A Voyage Around My Car
I always wanted to own a Jaguar, and now I do. I’ve had numerous other automotive infatuations, too, of course, many of them more upscale than the humble Fords, Fiats, and Renaults already chronicled in these pages: BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Alfa Romeos, mostly, although for awhile I was obsessed nearly to the point of institutionalization with the Citroen DS. But then so was Roland Barthes, so that’s OK–I guess.
Still, right from the start nothing on the road caught my eye like the Coventry cats. They had a combination of mystique and heritage unmatched by any other marques except Rolls, Bentley, and Ferrari. Ever since I first admired a 3.4 Mk II up close at the Geneva motor show sometime in the ‘60s, I’ve loved that combination of the clubby and the sporting, the elegant and the cozy; the uniqueness of Jaguars. That uniqueness is now threatened by market forces: Jags have become too staid, too boring, too much Old Mr. Pipe-and-Slippers, not Mr. Young-and-Cool Guy. With the advent of probable Indian ownership (Tata PLC) and the sleek but anonymous XF, Jaguar may be fated to become just a kind of more-or-less British Acura or Infiniti, and that would be a shame.
Back in my youth Jags seemed utterly unattainable. Needless to say they were, to a teenage fantasist. It was like dreaming of owning a yacht, or having a date with the Julie Christie of Dr. Zhivago vintage. You saw Jags only outside of luxury hotels, or in the chairman’s parking spot at global corporations. Then came the E-Type and the Swinging Sixties, and, like England, they were suddenly trendy, too. (Twiggy drove an E-Type.) But I wasn’t put off by the marque’s sudden trendiness; I still wanted one.
Last year, nearly a half-century later, I got my opportunity. A fellow Jag aficionado alerted me to a creampuff ’04 S-Type in British Racing Green, the ideal Jag color, with low miles (30K) and one owner, a preacher from near Waco. It was offered at a good price, but I hesitated, racked by guilt. Wasn’t my aging Nissan good enough? I was a mere writer and editor; wasn’t I getting ideas above my station? Who did I think I was–Jackie Stewart? Richard Branson? Then I came to my senses and threw caution to the winds. The Nissan was history, and the preacher’s Jag was mine. It was immaculate, apart from a thin cigarette-smoke film on the leather seats; the Rev. must have been one of the few remaining chain-smokers in America. But I soon cleaned that off, and everything else–the burled walnut, the plush carpets, the matte-black control panel–looked brand-new, fresh from a showroom on Park Lane.
Naturally, I’ve started to take notice of other Jags with even greater interest than before. I recognize family traits: the twin headlights, dating back to the XK120 in the late ‘forties (and back beyond that, to the carriage lamps of the first automobiles); the ovoid grille that goes back to the SS 2-Litre of the prewar years; and that distinctive Jaguar-saloon body shape, at once archaic and modern, that deliberately evokes not only other Jags from the coachworks of the past but also, I’ve since discovered, salutes a precise moment in British history. The current S-Type, in particular, is a homage on wheels to the instrument of victory in the Battle of Britain: the Supermarine Spitfire, one of the great planes of all time, and a product of the Jaguar factory at Castle Bromwich, Warwickshire, near Birmingham. The factory was converted to aircraft production in 1938.
Like all S-Types, mine was built in that very factory. The S-Type is, and from its inception was intended to be, a rolling homage to both the Mk. II S-Type of the ‘60s and to the Spitfire. (Those Jag designers have a sense of history you don’t find in, say, Kias.) The Mk. II cues are easy to see.
But Spitfire design elements are everywhere too, if you know how to spot them. One of the distinctive features of the Spit’s design was its elliptical wing, which enabled the plane to reach higher speeds than its competitors and to stay stable during maneuvers.
The designers of the Jaguar S-Type incorporated the wingtip’s shape in the rear quarter window:
and in the dashboard, in which not only the rounded corners but also the dials are said to have been Spitfire-inspired.
By 1945, when Castle Bromwich reverted to auto production, it had turned out more than 15,000 Spitfires, and had no doubt contributed mightily to the Allied victory. To date, the same factory has turned out more than ten times that number of S-Types, but, alas, without the same triumphant results. No victories are in sight for the S-Type. It ceases production this year, amid ill-informed jeering at its “obsolete” style from cocky critics who seem to take a perverse delight in writing Jaguar’s obituary, and who appear quite satisfied with a stable of cars inspired not by history but by focus groups. Well, guys. Here’s the XF, just for you.
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