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Great British Drives: the Queen Mother's 1973 Jaguar XJ12 around the Cotswolds

ex-Queen Mother 1973 Jaguar XJ12
By Royal appointment: the Jaguar XJ12 ready to roll outside Blenheim Palace Credit: Jessica Saunders

The only feature missing from this Jaguar is a Royal Standard. Rubber grommets have replaced a bonnet flagstaff but there remains a regal air about the 1973 XJ12 I’m steering out of Blenheim Palace.

The car was a replacement for the Queen Mother’s much-loved 1955 Jaguar MkVII. Her new motor was finished in the Royal colour of Claret and uniquely, was fitted with a Vanden Plas interior usually found on the equivalent Daimler.

It’s unlikely the Queen Mother ever sat here, in the front where her chauffeur had control of an enormous steering wheel and eight-track Radiomobile – a rare luxury in those days. Instead, she would have rested her feet on lambs wool carpets and waved to the crowds from a soft-sprung rear seat.

The original XJ was a tremendous success for Jaguar but the XJ12 was the world’s only V12-powered saloon when it was launched in 1972. A rival to Rolls-Royce, the car set new standards of luxury and refinement that suddenly made it suitable for royalty.

The Queen Mother travelled on several visits to Blenheim Palace at Woodstock, near Oxford. According to the visitor book she first signed in on October 28, 1958 and made her last entry on December 14, 1975 – most likely in this XJ12, arriving in time for Ma’am’s G&T.

The splendid setting of Blenheim Palace, home of the Spencer-Churchill family for more than 300 years Credit: Melodie Manners

Her Majesty was friendly with the Spencer-Churchill family, who have now lived on the estate for more than 300 years. One of England’s largest houses, Blenheim was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1987 and is the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill.

When the Queen Mother died in 2002, NLT 7 – now registered TGU 661L - returned from the Royal Household to Jaguar on permanent loan. It is pmpered like royalty by the Jaguar Heritage Trust, although I’m now putting a few miles on the clock around the roads of Oxfordshire.

Having checked the glovebox for any misplaced tiaras, I set off at a leisurely pace to Bladon, nestled on the southern edge of the Blenheim estate. The village is dissected by the busy A4095 to Witney and is ill-prepared for the thousands of tourists who stop here every year.

It’s not the pretty Cotswold stone cottages they come to see but St Martin’s churchyard, where Churchill was buried in 1965. Beside the simple grave is the resting place of his parents, Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill.

Nearby Witney is former prime minister David Cameron’s old constituency, so perhaps it’s no surprise that all roads seem to lead to Waitrose. The historic market town isn’t blessed with good car parks, making the supermarket an obvious place to find a spot large enough to accommodate the Jaguar.

Despite a rash of ventilation controls and dials on the dashboard, the XJ12’s cabin has steadily soaked up all the heat from that enormous engine. One’s driver’s window is also broken, so I’m very happy to step out into the early afternoon Cotswold breeze.

The XJ saloon range was always the intended recipient of Jaguar's smooth new V12 engine, although it first appeared in the Series 3 E-Type sports coupé Credit: Jessica Saunders

Witney is more Miss Marple than This Country. Church Green is a well-tended triangle of lawn and 18th century townhouses that features in most local postcards. Around the periphery, housing estates have slowly surrounded the heart of the town.

I suspect most tourists would head further west on the A40 dual carriageway towards pretty Burford. Instead, I’ve chosen the lesser-travelled B4022, north to Charlbury. This road could have been built for an armchair saloon like the Jaguar, with gentle bends that bypass pretty Ramsden and Finstock along the way.

The latter is home to the thatched Plough Inn, a proper local that is hard to find in the twee’d up Cotswolds these days. Apart from a log fire and bar billiards on a cold winter’s afternoon, there’s an Aunt Sally in the back garden and exceptional fish and chips.

The Buttercross at the heart of Witney dates from 1606 Credit: Robert Convery/Alamy

Jaguar engineers had been hard at work on the design of a V12 engine since the mid-1960s. It launched in the iconic E-Type Series 3 in early 1971 but was always intended for the XJ, turning in a top speed of 146mph.

The grunt of a 5.3-litre engine means that even today, 45 years on, the XJ12 is very capable of keeping up with modern traffic. A Daimler version of the same car revived the old name Double Six, an engine that dated back to 1926.

Untouched by A-roads, Charlbury is a town that seems to have escaped the mass building programme that has afflicted Witney. It’s just off the beaten track, tucked away on a back road to Chipping Norton (or “Chippy” if you’re a local).

Charlbury remains relatively unspoilt by modern development, unlike neighbouring Witney Credit: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

This is just the sort of place you would hope to find an excellent café and the Charlbury Deli doesn’t disappoint. Most of the produce comes from local suppliers and there’s a mean pastrami, swiss cheese and gherkin sandwich on offer. For a more chi-chi atmosphere, the Bull Inn has flamboyant soft furnishings and Farrow & Ball colours.

Chippy, of course, needs little introduction. Among past and present residents are former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks, PR guru Matthew Freud, ex-Blur member and cheesemaker Alex James, the aforementioned Mr Cameron and another motoring writer called Jeremy. The Beckhams live nearby.

The upmarket market town has its fair share of pretty pubs and expensive boutiques, a row of quaint almshouses and the celebrity-fulled promise of Soho Farmhouse on its doorstep. But it isn’t really the sort of place for a royal Jag, so we swallow up some more fuel – 14mpg on a good run – and take the countryside route back to Blenheim.

Charming 'Chippy': Middle Row in the centre of Chipping Norton Credit: Icona/Alamy

The XJ12 is getting a little warm under the bonnet again as we pull up to the palace gates at Woodstock. I’m sure Her Majesty’s chauffeur never complained but it must have been hell during a slow-moving royal parade.

I’ve found a hand-held vanity mirror in the rear door pocket. It is cracked and has faded over time but I can’t help wondering who else has looked into it. At least this unique piece of royal rolling stock is in safe hands for years to come with the Jaguar Heritage Trust.

THE FACTS

1973 Jaguar XJ12 Series 1 Vanden Plas

PRICE NEW £4,052 (new)

PRICE NOW approx £17,000-£25,000

ENGINE 5,343cc V12

POWER 265bhp

TOP SPEED 146mph

ACCELERATION 0-60mph in 7.4sec

FUEL ECONOMY 14mpg

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