How to turn a pair of big Jags into true sport sedans

Photography by Tim Suddard

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the November 2008 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

The big Jaguar coupes of the 1970s and ’80s are many things: beautiful, well appointed, luxurious and torquey, to name a few. Many came with massive V12s and, unlike economy subcompacts, their sheet metal has more in common with a bank vault than a beer can. Unfortunately, all the things that make them solid also make them massive. Big Jags are far from light and nimble—at least, not as delivered from the factory.

Dean Cusano has never been afraid to tinker with Jaguars. As the co-owner of Motorcars, Inc., in Plainville, Connecticut, he got his first big cat at the age of 22 while working in his dad’s shop, a place that specialized in high-end electrical troubleshooting. He started out with a 1981 Jaguar XJS, and before long he was swapping Chevy small block V8s into the big coupes.

Now, 27 years later, he’s still a Jag fan, but his methods for extracting more speed have grown a lot more sophisticated through the years. He now likes to stick to OEM parts whenever possible, and he’s learned that V8 power isn’t the only way to soup up a cat.

Dean now owns a pair of unusual black XJ-series coupes. They’re rare examples, true, but the thing that’s particularly unusual about these two big felines is how much time they spend at the track and under the scrutiny of stopwatches.

Classic Coupe

Dean has a long history with this 1976 Jaguar XJ6C coupe, one of only about 1600 such cars ever built. In fact, he has owned it on two separate occasions.

Dean’s friend Paul Petty, who had gained some fame in the Jaguar community for buying a genuine D-type for just $1500 in the early 1970s, had picked up the XJ6C and was refurbishing the car while adding an E-type engine. Sadly, Paul died in a farming accident, and the project was never completed.

Around 1999, one of Dean’s customers spoke of an unusual stick-shift XJ6C coupe. As the customer described the details of this found treasure, Dean correctly deduced that this was, in fact, Paul’s old XJ6C. Dean jumped at the opportunity to own his lost friend’s old car. In 2002 Dean finished the build and started campaigning the cat at track days and JCNA slalom events.

“We started racing it and did a lot of slalom,” recalls Dean. “We ran Bridgehampton before it closed. We never made it into a race car where it couldn’t be turned back into a street car.” 

After a few years of fun, another customer presented a strong offer and Dean decided to sell the XJ6C. “He only put 1600 miles on it, didn’t really do much with it,” says Dean of the temporary owner. “He loved it and took it to a few shows.” 

Dean made the owner swear to give him a heads-up if he ever decided to sell it; sure enough, after five years, Dean was buying the XJ6C once again. “Four days after I got it from him we took it to a slalom.”

With an iron E-type engine under the hood and a heavier overall body construction, this XJ6C coupe is no lightweight. Dean is happy with his decision to switch the car to carburetors, and though he has removed some weight from the car, he’s not going crazy with this one. For Dean, the XJ6C is more about the total package.

“Sometimes you put all the parts in the right place, and you stand back 20 feet and just say, ‘Wow,’” he muses. These days, Dean’s nephew, Joe Cusano III, is sharing the driving duties at track days and JCNA Slalom events.

Crazy Coupe

While they might look similar at first glance, Dean’s 1985 XJS is the real track star. Unlike most U.S.-spec XJS coupes, this one came equipped with an all-aluminum, 3.6-liter AJ6 six-cylinder and a five-speed manual transmission. This combination wasn’t even supposed to come to our market, though as many as 600 were imported using a loophole in the rules.

“You couldn’t make it through emissions,” explains Dean, “but you could get a one-time exemption. The prior owner did that.”

Dean prepared the car for JCNA Slalom competition, and it debuted in 2005 in the stock class. Dean won the national title for the category that year, so he moved it to Street Prepared in 2006—where he took another national title. He installed Hoosier racing slicks, jumped into the heavily modified class for 2007 and was rewarded with his third consecutive title.

“My theory in racing is the simpler you can make it, the better—and lighter is always better,” he says. Case in point: Dean’s XJS started out at nearly 4000 pounds, but a lot of work, some reengineering and the old-fashioned technique of removing unneeded components has shed a staggering 940 pounds from the Jag’s bottom line.

“I went to a Lotus meet and they looked at me like I was driving a school bus. I beat a lot of ’em. I had machine shops fabricate lots of stuff out of aluminum,” Dean explains. “I’m gonna probably do some Lexan rear windows.”

Dean says that the lightweight XJS feels like a Corvette, as the Jaguar is tight and flat, even at full attack. To improve the power-to-weight ratio even more, a 3.6-liter cylinder head was merged with a 4-liter bottom end to yield a 10:1 compression ratio. The final tally for this angry kitty is more than 300 horses.

“I don't want it to be a full race car. I want it to be simple,” he says. “It would be too easy to stroke a check for everything, I would rather design my own specialty parts.”

Perfect Pair

Whether he’s dicing for that final tenth at a slalom event or surprising those who brought something a little more common to a track event, Dean and his sleek black Jaguars have plenty of plans for the future.

“I want to keep the Coupe pretty much forever—I’ve known the car for 30 years; it’s got too much heart,” he says. Then he adds, “I’d like to keep the two—they belong together. The whole thing fits.”

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