1978 Jaguar XJ-S 5.4 V12 Manual vs. 1990 Lister Le Mans 7.0 V12

1978 Jaguar XJ-S 5.4 V12 Manual vs. 1990 Lister Le Mans 7.0 V12

The Lister Le Mans is a full-bore evolution of the suave Jaguar XJ-S. But instead of madness on wheels, Ben Barry discovers a bargain alternative to the Ferrari F40. Photography Charlie Mage.


Ultimate XJ-S monster meets sublime original

Scan the stats and you might guess Ferrari F40: 200mph top end, on sale in 1988, shod with 335/35 ZR17 Pirelli P Zero rear boots, yours for around £150,000. You’ve probably guessed the plot twist because, in the year after Ferrari launched the F40, Lister began the hand-assembly of its own idiosyncratic rival, the Lister Le Mans, to which the above facts applied. If not a typical supercar in layout, Lister’s Le Mans absolutely was in terms of both performance and ostentation.

1978 Jaguar XJ-S 5.4 V12 Manual vs. 1990 Lister Le Mans 7.0 V12

Based on a Jaguar XJ-S that’d been stripped to its shell and given the full Frankenstein treatment, the Le Mans produced more power than the F40 (fully 512bhp) and wore identical tyres to harness its staggering performance.

The fact that the original XJ-S rode on 205/70 VR15 rubber and produced 285bhp gives you a taste of just how far-reaching Lister’s revisions really were.

The Lister has always seemed more intimidating than any Ferrari in my mind, so it’s surprising that after ten minutes it has made no attempt to kill me, especially given the outlandish 7.0-litre V12 under the brutish bodywork and the fact that this heavily modified XJ-S was cut about, reassembled and then unleashed on the 1980s by a group of men working from an industrial estate in Leatherhead, Surrey. But those ten minutes are enough to build trust in how supremely well sorted and engineered this monster is — and to appreciate how radically different it feels compared with the standard XJ-S you see here, too.

Both are owned by Martin Lamb, whose affection for the E-type successor dates to schoolboy days in his father’s then-new XJ-S, and a subsequent fascination with Group 44 and TWR racing exploits. When Fast Lane magazine made the Lister its cover star, it seemed to roll the best of both into one ferocious package.

‘It was so expensive at £150k compared with the standard car at £30-35k or so, but I just thought “Oh my God!” It really struck a chord,’ remembers Lamb. ‘Listers were unobtainium when I was a kid, but I always wanted one.’ In 2018 Lamb bought this one-family-owner example from Historics Auctioneers for £88,480 – far more than the £35-50k he’d watched them languishing at for years, but prices have hardened more recently and this car’s exceptional condition and unbelievably low 3345 miles made it a must-buy.

For context and, yes, because I’m a little apprehensive, I head out first in his original XJ-S, a beautiful and rare early model with a four-speed manual transmission. There’s a lovely, fluid rhythm to how this car lollops down a road, almost like it’s rolling its shoulders to a gentler Lionel Richie number. All the control weights and responses have a soporific softness but, as you squeeze and turn and press, there’s no question they’re waking up, it’s just that response builds gently and regally. Despite the XJ-S’s softness, this is not a sloppy car because, when you actually point the notably light steering more definitively into an apex, the nose fires in promptly, and the damping has sufficient control to keep the sudden weight transfer in check, the body on an even keel.

There’s perhaps disappointingly little V12 attitude to the 5.3-litre motor, but it’s a fitting complement for the chassis, with its turbine smoothness and a knack of picking up its heels without really raising its voice. The four-speed manual suits the relaxed driving experience better than expected, too, gears slotting cleanly with a delicate little clink, as though lever and cog are sherry glasses tapped together in a toast. This languid GT compels the impatient to adapt to a more measured pace, though it’s easy to imagine Lister spotting a gap in the market for something far more aggressive.

Lister’s back story is familiar enough: founded by Brian Lister in 1954, the Cambridge-based company made its reputation with the Lister-Jaguar ‘Knobbly’, which gave Jaguar D-types a fight while using the same straight-six engine. An abortive partnership with Rootes Group at Le Mans in 1963 put a premature end to the business, until Warren Pearce brought about a renaissance in the late 1970s. Pearce was friendly with Brian Lister, had developed XK Jaguars and E-types for racing in the decades before, and began offering Lister-branded XJ-S performance and handling upgrades under the WP Automotive name in 1977.

