The birth of the modern Jaguar

Jaguar, by most measures, has achieved a dramatic renaissance in recent years.  New models, new technology, investment in heritage and burgeoning sales.  Hoorah.

Most people chart that recovery back to the mid-noughties XJ and XF, two fine-looking saloons that reinvented what being a Jaguar meant.  Out went the recycling of history, in came fresh, svelte lines, but ones that were clearly Jaguar.

I see the change, however, starting a little earlier.  With the XKR in fact.  Jaguar's late-90s coupe may have made more than a nod to the company's design heritage, in particular the E Type, but it also moved the game on considerably in terms of performance.  Finally, here was a kick-ass, 400 bhp V8 sports car that could take the fight to Mercedes and BMW.

And it did.  The XKR sold well, particularly in the USA where it re-established Jaguar's place in the lucrative sports car market in a way that the venerable XJS never quite managed.  It was well built, pretty reliable and easy to live with.  For once you didn't have to just love Jaguars to want a Jaguar.  Without it, it could be argued that Jaguar wouldn't have had the platform to relaunch with the XJ and XF.

But that's the history.  Great Escape Cars has just added an early XKR convertible to its fleet, which will be exclusively available to drive on its popular road trips and classic taster experiences.  So it seems timely to revisit a car that languishes on the periphery of classic and modern status.

Designing A New Jaguar Sports Car

Jaguar XJ41/42 project

The XK Jaguar had a rather convoluted and protracted birth.  Jaguar began designing a replacement for the XJS in the late 80s (called the XJ41/42) and in fact got very close to launching a stylish, smaller sports car.  The Ford take-over scuppered those plans, the new owner choosing - probably wisely - to focus on improving quality.  So the XJS lumbered on for 8 more years, receiving a facelift and new engines.  This revamp proved so successful that the replacement car was continuously shelved, delayed and rethought.

XJS-based Aston DB7
During this time, or so legend has it, Jaguar design supremo Ian Callum came up with a stunning sports car design - called the XJR XX - that was progressed to clay mock up.  On a tour of the design studio with executives from Ford's new acquisition, Aston Martin, the design caught the eye of Tom Walkinshaw, who ran TWR, Jaguar's racing arm.  He persuaded Ford that this was just the car to rejuvenate Aston Martin, which at that time was trying to convince an unconvinced world to buy the ungainly and slow-selling Virage.

The bold gambit worked and became the XJS-based DB7.  You can read the full story here.

Below is the XJR XX.  See whether you think it became the DB7..

Back to the Drawing Board

Aston's win, of course, was Jaguar's loss.  The firm lost a stunning design and valuable time, meaning the XJS replacement got pushed back again.

The genesis of the XK8 lies in Aston's 'theft' of the original design.  The new design had to be rushed, and also cater to a committee-based commitment to certain ideas and features.  So quite a lot of the design owes something to the XJ41 and 42, which feel a little bland in comparison to the DB7.  Where the DB7 is clearly a fresh and individual design, the XK8 owes a lot to the E Type.  But that committee insisted on a big boot to carry golf clubs - so the rear of the car appears over-long - and work to the XJS floorpan - which exacerbates the short wheelbase, long car dimensions. It's a good looking car, but one that feels a little rushed in the detail.

The preoccupation with heritage extends inside with acres of leather and wood.  The slab-like dashboard echoes the Jaguar Mk2 rather than the E Type.  But it is distinctive, luxurious and very Jaguar.

Launched in 1996, the XK8 was popular, appealing to Jaguar's traditional markets in European and the USA and proving to be worthy successor to the XJS.

The XK Experience

To drive the XK is a revelation.  The XJS floorpan is essentially a cut down XJ6 saloon, so this late 90s car can trace its lineage back three decades to 1968.  But that doesn't matter because the original XJ and XJS offered ride and handling far superior to anything else on the road, even a Rolls Royce.  30 years on, it remained a benchmark.  Even with sportier XKR suspension settings - and the big 20 inch wheels of the Great Escape Car - this is a GT car that rides exceptionally well.  Road undulations are damped very well, but not at the expense of handling.  The XK is set up for cruising rather than ultimate driver feedback, but that just makes it a very relaxing car to drive.

The XKR's party piece, of course, is its supercharged 400 bhp 4 litre V8 engine.  This engine was new to the XK range and Jaguar's first V8.  Unashamedly aimed at the US market, it is nevertheless a superb motor - smooth but with effortless grunt when the supercharger kicks in.  It's quiet too - there's none of the wind noise or exhaust drone of lesser executive expresses.

All of which makes driving a XKR an occasion.  The interior may be more gin and tonic than whisky and soda but it delivers.  Whether it's the acres of wood, the cream leather seats or the endless switches and dials, sitting in this Jaguar feels special.  And because driving it fast is, if you so wish, simply a matter of twirling one finger on the edge of the wood-rimmed wheel, it's relaxing too.  So you can enjoy the ride, rather than hunting for the next apex.

And it is an infinitely better car than the DB7.  The Aston may be one of the most beautiful sports cars of recent times, but it is a pretty dismal driving experience.  Where the XKR is properly engineered, the Aston feels ever inch of its small-volume, low budget roots.  Sit in a XKR and you don't really notice the Ford minor switchgear.  But in the Aston you're confronted by vents and switches and knobs straight out of a Ford Fiesta, nestled between strips of wood that aren't so much designed in as bolted on.  I've been lucky enough to drive DB7s and XKRs back to back.  There's one clear winner, and it's not the Aston.

