MOTORING / Withnail, the cat from Coventry and I: Me & My Motor: Richard E Grant made his screen name in a Mark 2 Jag; now he has his own XJS. Matthew Gwyther goes for a gentle spin

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The Independent Culture
IT COMES as little initial surprise that Richard E Grant's personal road transport is a Jaguar. His first occasion behind the wheel of a cat from Coventry came in the film that made his name - Withnail & I. Fans of the homage to 1969, in which Grant played a waspish out-of-work actor who lived on red wine and Mandrax, will recall the car - 405 SBH, a distressed Mark 2 with one front headlamp missing. At the climax of the film, Withnail is arrested weaving to and fro across all three lanes of the M1 with half a case of his uncle's finest claret inside him. He tries to avoid prosecution by offering a sample of someone else's alcohol-free urine which he kept in a Squeezy bottle hidden in his greatcoat.

The real Richard E Grant is no Withnail. A teetotaller not given to flights of fancy, he was unconvinced when Withnail's director suggested he buy a Jaguar like the one in the film. Grant kept his cash under the mattress and soldiered on with his ailing MGB. But success in Withnail led to more lucrative roles: 'I had a sudden flush of money, which I'd never experienced before' - so he decided he would buy a Jaguar, but something a little more modern.

It was then that the luvvies grapevine came into play: 'Denis Lawson said Simon Ward's brother was a car dealer in Epsom, and I asked him to get me a black Jaguar XJS that wasn't brand new.' A new model would have been both pricey and ostentatious, the current cost being around pounds 42,000. Instead he bought a C-reg V12 with no sign of dents, rust or cigarette burns on the shag pile.

Despite being introduced back in 1975 as a replacement for the 1961 E-Type, the XJS still looks very classy. It almost died a death in the early 1980s, but a revamping brought the super-heavyweight back from the canvas. The XJS's rear with its 'flying buttresses' was not one of the most handsome pieces of design ever accomplished in Coventry, but the nose looks as if it means business and gives the car a definite presence - the whole thing is almost 16ft long.

The V12 power unit is extremely complex and has been known to make hardened mechanics blench when opening the bonnet. It is thought best to leave it to Jaguar experts, and a service has cost Grant anything between pounds 200 and pounds 500 a time. The C-reg was clearly a popular vintage: Robert Kilroy-Silk had an XJS from that year, as did Michael Aspel. Unlike the Mark 2 driven by both Withnail and Morse, the XJS never got a reputation for use in bank jobs, presumably because there was insufficient room for the lookout in the back.

Out on the dual carriageways of the south-west London suburbs, Grant gives his XJS a very gentle time, cautiously gliding and purring around, taking his daughter to school, constantly adjusting the air conditioner and keeping a good look-out in his mirrors. He is laid-back enough in his bomber jacket, however, to drive one-handed. Cruising along at 70mph in virtual silence is the mode in which the XJS excels. 'I love driving up to somewhere like Scotland in it,' he says. 'It's quite relaxing.'

Nevertheless, he seems riddled with guilt about his fancy wheels, despite the fact that they are now worth no more than the average motorway-pounding rep's Sierra or Cavalier. 'It's a very selfish car. Hardly anyone can sit in the back, because the seats are so small. My daughter is four, and she just about fits. And it uses a ridiculous amount of gas,' he complains.

The XJS will win few awards from Friends of the Earth. Grant reckons to get about 18mpg out of its 12 cylinders, which might just be possible if he always drove as if he were milking a mouse. If he were in a hurry, that figure would drop right back. The well-above-average condition of Grant's gas guzzler is not surprising, as it has only 40,000 miles on the clock. Had Grant been tampering with the dial on the quiet, in between spells in Hollywood? 'No] For 10 months a year it just sits in the garage. I thought about selling it a couple of years ago, but somebody told me I'd only get about pounds 500 for it because it eats so much gas. I'm just relieved they're still making it. Otherwise it might look as if I was driving around in an old heap.' (In fact, Grant could probably raise around pounds 5,000 if he decided to sell the black beast on a day when the sun was out, but the current market is not promising.)

A Jaguar V12 is the kind of car that, when driven by an actor, makes insurers especially jittery: Grant parts with pounds 1,600 a year in premiums despite an unblemished record. At the moment, he is investigating ways of getting that figure down - in between nightly assignations with Maggie Smith at the Aldwych theatre, where the two are appearing in The Importance of Being Earnest. His licence is clean largely because, when you're busy in Los Angeles being directed by Robert Altman in The Player, Francis Ford Coppola in Dracula and Martin Scorsese in Age of Innocence, acting with Steve Martin in LA Story and struggling to keep your head while those around you lose theirs in Hudson Hawk, you do not have much time to cruise around the streets of East Twickenham.

When in Hollywood, Grant is well provided for automotively. He will be 'stretched' from the airport and given a hire car as part of his contract. 'I normally settle for a red convertible with an electric top, as it's inevitably sunny every day in LA. For pounds 50 a day you can get a really good whack of motor underneath you - not some Datsun Matchbox like over here,' he says. Bruce Robinson, who directed Withnail, has tried to persuade Grant to settle in Hollywood, so far without success. 'He keeps berating me for not coming out and getting a house and a Thunderbird. He crashed his.'

In fact, Grant has chosen not Hollywood but Provence as a place to put down secondary roots. He has bought a 16th-century farmhouse north-east of Nice, and can be seen during the summer months putting some miles on his mini tractor and grass cutter. He actually learnt to drive in his home country of Swaziland - you can still detect the merest hint of something Botha-esque in his voice, as we coast down the inside lane of the M3. 'The taciturn Sheriff of Swaziland gave me my driving test,' Grant remembers wryly, 'and he was in a very bad mood that day. His opening words were to the effect that, if I could knock somebody over, he'd give me my licence - and so be able to go and have his lunch. The highway code in Swaziland says things like 'Drive carefully and beware of cows at night'.'

Grant's first car was an 18th-birthday present from his father: 'a Dodge Colt, a sort of small hatchback which I got a dozen friends into once. I used it to drive the 1,200 miles to Cape Town University. That was 24 hours of solid driving, after which I'd start hallucinating. At that time the Ford Capri was the height of chic, incredibly glamorous. But the son of the American Ambassador to Swaziland was the last word in sophistication - he had a Mustang Convertible, and he got his licence at 16.'

After a mild 30-mile run during which the car hardly breaks sweat in its consumption of two gallons, Grant seems to have decided he likes his XJS after all. 'It's very strong; I love driving in it. It's as comfortable as a vulva, so what can one say?' I looked across to check he hadn't meant Volvo - he had not. It was an interesting variation on the psychological theme of high-performance car qua phallus.-

(Photographs omitted)