For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
Somehow, somewhere – probably deep in a dark attic at Jaguar’s Gaydon headquarters or maybe Geoff Lawson’s loft – there must be hanging a slowly deteriorating portrait of the XK8.
It’s the only possible way to make sense of how Jaguar’s seemingly timeless grand tourer has remained such an object of desire for more than a quarter of a century.
The decades-defying shape is even more remarkable when you consider that the styling, forged not long after the otherworldly XJ220 yet taking inspiration from 30 years earlier, had barely changed in the 10 years it remained on sale.
The X100’s looks have aged beautifully, but what about the dynamics?
To celebrate the model’s 25th birthday, we arranged a special party at Jaguar Classic’s Fen End test facility – historic site of disc-brake development and later Prodrive’s Subaru World Rally cars – and extended an invitation to three significant guests: an early XK8 coupé from the first year of production, a hot run-out XKR variant in convertible trim and, most exciting of all, Special Vehicle Operations’ bonkers XKR-R prototype – a tantalising vision of what might have been.
The X100 has endured as one of Jaguar’s most attractive, capable and commercially successful models of the past 30 years, but following privatisation in 1984 the company was in a parlous financial state.
In an echo of the Leyland years, costs were high, productivity was low and build quality was in the gutter.
The overly complex and initially troublesome XJ40, launched in 1986, didn’t help matters; you had to go back 11 years to the XJ-S for Coventry’s previous major car launch.
As 1991 drew to a close the company was facing losses of £221m – more than three times the previous year’s results.
But for Ford adding Browns Lane to its portfolio in November that year, Jaguar would likely have been found upside down, bobbing at the top of the tank.
The unlikely saviour was none other than the X100, better known as the XK8. A model that, along with the DB7 – Aston Martin had also been appropriated by the Blue Oval – had its roots in the canned XJ41 (which we will come to later).
Despite its obvious promise, the X100’s gestation wasn’t easy, coming amid a global recession and a time of economic strife for Jaguar.
Work began on the X100 immediately after the takeover and clay renderings followed in March 1992, but, despite former Land Rover engineer Bob Dover being placed in charge of engineering the car not long after, development stalled amid financial wrangling with the government.
For a time it seemed as if the project might even move to Portugal. Funding and approval from Ford eventually came at the end of the following year, hot on the heels of £100m investment in the Bridgend plant, which ensured that the grand tourer would be powered not by an engine parachuted in from North America, but by the all-new 4-litre XJ-V8 unit of Jaguar’s own design.
That was, it must be said, a rather good decision. Instead of soldiering on with old technology, the coupé got a gem of an engine with four camshafts and four valves per cylinder.
Good for 290bhp in normally aspirated guise and with 290lb ft of torque, the XK8 is quick enough to trouble 60mph inside 6.5 secs and has to be electronically reined in as it reaches 155mph.
But, despite the impressive power figures, there’s something stately about the early car that makes driving it more about the experience than the performance.
Give it a prod and the XK will kickdown as smartly as a contemporary Mercedes-Benz, lifting its skirts enough to raise an eyebrow, but you find you rarely have the urge, such is the smooth delivery, supple suspension and a softer-than-silk ride.
A cynic may say the gargantuan kerbweight has something to do with that, and if the XK8 went on a diet it would deliver more of the sports-car experience promised by its rakish styling.
Look at it through the lens of a traditional grand tourer and it makes a lot more sense, that prodigious weight steamrollering flat bumps in the road and ironing out cracks and potholes as if they weren’t even there.
While its more glamorous Aston relative made do with a variant of the XJ-S rear end, the Jag benefited from the more modern set-up designed for the upcoming X300 XJ saloon.
If there’s one curiosity about the looks, it’s that it so closely resembles not the model it was intended to succeed but Malcolm Sayer’s great roadgoing masterpiece.
The XK nameplate might date back to the groundbreaking XK120 of 1948, but there can be no mistake that the spirit evoked by the generation that arrived almost 50 years later was squarely of the E-type.
