There’s only one XJ13, and Jaguar let me drive it

Jaguar/Steve Havelock

The Jaguar Classic technician bends down to shout in my ear, his Midlands accent still easily distinguishable above the heady idling of the four-cam V-12 engine right behind me.

“It’s worth £11 million, you know!”

And then he beckons me out of the covered paddock and into the busy crowd of onlookers, each one seemingly looking in a different direction and not always aware that this one-of-a-kind, fiery, and temperamental car—which Jaguar intended to tackle the Le Mans 24 hour race—was heading their way, in the hands of someone who’d only even sat in it for the first time 20 minutes previously.

It would be foolish to claim that I know the 1966 Jaguar XJ13 intimately. But then, hardly anyone does, save for test drivers David Hobbs, Richard Attwood, and Norman Dewis—and sadly Norman is no longer with us to relay how he almost destroyed the car back in the 1970s, when man and machine careered off the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) test track near Coventry and ended up deep into a cornfield.

Since then, the XJ13 has only occasionally been driven, but I’d been trusted to pilot the car up the hill at the 2011 Goodwood Festival of Speed. Or maybe “trusted” is the wrong word, given the looks of trepidation on the faces of the Jaguar Classic support crew. To be fair, I’m not sure I trust myself either.

The story of the XJ13 is unlucky indeed. Devised to relive the Le Mans glory of the C-Type and D-Type days of the 1950s and early ’60s, the XJ13 was Jaguar’s brave attempt to keep up with Porsche and Ford in the mid-1960s.

It was built on an all-alloy monocoque, riveted together aircraft-style. A specially developed double-overhead-camshaft V-12 engine—essentially two six-cylinder XK engines formed into a vee—was mounted directly behind the cockpit as a stressed member of the chassis. With Lucas mechanical fuel injection, the new V-12 developed 495 hp, powering the rear wheels via a five-speed ZF gearbox.

Racer and former Jaguar apprentice Hobbs was brought in as development driver, to be joined by Attwood during final testing at Silverstone. However, by that time it was clear that more work was needed. All the same, Hobbs had achieved a new U.K. circuit lap record at MIRA of 161.6 mph. The XJ13 could have been a contender but Jaguar management wasn’t convinced and the project was starved of cash—and then the arrival of Ford’s 7.0-liter GT40 killed it dead anyway.

The single XJ13 built languished at the factory for a few years and was then dusted off for the launch of the new V-12-powered E-Type Series 3 in early 1971. After all, what better to show off the company’s experience with V-12 engines?

jaguar xj13 goodwood drive
Jaguar/Steve Havelock

Norman Dewis was asked to drive the car at speed for a short film sequence. It’s no longer clear what happened, though there are theories that a rear wheel collapsed or an already damaged tire blew. Whatever the reason was, Norman and the XJ13 were launched off the MIRA test track at high speed into the infield, flipping end over end and rolling twice before stopping shiny-side up.

Somehow Norman, who had ducked under the dashboard, emerged relatively unscathed but the car was a wreck. It was put away and left alone until it was spotted by Edward Loades of Abbey Panels, the company that produced much of the sheetmetal for Jaguar. Loades persuaded the company to allow Abbey Panels to rebuild the XJ13, though it was done to a slightly different style from the original (Building the Legend’s XJ13 recent recreation is a more accurate representation of the original XJ13).

Since then, the XJ13 has been wheeled out on special occasions. On one outing it was over-revved, resulting in a piston that had to be weld-repaired, which meant that, from then on, full power couldn’t be risked. Then the sump was damaged on a curb in Copenhagen, and that was it until a full rebuild in 2006, most notably for Goodwood—which is why I lowered myself into the cabin with some trepidation.

Like a D-Type, the XJ13 has a relatively roomy cabin, but in the XJ13 the driver sits much further forward, with all that engine directly behind. The cockpit hasn’t been restored, thankfully, so the bare aluminum is satisfyingly tarnished and workmanlike. The flimsy door clicks shut, and ignition and fuel are flicked on via toggle switches on the dash. Pushing the ignition switch further down operates the starter—and, after a brief whirr, a noisy V-12 starts up.

jaguar xj13 goodwood drive
Jaguar/Steve Havelock

There were seven of these DOHC V-12s built at the time, but only two were full XJ13-spec, with straight-cut gears driving the camshafts. The whine of the gears and clatter of the valvetrain adds to the soundtrack, but it’s the exhausts that dominate, angry and aggressive on every blip of the accelerator pedal.

The biggest foible for the XJ13 is the gearshift, on the driver’s side sill. The action is short, heavy, and occasionally obstinate, feeding into a many-jointed linkage that winds all the way past driver and engine to the gearbox. At a standstill the only way to find the dogleg first is to ease it firmly into third, then gently into second, back and across (“but not all the way,” my notes say, underlined), and then down into first. Rush that last bit and the gearbox will simply refuse to slot into first—and then the only way is to repeat the procedure all over again, though with decreasing chances of success.

XJ13 Goodwood driving action rear three quarter
Jaguar/Steve Havelock

Now that’s all very well, but the Festival of Speed is famous for the long queues of vehicles that form ahead of the course’s start line. I found the best method was to leave the XJ13 in first the whole time, once it was close enough to the start, and stop and start the engine as many times as I dared—in the knowledge that the more often I did so, the greater the chances of fouling the spark plugs.

It’s not great for the nerves, knowing that this high-profile, unique, and invaluable piece of Jaguar history might decide not to behave off the line when the marshals give the signal to go, but just as I was a few cars away from the start, there was an almighty roar overhead, and I looked up to see the Vulcan bomber coming in low over the Festival. By the time I’d stopped gawping, it was almost my time to head up the Goodwood hillclimb, watched by thousands (and all those TV cameras).

xj13 goodwood drive
Jaguar/Steve Havelock

Thing is, like a D-Type, the Jaguar XJ13 is remarkably easy to drive, at least until it’s pushed hard. The race clutch is reasonably light, and there’s more than enough torque to get this 2480-pound car off the line cleanly. On the move, the gear changes are much easier, though heavy, and the steering—unassisted, of course—feels light enough to be responsive but not so light to reduce feel.

It’s the engine that’s the revelation, though. What a thing! There’s so much torque, such instant response to the throttle, that acceleration is lightning fast and speed builds seemingly with little effort, though with plenty of noise from the intake stacks and exhaust. As you’d expect from a V-12, it’s a smooth, searing sound, somehow both more violent yet more sophisticated than any V-8’s soundtrack.

Accelerating past Goodwood House produced a deep bellow from the intake stacks; quickly backing off (too soon, in fact) for the notorious Molecomb corner, a crackling exhaust. I remember being too gentle on the accelerator after Molecomb, still relieved to have made it round this innocent-looking car-killer of a bend without incident. And then a burst of acceleration again, exhaust resonating off the dauntingly close flint wall, and a last blast to the finish, where I could kid myself that the run hadn’t looked disappointingly tame for the spectators—because for me it was a career highlight.

It would be dishonest to claim that I got to know the XJ13 or that I came close to even a fraction of its abilities. I remember the frustration of the gear selection at low speed, the relief that it improved on the move, the competence of the brakes, the light feel of the steering, and the surprisingly forgiving ride, which was probably due to the height and relatively low pressures of the tires. But most of all I remember that engine note.

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