Birthday celebrations usually mean a few things – cake, candles and parties, to name but a few. But for Jaguar, a birthday celebration means taking a convertible F-Type sports car and transforming it into a fully-fledged rally car, in tribute to the XK120 which raced off-road 70 years ago last year.
And what a present to itself. Jaguar has taken its four-cylinder F-Type and thrown all manner of rally-grade kit at it. There’s an FIA specification roll cage, uprated brakes and race seats with six-point harnesses; then you’ve got a full fire extinguisher system and a hard-to-miss bonnet-mounted light pod sitting proud up front. It looks the part, that’s for sure, and when pictures of it emerged at the back end of last year, the motoring press wondered if they’d ever get a chance behind the wheel.
Thankfully, this wasn’t a show pony destined to be retired after the news story landed – we’ve actually been out to drive the F-Type rally car.
Slide into the cabin past the tubular roll cage (Jag had to cut out the F-Type’s usual roll hoops to fit it) and you find yourself sat in a familiar space. The F-Type’s regular steering wheel is right in front of you – even its heating function still works – and though the central display is flashing busily away at you (all of the car’s systems, including ABS and traction control have been disengaged) it all feels pretty standard. Save for the large carbon-fibre lever to the left of you, that is – it’s the rally car’s new fully mechanical handbrake.
There’s no roof, and there’s no option to put one up, either. Jag chucked the roof system in the bin to save weight, so if it rains, you get wet. And if there’s mud, you get muddy. Simple. Jaguar also fitted the mechanical limited-slip differential from the V6 powered road car for added traction, too.
Though it’s never been in competition, and it’ll never likely feature in one, it feels every bit the fully-fledged rally car on start-up. Jaguar cut the centre box out of the exhaust, and it means that even on idle it barks and chatters like a rally car should.
The gearshift is standard F-Type, and it’ll even shift in full automatic mode – though realistically it’s best used in manual selection.
Immediately there’s less response from the steering compared to the road car, and you can blame this on the increased ride height (up some 40mm) and the 16-inch gravel-specification wheels wearing chunky 255/55 Maxsport tyres. So while initially it feels a touch floaty, you learn to deal with the way the wheel works, and use the 296bhp available to swing you around the corners.
Because it’s so adjustable, it’s something you’ll keep doing, too. Tip it in to a corner, feed in the power and the back end will step out pretty much instantaneously. It’s not a snap movement; the power delivery is predictable and the steering, though lighter than usual, is quick enough to counteract it without too much fuss.
As a result of the ABS being disconnected, it’s easy to lock up the wheels under braking, and when accelerating hard again, those rear wheels will happily light up through first, second and third gears. Gearshifts are ultra-quick, too.
A key sensation you have when driving it is just how much communication there is. You’re strapped into the car, with the gravel and dirt rushing up underneath you, so you get a great impression of the surface you’re travelling on. The high-quality damping does a great job of evening out much of the bumps, too. However, the biggest thing you have to overcome is dropping down steep bankings and sliding through ruts in a F-Type; it’s a car you’re so used to treating carefully on the road that being this brutal with it feels a touch unnatural – initially, at least.
You can try and drive it neatly, but most of the time it’s happiest going sideways. And as a project built for fun and not angled towards serious competition, this feels like the best thing for it to be doing. We gave the carbon-fibre handbrake a go – more because you can’t not try out a carbon-fibre handbrake – and it helps when navigating tighter hairpins, but realistically the F-Type is so eager to rotate that it isn’t needed most of the time.
As far as birthday presents go, the F-Type rally car is right up there. It may not be a serious affair, but in terms of offering sheer enjoyment and fun, it’s hard to beat. We just wish they’d made more than two – and stuck a number plate on the front and back.