I was out for a drive in my 1956 Jaguar MK I 2.4 saloon a while back. My purpose: pick up a few provisions at the grocery store in the nearby small town.
This drive started out like many others – not in a hurry, not concerned with when I leave, how long it takes or when I get home. The Jag and I start out slowly, letting the car’s fluids warm up, and we eventually end up hitting a long stretch of road, running the revs up to blow a little carbon out. The added benefit is keeping the bearing seals lubricated, moving the grease around in the various components, and keeping the rings and valves free. It doesn’t hurt that we get to enjoy the appreciating nods, looks and waves from other motorists and pedestrians, as well, who are mostly pleasantly surprised to see this wonderfully sculpted vision from an automobile era long past gliding down the road with a bit of a growl coming from under the long red bonnet that is accented with the famous pouncing Jaguar hood ornament – know to Jag owners as “The Leaper.”
Today, as I pull onto the highway from a traffic light near home, I spot an early 1960’s Jaguar Series I XKE a few cars back in the line. No time to wave as I’m cranking the large, non-power steering wheel onto the road and changing gears at the same time. Vintage Jaguar owners always wave at each other, and occasionally newer Jaguar drivers do, as well, in recognition of their own car’s heritage, if they happen to recognize it.
It didn’t take long for the XKE to move up almost directly behind me, weaving to the side occasionally to take a peek at my Jaguar Mark I in this statistically improbable encounter with another vintage cat on a country highway. There are darned few XKEs on the road today, but there are far fewer of the Mark I, which was only made from late 1955 through 1959. Not many were imported into the United States, and not many of those survived the ravages of rust and bad mechanics over the past 60 years.
As we pulled into town, the cars between the XKE and us started to separate off on side roads, leaving the XKE directly following me into town, a sight that was having an joyful effect on drivers of oncoming cars and pedestrians who were waving, giving a thumbs up or a two-finger victory salute. I wondered how many of them really knew the significance of the automotive history passing them by. Very few, likely. Most were just enjoying the sight of two beautiful old Jags out stretching their legs: my Mark I, with flowing curves emanating from the distinctive oval grill, sweeping back to a single point at the rear, and the XKE, one of the most beautiful and sensuous roadsters ever built. In any case, they were seeing a couple beautiful old Jaguars that brought them a smile and maybe for some, a memory.
When we stopped at the next light, I had the opportunity to put my arm out the window and give my fellow Jaguar driver a hearty salute, and he returned with his own. We both turned at the light and rolled on through town. As I signaled and turned left off the roadway into the grocery store parking lot, the XKE passed on my right, with a toot of the horn, leaving behind the sweet sound of that 3.8 liter Jaguar twin-cam six.
There’s transportation, and there’s transportation. Humanity has been moving across land from one place to another over the centuries, creating roads and trails to move on and vehicles to move with from Point A to Point B. The horse and the wheel facilitated the process over the millennia, and then the invention of the internal combustion engine at the end of the nineteenth century brought individual motorized transportation into practical use.
Though this evolution of travel came about because it provided a more efficient way to travel, it also meant that some would look beyond the basic conveyance and add style, fashion, design, art and excitement. Remnants of horse carts have been found in pre-historic Celtic graves, and the earliest known carriages were the Mesopotamian war chariots dating back to 1900 BC. Even these early wheeled vehicles were the subject of design and decoration, with constant improvements to performance. This culminated at the end of the 19th Century with some very extraordinary carriages that had specific purposes from family outings to sport driving.
Design and performance matter. The Romans bred fast and powerful horses to pull their war wagons, with an eye on a favorable horsepower-to-weight ratio. Just as the Romans tested their horses and chariots in races, it didn’t take long after the introduction of those first few cars before we started racing them. Speed and power were at first in the hands of a few, but as technology developed and became more accessible to everyone, cars became faster, more comfortable and more beautiful, from the two-seater Stutz Bearcat of the early 1900s to the luxurious and very fast Duesenberg Model J and the blazing fast but highly practical Ford V8s of the 1930s. The definitive Jaguars of the early 1930s were first known as SS 1 and SS 2, derived from the original manufacturer name: Swallow Sidecars.
If you couldn’t buy a fast car, you could make one, and the consummate inventor, the American hot rodder, was born. I remember my Dad recounting with obvious pleasure how in the 1930’s he tuned his first Model T with hot magnetos, twin carbs, shaved heads and a high-speed rear end. The Jaguar I’m driving today was my Dad’s car. He was a mechanic and taught me how to turn a wrench. He put me in the driver’s seat of his 1950 Dodge Coronet with Fluid Drive – an automatic with a clutch – when I was 10 years old, and I’ve been driving ever since. He collected cars, favoring Packards, Studebakers, and Hudsons. Just before he passed on, he gave me the Jaguar. I remember his instructions: “There’s no synchro in low gear on this car, Steven, so you’ll need to double clutch. There’s nothing wrong with the transmission, it’s just the nature of the English Moss gearbox.”
I get back into the car with a bag of groceries, turn the steel ignition key cylinder on the dash board and push the chrome starter button. The twin-cam XK six comes to life with a slight snarl, worthy of a car named after a large cat. With a pull of the gear lever back into second gear, I then push it directly into first before starting out. I put my hands on the steering wheel, which still has the leather cover my Dad had sewn on. The “cat” stares back at me from center of the wheel. The only two people who have driven this car in the last 50 years have been my Dad and me.
As I pull onto the street, I double clutch into second, as Dad had recommended in that last phone call. A few people nod and wave as I go by, but my mind is elsewhere. I’m not ready to go home. I’m going to take a drive.
I’m taking the long road home today.
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