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|Edwin Drood's Column
|1 April 2014
|In which Edwin waxes most lyrical on the subject of a certain beastly beauty and wonders whether
the glorious past is indeed a foreign country or whether it cannot be brought once again to these
luminous shores with a single, brilliant stroke from an unlikely trio of allies.
It was 1961, August of that year. The young boy gazed at the needles as they surged and flicked across the well-lit, chrome dials on the walnut fascia. The thrumming of the big, six-cylinder motor and burble of its twin downdraft Weber carburettors were soothing to his ears. Inside, the car smelled comfortingly of old leather. It was how the boy imagined a gentlemen’s club might smell, but a lot faster, and without the cigars. The car transported this discrete but muscular atmosphere across the West Country with surprising swiftness to a much-loved destination in the Welsh hills.
That boy was I, and that family saloon was an ex-Scotland Yard, 3.4 litre, ‘blown’ version of an already quick Wolseley 6/99. Uncle Haviland had “sourced” it for my Dad through one of his connections and we were rightly proud of its effortless progress. But that was about to change, for in my father’s mirror was a small, red speck. The speck grew bigger with alarming speed, paused to pounce and then flashed past us in a whirl of dust before disappearing round the next bend with a sexy jiggle of its gym-bunny haunches ... and I had fallen in love with the car that Enzo Ferrari was to memorably describe as “the most beautiful” in the world.
|Grunt in the front ...
The Jaguar marque was synonymous with raw speed and power in the ‘50s and ‘60s. No other name could quicken the blood in quite the same way in those years before Mr Bond slid his Aston Martin DB5 into the world’s consciousness. After the winsomely elegant XK-120 and 150 came the bare-knuckle C-type, Jaguar’s first real racing thoroughbred. This was followed by the sleek, death-defying, 3-time Le Mans-winning D-type with its distinct aerodynamic rear cowling. Then came the mythically cursed, but achingly gorgeous XJ-13, of which just one of only two ever built survives. It was recently valued at twelve million dollars and its owner (the Jaguar company) isn’t selling, though there are some clever and dedicated people who will build you a replica if you wave enough green stuff at them and are not in any kind of hurry.
Yet it was the E-type that captured the limelight. It arrived just in time for the swinging sixties, the decade that saw the cult of celebrity take over modern culture, the decade that also saw, thanks to their massive exposure on television, professional footballers earning as much as top surgeons. These trendy new earners all drove E-types. Most drove them sober, but many drove them drunk. Some drove their Jags into swimming pools, some drove them into trees and others drove them into pedestrians. All of them drove directly into the headlines of a burgeoning “people” press. Footballers ordered them in red, film divas had them in pink, while a few rock stars went for paisley or played the country club wannabe in British racing green. Meanwhile, the gangsters and wide boys who bankrolled many of these nouveau riches or took their protection money preferred the security and discrete power of a Mark IX or X. The Kray twins never went near an E-type. Too flash by half.
|... Whack in the back
But the reputation for being a flashy car was unfairly earned. Flashy people drove E-types, yes, but the car itself had a restrained purity of line that still takes one’s breath away today. It was, however, not without its problems and quirks. Despite excellent handling up to their limits, early E-types became vicious when pushed too far. Then, instead of breaking away in a controllable drift, they would simply fly off the tarmac and embrace the landscape. Though the handling improved considerably – with the next generation receiving stiffer suspension, better dampers and fatter tyres in the second half of the decade – mechanical reliability was soon to become an issue that would haunt Jaguar for the next thirty years.
There was nothing better on a fine, dry country road than the E-type, but too often they would sit in the garage waiting for some spare part or other. It was rare that all the gauges would be working correctly at the same time, that all the wiring functioned as it should, that the doors didn’t rattle or the windscreen wipers start to wrestle one another. And then there were those particularly Jag-like quirks: they liked to be warmed up before driving off or they would behave in a crotchety manner for the first few miles. They were rather rust-prone, particularly the lovely chrome work, which suffered from being plated onto cheap alloys (Jaguar had to be very cost conscious to serve their goal of undercutting all the competition by a wide margin), these blistered when salt got at them. And then, after the winter you’d need to get someone to literally “tune” the wire wheels, tightening them spoke by spoke in a very specific order, like a piano. And whatever spare parts you might have on order were forever not arriving, thanks to lousy distribution management, industrial tensions, work-to-rule actions and strikes that were starting to cripple the UK motor trade as the decade ended.