The E-type burst on to the scene as a vision of swooping lines and sumptuous curves against a backdrop of decidedly old-fashioned designs, and the XK8 draws admiring glances for all the same reasons.
In a world of bland and homogenous Japanese imports, plastic-bumpered shopping cars and even its slab-sided BMW 8 Series rival, the sleek XK cuts a particular dash, an organic and aerodynamic sloop that screams sexy – or at least a middle-aged golfer’s idea of it.
Geoff Lawson’s sublime design undoubtedly forged its own identity, but the ancestry is clear to see from the fish-mouthed front grille to the rounded flanks, with wheels set back behind generous overhangs.
A full decade separates the first XK8s to leave Browns Lane and the last-of-the-line XKR convertible that we’ve taken to Fen End, and it’s hard not to be struck by quite how similar the two cars are – bar the obvious roof chop.
The overall shape barely changed, the only major facelift arriving in 2002. That brought with it a lightly restyled front bumper, jazzy jewelled rear lights with chrome finishing and forward-facing Xenons, not to mention revised ‘growler’ badging and an array of huge alloy wheels.
Bigger changes went on beneath the bodywork, and though a raft of electronic safety equipment ranging from Electronic Stability Control to Emergency Brake Assist was added, along with much more comfortable front seats, it’s the engine that puts clean air between the two iterations.
Across the board the old 3996cc V8 was updated with an increase in capacity of 200cc.
That might not sound like a lot – combined with continually variable camshaft phasing, power was only increased by 3.5% in the XK8 and up 8.1%, to 400bhp, in the hotter XKR – but boy does it feel like more.
In real terms the update added a hefty dose of usable torque to both models, adding lead to the glove and resulting in a heavier punch as you plant the throttle.
With the roof off you not only feel the thump of acceleration but hear it, too, with a shrill Eaton supercharger whine almost totally drowning out the V8 and its quad-pipe roar.
Inside, the bijou cabin of the earlier car is still intact and just as cosseting, but some of the classiness is undoubtedly lost with the addition of carbonfibre where once there was walnut.
The updated and supportive seats are great, and fortunately the optional infotainment system hasn’t been added.
It always looked somewhat anachronistic dropped into the middle of the dash in place of the classic round analogue dials.
Look down at the centre console and the familiar Jaguar J-gate remains, albeit now controlling a new six-speed ZF gearbox – the first auto with half a dozen cogs outside of stepped CVTs.
Not only does it give the big cat longer legs, but it also irons out an irritating driveline thump when taking up drive from a near stop.
For a car that was, and remains, so universally well received for its performance, ride comfort, practicality and styling throughout its life, it is difficult to level too many criticisms at the X100.
That fact obviously wasn’t lost on Jaguar’s engineers, who decided in 2000 to create a track-focused and performance-orientated version of the XKR designed to test and showcase future developments.
They dubbed it the XKR-R. Almost any other manufacturer would likely have crushed such a prototype along with any dreams of what might have been, consigning it to little more than a footnote in stories about its tamer cousins.
Jaguar, thankfully, had different ideas, entrusting its track-ready wild child – officially the X100 SVO – to the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust, based at the British Motor Museum, Gaydon.
Now, it is on day release. Starting with a pre-facelift XKR as its base, Special Vehicle Operations – then more of a skunkworks than the specialist division that exists today – fully seam-welded its coupé monocoque for greater strength and rigidity, already up 25% on the XJ-S in standard guise.
A partial rollcage was added along with kidney-squeezing Recaro bucket seats and four-point harnesses, and the rear seats were replaced by bins to accommodate two crash helmets – a hint at where Jag boffins foresaw the car being used.
The engine was lifted straight from the first-generation 4-litre XKR, but with power up from 370 to 400bhp thanks to some light fettling at SVO.
There are bigger changes at the back, where the rear end of the donor XKR was thrown out entirely and replaced by a derivative of the S-type’s suspension set-up.
