Lister Jaguar XJS

It is nearly ten years since the controversial shape of the first Grand Touring Jaguar, the XJS, first made its appearance. Although criticisms were levelled at certain elements of the styling, its technical excellence was allowed by all, and in common with the V12 saloon its silence and refinement are virtually without parallel. Yet the emphasis on these facets of its performance illustrate clearly the change in role of the "sporting" Jaguar, from the indisputable sports car that was the E-Type, to the Touring Car de luxe which is the bracket in which the XJS competes against the Mercedes 500 SEC, the BMW 635 CSi, and the Porsche 928S. The customer for these cars looks for luxury as much as acceleration, effortlessness as well as handling. A high percentage of these cars are sold equipped with automatic gearboxes, and when the Jaguar 4-speed manual 'box went out of production in 1979, the option of a manual change vanished altogether.

Yet in the last few years, the overt sporting image has crept back in amongst the big coupes. Not only have the burgeoning body conversion specialists, particularly in Germany, started to offer expensive, high quality, panels for high quality cars, but the factories also have whetted the sporting edge.

Since the 928 gained an "S" suffix and extra "go", power outputs (and fuel economy) have improved amongst all rivals in this area, and while automatics still predominate, today's purchaser will as likely as not have a four-speed version with a lock-up top, and perhaps the option of "sport" or "economy" shifting-points. Jaguar's first contribution was the HE series, conjuring extra power and torque from less fuel, and latterly the 3.6-litre 0J6 engine has appeared with a five-speed manual Getrag box in both Coupe and Cabriolet forms.

More recently, the XJS has received the attentions of one or two tuning firms aiming to offer the wealthy customer razor-sharp performance out of what is already an extremely fast machine. In April 1984, Motor Sport tried the TWR version converted example; this time it was the turn of another famous name — Lister Jaguar. The Lister project has been developed by Ron Beaty's Forward Engineering company, formed in 1967 to develop a range of extra-performance Jaguar engines both for cars and powerboats. In the last two years, a new company called BLE Automotive has been formed to market the Lister and the Invicta, an XJ13 replica, and to service customer cars. Forward Engineering power units range from a 4.5-litre modified XK, through V12s of 5.3 to 5.7 litres up to a 6.4-litre version of the famous 12-cylinder, and it was a car equipped with the latter engine that Motor Sport drove.

The idea of the Q-car, the standard looking machine capable of astonishing bystanders with its unexpected rapidity, seems to be out of favour currently, so BLE offers a body kit to underline the fact that this is no ordinary XJS. This kit is rather restrained, and consists of front spoiler and rear apron linked by slender rocker panels between the front and rear wheel arches. In addition, a neat black flexible tail-spoiler is added. The test car, finished in a deep metallic blue, had had its chromework painted to match, and enamel "Lister” badges replaced the Jaguar symbol on bonnet, tail, and steering-wheel. Otherwise the interior was standard.

Suspension modifications extend to a lowered ride-height and stiffer dampers, together with firmer location of the rear subframe, while 7J Compomotive wheels and 225VR 16 Pirelli P7 tyres fit under the existing arches with no visible modification. The effect of this is better body control, particularly when accelerating and changing direction at the same time, as on leaving a roundabout, but at the expense of the supremely smooth ride of the standard car.

However, that is only to say that the ride descends from the unrivalled to the merely excellent, and the elimination of the excessive softness enables the car to be pointed with all the verve of a much smaller car. Yet its ferocious traction, combined with all that rubber and power steering, good as it is, means that it requires constant small corrections through a fast bend keep it on line — exhilarating, but eventually rather tiring. Even on the patchy, damp roads of a January day in Herefordshire, the car impressed by the cornering forces produced, often more than the shallow leather seats could cope with in restraining the driver, but even more comforting was the realisation that such frankly outrageous amounts of power (440 bhp in this case) are in fact quite usable, even in slippery conditions. The crux lies in the engine producing enormous torque from all speeds so that it can be driven gently but fast in the upper gears. Muddy first-gear junctions require care, of course, but little more than for a front-wheel-drive car on narrower tyres, and the four-speed Jaguar box (obsolete but obtainable) is more than adequate, although for £5,000(!) a ZF five-speed is available. However, the 'box whines in the indirect ratios, and what with the tank-like rumble of 6,400 cc up ahead, those who value silence may be disappointed.

No-one could be dissatisfied with the Lister's performance, though. Its uncanny ability to compress straights and consume traffic with apparent indifference to the gear engaged remind one of video race-games — just steer around the hazards and you are on your way to a record score… It will stretch to 6,000 rpm in the middle gears, but there seems little point when you can virtually ignore the tachometer and treat third and fourth like a two-speed Indy 'box, capable of coping with most situations.

The speed of a large car tends to be deceptive (the Lister always seemed to be travelling 15 mph faster than I imagined) so the brakes have to be able to cope with heavy use; Forward Engineering fit larger ventilated discs at the front, and replace the solid rears with vented ones also, the result being belt-stretching stopping power, accompanied by that slight "tremolo" through the pedal which often goes with vented discs. Several hours' fast driving over twisting A- and B-roads caused no deterioration in this department.

So much for the good news. There is always some of the other sort, and in this case it centres on refinement — and finance. The use of a manual 'box shows up a degree of vibration under acceleration, and the overall noise level is pronounced, though not unpleasant in tone. In fact, having recently been a passenger around Donington in the Forward-prepared XJS racer of Ian Exeter (the E of BLE) I can confirm the similarity of sound. The road-going version needs to be treated like a competition car when changing gear, too: rapid, accurately matched changes are essential as the lever either goes in immediately or not at all. The clutch is heavy and quick, ideal for the country but less so in traffic, although the generous torque reduces the need for gear-changing in any case.

No-one expects a car of this sort to be cheap, but the total cost of a 6.4 conversion could be as much as £15,000 on top of £23,385 for a new XJS HE — that is almost a Lotus Excel or Porsche 944 in addition. Bodywork only totals £800 plus VAT and fitting; the 5.7 V12 (it gives 390 bhp) costs £4,560, the 6.4 another £3,000 extra, plus fitting charges, and then the whole lot has to be painted… Nevertheless, the end result must tempt the skilled driver who is considering devoting a great deal of money to his motoring pleasure. A price tag of £38,000 puts it between the Porsche Turbo and the Ferrari and Lamborghini supercars; it is probably more relaxing to drive than the former, and certainly more practical than the latter two. Perhaps the Aston Martin is its soulmate, in which case its price is less daunting, but a.9285 is cheaper yet.

As a project for a secondhand XJS, it would be more attainable, of course, and it is the sort of car whose kudos is unimpaired by last year's number-plates. Very few cars now offer long-bonneted elegance, and it is a delicious feeling to be able to combine this with sports car gusto. Choosing any car means balancing some very complex equations; and while the Lister Jaguar XJS trades off refinement against sprinting-power, it seems to me that the exchange is no robbery. — G.C.