Originally published in Len’s column for the LA Reader newspaper, 1995.
I was writing, in the last column, about the first time that I ever saw a Jaguar and the impact that it made on me. Jaguars have continued to have some special appeal, some extraordinary effect that isn’t exactly a part, a function, of the machinery. It may not be that way for you. You have my sympathy.
A LITTLE HISTORY LESSON
Jaguar, the company, started as a motorcycle sidecar business, then became SS Cars (SS=Swallow Sidecars, Standard Swallow, Swallow Special) building custom bodies for innocuous little Austins and Standards in the late `twenties.
The SS-1, the first car with an SS chassis, was the sexiest car built in England to that time—maybe ever. Low, long hood, big wheels, swoopy fenders, slits for windows. It was a lousy car but so terrific to look at (and cheap) that no one cared.
What with the nastiness across the Channel, “SS” was dropped in favor of “Jaguar”, a name originally applied to the last SS-100, itself a dashing roadster that earned the nickname “cad’s car.”
After WWII, the XK-120 hit the world markets with a far greater impact than the old SS-1. It was the first Jag I personally ever saw–fast, cheap (compared with Ferraris—about the same price as a Cadillac) and like the SS-1, the sexiest car most of us had ever seen. Tyrone Power had one, Clark Gable had one. Wow.
The XK-120 used the same low, long-hood formula that now meant “Jaguar”. Heavy wood-and-leather ambience, lifted from the Bentley, was added to the sedans. Jags looked good, even under the hood; they smelled good—all that leather; they sounded good; they were laden with features of delight and no one ever confused one with an appliance.
Jaguar has produced some real winners—the 3.4/3.8 Series II small sedans, the E-Type, the XJ-6, some losers—the Mk X, the 420G, the late 2+2 E-Types. Winner or loser, they were all unmistakenly Jags.
Maybe I’ll write about the British auto industry in another column but for now let me say it made every mistake that there was to be made. Quality (not just Jaguar’s, but all British cars, Rolls-Royce to Austin) sucked. Old companies, great names, disappeared. Dark days.
Despite all of that, Jags still had that very special something (even while the pool of oil under the car grew and the smell of toasted wiring wafted through the air). Jag was able to cut itself loose from the general British automotive mess, make some of the needed changes, but things still weren’t good. Then Ford arrived.
Jaguar now belongs to the Ford Motor Company—has for about five years. So what some of us think we are watching is an attempt to quantify qualities, formularize art. Or maybe not. The Jaguar people deny meddling on the part of FoMoCo and insist that Ford has been, and will be, nothing but helpful. Jag’s old plant has all new equipment (in fact it’s really a new plant with an old roof), access to Ford’s worldwide purchasing power, Ford’s considerable experience meeting U.S. regulations, etc. Ford’s best quality techniques have been applied.
Enough preamble: there’s a NEW! NEW! ALL NEW! (sort of) 1995 Jaguar that is a considerable re-do of the 1994 XJ-6 (originally code-named XJ-40 in order to set it apart from the original XJ-6 introduced in the early `seventies–itself a terrific car when all was right.
The newest XJ-6 (with the upgrade Vanden Plas, V12, and XJR) is a wonderful thing to drive. They are not so silent (nor so sterile) as a Lexus LS400. They are not quite so fast as the Mercedes-Benz E500 or maybe the BMW M5 (except the XJR—more soon). But there is something more there, something in the ambience, something in what Jaguar keeps calling silkiness that the other cars just don’t have. And a wooden steering wheel. And picnic tables–other cars don’t have picnic tables (except some Rolls & Bentleys).
The XJR is a supercharged version of the XJ-6 with dark stained maple instead of traditional burled walnut, 322 hp, a mesh grill, 17 inch wheels, slightly stiffer suspension, and more desirable than any five passenger car has a right to be. They won’t build many, they cost a lot ($65,000)–it’s enough to make me get a job. More later.
Top image: The all-electric Jaguar E-Type Zero (photo courtesy of Jaguar Land Rover)
The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996 at the age of 60. During the next few months, we will be re-posting the entire collection of “Look Down the Road”, and you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”. – Roy Nakano