1987 Jaguar XJ-SC 3.6 Manual Sports Pack

1987 Jaguar XJ-SC 3.6 Manual Sports Pack

The Cabriolet was intended as a stop-gap model but together with the six-cylinder option was responsible for rescuing the XJ-S.




Revisiting the stop-gap model which proves to be something of a hidden gem in the story of Jaguar’s 1980s revival.

The return of the two-seater convertible” was how Autocar excitedly introduced the XJ-S Cabriolet back in October 1983 and it’s this headline more than any of the advertising from the period which reinforces just what a big event the model was for Jaguar. Indeed it was the first open car since the demise of the E-Type and despite the many surviving examples sporting rear seats, the Cabriolet was officially sold only as a two-seater.

1987 Jaguar XJ-S 3.6 Cabriolet Manual Sports Pack

Ironically, major news though it was for Jaguar’s marketing strategy and its dealers – especially in the crucial North American market – the Cabriolet was intended only as a temporary stop-gap addition to the range, which explains its design and production.

The accepted version of events is that Jaguar’s US-market dealers were clamouring for an open car, yet the automotive industry in general had been fearful of potential legislation outlawing convertibles in the US market – one famous product of this thinking being the Triumph Stag with its Targa-style rollover hoop.

1987 Jaguar XJ-S 3.6 Cabriolet Manual Sports Pack

It was this thinking back in the 1970s which had been instrumental in the XJ-S being engineered only as a steel-topped coupe and clearly the engineering to create a full convertible was an immense task. The solution was to test the market with a less ambitious product, which went by the name Cabriolet. Amusingly, Sir John Egan relates in his autobiography, “It was a little unusual, which was why we called it a cabriolet, although we weren’t quite sure what that meant.” Legend has it that the Cabriolet was developed by a ‘Saturday club’ encouraged by then engineering chief Jim Randle and working out of hours to develop a lowbudget solution both to the problem of bodyshell rigidity in an open XJ-S and also to work out how such a model could be integrated into existing production facilities. The first question was easily answered: by keeping the side window structure with the body side framing, the bodyshell’s rigidity was little changed from the coupe and needed only a Stag-style T-bar rollover hoop and a cross-bracing arrangement underneath the car. Crucially, neither of these required engineering changes to the body-in-white, meaning the Cabriolet could be manufactured as a conversion of a standard shell.

1987 Jaguar XJ-S 3.6 Cabriolet Manual Sports Pack

This in turn solved the second problem – that of how to integrate production of the open car into the existing manufacturing systems. That doesn’t mean the process was simple though and in fact it was a convoluted business. Each Cabriolet began as a standard XJ-S bodyshell taken from the Browns Lane track although without the roof skin panel. The shells were transported by road to Park Sheet Metal in Exhall, Coventry where the rear quarters were reshaped to lose the ‘flying buttress’ sail panels before the roll hoop and strengthening measures were added. The modified shell was then returned not to Browns Lane but to Castle Bromwich for painting, before going on another road trip around Coventry, this time to Aston Martin’s Tickford operation in Bedworth where the targa panels and folding rear roof section were added. Finally, the completed car returned to its birthplace at Browns Lane for final assembly and pre-delivery inspections which meant that each Cabriolet had covered 50miles by truck before it even hit the road.

1987 Jaguar XJ-S 3.6 Cabriolet Manual Sports Pack

The finished product was badged as XJ-SC and although perhaps not as stylish as the later full convertible, was well received. It was also a very practical proposition, the more so for being offered only in six-cylinder form, a decision which was something of a master stroke and later paid commercial dividends.

The story – backed up by Egan himself – is that Jaguar was well aware that most car makers launch either an all-new model range or an all-new engine, but seldom both together. In the case of Jaguar, the all-new XJ40 would be using the all-new AJ6 engine and it made sense to test the water by offering the new powerplant in a low-volume niche model first. The XJ-S proved ideal for this role and as Egan admits, the early customers were very much guinea pigs for the new engine. Initially, the six-cylinder engine was offered only with a manual gearbox and in three-pedal, open-topped guise the XJ-S was transformed into a very different car indeed. Especially, it must be said, when it was outfitted with the optional Sports Handling Pack. Intended to capitalise on Jaguar’s newfound motorsport success which had included TomWalkinshaw’s victory in the 1984 European Touring Car Driver’s Championship with the XJR8, this sounded on paper like a relatively minor upgrade but combined to produce a car very different in feel.

