The Jaguar XJ-S was built from 1975-96 and was the most affordable mass-produced V-12 sports car ever built. But owners constantly balanced enjoyment and aggravation, which has depressed prices to bargain levels.
Stiffer emissions and safety regulations demanded a new kind of Jaguar sports car in the 1970s. The 1961 six-cylinder E-type evolved into the V-12 grand tourer by 1971, but it couldn’t pass ‘75 crash tests and was discontinued.
Its replacement confounded E-Type fans. The XJ-S was a hefty coupe with slab sides and flying buttresses. It was built on a shortened XJ6 sedan chassis, with the 285 bhp, 5.3-liter single overhead-cam (SOHC) V-12 from the E-Type, now fitted with Lucas fuel injection.
Despite grumbles, the XJ-S (then XJS) was in production for 20 years, selling a record 84,104 coupes and 30,896 convertibles. Its V-12 engine delivered 0-60 mph in 6.8 seconds, and nearly allowed 150 mph. Best of all, it cost only $19,200 at introduction.
For their first five years, XJ-S sales average about 4,000 units a year, as owners watched 18 warning lights compete to deliver bad news. Road & Track’s owner survey identified problems with the air conditioner, alternator, body parts, brakes, cooling system, differential, distributor, electrical system, emissions controls, exhaust, fuel pumps, instruments, power steering, starter and wheel bearings.
By 1981 sales slumped to only 232 units, when Swiss engineer Michael May developed the H.E. (High Efficiency) engine, generating 299 bhp, and almost doubling gas mileage to 22 mpg on the highway. Unfortunately, U.S. models had catalytic converters fitted below the exhaust manifolds, creating a crematorium under the hood.
Apart from 325 four-speed cars early on, all V-12s had automatic transmissions – briefly Borg-Warner units, then GM Turbo 400s – three-speed until 1987, four-speed after that. However a five-speed Getrag manual gearbox was introduced in 1983, with a new 225 bhp, 3.6-liter, six-cylinder alloy engine.
The six-cylinder was offered in a cabriolet – though with a Triumph Stag “T handle” intended to prevent the unibody from sagging. The production process was convoluted, but XJ-S sales rebounded to 6,028 in 1984 and a V-12 cabriolet was offered in 1985.
American buyers wanted a proper convertible and coachbuilders Hess & Eisenhart of Cincinnati, Ohio, converted about 2,000 coupes in 1986-87. They created their own rear fenders and twin gas tanks, but quality control was problematic, and parts remain scarce.
A factory XJ-S convertible was launched in 1989, as Ford took control. The convertible top was built by Karmann; it was lined and weather-proof, and the V-12 convertible’s price rose to $56,000, against $47,000 for the coupe.
Ford updated the XJS in 1992 (eliminating the hyphen). The new Jaguar looked the same, but was simpler, with fewer stampings and better rust proofing. Hard-to service inboard rear brakes were moved outboard in 1993.
A 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine arrived in 1994, with a top speed of 141 mph, but 1995 was the last year for the six cylinder XJS, and its optional five-speed. The V-12 coupe was discontinued, but the convertible V-12 was available through 1996 on special order.
The XJ-S and later XJS models were status symbols and as long as the cars were well-maintained, they could be reliable. However, deferred maintenance led to catastrophic failures and repairing a V-12 Jaguar can be almost as expensive as a comparable Ferrari.
If you’re interested, look for a one-owner car. A pre-purchase inspection is vital and complete service records are essential. Make sure everything works. Cars from the 1970s and ‘80s are rust-prone; check floors, door sills and wheel wells on a hoist. Check for leaks, often-neglected inboard rear brakes and crash damage. These cars are too fast for bungled repairs.
Overheating was a problem with V-12s; make sure both cylinder heads were rebuilt. Also check for evidence of engine fires, though such disasters frequently destroyed the car. Automatic transmissions are usually trouble free, but leak. Rear main seal and differential leaks are expensive to repair.
The best cars are starting to appreciate, but prices range from $10,000-$30,000 for coupes and convertibles. Condition is everything, and lined canvas tops are very expensive to replace.
Ford’s 1992-96 XJS models offered a six-liter V12 good for 161 mph, while the six-cylinder cars with the five-speed deliver economical fun. But with only 22,858 built in all, XJS spares are rare and expensive. The safest bet is a one-owner 1992-1995 six-cylinder model. You have 4,289 coupes and 12,423 convertibles to choose from, but only about 25 percent will have the five-speed gearbox.
Ultimately, this car suffers from comparison to its predecessor and mechanical notoriety. That means that bargains abound, but upside potential is very limited and if you can’t afford to buy the best Jaguar XJ-S, you certainly can’t afford the worst.