I'm walking through a warehouse quite a bit larger than a football field—American or rest of world. Most of its volume is filled with cars stacked two high and parked bumper to bumper and nearly door to door. There's a main aisle down the center that allows you to drive cars simultaneously in both directions, but the logistics of getting a car on the second level buried five deep is mind blowing. Most everything in the building is either Jaguar or Land Rover, but there are a variety of other interesting makes and models sprinkled in for added flavor. This is just part of JLR's (Jaguar Land Rover Group's) collection that's housed behind the new Classic Works facility in Coventry, England.
Walking amongst these cars, some nearly 80 years old, I'm struck by a sudden epiphany; I am surrounded by something literally priceless, even more so than the collection of cars itself—which is figuratively priceless. The smell of old leather, motor and gear oil pooling on the floor, the patina from decades of driving—this is heritage, something that no matter how hard newer car companies try to manufacture with storytelling and retro concept cars, they simply cannot.
Obviously, someone at Jaguar had the same thought as me, just a few years earlier. The building I'm standing in just opened in June of 2017; the official Jaguar Land Rover Classic brand was launched in March of 2016. Even before that, Jaguar started building continuation 1963 Lightweight E-Types in 2014 under its Special Operations banner. The E-Type was obviously a success, so construction of nine 1957 XKSS continuation cars is currently in progress at this facility. Those original nine cars were lost in a factory fire in 1957. The wooden bucks to form the magnesium body were lost in the fire as well, so new bucks and other tooling were made from digital scans of several of the 16 surviving XKSS cars that still exist. Although they will be brand-new cars, they will be clones of the originals with all the technology 1957 could offer and not modernized kit cars that merely capture the look.
Besides building new-old cars, the Classic Works will also do everything from regular servicing to full restorations of classic JLR vehicles. There are a handful of XJ220 supercars in for service. Apparently, Bridgestone has just finished a production run of the massive 345/35-18 rear tires, so owners can finally take them out of storage and drive what was once the fastest road-legal car in the world. Sitting just across from the XJ220s are a variety of E-Types and MKII sedans in various states of the restoration process. On the opposite side of a pony wall, the Land Rover side of the business is hard at work running its own production line, rebuilding original Series 1s to their original 80-inch wheelbase and 50hp glory. Like XKSS, this line uses all the same techniques, parts, and materials originally available when production began in 1948. I was told some of the workers building the Series 1s are related to the workers who built the vehicles originally almost 70 years ago. I realize there might be shops around the world that can do a nearly equal job of restoring your vehicle, possibly for slightly less cost; but I can't help but think these old Landys being restored by a craftsman working in the tool marks left by his granddad's hands is the kind of thing that keeps magic in the world.
Scattered around whatever floor space is left in the shop are a number of cars from the 1970s and '80s. I've been fantasizing about owning a late 1970s or early '80s XJ-S, and seeing a few in the shop certainly hasn't helped dissuade me. If anything, the fact that owners exist who are willing to spend the money to restore them makes me think there is something to the idea. Now that I've let the cat out of the bag, I better go buy one before this issue hits newsstands and the buying frenzy begins. If you already own one and are about to watch its value skyrocket, you're welcome.
In the immaculate lobby of the building, painted on a wall high above the collection of beautifully restored and lovingly preserved Jaguars and Land Rovers is a quote from Sir William Lyons. "The car is the closest thing we will ever create to something that is alive."
After meeting the men and women dedicating their lives to preserving not only the heritage of Jaguar and Land Rover, but the actual cars themselves, I am led out to the fruits of their labor: a lineup of XK and MKII cars ranging from 1955 to 1965. I, along with a handful of other American journalists, will be driving these cars from the Classic Works facility through the 120 or so miles to our hotel in Bagshot, a small area in the vicinity of Frogmore, Crowthorne, and Windlesham. I don't suspect many of our readers are familiar with the area, but just typing the names makes me feel slightly closer to existing in a world of J.K. Rowling's creation. I am hoping that world allows a Protego Maxima spell to protect these irreplaceable vehicles from a group of jet-lagged journos on the wrong side of the car, which happens to be the correct side for the wrong side of the road. Oh yeah, it's raining, too.
If these cars are in fact anywhere near being alive, they are also, at present, quite scared. One is assigned to me.