When son Laurence took over in the 1980s, things became progressively more serious with Mk1, Mk2 and Mk3 iterations of the XJ-S assembled at one 10,000m² site in Leatherhead. Clients could choose from a menu of OTT enhancements with prices that still make you suck air through your teeth today, never mind that they’re 30 years out of date and exclude VAT: a five-speed manual gearbox for £4750, bodykit for £6700, exhaust for £1930.

The LeMans rolled all this and more into one package to become a model in its own right, with re-engineering so far-reaching that it even says Lister on the V5, much like Alpina BMWs. Production was officially limited to 50 units, though ultimately only 19 Le Mans coupés were produced, plus three convertibles assembled through to 1992 or ’93, the exact end of production hard to pinpoint.

The brutal body could have been lifted from a lobster tank at a Chinese restaurant. Bespoke metal and glassfibre bodywork bulges around 17in split-rim Compomotives (10in wide at the front, a colossal 13in at the rear), while beady twin headlamps and the extended clam-like bonnet complete the decapodian appearance. Only the doorskins and scuttle panel carry over from the original XJ-S, and new glassfibre bumpers are blended into the bodywork, almost like a Nascar body lowered over a spaceframe chassis. People tend to mix up the LeMans with the Lister Mks1, 2 and 3, but the obvious tell-tales are an entirely new rear window treatment that does away with the polarising flying buttresses, as well as the extended bonnet. Engineering changes were similarly comprehensive, with longitudinal bracing running either side of the new propshaft, strengthened hubs, reinforced mounting points and a new subframe to beef up the rear end. Koni shocks and stiffer springs firm up the suspension and, while the LeMans retained the Jaguar IRS twin coils and shocks layout, the brakes were moved outboard to amore conventional position in the wheels, not inboard as standard – they’re AP Racing four-piston units with 335mm discs at the front, 318mm at the rear.

Jaguar had won Le Mans in 1988 with the XJR-9LM and the Lister appropriately upgraded from 5.3 litres to the same 7.0-litre capacity (Lister wouldn’t go to LeMans with its Storm supercar until ’95) with new forged Cosworth pistons that increased the bore by 4mm, and a new crankshaft that gave a 14mmincrease in stroke. The heads were gas-flowed, camshafts uprated, valves hardened and their diameter increased, while the fuel pressure was ramped up, bigger throttle bodies fitted and the compression ratio raised from 9:1 to 11.2:1.

No wonder the fuel tank increased from 86 to 128 litres! It was enough to increase power from the original’s 285bhp to 512bhp, torque from 294lb ft to 500lb ft, a staggering boost for a naturally aspirated road car, more than enough to overcome the conservative-sounding 1800kg kerb weight, up from the factory 1681kg.

Inside, the bones of the XJ-S architecture are lavished in magnolia and burgundy, with Connolly leather and plush carpets all picked out in contrasting piping, as though Rolls-Royce has gone high-octane. You sit on Recaro seats – presumably the same as found in hot Fords and Vauxhalls of the period – that hold you much more supportively around the middle than those of a standard XJ-S, but also perch taller people a little too high in the cabin. Over your shoulder, rear visibility is improved with the new screen, and the rear seats look noticeably more spacious – incredibly, the rear bench shifts further backwards than standard and the beautifully trimmed boot is half the size. It is a surprisingly and perhaps unnecessarily comprehensive re-working: 2in longer, 4in wider, and German TUV approved!

The V12 settles to a pounding heartbeat of an idle that’s part Spitfire, part classic saloon racer preparing to leave the Goodwood pits. Its anger is unrecognisable after the meek standard 5.3, and it crackles with thunderous response when you blip the throttle. Everything tells you to exercise caution.

Ease up the clutch and the single-plate unit has beefy weighting but remains perfectly benign as you pull away, though the rear differential loads up as you wind on steering lock at low speed, making the rear tyres bind with mechanical punctuations like a watch mechanism. A small trade in refinement, perhaps, but already it suggests this Lister can be throttle-steered very precisely should the tail step out.

If it’s tangible at a crawl, the extra muscle really manifests itself on the road. The steering has far more meaningful weight thanks in part to power-assistance reduced by 40% (the stiffer chassis and chunkier footwear will add weight, too) and, despite a ratio apparently unchanged, it feels more responsive, presumably because there’s far less elasticity between your input and the wheels actually turning.

