Who would think about entering the Dakar Rally with a 1978 4.2L XJ? Dutchman Frans Van Engelen did. He then prepared one and raced it during the 2003 edition. we fasten our harness and finds out it is not quite your average Jaguar.
8th January 2003. Dutchman Frans Van Engelen will never forget this date. As he his fixing the head gasket of his Range Rover-engined Jaguar XJ in the Libyan desert, his satellite phone rings. His wife just gave birth their baby girl, Sterre, four weeks prematurely.
Unfortunately, she suffers serious digestive system malformations. Frans immediately drops his long awaited Dakar Rally adventure, jumping in with both feet into the fatherhood one. Fast forward fifteen years, Sterre is now a wonderful healthy teenage girl and today we are sat behind the wheel of Frans’ Dakar beast!
The whole story behind this XJ6 started 15 years ago. Frans is an experienced mechanic in his native Netherlands, in an Eindhoven-based independent British car garage, and is a keen Dakar Rally enthusiast. As a matter of fact, he first started thinking in 1983 about building a rally spec Jaguar to take all the way to Senegal. After almost 20 years of hearing that competing is outrageously expensive and that there is no way to enter in a Jaguar, Frans decided to give it a go in 2001.
With all the parts he has access to in the workshop and along with quite a few hours of work, he starts considering building a Range Rover/Jaguar hybrid. Soon enough, customers and friends notice his uncommon project, questioning him about what could be the first ever Jaguar entering the “Dakar”. This will give Frans’ long time friend, Arno, CEO of Amtra (Germany’s leading mobile field office manufacturer) the idea to sponsor the project, sensing the media coverage of the car would soon offset its production cost, even if the car does not finish anywhere near the top three. Arno, a piston-head himself, also provides a 290 G-Wagen to act as a support vehicle.
The pecuniary side of thing being taken care of, Frans now only has to concentrate on the actual build, in order to be ready for the rally starts in Marseille, France on 1st January 2003.
Indeed, he will be, soon driving through the Prologue and the following 5300 miles, passing Tunisia and Libya on the way to Egypt, always guided
by ex-military co-pilot, Paulus Van Pauwliet. During the first eight stages, the Jaguar performs flawlessly, at ease in the dunes despite its 1800kg weight. Now, the team holds the 80th place (out of 130 participating cars). However, with the long stages south of Libya comes the heat, leading the Rover engine to suffer (In fact, only 63 cars will make it to the finish line). Keeping an eye on the temperature needle, Frans manages to keep the
V8 cool enough to keep on going.
That is until he has to tow the broken down assistance Mercedes G, at night. Letting up his concentration, Frans is suddenly confronted with a blown head gasket. Not a major issue for such a mechanic. The plan is to fix it early in the morning before heading towards Zilla, Libya, a 365 miles stage and carry on to the Sharm El Sheikh finish line.However, as you know, Frans will not take his pride and joy to Egypt. Family has to come first.
Now that Frans has told us all about this adventure, it is time for us to finally meet the beast.
On closer inspection, oil stains on the ground give away the engine origins. Ditto under the transmission and transfer box! In fact, lots of Solihull mechanical parts lay under the XJ metal body.
Frans started with a Range Rover chassis and axles, the latters being rebuilt and equipped with limited-slip differentials in the process. However, this lot is not simply fitted the way the Rangie left Lode Lane. Since the Range Rover’s 100-inch wheelbase does not meet the 4.2L 1978 XJ’s, Frans has to push the rear axle 14 inches further back. This leads him to custom build a set of trailing arms and a dedicated transmission shaft.
He then adds a Watt’s linkage of his own.
As far as suspension, he contacts Dutch company HT Suspensions that provides him with a complete kit composed of four springs and eight dampers.
Frans then sets his heart on the transmission, completely refurbishing a Range Rover’s 5-speed R380 gearbox and a LT 230 transfer case before fitting them on the chassis.
IT’S A (ODDBALL) V8 MATE!
Now the pièce de resistance, the grunty V8! This isn’t your average 1980s Range Rover powerplant, but a unique V8 only Frans knows all the secrets of. Well, he did spare a few pieces of information about it. The engine is indeed based on a 3.5L Range Rover block, but Frans bored it out in order to fit Jaguar V12 sleeves and, believe it or not, BMW 745 Turbo pistons! Think this is odd? Hold on tight then, as our crazy Dutchman went way further in his Frankensteinesque mechanical madness: on a custom made crankshaft, he fits Citroen BX con rods!
What is this all about? Frans knows he can obtain longer stroke leading to a smoother V8 engine and to a 4.3L capacity. Using good old SU carburettors, he now gets 250bhp.
The build goes on as Frans installs the mandatory equipment such as the roll cage, the various radiators, a custom made dashboard and its electronics; still all by himself. The thirsty V8 would not go far without its 380 litre fuel tanks, located as low as possible behind the bucket seats, while the spare wheels are installed in the boot. They are similar to the other four military specs “Wolf” Defender 130 steel wheels fitted with BF Goodrich Mud tyres in 235/85R16.
To stop such large wheels, Frans opts for ventilated Range Rover discs, but avoids slotted ones, as they do not mix well with sand and gravel. Overall the ‘Jag-Rover’ now weighs close to two tons, which turns out to be quite reasonable for a Rally spec vehicle of this generation.
15 years after its Libyan adventures, the V8 is still ready to rumble, as Frans meticulously takes care of it and regularly runs it. As you step in, the Jag-Rover offers a unique feel, a mix of classic British design and engineering, and of contemporary rally cars. Time to crank the perfectly balanced V8 and to let the fun begin. First gear in, right foot down and off we go. Whoa! This is no standard XJ, of course, but it is certainly not a standard Rangie V8 either. This Jag-Rover is a rocket! And quite an easy one to handle.
The centre of gravity is much lower than the Rangie’s, while the firm suspension set up offers a sharp behaviour to the vehicle. However, steering is quite manly, even if assisted by a Land Rover power-assisted steering box. Grippy off-road tyres are reasonably good on the tarmac and on the gravel road we test it on, however, their tall profile invite you to go easy on tight corners, while their diameter does not help the standard brakes, a bit weak for the impressive V8 power output.
Once you start to manage all this, though, the Jag-Rover is a real pleasure to drive as it keeps on pulling endlessly, thanks to Frans’ engineering magic (and many gallons of fuel!)
Would Frans enter the Rally again with his XJ? Well, bearing in mind that the real “Dakar” died a few of years ago when it left for South America, it is doubtful. However, new Paris-Dakar inspired events are popping up in Morocco and Tunisia. If things go well, within a few years, we could see Frans at the wheel again, co-piloted by the lovely Sterre. That would be a terrific adventure for the Van Engelen, certainly bringing a lot of media interest… Time to ring Arno again Frans!
Engine: modified Range Rover 3.5L V8, bored out to 4.3L, SU carbs Power: 250bhp
Transmission: Range Rover 5 speed R380, LT 230 transfer case Chassis: Modified Range Rover chassis
Axles: Range Rover with Watt’s linkage in rear Suspension: HT Suspensions (Holland) shocks and dampers
Wheels: Heavy Duty “Wolf” type Land Rover Defender 130 steel rim and BF Goodrich Mud Tyres 235/85R16
Body: 1978 Jaguar XJ
Weight: 1800kg – 4000lb
Garage Sterre: Route de Cahors – 47370 Tournon d’Agenais, France
Tel +33 (0)188.8.131.52.96