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The firm that would become Jaguar Cars Limited was founded in 1922 by two young British entrepreneurs, one of whom later would be knighted. In the decades that followed, the company’s fortunes would wax and wane, its fast, sexy cars dogged by issues of quality and public perception.
This wasn’t always the case. In the early 1950s, there was a period when Coventry seemed incapable of failure — when its street machines were strong, quick and beautiful; its racing cars were gorgeous champions; and its financial well-being was secure. From this period came a handful of legendary cars.
Among them was the Le Mans-winning XK-120C, or C-Type. Just over 50 were built between 1951 and 1953, all intended for competition. They are widely regarded as one of the most beautiful British cars ever made, and even the tattiest example will set you back hundreds of thousands of dollars. Good ones can command millions.
I recently had a chance to ride in a C-Type. My life will never be the same.
Like all great cars, the C-Type has its roots in a good story. In the late 1940s, Jaguar was a solid, moderately successful car company. Its XK-120 roadster, a sleek missile introduced in 1948, had jump-started sales. It offered a remarkable (for the era) top speed of 120 mph — hence the name — and sexy bodywork so refined and futuristic it may as well have fallen from the moon. No manufacturer, domestic or European, offered anything like it.
Unsurprisingly, the XK-120 had a knack for winning races. At the 1950 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a near-stock example driven by Leslie Johnson ran as high as third before retiring due to a broken clutch. Johnson’s car wasn’t the only Jaguar in the race — another 120 finished the French classic, albeit in 12th place — but it had been watched closely by two very important men. One of them, William Heynes, was Jaguar’s chief engineer. The other, William Lyons, was Jaguar’s co-founder.
The two men were spurred to action. With little precedent — Heynes once said that, until the ‘50 Le Mans, he had “never seriously contemplated designing a competition car” — they decided to go racing. And they decided that they were going to win Le Mans in 1951.
The car is the closest thing we will ever create to something that is alive. —William Lyons
Starting with little more than an XK-120’s driveline and a clean sheet of paper, Heynes drew a tour de force. The tube-framed pinup that appeared on the Le Mans grid one year later was dubbed the XK-120C, for Competition, or C-Type for short. Three C-Types started the French endurance classic in 1951, and while only one finished, it did so in first place, a whopping 77 miles ahead of the next closest car. Over the next decade, Jaguar would win Le Mans five times.
As racing cars go, the C-Type’s guts were relatively ordinary. The four-speed transmission, independent torsion-bar front suspension, and 3.4-liter, twin-cam straight six were borrowed from the XK-120. The driveline was shoehorned into a tubular steel frame, and everything was cloaked in a Malcom Sayer-designed, hand-beaten aluminum body.
If Sayer’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he would later pen Jaguar’s legendary D-Type, E-Type, XJ-13 and XJ-S. The man had an eye for pretty.
Judicious tuning bumped power from the 120’s 160 hp to around 200 hp — later C-Types would produce as much as 260 — and, free of carpets, a windshield, or other creature comforts, weight dropped to around 2100 pounds.
The C-Type’s engine, a 3.4-liter, dual-overhead-cam straight six, was essentially a modified version of the production XK-120 mill. Twin SU carburetors (the two towers at upper right) fed high-lift cams and a Harry Weslake-improved cylinder head.
“It was a big moment. I was just in awe of the C-type when I first stepped into it. The steering was light — almost scary light. It was the first car I ever drove that had a really precise feel about it. It really felt like a racing car.” –American Formula 1 Champion Phil Hill
In many ways, the C was a landmark. At a time when companies like Ferrari were attacking the speed problem with ever-rising horsepower and displacement, bludgeoning the wind into submission, Jaguar focused on aerodynamics and reduced drag. The C-Type broke speed records (first car to average over 100 mph at Le Mans, 1953), it marked the first use of disc brakes in competition (1953 again), and, in the hands of privateers, it proved to be one of the most competitive and well-rounded sports-racing cars of the 1950s. It was also the last world-class racer that could truly do double duty. If you had the means and the talent, you could drive your C to any race in the world, compete for the win, and then drive home again.
And it was, lest I repeat myself, so pretty it hurt.
What we have here is not just one of the most beautiful cars ever built. This is one of the most beautiful things ever built. Period, end of sentence. To stand in front of a C-Type and gaze into its undulating curves and fluid, muscular haunches is to gaze at a masterpiece. This is the Mona Lisa’s arched smile, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the Sistene Chapel rendered in hand-crafted aluminum. It is a study in contradictions: Sexy but brutish, lithe but masculine, simple yet complex. And impossibly, almost heartbreakingly beautiful.
