The Long Road Home


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.

1962 Jaguar E-Type Series 1 3.8 Roadster

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.

Nineteenth Century Carriage

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.

SS 100 3 ½ Litre Roadster
SS 100 3½ Litre Roadster

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.”

Dashboard of my 1956 Jaguar MK I 2.4 Saloon

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.

Related post: JAG LOVERS

Jaguar Irish Setter

Jag Lovers

This is the name of an Internet group made up of Jaguar enthusiasts from all over the world: Jag Lovers.  By and large, the name is an accurate representation of the membership.  I’m in.  A Jag lover and a Jag Lover.  For over 20 years, I’ve had the Jag pictured – a 1956 Jaguar 2.4 saloon, otherwise known as a Mark I.  It was my father’s car before me.  It’s been in the family now over 50 years.  That is my cherished German Shepherd “Nikki” alongside me, now passed on after 13 years.

I can’t say I really knew my father well.  Not that we didn’t get along.  We did, but more or less by virtue of both coming under the iron fist with which my mother ruled the household.  We could sympathize and, certainly, empathize, with each other.  The oldest born, my mother would berate me: You’re just like your father.  It was not meant as a compliment.

No, we just didn’t know each other very well, in most respects.  We didn’t do the sports, hunting, or fishing thing together.  By the time I was coming into the age when a father would have been handy to have available, to talk about those confusing issues that the early teen years bring to the forefront, he was working two jobs and took about any excuse he could to get away from the house and the wife.  He moved into a space in the basement and came and went with the shadows.  I ran into him in the basement stair well one morning about 4 a.m. I was sneaking in late as he was heading out to work.  He put his finger to his lips beseeching me to keep quiet for fear of awakening the dragon who lay snoring fitfully above.  Some years later, to the great relief of all concerned, my parents divorced, and I didn’t see him for a very long time.

My father loved cars.  He loved the B-24’s that he’d worked on during the war.  He loved clocks and guns and all mechanical mechanisms with machined surfaces and gears and bearings.  But he loved cars most of all.  I guess I learned to love cars from him.  Or maybe it’s in my genetic code.  His best stories, the ones I remember, were about his cars.  His first car – a Model T Ford with a hot magneto, shaved head, and high-speed rear end that would let it approach speeds of over 70 mph.  The time he broke his wrist when he forgot to retard the spark before hand cranking it to start.  His 1932 Model B roadster with the rumble seat, fitted with Ford’s first flathead V8.  His 1938 straight-eight Buick that would top 100 miles an hour.  His 1936 Chevy Master Deluxe with the worn-out knee-action front suspension that made the front end of the car bob up and down as he drove down the road.  His 1949 flathead Ford Coupe that ran for a year with absolutely no oil pressure.  And many more.  His cars were alive to him, each with its own personality and distinguishing traits.

When I was very young – four or five – he had a Ford Model A Tudor.  As first-born, I was the only child at that point – pure bliss.  He let me climb into and through the car as he worked on this and that.  I sat in the driver’s seat, trying to peer between the spokes of the steering wheel and the dash, imaging what it must be like to drive.  I had no idea what he was working on.  Sometimes he’d be under the car, other times he was leaning into the engine compartment, the hood folded over.  Then he’d fold the hood back, latch it down, smile, and we’d take the Model A for a drive, up the country road onto the highway to stretch her legs, or back down the dirt road where the crazy old bachelor lived in a hut with bizarre yard ornaments.  Then back.  Sometimes I sat in his lap, with my hands on the steering wheel, just below his, feeling the road, feeling the strength and power that came from driving, driving, driving.  He pushed the clutch in and I shifted from second to third, which involved taking both my hands off the steering wheel.  But Dad had the wheel so we stayed between the ditches.

So while we weren’t close in the sharing of words, we shared cars.  He taught me how to drive at 10 years old, propping me on a cushion on the seat of the 1951 Dodge Coronet, telling me that as long as I kept the leaping ram ornament on the hood lined up with the right side of the road, I’d always be exactly in my lane.  It worked.  He helped me buy my first car when I was 12, a 1952 Chevy Deluxe sedan for $12, to drive around the yard and work on.  With his help, I took that car apart and put it back together.  Later, when my mother’s car broke, she drove that old Chevy for about a year.

Dad never did mention anything about Jaguars.  He seemed to basically cherish American cars – straight eight Pontiacs, Buicks, and Packards were his favorites.  He liked the odd-balls and unique marques, too, like Kaisers, Studebakers and Hudsons.  If there was something unusual about a car, that recommended it to him.  But he never talked about any foreign manufactured car.  He said the best car in the world was the Duesenberg, a name he revered.

