INTERNATIONAL - In the 1960s and ’70s, few sedans oozed ultra-cool style as the Jaguar XJ does. Long and slender, with liquid lines yawning from the limpid headlamps back to an elegantly tapered tail, they seemed to slither down the road like something from a naughty dream.
Jerry Hall, Tom Petty, and Frank Sinatra owned them. So did the royal family.
Owning one now can also be a nightmare.
Complications from rust damage, overheating issues, and cracked cables can spell hours stranded on the side of the road instead of tooling to a picnic or swishing through London streets to a nighttime haunt. And if you try to go more modern by buying an XJ from the later generations of the 1980s and ’90s, you’ll find that they lag, underpowered, comparable vehicles from BMW and Mercedes.
But since it broke away from former owner Ford Motor Co. in 2008, Jaguar has been back in a major way. The brand, now owned by Tata Motors Ltd., has just produced an excellent all-electric SUV, the I-Pace and leads the field for value with the affordable, powerful, stylish, and fun-to-drive F-Type coupe and convertibles.
So it was from a position of confidence that the brand took a moment to reflect on its heritage—lovely and occasionally soft as it was—with the arrival of the latest iteration of the XJ.
This fall, it launched the $75,400 2019 Jaguar XJ sedan on the 50th anniversary of the car’s debut at the Paris Motor Show in 1968. Then it added context: Jag sprang all eight generations of the XJ line out of storage and put them on the road driving overnight from company headquarters in Coventry, England, to the Paris Motor Show.
This was especially daring because vintage Jaguar collectors and enthusiasts well know the ecstasy of loving such a stylish auto—in its day, the very top car for elegance and performance—and the agony of owning it 50 years later.
The potential for disappointment was high on the back roads as we drove from the Castle Bromwich Assembly Plant outside London through the Goodwood Motor Circuit, Saint-Malo Port, and Le Mans racetrack on the way to Paris. But Jaguar boldly set us off on that two-day quest, a group of writers and travelers, come what may. I respected the company’s confidence. (A complete squat team of eager British mechanics followed in an SUV should anything happen. It would have been worth popping a flat just to see them in action—almost.)
Our convoy included everything from a retro-cool 1978 XJ Coupe V12 and a long, four-door 1973 Daimler Double-Six Vanden Plas Limousine (Jaguar bought Daimler in 1960 and continued the line as an upscale trim level for Jaguar) to a 1988 Daimler 3.6 and the new $122,400 Jaguar XJR575 sedan, which is as aggressive as any jungle cat you’d find in the wild, with the mean engine scream to boot. I loved it. (That’s a different review).
My favorite ride of the vintage group was the Series I. When it debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 1968, it was the last creation gift of Jaguar founder William Lyons. It had a 180-horsepower engine, a well-balanced body with four-wheel independent suspension, a then-ultra-modern automatic transmission, and luxurious details inside such as polished burled walnut doors and golden-filigree enamel-filled logos, enough to give anyone driving one a sense of occasion, even if the trip was merely to fetch milk down the road. They were so good the brand sold more than 250,000 of them in their 18-year generation.
The one we drove had a thin, wide, black plastic steering wheel that feels as elegant as a Capri cigarette in a ladies’ hand. The seats, stitched as tight and soft as an old boxer’s leather punching bag, bounced happily as the car glided over speed bumps and cobbles. For me, a five-foot, 10-inch lanky type, the footwells were heaven—I could fully straighten my legs and still not feel the end of the car.
Driving down back roads in Bordeaux felt like living inside a Godard film, smooth and smart and cool as Serge Gainsborough himself. (Give yourself a few miles to re-adjust your expectations on the steering—vague—and the brakes—delayed—from modern calibrations to more classically inclined response times.)
These days, it’s just the type of inexpensive vintage car that was top of the line when it debuted and has aged into something worth the potential high cost of ownership. The Hagerty Price Guide lauds “the visceral charms of the motor,” which shine through in the sedan. In terms of collectability, it notes, early Series I cars are the best of the group to collect, since they have purer looks and a more classic interior.
“I think the reputation for being unreliable is a bit unfair,” Jonathan Klinger, the spokesman for Hagerty, tells me. “Yes, they do have some quirks, but nothing that can't be overcome. The reality is many of these cars were allowed to go into disrepair and deferred maintenance.”
In fact, he says, the early XJ Series I cars did indeed combine incredible refinement, luxury, and performance.
The only catch is finding a good one.
Keep in mind that this is a car to love, not a business opportunity. Given that even top examples sell for less than $50,000—Bring a Trailer’s record-setter cost only $21,000, and most sell for less than $10,000—recouping the cost of a full restoration is often impossible. (The average value of a 1969 XJ in good condition, for example, has hovered near $13,000 for years, according to Hagerty.) Buy one with low mileage and immaculate underpinnings (read: no rust). Even better if it has been owned by only one person over its lifetime, which means less chance that maintenance has been deferred.
In the end, Jag needn’t have worried about roadside mishaps; every car in the starting group finished the drive with nary a flub. The only real issue was finding decent rest stops along the way; if there’s one thing the English believe, it’s that you can never have too much Earl Grey.
Between this and Jaguar’s confidence in the nobility and value of British automotive heritage, it’s no wonder the brand set up the launch of its flagship model between its Coventry, England, headquarters and the location of XJ’s debut decades ago. The confidence to embrace both the old you and the new you can make anything sexy—even a large sedan.