It’s got stance, too, sitting 30mm lower on huge 20in BBS alloys shod with Pirelli P Zero tyres – an aggressive squat that suits the car perfectly.
But what really sets this car apart is the six-speed Tremec T56 gearbox, a meaty manual that found a home in everything from Yanks such as the Corvette and Viper to blue-bloods including the Vanquish.
Slotting the hefty gearlever back into second, it’s hard not to feel as if you’re tasting forbidden fruit.
And as you level the accelerator on the approach to Fen End’s Karussell-like banked curve, a smiting feels like a very real possibility.
Thankfully, the manual XKR-R isn’t quite the monster it first appears, with a harsher ride than the convertible but not overly so, and pliant suspension that offers a comforting degree of roll through the bends.
Steering is sharper than a contemporary production XKR, thanks mainly to a quicker rack demanding just 2.2 turns from lock to lock, and the power delivery is, as you would expect, brutal.
X100 SVO doesn’t feel so much a distant relative as it does a younger, slightly wayward brother who’s been sleeping on your sofa for two months and just won’t take a hint.
It’s part of the family. More raw, without doubt, but offering the same weighty driving experience, inertia-defying acceleration and sense of effortless pace.
The extra driver involvement is simply the icing on the cake, a facet that you only realise the standard version lacks after experiencing the prototype. It’s no wonder they kept it quiet.
Experiencing the full range of X100s, from early to late and even this special prototype, fills me with nostalgia.
Tastes change, but I loved the XK8 when it broke cover at Geneva in ’96 and, despite a gradual estrangement as fewer seem to remain on the roads, I love it just as much today.
The 2006 XKR convertible impresses more than expected, doing its best to roll back the years beneath that supercharged howl, but visually I can’t help but feel that something of the launch car’s class got lost along the way.
The original coupé is a car in its prime, while the soft-top tries to hide its years behind mesh grilles and chrome light-surrounds.
The XK8’s sensibly sized alloy wheels with fat tyres, and the sea of burr walnut and soft hide, give an old-world sense of comfort; a British Heart Foundation charity-shop vibe that suits the car so much better than carbonfibre.
The longer spent behind the wheel of the 1996 model, the more you feel at home. Maybe, Tremec six-speeds and supercharged 4.2s aside, Jaguar might just have got it right the first time around.
Images Olgun Kordal
XJ41: the missing link
Before the Jaguar XK8 came the original ‘F-type’: the XJ41 concept and its XJ42 coupé sister.
The project was first mooted in 1980, a time when the XJ-S was considered a failure relative to the E-type, and was to be spun off the all-new XJ40 platform.
Originally it was to be a simple, relatively light car, but, as was so often the case in the bad old days of the British motor industry, things started to slip. Its original launch date of 1986 was pushed back and competitors grew stronger, forcing Jaguar to upgrade the specification, adding weight all the while.
What had been intended to be a simple rear-drive sports car, powered by a normally aspirated straight-six, was suddenly perceived to need at least the option of four-wheel drive and twin turbocharging.
Development costs spiralled, but still the project continued until one game-changing event: in 1989, Ford bought Jaguar for £1.6billion. New boss Bill Hayden undertook a forensic analysis of the business, and killed the F-type.
That would have been that, were it not for maverick Tom Walkinshaw, who’d developed and built the XJ220 and was looking for the next big thing. His success in racing the XJ-S had turned sales of the big coupé around, and he wondered what the XJ41 might be like sitting on XJ-S underpinnings.
“The view at Jaguar was that the XJ-S platform was out of date and no longer part of the plan,” TWR’s former designer Ian Callum told Autocar in 2013. “But Tom knew it inside out and was convinced that he could build an F-type for a fraction of the cost of the one done in-house.”
Callum was sent over by Walkinshaw to see what could be done, and Project XX was born. Turning the XJ41 into something that could be built on an XJ-S platform was far from a cut-and-paste job – they had different wheelbases, tracks and overhangs – but the car came together.
