I live in a mountain community affected by the devastating wild fires in California. Living very close to the official evacuation zones, I decided to move my cars to safer pastures as a precautionary measure. I then helped a neighbor move her collection of vintage Jaguars which sent me down a very nostalgic path. As I piloted her beautifully restored white-on-red 1959 MkI Saloon down the hill, my head filled with nearly forgotten memories of my teenage years and Jags. One memory in particular stood out.
Back when I was a pre-twink in the 80’s, my family owned a classic Jag – a 1963 MkII Saloon with a 3.8L dual overhead-cam inline six and a four-speed manual transmission. This car seemed to appear out of nowhere. I knew my Dad was a fan of Jaguars since he was a kid – there’s a story about his teenaged self driving an XK-150 a bit on the quick side and noticing small flashing lights in the rear view. Because he pulled over and waited for the cop to arrive (he was that far ahead), the cop let him go with a warning. But we never had “toy cars” growing up. And by my late teens I was pretty much a hopeless gearhead anyway.
I was fascinated by BMWs and as luck would have it, my parents bought a BMW 2002 which was also the first car I drove that woke me up to what a real drivers car should feel like. By age 17 I had done my first Car Control Clinic in that ‘02 and was looking forward to autocross. So when the round and bulbous 60’s sedan with the big kitty on the hood showed up, I was pretty much obsessed with that era of Jags from that point on. And as happens for so many fathers and sons, it became a bit of a passion project we could work on together. Over the years, we overhauled the interior, including the headliner, leather seats, the burl wood dash and door strips, lots of tune ups, brakes and other maintenance.
My favorite memories, though, were about family road trips and driving the car. Of course my driving opportunities were limited and accompanied by parental supervision only – at least until I proved responsible enough and respectful of the quirks of driving such an old car. Most notably, first and reverse had no synchros, as was common in that era (I’ll soon write about a recent experience with a 1961 Austin Healey 3000 that shares this trait). Starting the big six was always a thrill. Yeah, it’s kind of known to be a ‘tractor motor’ because its long stroke makes it slow to rev, but that motor always had phenomenal torque – as a tractor would. And the grunty engine note sputtering out the twin-chromed exhaust tips was unlike anything I had heard at that time. Up front, the twin SU carburetors always made an audible air-sucking sound akin to some kind of vacuum.
Around town, the idea was to cruise and operate the clutch and four-speed like a limo driver… smooth and intentional. But my favorite moments were getting on the freeway when I could stomp the throttle in second and let the engine build song and speed until a near-redline gear change. The Jag has one of the most mechanical shifter linkages you could ever imagine. The lever throws are long. The gear engagement is like hitting a stop but with constant, gentle pressure applied, the slow synchros would eventually do their job to allow passage and then you’d push the lever through the end of travel. Fourth gear wasn’t really necessary except to lower the engine note for a long cruise.
What’s amazing is that these big cats were raced back in the day. Check out this footage from Goodwood of these enormous tanks drifting around the track. The Jaguar MkII was considered one of the fastest sedans in the world back in its day.
Back to me being a car-obsessed 18 year old twink-ager. In the spring of 1988 my high school senior ball was approaching, and with it came my courage to ask the family if I could take the Jag and drive my date and another couple. Well, the answer came back “yes” and let me tell you, that moment of rolling up in that car in front of my classmates (not in a hired limo which was de rigeuer of the time) was the first time in my life that I ever felt like a baller – ironically decades before the onset of that term.
And at the end of the evening, as we chivalrously closed the doors for our dates and heard that marvelously distinct Jag door clap, I recall glancing up to the queue of kids waiting for their rides and seeing my high school nemesis, a boy I had a huge crush on, which brought all the feelings of conflict I couldn’t make sense of at the time.
He looked me right in the eye and offered a passionate nod of approval. As much as I wanted that admiration to be directed at me, I knew the MkII earned the credit that night.