The Great Escape Cars XKR is quite a special example.  It has a rare factory fitted body kit that, to my eyes, much improves the car's lines.  The four-exit exhaust emits a nice warble and the big fat wheels somehow look right, even when they really shouldn't.

The car joins our exclusive experience fleet.  So it is only available to drive only on our road trips and classic tasters.  This is part of Great Escape Cars' move towards driving experiences rather than daily hire - a trend that reflects the popularity of these packages.

You can find out more about our road trips and tasters on our website at or call 01527 893733.  Mention this article and claim 10% off.


Graham Eason 

Why traditional classic car hire is dead

When I set up Great Escape Cars it was all about a classic car version of conventional car hire. So in place of a Ford Mondeo for 24 hr periods you got a Jaguar E Type or Jensen Interceptor.  Lots of companies started doing this.  And for many years it seemed to work.

Except, quite frankly, it didn't.  There are now far fewer companies offering classic car hire and, as my hairline attests, there is one simple reason.  It is hard and stressful.  Most customers rent a classic car to celebrate a special birthday, a wedding or an anniversary.  And, most of the time, they have a great time.  But some of the time they don't because however well you maintain a classic car and however much money you spend on them, they are old cars with old car woes.  And most of these old cars were never much cop when they were new.

The place where a celebration and an unreliable classic car meet is not necessarily a stress-free environment.

The majority of customers hiring our cars by the day, weekend or week understand this risk, and it is one that we highlight in big bright letters on our website and in our confirmation paperwork.  But some just don't.  They are a small minority but they are angry and often vengeful.  And social media is their breeding ground.

Bad maintenance or just what old cars do?

When old cars break down on hire I entirely understand the upset it causes.  But it is a risk I can't eradicate, no matter how much money I pour into their maintenance.  I have even set up our own classic car workshop to reduce the risk and increase turnaround - we're the only classic car hire business with this facility.

And still we receive emails and reviews criticising us for hiring out poorly maintained cars.  This is particularly galling because it is simply untrue - everyone at Great Escape Cars is focussed on reliability.  But a 50 year old E Type that was poorly designed and built when it was new, will always be a poorly designed and built old car.  

Social Media Be Damned

They are not numerous but the complaints are unpleasant and time-consuming.  And they are all about our daily car hire.  Feedback on our road trips and classic tasters is overwhelmingly positive.  I run this business because I enjoy it - delivering that kind of experience is what gets me up in the morning.

After receiving a three-page complaint accusing my business, amongst other things, of causing dehydration because the customer forgot to take water with them on a hot day, I have decided it is time to do something.

The Cost of Breakdowns

Alongside the emotional cost for customer and supplier, breakdowns are an expensive business for a small business.  We have RAC cover but generally aim to attend with another vehicle.  As the cars can be anywhere, this incurs a heavy penalty in transport and staff costs.  Because we recognise the emotional impact we tend to be generous when it happens, including free hires and refunds.

Very quickly a £200 hire can become a £300 loss in direct costs.

Our Response

Of course, all businesses deal with customers across the emotional spectrum.  We are no different.  But we have a choice.  We don't have to do what isn't worthwhile. And it is sound business sense to limit our exposure to problems and the cost of rectifying them .  So we are.

We could do as other classic car hire businesses have done and simply shut up shop.  But that isn't my way.  I enjoy what I do and I'm proud of what we've achieved.  Why would I give that up?

Luckily Great Escape Cars is in a good position to respond. Because of the problems and risks associated with daily, weekend and weekly hire we have been migrating away from this for a while.  We've introduced new products like our road trips and classic tasters that seem to deliver what customers want more effectively and reduce our risks.

So 2019 is going to be different.  We're taking 60% of our cars off daily car hire and making them only available to drive on our road trips and tasters.  This leaves 9 cars on self drive daily hire, but we may well review that as the year goes on.  Alongside this change we're altering our Terms & Conditions and introducing an insurance policy covering the risk of breakdown.

The problem with classic car hire

But really, the problem with daily classic car hire is about a deeper issue.  Driving a classic car, even one you have dreamed of driving for decades, is all about the first 1-2 hours.  In that time the thrill, enthusiasm and joy are fresh and untainted by familiarity. As most classic car owners will likely attest, a little of a good thing is often enough.

However great or enjoyable the classic car, the reality is that the longer you drive the more you see its foibles and idiosyncrasies.  I own a 2003 Audi RS6, which I adore. But driving it daily kills my enthusiasm because I notice the hard suspension, the noisy exhaust and the wallet-draining fuel economy.

That's why we introduced our road trips and classic tasters.  That these achieve much greater satisfaction levels than our daily hire services indicates it may have been the right choice.

Not everyone feels that way of course, which is why we aren't exiting daily car hire completely.  But feedback from our road trips and tasters - and their huge popularity - suggests many do.

Road trips and tasters

Removing most of our cars from daily car hire means we can improve the proposition on our road trips and tasters and guarantee availability of certain popular cars on our events.  Alongside this we have also added duplicates of our most popular cars - including E Types, Mk2s and XJS'.  This means that we can improve availability, even when we suffer breakdowns, and ensure that everyone on our road trips gets to drive our most popular cars.

I am looking forward to 2019.  I am sorry that the trials and tribulations of daily classic car hire means less choice for customers.  But that is the reality.  We're looking forward to delivering more of the road trips and classic tasters that customers clearly want.


Graham Eason
01527 893733