To say the 1958 XK 150 3.4 Drophead is a "beautiful car" is simply inadequate. The purposeful proportions are defined by flowing lines and just enough bends and surfacing to express the effort and passion in the car. Design like this doesn't exist anymore; maybe it can't. This car existed in a different time; even the scale is different. I barely fit inside the cockpit. I am too tall, too wide, too spoiled by modern sports cars. My Chuck Taylors barely fit in the pedal box. The shift knob feels like it should be operating a cigarette machine and the steering wheel rim is disproportionately spindly for a wheel the diameter of a ship's helm. The rain taps on the cloth roof in time with the hum of the engine. The parking brake is counterintuitive; don't push the button to release, just lift up, drop, and go.
Classic cars are work to drive, even perfect examples. I wonder if every road trip or even runs to the corner store felt this adventurous 60 years ago. The steering is remarkably heavy and yet vague. The giant wheel requires a good 15 to 20 degrees of input before even making a suggestion to the chassis. Once it does, you aren't always entirely sure how the chassis will respond to that request. If the car does have a mind of its own, it is more indecisive than me when I'm hungry.
I find it doesn't like small throttle inputs, either. You have to get into the throttle deliberately, open it wide, and accelerate like you mean it. Traffic was clearly on a different scale when this car was new as well. You wait for cars ahead to move up several car lengths before roaring up on them. Even as I settle in, I wouldn't ever say I feel comfortable. At best I feel adequately capable of getting the car from one point to the next. Today, I can jump from a low power front-wheel drive car and into a supercharged V-8-powered rear drive monster and back again and be comfortable in each within a few miles; this job must have been drastically different back then.
At roughly the halfway point in the drive, I switch cars. This time it's a 1960 XK150 3.8S Open Top, and despite the name, I drove it with very much a closed top the entire time. Why are topless cars so popular in such a wet place—just optimism? I was excited to get into this car, as it was a special order with the high-performance disc brakes. The 3.8L produced 265 hp, which at the time was simply astronomical. I was hoping with more development time, greater displacement, and better braking technology, this car would show me the true joy of driving a legendary Jaguar.
I begin to pull away and the car bucks wildly. With that out of the way, I have a feel for it now at least. As I pull up to an intersection, I recalibrate both feet. The car bucks wildly. Possibly worse than before. This continues until I become better at not having to stop, which as we all know from Newton's Law: "An object in motion tends to decrease the likelihood of looking like a jackass who can't drive a manual." The steering on this car might be slightly more ponderous as well, or I'm so disoriented from the clutch antic's head banging that I've become disconnected from the car.
Driving on the opposite side of the road, on the opposite side of the car, shifting with my left hand on unfamiliar roads—really not as much of an issue as you might think. It's simple really: Stay on the side where you see back ends of other cars, don't drive toward headlights. Then it all falls apart when there's nobody to follow and you approach a roundabout. Did you know they drive the wrong way around those, too? I did, but it's amazing how quickly your mind paralyzes itself with the lefty-righty, righty-wrongy version of "Who's on First?" as you're speeding toward a rotary deciding if you should follow your instinct, go opposite your instinct, or go opposite of ignoring your instinct you're second-guessing in the first place. Be deliberate, be confident, go fast.
The disc brakes may be better in the 3.8S, but there's something in the pedal box that doesn't agree with my size 12 shoes. Whatever it is, it must be the strongest part of the car because I'm standing on it without so much as budging as I'm trying to get the car slowed down. It's astounding the amount of force you can exert with entirely no effect when your foot is not actually on the brake pedal. It is also quite astounding how little regard other drivers have for a screaming man in a priceless car careening toward certain doom. They have the right of way; they will not yield. Keep calm and all of that.
I eventually arrived in Bagshot unscathed at my hotel that can best be described as a castle. I am not sure I necessarily enjoyed the drive, but it certainly was an experience. Both cars are true pieces of history and can be driven in the Jaguar Classic Experiences, which allow you to drive these and other cars in controlled conditions on a track. To me, that sounds like the ideal way to experience them, especially if you aren't accustomed to right-hand-drive cars and/or driving cars of this vintage. The work being done at Classic Works is not only astonishing, but also important. As we move toward vehicles that would be unrecognizable to someone from the mid-twentieth century, it is imperative we remember our history. Cars, as much as anything else humans have created, are a timeline of human development in technology and emotions; they must be preserved.