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A Jaguar With Bite: Britain's Classic Sports Car

Reviving the Spirit--and Growl--of Britain's Classic Sports Car
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

We have set sail for France, a priceless cargo in our hold. Twenty-seven rare, D-type racers heading for a reunion of sorts. As the ferry pulls into Calais, their engines cough, sputter, ignite with a roar that echoes through the cavernous ship. Out they spill, one by one, briefly onto the motorway, then off into the verdant French countryside towards Agincourt, tracing the path of the conquering King Henry V.

It is an appropriate route to follow, for when these road warriors made this trip the first time, 40 years ago, they were the scourge of France, bound for yet another victory at Le Mans. Jaguar'sD-types dominated European racing tracks through 1956, '57 and'58, and what made them all the more overwhelming was their grace and beauty. Part machine, part sculpture.

The convoy converges on the track, the gates open and the cars surge onto the tarmac. Past the pits and into the first curve, timidly at first, their owners nervous at the thought of wrecking these irreplaceable relics. But as they enter the Mulsanne Straight, racing's ultimate measurement of testosterone, the D-types take off as if cued from muscle memory. And the crowd is on its feet, a French salute to British racing green.

There's an old adage in the auto industry, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." Crudely American, but nonetheless apt as the British discovered. For the D-type proved to be more than just a sporting footnote. Its design was neatly transformed into one of the most beautiful production sports cars ever built, the legendary Jaguar XK-E. Today, the car still turns heads, and in good shape--sadly a condition all too rare--a used XK-E commands top dollar. It's no wonder that when you spend a little time with Jag enthusiasts, you're certain to hear the lament, "If only they built the XK-E again..."

Well, they have, and it's called the XK8.

"It's very easy to design a car that's a pastiche of cues, something that's trendy and hot," says Jaguar Cars Ltd.'s chief stylist, Geoff Lawson. "We worked very hard to avoid that temptation. Overall, we strove to bring obvious links with the past but without copying. The heritage of good design is like DNA: It must be traceable through history but not necessarily an exact duplicate." Not exact, but the influence is unmistakable, starting with the menacing, oval air scoop that was essentially lifted from the old XK-E. The windscreen is more steeply raked than the original, the tail tells the influence of aerodynamic tweaking in the wind tunnel. The XK8 is long, low and lean, a design all the more distinct in an era when so many onetime sports car fans are defecting to the fad of the '90s--the high-riding sport-utility vehicle. Thankfully, however, Jaguar designers were able to squeeze out an extra two inches of head-room, something that was always in short supply. The XK8 upholds another tradition, coming both in coupe and convertible. The motorized ragtop can be operated at speeds up to 10 mph, and can be opened or closed simply by turning and holding the key in the door for a few seconds. Although the convertible, at $69,900, costs $5,000 more than the coupe, Jaguar expects the ragtop to account for as much as 80 percent of its volume in the United States.

Like its predecessors, the XK8 is framed in burlwood panels and sumptuously padded in Connolly leather. Performance may be the underpinning of the Jaguar heritage, but luxury remains its trademark. The XK8 features such niceties as a CD changer, memory-controlled power seats and even a built-in remote for the garage door so you'll never lock yourself out.

While liberally mining the past, the company's designers avoided certain troublesome areas. Gone are the Lucas electrical components that earned the original XK-E a deserved reputation for unreliability. (Lucas was known to British car enthusiasts as the "Prince of Darkness.") This is a tender mercy, considering the extensive electrical underpinnings of the new car.

Also gone are the six- and 12-cylinder motors that were the hallmark of Jaguar cars for the past four decades. In their place is an all-new V-8, surprisingly the first in Jaguar's history. Dubbed the AJ-V8, the new engine is sophisticated, with 32 valves, four overhead cams, variable intake valves and a computer cable, rather than a mechanical linkage, connecting it to the driver's pedal. The power plant produces a gutsy 290 horsepower, yet its aluminum-block design is lighter than either of the engines it replaces. That translates into better performance and improved fuel economy. The electronically controlled, five-speed automatic transmission--another first for Jaguar--proves uncannily responsive and smooth, shifting almost imperceptibly with power still readily at hand. There's also a traction control system to improve the XK8's wet-weather grip, never a strong suit for Jaguar.

Sinewy is a word that might come to mind as you slip the XK8 into gear, though it could never be applied to the XJ-S, the sports coupe the XK8 replaces. The XJ-S was soft and sloppy, a British land yacht; the XK8's twin wishbone suspension is taut and responsive as we take to the back roads of North Yorkshire.


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