Grace, pace – but not much space
By Mike Duff / Saturday, 4 February 2023 / Loading comments
Nostalgia – they’re always making more of it. Certain objects will always bring us back to certain memories, with cars being about the best at triggering subconscious emotional responses. The very sight of a Mk3 Ford Escort sets the back of my knees itching in distant reminiscence of spending a week broiling on the vinyl of a rented version on a summer holiday in Portugal when I was a kid. But the grander prospect of this week’s first-generation XKR cabriolet reminds me of being incredibly lucky.
Back in 2004, Jaguar celebrated its long connection with Le Mans by putting on a spectacular trip to the 24-hour race. This involved staying in a chateau, oceans of fine wine and presidential-grade catering. Somehow I scored an invite, and as my previous trips to the race had all involved sleeping in a tent, caravan or – on one particularly dismal occasion – the back of an MG Metro, it’s fair to say the upgrade felt thoroughly special.
But that wasn’t the lucky part. Invitees got to travel down in a variety of XKRs, this just before the first generation retired. I was assigned a silver cabriolet very similar to the one you see here, but gleaming new. The slight issue was that a personal scheduling cock-up meant I didn’t leave home until Saturday morning, so needed to rush to make Le Mans in time for the start.
This wasn’t a problem for the XKR, of course, thanks to 380hp and a natural cruising pace well north of 100mph. Nor did it seem to be an issue in France once I got onto the Peagé, being far enough behind the mass exodus that the road was almost empty. I made the trip from Calais at an average speed that would have been regarded as respectable in the race, reaching the track just in time to rush to Jaguar’s hospitality box for the start. Strangely, this turned out to be full of glum-looking people, it soon transpired that many of the attendees had been dinged for speeding on the way down. Collectively they had been fined thousands of Euros.
One senior newspaper correspondent had been clocked at such a pace that, after forcing him to empty his current account, the Gendarmes had confiscated his driving licence. Fortunately, he was travelling with his wife, who could take over. Even one of Jaguar’s PR team had picked up a hefty ticket. Yet Spawnsworth here had somehow managed to avoid all of the traps, despite travelling in an equally conspicuous car at velocities that would have been regarded as a bit frisky for a limit-free Autobahn, let alone an Autoroute. Even now the sight of a first-gen XKR brings back a shiver of “there but for the grace of God.”
The first-generation XKR was, in short, a superb grand tourer – but it was also getting old and whiskery by the time of that trip to France. The basic car had been introduced in 1996, with the supercharged XKR making its debut two years later. But although both were powered by spiffy new V8’s that Ford’s ownership of Jaguar had paid for, the car’s underpinnings were considerably older. As in sharing most of its floorpan with the XJ-S that had been launched as long ago as 1975. Nobody could ever accuse Jaguar of not sweating their assets in those days. That resulted in a cabin that was a little cramped for such a big car, and a seating position that, even in its lowest setting, felt higher than it should have done.
The legacy platform was likely also much of the reason why the XK cabriolet suffered from a noticeable lack of structural rigidity over rough surfaces, and even some smooth ones. It certainly wasn’t bad by the standards of the era, this being the time when many decapitated coupes had the stiffness of soggy shoeboxes. The XKR’s suspension was designed for pliancy and comfort rather than ultimate body control, although with the interesting option of early adaptive dampers. (Jaguar called this CATS, which presumably stood for Completely desperAte alliTerative Synonym.) It’s a cruiser, not a bruiser.
While we have had an X100 XK8 coupe Brave Pill before, this week’s is our first convertible and our debut supercharger. This is the same 4.0-litre V8 that powered the contemporary X308 XJR, making 370hp. This drove the rear wheels through a five-speed auto – this manualized on demand by Jaguar’s rather lovely ‘J-gate’ selector, which made it much easier to know which ratio was being selected than a linear lock-down selector. A slightly more powerful 400hp 4.2-litre engine came with this XK’s final facelift in 2003 – and would have been the one I drove to Le Mans – along with a standard six-speed auto, but Jaguar claimed identical 5.6-second 0-60mph times and 155mph top speeds for both engines.
The dealer selling our Pill actually has a choice of three silver XKR cabriolets at present, suggesting they might want to revise their stock-sourcing strategy. Naturally, we’ve opted for the cheapest and leggiest of the trio, a pre-facelift ’02 reg car that is being offered for a very appealing £7,999 having covered 116,000 miles. Okay, so it’s not quite as appealing as it looks in the pictures, with the vendor saying that it won’t come with the handsome 19-inch split rim Montreal alloys it is currently sitting on unless the buyer finds another £500; there is a separate image of one of the 18-inch wheels it will otherwise be sold with.
Although it seems to have scrubbed up well, our Pill’s MOT history reads like a melodrama. Indeed it seems to be the single failingest car in the column’s history, no mean achievement in itself, having recorded no fewer than 11 outright failures against 16 passes, with few of these being advisory-free. The first refusal was as early as 2006 – for a non-working light – with causes getting more numerous as time went on. Most of the fails have been for tyre and suspension-related issues, but the first advisory for underbody corrosion was as early as 2009, and has appeared several times since.
That is worrisome as, while X100s aren’t especially grot-prone by the standards of ageing Jags, rust can become a serious problem once it gets its teeth into one. A friend had to scrap what had looked like a bargain when it became obvious that patching the rotten underside was a task well beyond his welding skills, and would cost thousands for a pro. Properly sorting corrosion can be expensive and time-consuming. Electrical issues can also play whack-a-mole, too. The good news is that mechanical parts are strong, parts are plentiful and there are lots of specialists out there.
While the X100 XK was considerably cheaper in the past, prices still look appealing by the standards of the wider segment, likely kept down by the impressive percentage that seem to have survived. You certainly wouldn’t get much Porsche 911 cabrio for such a modest investment. This XKR deserves more love, but will it find it?
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