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Josh Lewsey: my ultimate road trip in a pair of Jaguar's finest

Josh Lewsey with Jaguars old and new, at Leeds Castle in Kent
Josh Lewsey with Jaguars old and new, at Leeds Castle in Kent Credit: Christopher Pledger

Changing perceptions is one of the most difficult tasks. The more pronounced the perception, the harder it is to change it. There must be complete alignment between the desired brand and the reality of delivery, and, of course, you also need to communicate the message, writes Josh Lewsey

It is on that note, and approaching a personal milestone, that I took a journey from London to Venice to reflect on the last 40 years - both my own, and through the eyes of the Jaguar marque and its transition over that time.

Technically it was late 1975, but for the sake of mainstream availability, 1976 was the year the XJS was born. It was arguably Jaguar’s first modern car and though not classically beautiful it was the follow-on from the deservedly famous E-type and racing heritage of the D-type.

For me the XJS was the car of Sunday mornings, as it ferried us to mini-rugby

For me though, alongside its more rugged and versatile brother the Land Rover, the XJS was the car of Sunday mornings. Like tens of thousands of kids being ferried to mini-rugby, the thought of playing sport with your mates, transported along leafy lanes against the backdrop of autumnal colours, the crisp of a slight frost and the smell of bonfires, provided my happiest childhood memories. 

Setting off: Lewsey's trip began at the RAC Club in London, with a Jaguar XJS for company

It was with these happy memories that I set off from London, pressing the accelerator of the 5.3-litre V12 XJS and began our journey from the RAC Club on London’s Pall Mall. The car is part of Jaguar's heritage fleet, and in excellent condition; I savoured the walnut dashboard, the long bonnet and the leather seats – the height of luxury in their day – and although they are a little dated now, like all classics the car brought a beaming smile to my face as it glided through the garden of England toward the Channel. A grand tourer indeed, with reassuring power.

Old meets new

Not only that, but the XJS is great value at the moment, and exists in an economic climate when classic cars make for solid investments. But how far had the brand come in my 40 years? To find out, I rendezvoused with the most dynamic offering in Jaguar's current line up, an F-type V8 with all-wheel drive.

Leeds Castle in Kent is a great stop-off point on the way to the Channel Tunnel - especially when there's a Jaguar F-type waiting for you Credit: Christopher Pledger
Lewsey stopped at Leeds Castle in Kent to swap the XJS for Jaguar's latest sports car, the F-type Credit: Christopher Pledger

With the top down from Leeds Castle in Kent to Paris, viewing the French capital’s sites at dawn, then onward through to the Alps and the highest road in Europe, mountain tunnels, Lake Garda and on to the Queen of the Adriatic, the car delivered all that you could want a Jaguar to be. Snarlingly impressive, precise, stylishly understated and yet awesomely capable.

At one point it was parked next to three Ferraris and the Italian crowd’s affection for the British car said it all. Building on Ian Callum’s gradual transition of the company’s styling, this is the car to end the former “old man” image (think Athur Daley) and finally return Jaguar to where it once stood. 

Jaguar's XJS Convertible is in excellent condition Credit: Christopher Pledger
The XJS is still a great drive, and the automatic gearbox suits its character Credit: Christopher Pledger

As is the case with most kingdoms or organisations, success always stems from having the right leadership; Jaguar’s lost years came under British Leyland ownership. Caught between its sport cars and motorsport success of the Fifties and Sixties and the desire for exclusivity in the Eighties, only two options became available.

The new “Jag man” was at senior management level but not in the realms of Mercedes, Bentley or Rolls-Royce. This meant that while BMW, Audi and the likes were offering younger options, Jaguar became lost in no man’s land. Now under Tata ownership, both houses of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) appear to world-leading once again and, in otherwise tough economic times, a source of British manufacturing pride. 

Great roads and a brilliant car: Lewsey enjoys the scenery in the F-type V8

The return journey

My time in Venice makes me realise that changing perception seems not to be a challenge for the Belmond group, since both the Hotel Cipriani and the Venice Simplon Orient Express (VSOE), which served as my conveyance to get back home, deliver precisely what one expects; decadence and exquisite appointments.

There are, of course, more functional places to stay and methods of travel, but whether it be taking in the views from the hotel across the water, sipping martinis in black tie, or being ushered to dine aboard the Venice Simplon Orient Express while traversing mountain vineyards, it is a transportation to a bygone era for which there is simply no parallel. 

The F-type is a precision-engineered tool and for me delivers exactly what it sets out to do

James D Sherwood was clearly a luxury travel pioneer, acquiring the Hotel Cipriani in 1976 before commencing the revival of the Orient Express the following year. Blending icons of old world charm, the colonial spirit of adventure and seeking out pioneering locations away from the regular tourist hustle and bustle seems a common theme to his enterprises. I’d therefore like to think he would have approved of this European jaunt which, overlooked by many, provides brilliant diversity, excellent roads and, importantly, the scenery worthy of such a trip.

The XJS, like the Belmond Cipriani and the VSOE, is for lovers of history, or indeed anyone capable of appreciating the essence of elegance that makes them all so special; they were not created for functionality but as an occasion to savour. Such sentiment is increasingly rare and is why sampling them is such a treat.

The modern day is less forgiving, cars are now made for a specific purpose. The F-type is a precision-engineered tool and for me delivers exactly what it sets out to do. No doubt electric versions and other such innovations are already on their way. In doing so, it seems that Jaguar has once again found its sense of purpose. 

There will, of course, always be those who prefer to look to the past. However, success comes not from looking back but looking forward, being willing to challenge and move away from that which has worked in the past. In short, being bold enough to break preconceptions, which is what I believe Jaguar is now doing, to great effect. 

A sporting chance

Similarly, like all those who have left sport, the army or a previous career and had at least a modicum of success (I am fortunate to count the 2003 Rugby World Cup win and 12 trophies with London Wasps), conversations often lead to reminiscing without questioning pre-set perceptions.

Safe and sound in Venice

From my experiences on the rugby field, what got each of those individuals to become champions was not the desire for retrospective adulation and attention, but their pursuit of progression and achievement. 

As for the F-type and what it means to Jaguar, I’d like to think we have more than a little in common. I think I might have to buy one.

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