1987 Jaguar XJ-S 3.6 Cabriolet Manual Sports Pack

The front springs were stiffened by 43 per cent, the rear coils by just three per cent, while the front anti-roll bar was thicker and a rear anti-roll bar was added. Stiffer Boge dampers were added and the steering given firmer rack mounts and revisions providing greater weight at the wheel. Wheels were the oh-so-eighties lattice alloys, wearing 235/60 rubber, with Jaguar specifying the Pirelli P600 from new. On the inside, the car gained sports seats, a thicker-rimmed steering wheel and extended leather covering on doors, armrests and console. It’s one of those Jaguar unicorns we have here: the 3.6 Cabriolet in manual form with the Sports Pack, courtesy of owner Max Hunt.

It’s a measure of the cabriolet’s appeal that Max, although not initially a diehard Jaguar fan, acquired the car back in 2011 as part of a separate business deal but has held on to it ever since. The Cabriolet had been expensively restored before Max acquired it, with the work costing a previous owner some £8000 in the early 2000s and including a replacement roof. Since then, he’s used the XJ-SC regularly and rates it highly. “It’s a great touring car,” he enthuses. “It’s also amazingly economical for what it is; I can easily see 25-30mpg on a long trip.” And there in a nutshell is the appeal of the 3.6 Cabriolet in comparison to the V12 which couldn’t offer the fun of the manual box or anything like the fuel economy. It’s a much more practical beast, especially with the retro-fitted rear seats which Max’s car has and which he reports are ideal for the average Labrador – although said dog’s reaction to the rear roof section suddenly lowering itself with a bang at high-speed during a Northumbrian storm is unrecorded.

1987 Jaguar XJ-SC 3.6 Manual Sports Pack

Other than that, the Cabriolet has been a reliable companion over the dozen years of Max’s ownership, with major failures limited to a failed power steering component. After working up a sweat driving home to Worcestershire from Devon without PAS, Max promptly made the component in the workshop at Shelsley Walsh where he’s a regular part of an enthusiastic band of retired hands-on types busily engaged in restoring and maintaining the site’s 300-year old water mill. If you visit an event at this historic hillclimb venue, try to get a look at what is a fascinating survivor of ancient agricultural engineering.

As for the driving experience, at 1660kg the Cabriolet conversion weighs in at around the same as the coupe, which means performance is broadly on a par, while the Sport Pack gives Max’s car a noticeable edge over the regular car, with a sharper turn-in and a generally more controlled demeanour at speed. Retaining the side window structure makes the Cabriolet far more rigid than the later full convertible with its noticeable scuttle shake and with the roof up, the Cabriolet feels more like the coupe.

The gearbox itself is a Getrag ‘265’ unit as found in BMWs of the period and although road testers back in the day commented that it was a notchy unit, by today’s standards it feels pleasingly hefty and suits the character of the Jaguar nicely. The clutch action is similarly weighty without being intrusive and the manual XJ-SC feels like a car which was engineered with the Getrag box in mind, rather than a hastily conceived addition to the range.

In 1985, the Cabriolet was launched in the US market in V12 form, at which point production was taken in house by Jaguar, although Park Sheet Metal would still do the honours on the bodywork modifications. Even then it was destined to live a short life though, since in 1988 the factory-produced full convertible was introduced. It’s reckoned that just over 5000 Cabriolets were produced and although nice examples are relatively rare today, it remains a much underrated model and also a significant footnote in Jaguar history, since without it the XJ-S would have been consigned to history very much earlier.

Thanks to Shelsley Walsh for the use of the historic hillclimb as a photo location. A favourite venue with all at JW, the course has seen some great Jaguar anniversary events in recent years and for 2023 we’re looking forward to Classic Nostalgia on July 22-23.

A festival of classic motorsport, the event also caters for road and rally cars and as they say “just cool cars from all eras”, all in a garden party setting. Find more details at www.classicnostalgia.co.uk

Early customers were very much guinea pigs for the new engine


Jaguar wouldn’t produce its own full convertible until 1988, but over in North America, Jaguar’s USA importer couldn’t wait that long and from 1986 sold an aftermarket conversion by Ohio-based Hess & Eisenhardt with official approval. A neat conversion which looked very similar to Jaguar’s own convertible, the H&E design used a thinner convertible roof which could be folded into the bodywork when lowered, unlike the thickly padded top of the factory car. Meanwhile, here in the UK well-known Jaguar specialist Lynx developed its Spyder conversion as early as 1980 and it was an impressive job, offering as much interior space as the coupe yet with an electrically operated, fully lined mohair roof and electric rear side windows – very similar in fact to the factory car.

By today’s standards it feels pleasingly hefty

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