My youth spent with a beautiful but temperamental British motorcar
Vintage Jaguar ownership is all about looks, style and exclusivity. Temper that with a healthy dose of reality for those times you'll spend sitting on it's bumper waiting for a tow truck to arrive.
The mechanical crimes perpetrated upon humanity by Jaguar are legendary, yet in the summer of 1991 I, of my own free will and without coercion, chose to make both myself and my wallet the minion to one of these mechanical ogres.
Like a Siren’s call, the bodywork of the perennial XJ saloon had me by the man-parts at a young age. When I was about 8 years old my dad was piloting us home in his beloved Dodge Power Wagon as a wasp-black sedan sped past us in the next lane. It’s steel hips, each topped with a chrome fuel filler cap, seemed poised... no, cocked and ready, to explode the car forward like one of those cheetahs you see on a David Attenborough special. This was the first time I spied the sweeping haunches of an XJ6. I asked my father what kind of car it was, knowing that it really didn’t matter, I just had to have one. For the first few years of my obsession I didn’t even realize Jaguar was a “high end” make, it was no different to me than a Chevy or a Toyota. When I did come to realize how cherished these cars were it only served to dishearten me since that meant it would take a few extra years of saving to buy my dream car. That big day came even sooner than I expected.
I was fortunate enough to receive a gorgeous all original 50k mile example of a 1957 Cadillac four door as a gift from my car-crazy dad for earning my driver’s license. When I graduated high school I made the decision to trade the big finned, chrome breasted behemoth for an especially lovely chocolate brown 1976 Jaguar XJ6L. It was an even trade, but at the time I’m sure each owner thought we were getting the better part of the deal. As it turned out, only he did.
My first few months of ownership were pleasurable, and by that I mean I enjoyed getting out of the car at stoplights to tap a fender in order to get the lights on that side of the car working again. I got a chuckle when the car left me stranded suddenly and inexplicably, only to find out an inertia fuel cut-off switch was exceptionally poor in design. Hell, I even smiled each time I took a screwdriver beneath the bonnet to adjust the dual carbs, although never quite right.
Several leaky fuel tanks later (conveniently located outboard of the frame just millimeters from the big dangerous world we live in, the one where gasoline is highly flammable) the car started having problems. Technically speaking, it started having “starting” problems. If I drove anywhere and shut the car off it wouldn’t start again for at least a half hour, seemingly only after she caught her breath. The “Leaper” hood ornament surrendered herself without so much as a growl while the car sat in a church parking lot during broad daylight. The car would again fail to start, leaving me stranded in only the most unsavory of locations for reasons only my apparent bad Karma understood. There was a new plot twist, she would no longer continue the journey after cooling down but now required a complete rebuild of her starter motor each time she clunked out. This led to me not only choosing to stay much closer to home on my adventures with “Miss Kitty," but also determining the route we took to get there in the event of another catastrophic breakdown. Even the actual towing process became an exercise in patience and anger management. One tow truck driver yanked a tie-down hook clean off the chassis in an attempt to load her on his flatbed. Another scratched the rear bumper cover while towing it, seemingly oblivious to the car’s actual length.
Once my engine blew, it was a simple matter of rebuilding some bits and we were back on the road. Feeling emboldened after installing a tappet hold down kit I hit the open road once again, invincible to the mechanical gremlins that lurked beneath every overpass. The second time my engine blew I sold the block to a gentleman who I believe wanted to make a coffee table out of it, and in went the most blasphemous power plant you could imagine impregnating a legendary British motorcar. The 400 cubic inch V8 straight out of a ’69 Pontiac GTO fit easily enough, after the fabrication of custom motor mounts and wiring harnesses of course, but the transmission connection and driveshaft, err “propshaft” in outdated British nomenclature, came courtesy of a Mustang and a speed shop with both the know-how and guts to become willing accomplices in my own act of automotive debauchery. Flex fans and heat shields followed. Cooling ducts were fabricated to feed the mighty Kong of an engine. Maybe I finally went nuts. Maybe the constant needs and “nuances” of Jaguar stewardship, coupled with the cost and effort involved in keeping that car's engine roadworthy, propelled me into a manic state of car-guy insanity that led to what arguably became one of the fastest and coolest Series II Jaguar sedans in the upper Midwest, assuming you weren't a purist.
Emboldened by her new “sleeper cell” American muscle, we roasted and toasted as many former greasers and cocky college kids as asked for their pride to be handed back to them on the burnt-rubber smoke trails left behind a suddenly capable British living room on wheels that would make even Doc Brown's DeLorean jealous. Then it happened, I started to fall in love with “Miss Kitty” all over again. Sitting here typing this, I feel like the character Richard Dreyfuss played in “Stand By Me”, becoming nostalgic and even a little emotional about a turbulent period in the past that I would gladly live all over again if I hadn’t grown older and smarter with the passing of time. I feel like typing, “I never had any cars later on like the ones I had when I was nineteen. Jesus, does anyone?”
Maybe the worst car I ever owned actually turned out to be the best.
(Originally published on MotoArigato)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons via Charles01. The photo above is a Series I, but it best depicts my car's Sable over Biscuit color combo.