales success story needs no further embellishing within the pages of MOTOR SPORT, for we eulogised over the XJ-S HE qualities three years ago. Now it has been our pleasure to sample what must be one of the most attractive machines in the range, the XJ-SC 3.6 — basically an X J-S cabriolet fitted with the latest AJ6 six-cylinder engine and mated to a delightful five-speed Getrag manual box. The result is a magnificent blend of almost regal, boulevard splendour and sports car agility: arguably, an all-round package which is even more appealing than the out-and-out brute power of the V12-engined XJS. In broad terms, the XJ-S character is unchanged, but the cabriolet model is being built in limited quantities to customer order only, marking the return of open-air Jaguar motoring for the first time in ten years. The last convertible Jaguar was the V12 convertible E-type, something of an unpredictable handful in anything less than bone dry road conditions, so the XJ-SC is light years ahead in terms of refinement. The specialist body building and coach trimming skills of Park Sheet Metal Ltd. in Coventry and Aston Martin Tickford’s new Bedworth, Warwickshire, factory have been drawn together to produce a taut, rattle-free end product. Accommodating only two passengers, the XJ-SC still outwardly looks like a two-plus-two notwithstanding the fact that the passenger compartment appears a little smaller than the fixed-head version. Behind the comfortable, leather-faced front seats are twin lockable storage boxes above which is a luggage platform fitted with a forward retaining rail. Frankly, I tend to feel it’s a shame that this space hasn’t been utilised to provide a couple of “occasional” rear seats, but there we are. That hasn’t been Jaguar’s intention and that’s all there is to it — a shame, in my view. Obviously, the major modification to the XJ-S body in order to produce the Cabriolet model is the removal of the roof and its replacement with cant rails and a centre bar which incorporates tubular steel strengthening. In addition, added structural reinforcement is provided by means of a stiffened transmission tunnel and a rear cruciform member beneath the car. All XJ-SCs come equipped with twin interlocking targa roof panels which are locked into position by a pair of neat circular levers recessed into the interior roof lining, and a removable rear “half-hardtop” is also included in the standard equipment. However, for road test purposes the car was supplied simply with the fold-down rear hood section to supplement the targa top. Impressively quiet, both from the point of view of structural rattles and wind buffeting, the XJ-SC cabriolet is finished to a very high standard indeed. The boot contains a neat storage envelope for the targa panels and we quickly found that possibly the most pleasant way of using the car was with those panels alone removed, leaving the rear hood raised. In that connection, we must report that the cover which is supplied to conceal the folded-down rear hood proved to be beyond the wit of two staff members to secure: it was, in our view, tailored to far too stringent dimensions and nothing less than a perfectly folded hood (which we, clearly, were unable to provide) would fit within it. As far as the new AJ6 engine is concerned, Jaguar fans need not worry that the famous XK refinement has been lost with the advent of this 3,590 cc, four valves-per-cylinder six-cylinder unit which is installed beneath the bonnet canted over at an angle of 15-degrees. When one opens the front-hinged bonnet, two things strike you. Firstly, how compact the AJ6 unit looks when compared with the 5.3-litre V12 which we’ve become used to admiring in the XJ-S engine bay, and secondly, just how long are the inlet tracts. Their 17 in. length provides a worthwhile ram effect and contributes to the impressive torque characteristics (240 lb/ft at 4,000 rpm) of this twin overhead camshaft, 91 x 92 mm unit. Running with a compression ratio of 9.6:1, the AJ6 engine develops a healthy 225 b.h.p. at 5,300 rpm which compares very favourably with the 295 bhp at 5,500 r.p.m. produced by the big 5.3-litre V12 unit.
Ignoring the discreet badges on the boot-lid and the fact that there is only a single fuel filler cap on the nearside rear wing, there is little to betray the new engine’s presence beneath the bonnet when one slips in behind the leather-rimmed steering wheel. The matching “white on black” circular speedometer and rev. counter are unchanged from the regular XJ-S and, indeed, there seems no really good reason to call for any changes in this area. Even when one fires up the six-cylinder engine, there is no perceptible torsional vibration of any sort to indicate that this is not an XK unit — in fact, at tick-over speeds, it would be all too easy to imagine you are dealing with a V12. The notchy, precise movement of the Getrag five-speed gearbox positively invites energetic handling and only after the engine passes about 5,000 r.p.m. does the silky smooth throb give way to a rasping, slightly urgent growl to betray the fact that this is only the six-cylinder engine. With a kerb weight of 3,660 lb., the XJ-SC is just over 200 lb. lighter than its V12-engined stablemate and actually manages to stay with the 5.3-litre engined car on acceleration from 0-60 m.p.h., before tailing away as the V12 really gets into its stride. Fuel economy and ease of high speed cruising are aided by an extremely high top gear providing 28.4 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in fifth gear which means that the unit is turning at just over 2,400 r.p.m. at the 70 m.p.h. legal limit. During the course of our spell with the car the fuel consumption worked out at a very reasonable 20.8 m.p.g. over a programme which included some very high speed motoring mixed with some “pottering” through the Suffolk country lanes, using only third and fourth whilst on the move. The Getrag gearbox never demonstrated any reluctance or stiffness whatsoever and, in our view, a manual transmission undoubtedly enhances the XJ-S range’s overall appeal. The servo assisted four wheel disc brake set-up performed well thoughout the test, there being no perceptible fade although the build up of black dust on the front wheel rants testified that we tried them out pretty ruthlessly. Adhesion from the 215/70 15 low profile Pirelli P6 tyres mounted on 6½ v 15 “Starfish” cast alloy rims is secure and predictable, only absurdly harsh attempts at fast cornering on tightening bends causing the XJ-SC to build up a moderate degree of understeer, underlining the fact that this cabriolet is a high speed grand tourer rather than an out-and-out sporting bolide. Even though our test car had completed over 16,000 miles on the press fleet, there was no sign of interior or exterior deterioration as far as finish was concerned, and apart from a touch of transmission “snatch” (which suggested that the clutch had taken a belting in the hands other scribes!) the mechanical side of things seemed satisfactory as well.
The long, low lines of the Jaguar XJ-S range are now to everybody’s taste — in fact, few luxury coupes have prompted such debate in this respect over the past decade. I have never felt the coupe to be as awkward as some critics who, I suspect, are confusing “individuality” with “awkward styling”. However, I feel that the cabriolet’s lines are more attractive than the basic coupe’s and will be very interested to see how many of these beautifully finished, bespoke motor cars the Jaguar company will be required to build for its discerning customers. All too often, we feel, it is becoming fashionable to look beyond our shores for true (or apparent) excellence in high performance car design. It is refreshing to know that machines such as the XJ-SC are being made closer to home, in Coventry, and that the Jaguar Company’s star is once again in the commercial ascendancy. On the strength of this machine, it certainly deserves to be.