All this particularly frustrated the American movie stars and ad-men who had bought E-types to pull the babes. They were unfamiliar with the nervousness, hunger for spares and “need to be pampered” of some European thoroughbred cars. American automobiles were (and still are, for the most part) nothing more than scaled down utility vehicles with cumbersome chassis and engines that traced their origins back to a truck. Their mechanical function was primitive, as was their handling, but everything worked and would go on forever, at least before the doctrine of planned obsolescence destroyed the Detroit motor industry in the late seventies.
|Decline and fall
But U.S. mechanics of the 60s didn’t understand four or five-speed overdrive manual gearboxes, neither could they work on pushrod, trailing arm or double wishbone suspension, nor service atmospheric carburettors or engines with twin cams or more than two valves per cylinder. This would start to change when Carrol Shelby began to introduce his heavily modified British AC sports cars to the U.S. in the seventies and the Anglo American “muscle car” was born. But even these were part of a gradual shift in customer perception rather than a significant new direction and, of course, they were powered by big lazy V8s. American drivers have only quite recently learned the joys of good suspension and road holding since the Mercedes flirt with Chrysler, and Jaguar’s brief marriage to Ford, provided those companies with the necessary blueprints and know-how. Now that U.S. engineers are finally starting to think like Europeans (although most major American car manufacturers, like most European ones – even Ferrari – have a Brit in charge of engine and/or suspension design) we can finally expect some change.
After the E-type was discontinued, killed off like many thirsty cars by the oil crises created by OPEC policies between 1973 and 1979 (which saw prices rise six-fold at the pump in some countries) Jaguar entered a gradual decline. Dogged by quality issues, industrial unrest, several brushes with the receivers and a zigzag series of ownership changes, the big cat was wounded and nearly out of the game. The company limped through the eighties, had a few good moments in the nineties as it struggled to survive under the auspices of Ford (worthy of mention are the retro-look revival of the S-type sports saloon, once a long-wheelbase version of the old Mark II, and the renaissance of the XK label), but basically failed to deliver – despite some fine cars, and even some seriously sporty ones – on the promises of beauty and beastliness that were whispered and then bellowed in our shell-like ears by the E-type all those decades ago.
|Paradise the blest
Decades indeed have past: nearly four of them since the last, great, Series III E-type V-12 roared off into the dusk, over five decades since that red speck first appeared in my father’s mirror. Men have grown old and died waiting for Jaguar to give them the worthy heir the E-type so richly deserved. Boys have grown into men, raised families and dandled their grandchildren on their knee, waiting for Jaguar to use the F word. For all are agreed: if there is a second coming, the messiah will wear the F-type logo. After generations of resignation and fading hope, it’s time to sink discretely into the earth and take our dreams with us. Cue frail and aging voices singing in a country church ...
“The golden sunset brightens in the West
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest
Sweet is the sound of paradise the blest
A-a-leluhia, a-a-alelu ….”
... But, wait a moment. What’s that infernal racket? Something is coming up the valley and it sounds very much like the walls of Jericho falling, like the battle of Armageddon, like dragons roaring in the deep places, like chariots of fire. The old men walk as briskly as their agéd pegs will carry them to the church gate, their tired eyes straining into the gloaming. A bright red speck is moving sinuously up the narrow valley, with the swiftness of God’s justice and the sound of his wrath. The men begin to smile, to cheer, to throw their caps in the air. Some of them even link arms and dance. Some are crying. For it is the sound of a 5-litre V8, growling through the gully, drowning out the clamour of the bells and the reedy droning of the organ as if cutting a swath through the armies of Moaning Minnies and state-subsidized nitpickers and all their fussy nannies. It’s a big cat coming this way and it seems to have all systems set to “angry”.
|Empire saved by Raj
Because the final irony for Jaguar, the quintessentially British carmaker, and for its E-type, the Queen of Kings Road, Chelsea, and the King of Carnaby Street, is that their salvation has eventually come to pass in a curious tripartite marriage between an Indian industrial giant, Tata Motors, a German CEO, Ralf Speth and a highly gifted Scottish designer Ian Callum. After offering us the very respectable and ferociously fast XF saloon, the luxurious, stunningly swift and continent-devouring XJ, the grand tourer par excellence in the guise of the XK and its barking mad, tyre-eating cousin the XKR-S, this rather unholy trinity have now given us what is possibly the best high volume sports coupé to come out of Britain since the E-type. In fact it’s a far better
car than the E-type. For one, it sounds like Moses rolling the tablets of stone down the mountain and hitting the golden calves of the BMW M division and maybe even the Porsche 911 broadside … yes, it sounds THAT good. It holds you like $500 underwear and grips the road like a demented cat clawing its way up your curtains … it handles THAT well! And it looks like, well, Mila Kunis crossed with Scarlet Johannson before being reincarnated as a car … yes, it looks THAT good! And it wears the letter F. And I’m in love again.
© Edwin Drood
, April 2014
The new Jaguar F-Type coupé. Photo courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover Ltd. www.jaguar.com
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