Big Cat Diary

23w ago


At their best, old school Jaguars offered those lucky enough to be able to afford them an unparalleled mix of class, comfort and good old fashioned menace. Rivals from continental Europe might've been more technically polished, upstarts from across the Atlantic more powerful and Japanese offerings more reliable, but Coventry's finest really did have the market cornered when it came to something just as important by far, far harder to quantify - class.

William Lyons probably came closest when he identified the triumvirate of values his company has endeavoured to adhere to ever since, namely grace, pace and space, and no single model has better embodied this trio than the XJC of the mid '70s. That being said, while big cats from this particular decade undoubtedly looked and sounded the part, went like the proverbial scalded cat and could be relied upon to provide a cosseting ride, they weren't exactly known for their reliability or anti-corrosion properties. Indeed, your average Jaguar owner stood a fairly decent chance of having his or her journey curtailed by a niggling electrical fault, a fuel issue or one of any number of maddening reliability gremlins, all of which rather served to undermine the aforementioned values set down by Mr Lyons himself.

The one-off front grille treatment has transformed the overall appearance of the Jaguar

The desire to build a modern take on this, one of the most striking of all Jaguars, was at the forefront of our minds when the opportunity to build a custom XJC arose some years ago. The brief was simple enough, even if that task itself was anything but, namely to create a one-off XJC to the exact specification of the customer. A car capable of wafting its owner across great distances on a regular basis, in comfort, at speed and in a faultlessly reliable manner. This is how we set about it.

Those who’ve followed the kind of work we do at Retropower will no doubt be aware that every one of our projects begins with a complete strip down and careful assessment, followed by a media blasting session. This means that we can pinpoint any and all areas of concern hidden on the shell, effectively allowing to guarantee we’re working from a clean, rot free slate. It was a good thing we did, as though we’ve certainly encountered less structurally sound cars over the course of the last decade or so, this particular XJC was nevertheless hiding a some metal-related sins, with the base of the B-pillars and rear arches all showing signs of decay – though you could argue that that’s part and parcel of restoring a big Jag from this era.

Rarely has a pillarless coupe looked as good, hence why we kept its chrome surround

A solid session of metalwork and custom fabrication soon followed, a way of addressing all areas of bodywork concern while also applying the custom touches that have become something of a Retropower hallmark. It was then that the owner came back to us with a fresh set of bodywork requests, a result of having seen the custom work carried out by the likes of David Brown Automotive. This lead to a renewed programme of bodywork alterations, including the enlarged rear wheel arches, smoothed rear valance, deleted vinyl roof and bespoke bumpers, the latter created by cutting and slimming down the side sections and ‘end-caps’ from other, OEM Jaguar bumpers.

Another big altercation, albeit a suitably subtle one, is the custom front grille. Part of a general de-chroming process (with the thin outlines around the glass area left in place, naturally), we instead made bespoke upper and lower grilles, the former being the most challenging. It was scratch built and took roughly a week to complete, the outer bezel constructed from solid steel bar, heated and carefully bent into shape, then TIG welded. The grille itself is also inset in design, a marked contrast to the ‘wrap around’ offering favoured by Jaguar at the time.

The devil really is in the detail when it comes to a build like this

The colour? That’s actually a nod to Jaguar’s most iconic car of all, the E-Type – Opalescent Gunmetal Grey, selected for its ability to complement the interior leather.

The need to cover the ‘grace’ and ‘space’ aspects of the Jaguar DNA lead to a completely revised interior, one dominated by swathes of tobacco coloured leather and dark wood effect, hydro-dipped aluminium. The latter forms the centre console, with custom switchgear replacing the BL ‘parts bin specials’ fitted by Jaguar and an array of aero-look clocks and gauges. The seats are also largely of our own design and were intended to offer the best of both worlds; deep, padded comfort for long distance cruising, stiffened bolster support for those times when a chap just can’t resist opening up the taps and giving it the proverbial beans.

Heritage really does matter when it comes to building a car of this kind, hence why a smattering of factory fitted hardware remains in situ, including the original XJC shifter, albeit re-engineered to work with the car’s 4-speed GM automatic transmission. It’s a similar story with the steering wheel, a Motorlita E-Type offering that’s been re-worked and fitted with wider, fatter rim, one more in keeping with the mid ’70s XJC. The starter button? That’s actually from a Supermarine Spitfire. Tally ho indeed.

It's a tight squeeze, true, but there's no denying that the GM LS3 looks right at home in the front of the Jag

As for ‘pace,’ well there were any number of engines in the frame, including the original V12. The customer was at pains to point out that he wanted the completed car to be both power and reliable however, which is why we collectively opted to go down the GM LS3 route. It really isn’t hard to see why ‘crate engines’ of this kind are so popular on either side of the pond; they’re powerful, available new, can be tuned to high heaven and are incredibly reliable, all valuable traits in a car destined to spend as much time blatting through Europe as it is the UK show scene. The one now housed in the XJC makes a cool, unstressed 430bhp, a figure aided by the use of an Omex ECU and wiring loom.

Jaguar’s OEM fuel system for the XJC consists of a pair of separate tanks with separate control systems in the cabin, a setup we’ve since revised; both tanks have been retained but are now linked, one located in the wheel well alongside a Holley lift pump. The main pump, a Bosch 044, is more than up to the task, while said wheel well has been modified to also house a space saver while still being able to be covered by the factory carpet.

Lashings of leather, a 'less is more' style and a commitment to comfort; peak Jag, basically

Other aspects of the big Jag’s spec have been carried over more or less intact, the front suspension (with Eibach lowering springs, SuperPro bushes and Bilstein dampers) but one example, though they have been paired with more capable Fossway Performance six-pot calipers and vented and grooved discs. The rear end is also pure Jaguar albeit from a more recent mode, the mid ’90s XJS. The entire rear subframe has been bolted to the XJC, meaning it now sports an LSD, wheel speed sensors, vented discs and better suspension, at a stroke improving the overall handling ability of this big cat.

There’s been a huge amount of change wrought over the course of this particular project, but one aspect has stayed largely the same throughout, the wheels. The owner suggested at the very beginning that he thought a set of American Racing VN500s would suit the car, and though we discussed the possibility of swapping them for something else several times, they just couldn’t be topped, particularly in the staggered 8x17in and 9x17in fitment shown.

As with many of our most popular projects, this XJC is one which really does reward those who take the time to stop and really draw it all in. Many of the subtler touches, the grilles, bumpers and the manner in which the re-worked powered windows operate, these details aren’t likely to be noticed by those not themselves involved in the classic Jag fraternity, making it all the more pleasing when they are commented upon. The result of all this custom work is a project which must rank among the most effective in the history of Retropower, a sure fire crowd pleaser and (in our humble opinion of course), the ultimate tribute to one of the most charismatic cars ever signed off by the design legends at Browns Lane.