Of all the modifications one can make to a vehicle, an engine swap is the most interesting because it is the most radically transformative. It’s akin to a heart transplant, except all too often the procedure is carried out by a mad scientist rather than by a skilled surgeon.
Results vary from hilarious to dangerous to certifiably insane. Fortunately, my first experience with a vehicle that had an engine swap done was none of those things, because Marc Lasky’s LS1 powered 1976 Jaguar XJ Coupe a perfect example of an engine swap done right.
While there are many popular candidates on the market, General Motors’ LS1—a V8 used in a ton of cars and trucks—is held in particularly high regard because it is affordable, reliable, and can be set up in nearly any vehicle. The LS1 has been shoehorned into Subaru Imprezas, Volvo wagons, and Volkswagen Golfs, but while those are all entertaining, they’re not cars that possess the aesthetic that’s well suited to a naturally aspirated V8.
An XJ Coupe, on the other hand... now that’s a car begging for eight cylinders and a throaty exhaust note.
On its own it’s a hell of a car to lay eyes on. But until I got behind the wheel of one, I didn’t realize that they are as rare as they are attractive. Just 9,378 examples of the pillar-less hardtop beauties were built between 1975 and 1978, 6,505 powered by a 4.2-litre inline-six, and 1,873 by a 5.3-litre V12.
The XJ sedan, on the other hand, enjoyed a global production run from 1968 to 1992, and remain far more common than their British build quality should have allowed.
If one was to consider hot-rodding one of these classic Jaguars, as one naturally should, then it would stand to reason that the plentiful sedan platform would be the way to go. However, why should anyone, let alone a longtime enthusiast with his own paint and body shop let a little thing like reason get in the way of a good time? If you trust your skills, do the majority of the work yourself, then any concerns about ruining a rare vehicle can be put to rest.
If Marc was your average reasonable individual, then I would not have found myself behind the wheel of an XJ Coupe with a 365 horsepower Chevrolet LS1 stuffed under the bonnet. nor would the car be wearing gorgeous Porsche “Lapis Blue” paint.
The car was originally white, which is a fine color for an XJ Coupe, but this blue shade makes it look so deep and rich, almost like you could dive into it. The first time I saw the car it was still sitting in Marc’s paint bay, having just had it’s final coat put on a few days prior.
It struck me as one of the most beautiful cars I had ever seen and that was in harsh fluorescent light. Now having seen it out in broad daylight, I can say that it is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous vehicles I’ve had the good fortune to shoot, drive, and experience.
When Marc bought this XJ Coupe three years ago it had 33,000 original miles on it, but just about everything needed attention, you know, because 1970s British automobile.
Over 1,000 man hours went into building the car you see here, the majority of which were put in by Marc himself. Only the instillation of the supple, full Connally leather interior and alcantara headliner, Elm Burlwood dash, and Wilton Well carpeting were outsourced.
The moment I slid into the driver’s seat, all these touches came together to welcome me. With one arm resting on the pillar-less sill and one hand on the thin rimmed classic Nardi steering wheel, I studied the rest of the cabin while the morning fog receded.
Burlwood trim in a mid-aughts GM vehicle is inexcusable, but in an old Jaguar, it’s perfect. A little bit corny, a little bit classy, but it fits this car to a T. Same goes for the alcantara headliner that I kept running my hand over throughout the entire morning.
As we cruised along the Pacific with all the windows down, salty fresh air swirled around the cabin and I was moved to the point of exclaiming “this is why pillar-less coupes are the shit!”
I know, such a profound thought. In my defense, this being my first time at the helm of one of these beautiful cars I was hardly in the state of mind to make astute observations and contain my emotions. I did my best to think critically, but when I turned up one of my favorite sweeping canyon roads, any chance of that was toast.
With normal pressure from your right foot, you’d never know you were at the helm of such a rowdy vehicle, but be more liberal with the throttle and you’ll get a quick reminder. Once I went full Bill Maher on the skinny pedal I found a whole new connection with the car. Sure, it’s happy to cruise along and you’ll be perfectly comfortable doing so thanks to a 1995 Jaguar XJS 355 posi rear end and a Series III XJ subframe, but it really wants to be turned loose.
When I decided to get after it, I was genuinely shocked by how much the car tightened up. It’s by no means a canyon carver, but through the meandering curves on my preferred section of Mulholland Drive it displayed more prowess than I would have previously thought possible.
That being said, the rear end will break loose quite easily, as Marc was kind enough to demonstrate for me early on. If this was my car I’d have a hell of a hard time not tossing the ass out anytime I was making a turn from a dead stop.
With a much lighter V8 taking the place of the original iron lump inline-six, the car was doing it’s best soft-roader impression, so Marc fitted King Springs to lower the car four inches up front and two inches in the rear, giving it a perfect stance. It’s one of those rare cars that you can feel how good it looks going down the road when you’re in it. Six Bilstein shocks (four in the back) round out the suspension upgrades and not having had the chance to drive a stock XJ Coupe I can only venture a guess to just how large an improvement it is.
The quick and direct steering pairs up with the suspension to make a surprisingly nimble car, yet it doesn’t remotely ride harsh on the god awful surface streets around Los Angeles.
That’s always one of my biggest concerns when driving or riding in a classic car out here, so it was a huge bonus to not hear shit rattling or have my teeth chatter when rolling over asphalt that’s been around since the Raiders were in LA.
How any classic car rides around town is important, lord knows you’ll be sitting in some concours traffic at some point, but what really matters is what it sounds like when you round a corner and some open asphalt presents itself. In Marc’s XJ Coupe you can bury the gas pedal in order to treat yourself (and everyone in your general vicinity) to a bass heavy symphony that varies in tone. The sound is actually quite unique and completely fits the vibe of the car, more of a throaty growl that escalates to a trembling yell than the rasp that so many custom exhausts end up with.
This can be attributed to Marc’s use of LS3 manifolds and a custom 2 1/4-inch exhaust running all the way to the back. At idle and when cruising, all you get it a nice THRUMMMMM, but give the throttle a stab and it’ll command attention for miles around.
That anyone wouldn’t approve of this car had not occurred to me until he said that, but it made sense, and more so when I learned about the low production figures.
Engine swaps, especially LS swaps, can quickly become a cautionary tale. Many builders tend to go the route of dropping an engine in, hooking it up and calling it a day. Marc’s XJ Coupe is carefully considered, right down to the thick floor mats that have the Union Jack embroidered in the corners.
When I noted this detail Marc chuckled and said “Yeah, I like to have them down there to step on, because many Brits would consider sticking an American V8 in this thing equally disgraceful.”
It’s easy to picture Marc’s XJ showing up in a Guy Ritchie film driven by Tom Hardy, Idris Elba or Thandie Newton. Out of the box it’s a car packed with character and dripping with style, and adding this motor only cranks up the lust factor.
If you don’t already have a tab open looking for Jags to do an LS swap with, check a mirror for your reflection, because you might be a soulless creature of the night.
Andrew Maness is a creative type who is especially good with words, photography, and video. Not much of a painter though. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Instagram @theroadlessdriven