He basically left town after the divorce, and I didn’t see him for about 15 years.  I more or less left the family, as well, except for my grandparents, who were my rock.  Dad didn’t try to get hold of any of us kids, and we didn’t try to get hold of him.  No communication, don’t know why.  I guess we all just wanted to let it all go.  I suppose I thought he was just tired of the whole thing.  I heard of him through my uncle a couple times.  He retired from the Minneapolis Post Office garage, collected cars, opened an antique store in Minneapolis, and traveled to San Diego where he’d worked on B-24’s during the war, and to Mexico to buy antiques.

One summer day, he returned.  There was a note pinned to my door when I returned to my rural home: “Your father has returned.  You weren’t home.  I’ll stop back later.”  And he did.  He came up the driveway in a right-hand drive early 60’s Rambler that had been a postal vehicle, still painted the postal color scheme – that unusual characteristic that he favored.  He got out of the car, shook my hand, and asked me how things were going.  I made some coffee, then we sat and talked all afternoon and into the evening.  He wouldn’t stay for supper.  As he was getting up to leave, he asked if any of the other kids might like to see him.  I said, yes, I’d imagine so.  I think it took a lot of guts to do what he did.  He was our father, and he wanted to make right those years of absence.  He’d had a calling.

We saw him fairly frequently after that.  I went to his house, which was stacked to the ceiling with antique clocks and collectible firearms of all sorts.  He showed me his collection of cars.  He had about a dozen at that time.  Among them, a 1951 Studebaker Commander, 1954 Hudson Hornet, 1949 and 1954 Packards, a 1956 Cadillac that had been converted into a large camper, and a 1956 Jaguar 2.4 saloon.

I’d owned many British cars by this time, including a 1959 Jaguar XK150 drophead.  So I took an immediate shine to the Jaguar.  It was in very nice condition, a California car with low mileage.  He rarely drove it.  He rarely drove any of his cars.  He kept them in garages all over town, going to work on them, clean them, run them, drive them around a bit, park them, and go on to the next.  He had a couple cars he drove regularly – a behemoth of a 1983 Chevy Caprice wagon with the entire rear end loaded with stuff, and a pristine 1963 Chrysler New Yorker 4-door hardtop with a white leather interior and white exterior.

Then I moved.  To California, then to Europe for 10 years.  We kept in touch with the very occasional letter.  He was busy with his antique business and old cars, buying and selling, buying and selling.  On one visit, we went to look at Jaguar again.  He’d just had it repainted in the original Burgundy paint it had come with from the factory. He noted my admiration and told me that the Jaguar would be mine when he passed on.  He said he’d keep it for me.  And he did.

We moved back to the US, first to Monterrey, then to Seattle.  I invited him to visit, but he never did – too busy, he said.  Didn’t like plane travel, either.  He saw his granddaughter once, when we went back to Minnesota for a visit.  A couple pictures are all we have.

Then his health started to deteriorate rapidly.  All of a sudden, he didn’t care about his cars, his guns, or his antiques anymore.  He started to give them away.  My sister called and said that I’d better contact him about the Jaguar.  I did.  He said that now was the time to get it, as he didn’t think he’d live much longer.  I tried to reassure him, but he knew better than I.  He thought about committing suicide, and almost was successful at doing so.  Maybe it would have been better, because a few months later he was in the nursing home, and then a month after that, dead.  The autopsy showed that he had cancer throughout his body.

Before he went into the nursing home, he helped make arrangements to have the car shipped to me on the island I live on in the Puget Sound.  It was a cold November night after midnight when it arrived.  The driver had been stuck in a snow storm in the Cascades, and when the passes opened, he drove straight through until he got to my house.   We unloaded the Jag from the enclosed car carrier.  I watched as the driver backed it down.  I’d never heard it run – it sounded beautiful, the throaty song of the legendary twin cam XK engine.  The car looked just as I’d seen it many years ago right after the restoration.  New paint, new chrome, and interior of burled walnut and bisque leather.

As the transport driver and I completed the paperwork, the car warmed up in the chilly Pacific Northwest fog, and I told him the story of how this pretty red Jaguar sedan happened to be sitting by the side of a wooded road on an island in the Puget Sound.  I eased off on the choke to bring the idle down from a growl to a pulsating purr, like the cat the car is named for.

“That’s one beautiful old Jaguar you’ve got there.  Your Dad must have been a real Jaguar lover,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied, “We both are.”