So yes, I got to ride in one. As part of Jag’s 75th anniversary celebration (the company marks its founding as 1935, the first year the Jaguar name was used on a production vehicle), the cats from Coventry hauled out a few of the cars housed in the nonprofit, state-owned Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust. One of those cars, British registration number NDU 289, was XK-120C chassis 45. On a cloudy day in Gaydon, England, at Jaguar’s proving-ground test track, I sat passenger while a white-haired British man woke the beast.
The starting procedure is simple, essentially like rousing the world’s randiest Camry: Ignition on. Wait for the fuel pump to prime the lines. Foot off the throttle. Push the starter button. Wait for unholy crackling sound to split your brain open. Lather, rinse and repeat, as time and bank account allow.
Here’s the thing about a C-Type’s muffler: It doesn’t exist. A short, stubby pipe pokes out of the car’s left rocker panel, roughly two-and-a-half feet below the passenger’s — all C-Types are right-hand drive — ear, and if it has any muffling baffles in it at all, you wouldn’t know it. When a C lights off, the world goes out of focus. Your ears, bludgeoned by three-and-a-half liters of mid-century British explosion, simply give up and refuse to hear anything else.
“We’re going to have to let it warm up a bit,” shouts my driver. I am not allowed to drive the car myself because A) it is owned by the British people, and I am not one of them, and B) it’s worth more money than I make in ten years. I have no problem with this. We pootle around, careful to not lug the engine, as the coolant warms. I smell leather and leaking oil. Bare aluminum and painted steel tubes fill the cockpit; a short, stubby gear lever pokes out of the center console, and a cereal-bowl-sized tach and speedometer live in front of the driver. There’s a hole in the floor where I can see the pavement whiz by. We pass a bus stop, gargling and crackling along in third, and two grade-school kids waiting there look at me like I’m wearing a hat made of Margaret Thatcher’s face.
“It doesn’t like running slow,” shouts driver. I nod, or maybe just twitch uncontrollably from the noise.
And then he nails it.
For the most part, I don’t remember most of the important moments in my life. I can recall the monumental ones, of course — meeting my wife, the day I got married, and so on — but everything else, from birth to graduation and all other points, eventually fades away. But I will never, ever forget this. At full basso roar, a C-Type Jaguar sounds like hell’s own blender. Each and every cylinder’s firing comes smack out of that rocker pipe and hits you in the chest like an anvil. It’s a cross between Unholy Gatling Gun of God and Who Put Led Zeppelin Turned Up To Eleven in My Nuclear Bomb Test?
Because my driver is a nice man, a kind man, a gentle man, he does this repeatedly, and I cannot stop grinning. I begin to laugh uncontrollably, the car bounding down the road in manly, angry leaps. We blast past ordinary traffic just to watch soccer (football? cricket?) moms swerve as they get hit with the C’s wash. The trees go all blurry. My driver is unperturbed, but I can’t stop giggling. This might, I think, be the best thing ever.
XKC.045, “my” C-Type, is one of the later production cars, a customer vehicle delivered on April 9th, 1953. It is now painted British racing green, but it was originally red, and unlike the 1953 factory cars, it features drum brakes and SU, not Weber, carburetors. The Italian driver Tadini entered it in the 1953 Mille Miglia but crashed out, and while the damage was repaired, the car has never been restored. As such, it sports a fascinating patina, the kind of well-worn, lived-in look you only find on much-loved old cars.
The Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust bought 045 in 1983. People who should know claim that “runner” C-Types — decent drivers with less-than-perfect cosmetics and no real competition history — can be had for as little as $700,000. This is, in case you needed reminding, more than twice the cost of a nice house in the midwestern United States. For reference, it’s also several hundred thousand dollars more than it would take you to buy many other iconic cars. Original Shelby Cobras, for example.
In light of what you get, it seems like a bargain. Jaguar may never again reach the heights that it hit in its ’50s and ’60s heyday, and just under a million bucks seems like a small price to pay for one of the most amazing crossroads of technology and beauty ever created. Expensive, as it so often is, is relative.
Pardon me while I buy a hundred lotto tickets, sell a kidney or two, and go rob a bank. If there was ever a reason to be rich as hell, the C-Type is it.
Photos: Jaguar Cars Ltd., except where noted.
Via Wired Autopia: http://www.wired.com/autopia/