“Then Jaguar said they didn’t want it,” recalled Callum, “which they were entitled to do because they hadn’t asked for it in the first place.
“All the same, Tom had invested a lot and was not about to let it drop. So he came in and said: ‘That Jag. D’you think you could turn it into an Aston?’ Which is exactly what I did.”
This became the DB7, but the XJ41 saga still had one more twist: “Ford turned to Jaguar and said, ‘If Walkinshaw can put a car on that platform, why can’t you?’” Jaguar called the result the XK8 and cashed-in big time: “Without XJ41, there’d have been no DB7 and no XK8.”
Words: Andrew Frankel
Image: Stan Papior
The XK goes extreme
After being responsible for the stillborn XJ41 and penning the original proposal that design boss Geoff Lawson developed into the production XK8, South African-born stylist Keith Helfet was tasked with a very special project to celebrate 50 years of Jaguar’s XK engine in 1998.
“Despite the ultra-short eight-week timeframe, designs were developed around a shortened XK8 with a tuned 450bhp V8 and it was completed on schedule,” Helfet recalls of the XK180, which caused a sensation when it was revealed at the 1998 Paris Salon.
“I discussed the programme with Geoff, and it was agreed I’d work up a sort of roadster version of the XK8. It was a two-seater with a single windscreen wiper, allowing me to put ‘cleavage’ into the ’screen, which reflected the nacelles behind the driver and passenger’s heads. It was a very voluptuous car and very satisfying as an attempted homage to the D-type.”
While he was a student at the Royal College of Art, Helfet had been to Prescott Speed Hill Climb and been seduced by the sight of an unpainted D-type bodyshell.
“The shape struck a chord in my designer’s mind,” he says. “It was a piece of sculpture in steel. Who would have thought that I would one day design a spiritual successor? It was a defining moment in my career.”
Lawson subsequently asked Helfet to style a production car with the XK180 as its design ‘signature’. With no further brief, he decided to start with dimensions similar to the tiny Porsche Boxster Concept show car.
Called the F-type Concept, it was revealed at the Detroit Motor Show in 2000 but tragically Ford killed off the entire programme and it remained a show car. “One American enthusiast quipped that the rear was so sexy, it should be wearing a thong,” laughs Helfet.
Words: Mike Taylor
Images: Luc Lacey
- Sold/number built 1996-2005/90,064 (all), 19,748 XK8 coupés
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc-per-bank 3996cc 32-valve V8, with electronic fuel injection
- Max power 290bhp @ 6100rpm
- Max torque 290lb ft @ 4250rpm
- Transmission five-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, dampers, anti-roll bar
- Steering ZF Servotronic variable-ratio power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes ventilated discs, with servo and anti-lock
- Length 15ft 7½in (4760mm)
- Width 6ft (1829mm)
- Height 4ft 9in (1295mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2588mm)
- Weight 3644lb (1653kg)
- 0-60mph 6.4 secs
- Top speed 155mph (limited)
- Mpg 24.9
- Price new £47,950
- Price now £5-15,000*
Jaguar XKR Convertible
Where different to XK8
- Sold/number built 1998-2005/13,895
- Engine 4196cc, with Eaton rotor-type supercharger
- Max power 400bhp @ 6100rpm
- Max torque 408lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission six-speed automatic
- Weight 4000lb (1815kg)
- 0-60mph 5.6 secs
- Mpg 22.6
- Price new £67,105
- Price now £7-25,000*
Where different to XKR
- Sold/number built 2001/2
- Engine 3996cc
- Max power 400bhp @ 6150rpm
- Max torque 400lb ft @ 3600rpm
- Transmission Tremec T56 six-speed manual
- Weight 3726lb (1690kg)
- 0-60mph 4.5 secs
- Top speed 180mph
- Price new n/a
- Price now n/a
*Prices correct at date of original publication