Choosing a third car, you know, the unnecessary one, the pampered one that stays in the garage and gets driven on special occasions, is a lot of fun. The choice itself is simple – you get what you REALLY wanted when you were younger. You then create a saved search for it (with daily notifications) on one of the car classified sites and you wait and wait for as long as it takes for a minter to land on the market. You then empty the wallet and you move the second car out of the garage to make room. I did that recently and I now have what might be the best preserved 2002 Jaguar XJ in the country.
But before I get on to that, I want to make a rash, unprovable and probably false statement – car design peaked sometime during the period from the mid-90s to the mid-00s.
Before you start formulating the thousands of excellent reasons why I am wrong about that, consider the Jaguar XJ X308 (1997-2003) as a reference point. The XJ’s prior to that model had virtues and vices in equal measure. For example, the previous X300 looked perfect from the outside, but had 6cyl engines that were a generation behind the times and interiors that were basically unchanged from the early 80s. And as we all know, the XJ’s that were even older were as unreliable as they were beautiful.
Then after the X308 came the all-aluminium, air suspension model, the X350. It was brilliantly engineered, fast, and efficient. There was even a diesel option for those with defective hearing (or good ears and poor judgment). But the magic was lost. It looked slightly bloated, the grille wasn’t quite right, and it didn’t ride like a traditional XJ because the air bag suspension couldn’t soak up small imperfections as well as good old steel springs under a heavy steel chassis. Then you have the current X351. Now as an sculptural object, it is glorious in a post-modern art kinda way (I think Ian Callum would have given Mick Angelo a run for his money if he was born 500 years ago). Yet the X351 drives like a sports car for some unidentified reason. That would be fine if it was a sports car and not a 5.2m luxury barge. I just don’t get that.
So what you have left is the X308. The sweet spot along the design continuum. It is more or less all virtue and no vice. Similarly, almost every other car maker that matters hit their own peak around the same time. Let’s cherry pick a few of ‘em:
Aston Martin – DB9 (2003), if the Ferrari 456 GT didn’t exist, this would be the ultimate GT car
BMW – E46 3 Series (1998), E39 5 Series (1995), Z8 roadster (1999), and almost everything else they made around the same time
Citroen – C6 (2005), if you like weird looking Citroens it is this or the old DS
Ferrari – 456GT M V12 gated manual (1998), this car is perfect, F355 gated manual (1994), draw a Ferrari and you draw this one
Honda – Accord Euro (2002), has any car ever hit it’s brief better than this?
Land Rover – Range Rover L322 (update in 2006), still the Daddy
McLaren – the F1, the quintessential 1990s hypercar
Mercedes – plagued by Daimler/Chrysler around the time, but still surfaced to nail the W221 S Class (2006)
Porsche – Carrera GT (2004), the best hypercar of all because atmo V10
Toyota – Land Cruiser 80 Series and 100 Series, both in the period and both essentially faultless
So why was the period mid-90s to mid-00s so good? My theory is this. That was the short period of time when reasonably advanced design technology intersected with reasonably low regulatory restrictions. Before that you had low technology and low regulation. Now you have incredible technology and huge regulation. If you were an automotive designer or engineer in the 90s you had at your disposal enough computer power and scientific knowledge to allow you to create great cars largely unfettered by what have become tremendously intrusive regulatory frameworks. Red tape now forces design and engineering compromise in unprecedented ways. Emissions rules mean even Porsche and Ferrari have had to adopt smaller capacity engines with turbo charging and ditch inefficient manual gearboxes. Frontal impact rules essentially determine the geometry of the nose of all new cars. Safety rules require 100’s of kilograms of extra weight on new cars. If you hate that crap as much as I do, you can escape it because buying an older car lets you travel back in time.
I travelled back in time recently. I flew to Adelaide. I had been searching for a XJ Jaguar for several years. I had developed a strong fixation with Jaguars when a teenager and had never shaken it off. Then, just as my 40th birthday was approaching like a freight train, I came across a 2002 XJ that lived in McLaren Vale. The owner bought it new and had taken it to the Jaguar dealer whenever it needed a service. He hardly drove it, but it was obvious that he loved it. The interior is spotless. It is the right colour combination of silver over light tan leather. Being the run-out Heritage “throw all the options at it” model, it had the part-timber steering wheel, the special alloy wheels, the top shelf walnut dash, and all the exterior chrome. If I had ordered it from the factory in Browns Lane I would have specced it in the same way.
On the move you can’t really tell there is high tech (quad cam, VVT, 32 valve) V8 under the bonnet. It just spins in relative quiet like a big Singer sewing machine. If you give it the beans there is no doubt that the big girl can dance, but those occasions are rare. This is a car that wants to escort you down the road in as much isolation as it can muster so that’s what I let it do.
Driving an XJ is not like driving a competitor like the S Class or a Lexus LS. You sit low in the XJ because the car itself is impossibly low. It is snug in the driver’s seat and you feel like Biggles because you are cocooned in it cockpit style. It didn’t have to be that way, after all it is a big machine, but they made it that way because it feels special. A design decision like that would never make sense to the boffins at Toyota or Mercedes.
Another unashamedly traditional quirk of the XJ is how you close the boot. These days you have a button and a motor using electricity to do what gravity would achieve anyway. Fifteen years ago most cars had a handle or a scallop in the lid to grab and pull down. Not so in the XJ. Rather, you get a thick double stitched leather strap that is tethered to the lid for you to tug on. I like tugging on that. I find it very satisfying.
I would tell you about unreliability issues, but there aren’t any. I would tell you about fuel consumption, but I haven’t looked at it.
Sadly, I had to make room in the garage for the XJ by relegating my daily driver 1994 BMW 540i to the driveway. That car remains a high miler marvel and my old review of it is here. Just because it is living in the driveway doesn’t mean I now think less of the 540i. On the contrary, my high opinion of it remains unchanged. It is just that my affection for it more closely resembles how you might feel about an above average girlfriend, whereas, I consider the XJ more like a daughter.
Finally, the future for the XJ is bright. It will be endlessly spoiled and while I am alive it will never encounter a third owner. Most immediately, it needs some wheel rash fixed and the roof lining is starting to sag over the back seat headrests. I’ll get both those things fixed in the New Year and then detail it over several days as if my life depended on it, which I will hate. Then it will be entered in the Concours D’Elegance at the Jaguar National Rally in March 2017. If you know anything about the stratospherically high standard of competition at events like that, then you won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t expect to get anywhere near a trophy. All I want to do is finish ahead of all the other XJs. And if I can’t do that, I want to finish ahead of all the other X308 XJs. That done, I will retire the XJ instantly and forever from the indignity of the show car circuit. That famous foot racer, Jerry Seinfeld, would approve of that quit while you’re ahead approach. So would the gutless wonder Nico Rosberg.