A firmer chassis syncs perfectly with the heavier steering, feeling sure-footed and planted where the standard car would rock about like a rodeo bull given so much performance, and the brakes are instantly taut, with the stopping power to rush blood to your fingertips – nice to have the ABS should you stab at the pedal in a panic in the wet. Everything feels tightened up and tensed, like a bodybuilder flexing for the cameras.

You could probably second-guess this given the hardcore hardware. The twist is that the Lister is neither overbearingly physical nor grumpily rambunctious. Its V12 is flexible and subdued enough at a canter, and, despite the huge increase in rubber footprint and greater unsprung mass, the chassis deals calmly with tricky cambers and has the compliance to work with the surface rather than fighting against it. You’re in charge of what the Lister’s doing rather than reacting to its deflections, which makes extending the throttle not seem such an apocalyptic endeavour.

That’s to take nothing from the LeMans’ performance, however, because my god this thing remains fearsomely rapid. Still impressively smooth and balanced, it bursts with attitude and bass as it rips through second gear and charges harder for its extended redline while its tyres strain at this thankfully dry surface. Already you’re flying, but dip the clutch, slot that stubby gearlever forwards for third with its positive if far meatier weighting, and suddenly you’re back in the power band, the torque and power coalescing to give this motor an explosive fire in its belly and appetite for revs where the 5.3 runs out of puff. On paper the 6200rpm redline doesn’t seem so high, but the noise and the fury of it all make the delivery feel endless, particularly the final 1500rpm. It’s a real test of nerve to hold out for the full serving in one gear, let alone to keep on upshifting and pinning the throttle.

All this would seem overwhelming if the brakes and chassis weren’t similarly capable, but they give the LeMans the finesse and its driver the confidence to lean on that performance, even on the default British B-road. The fact that the steering also seems amenable to a quick bung of corrective lock, and that it’s so natural to heel-and-toe your way down the ratios, simply add to your feeling of control. Maybe the twin-supercharged option (ordered by around four customers) wasn’t quite the suicidal madness it sounds, though with 604bhp you’d have definitely had something to think about, nevermind in the wet.

I was braced for a pretty brutish drive today, but instead I discovered an XJ-S thoroughly re-engineered beyond all expectations, with not only outlandish speed but a chassis more than able to cope when you press on, and surprising civility when you don’t. Lister’s own brochure summed up the LeMans as ‘a car which provides all the luxury and refinement of a touring car together with the power and handling of a race car’. This is all true, but today we can add that these incredible 200mph machines are available for a fraction of the cost of a Ferrari F40. Once outlandishly expensive, a Lister Le Mans is now something of a high performance bargain.

THANKS TO Dan Stilwell and Jack Bogucki at Belle Vue Motors, www.bellevuemotors.co.uk.

Above Lister Le Mans looks rather like an XJ-S that’s bursting at the seams – which is accurate in pretty much every respect.Clockwise, from far left.

Rear bodywork is completely reconfigured to accommodate adult-sized rear seats; V12 boosted to 7.0 litres and 512bhp; plaque tells all. Above and right Whether you’d call the nose an improvement is uncertain, but from this angle the Lister looks every inch a supercar; interior is recognisable, if rather more plush.


1990 Lister Le Mans

  • Engine 6996cc V12, OHC per bank, fuel injection
  • Max Power 512bhp @ 6200rpm
  • Max Torque 500lb ft @ 3850rpm
  • Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: lower wishbones, fixed-length driveshafts, paired coil springs and telescopic Dampers
  • Brakes Discs
  • Weight 1800kg
  • Top speed 200mph
  • 0-60mph 3.8sec

1978 Jaguar XJ-S

  • Engine 5344cc V12, OHC per bank, fuel injection
  • Max Power 285bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max Torque 294lb ft @ 3500rpm
  • Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
  • Steering Power-assisted rack and pinion
  • Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: lower wishbones, fixed-length driveshafts, paired coil springs and telescopic dampers
  • Brakes Discs, inboard at rear
  • Weight 1681kg
  • Top speed 153mph
  • 0-60mph 6.7sec

Below and right Few cars are more peculiarly distinctive in the rear quarter than the XJ-S, and it’s there that the Lister body changes are most extensive; this XJ-S is a rare manual.

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