Living Legends

Story by Howard Walker
Photography by Howard Walker and Jaguar Classic

A buck and a quarter in a Jag D-Type racer feels a little like wrestling with Hulk Hogan in a hurricane. Every follicle on your head has the sensation of being wrenched from its roots. Tears stream from your eyes as if there’s a fire hose attached to each cornea. And your ears bleed from the rasping, snarling, snapping exhaust seemingly inches from your right lobe.

And you know what? It feels just incredible.

To get a drive in a D these days, you either have to be good buddies with Ralph Lauren, who owns a fabulous ’55 long-nose, or have at least $5 million of disposable loot to buy one at auction or privately. The ’55 D-Type from the Harburg Collection sold at a Paris RM auction a couple of years back for right on $5 mil, and in Monterey we just saw one top $21 million.

There’s an arguably better, more achievable alternative: Jump on a plane to merrie olde England, head to the industrial English Midlands, and enjoy a breathtaking day at the new Jaguar Classic Track Experience.

Here, for the princely sum of £650–that’s roughly $850–you can climb behind the wheel of a race-ready D-Type and hurl it around the famous MIRA proving ground where, back in January 1971, legendary Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis went end over end in the one-off Jag XJ13 supercar. Then come back and take your pick from an utterly mouthwatering lineup of other famous classic Jags for more hot laps.

How mouthwatering? How about a stunning C-Type racer? Or an original 1961 Series 1 E-Type roadster once owned by British motorcycle ace Mike Hawthorn? Perhaps you’d prefer a 1974 E-Type Series 3 V12 convertible–one of the super-rare last-of-50 commemorative models–or even a hardcore 1961 Coombs-built Jag Mk2 3.8 tin-top campaigned by twice F1 world champ Graham Hill.

New Track, New Format

The switch to the Motor Industry Research Association proving ground venue is new for 2016. Until last fall, the program was called the Jaguar Heritage Driving Experience and based at Jaguar Land Rover’s recently acquired Fen End test track. Fen End is being torn up as the pockmarked, 1.8-mile circuit gets a much-needed resurfacing.

The opportunity to drive such an array of cool classic Jags is largely down to a once-in-a-lifetime deal Jaguar Land Rover struck with Dr. James Hull, a successful British cosmetic dentist. Over a 35-year period, Hull quietly amassed one of the largest collections of British cars in the world, totaling no fewer than 543 vehicles. Then, in 2014, he decided to sell.

Jaguar Land Rover snapped it up; the deal was they had to buy the entire collection, and not just cherry-pick the best. All of the key cars you’ll drive at MIRA have come from the James Hull stash.

Just before the switch to MIRA, we got the chance to spend a day at Fen End and sample many of the cars anyone signing up for the Track Experience can pilot.

The day started with a briefing from chief instructor and Jaguar Classic collection Operations Manager Dan Davies. Davies has an encyclopedic knowledge of each of the cars and, as an engineer and restorer, runs the small team charged with keeping them running. He explained how to enter and leave the track, when and how we could pass slower cars, and how helmets were optional as we would be “experiencing the cars, not racing them.”

Davies has a team of instructors–most of them former or current racers–whose job it is to sit alongside, explain the car’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, and encourage you to have fun. Go as fast as you feel comfortable, they’ll tell you.

The current plan is to restrict the number of participants at each event to no more than 18, so there should be no waiting around for cars. Just let one of the instructors know which cars you’re really interested in driving, and they’ll make sure you get behind the wheel.

It’s hard to resist any Carmen Red E-Type roadster, let alone the beautifully patinaed 1961 ex-Mike Halewood car. So we started our driving day sliding behind its glorious wood and polished aluminum Moto-lita wheel.

Back in 1961 Mike “The Bike” Halewood was the superstar rider who became the first man in history to win three classes at the Isle of Man TT in the same week. He went on to win the 1961 250cc world championship. Naturally, to align itself with the superstar champ, Jaguar gave him this red Series 1 E-Type to drive.

Once you’ve mastered the clunky, synchromesh-deprived, four-speed Moss ’box and gotten comfy with the lack of space under the pedals from the flat floor, the car is an absolute joy to drive. The 3.8-liter straight-six pulls like a train, the suspension feels tight and well sorted, and the steering is wonderfully light, precise and alive.

“The E-Type is usually the first choice for most of the people who sign up,” says Davies. “So many are children of the ’50s and ’60s who dreamed of one day driving an E. This gives them that opportunity.”

Keeping the E-Type theme going, we shifted seats to the gorgeous 1974 Series 3 V12 Convertible, black with a lovely, original cinnamon leather interior and one of the last 50 to be built. It’s still in gleaming, near-perfect condition and, unlike most of these cars, which came with a slushy three-speed automatic, this one has the much preferred four-speed manual.

Out on the track, the big 5.3-liter, 272-horse V12 is all torque, whooshing the E elegantly and serenely along the straights. This is a cruiser, not a bruiser, so this mile-long roadster doesn’t appreciate being hurried through curves. And the over-boosted steering–hey, welcome to the ’70s–doesn’t let you know much about what’s going on at the front end. As we glided into the car-swap area, we secretly wished we could be cruising this car, top-down, sun on our faces, along the Cote d’Azur.

Time to pick up the pace, so we ambled over to the 1961 Coombs Mk2 racer. Back in the ’60s, John Coombs’s Jaguar dealership in Guildford, England, was turning out the most ultra-competitive Jaguar saloon racers–and this olde English white charger was one of them.

It’s all business with its stripped-out interior, spat-less rear arches, lowered suspension, knock-off wires and racing rubber. Fire it up and the 3.8-liter straight-six, tuned to deliver 285 horsepower, snarls and rasps and chugga-chugs as it warms. Within 15 feet of driving away, you know this experience is going to be interesting. That’s because the unassisted steering needs muscles of Rambo to turn the huge, thin-spoked helm.

Changing gears is like changing railway points. And with not a stitch of sound-deadening in the car, the noise is like shaking bolts in a coffee can–all amplified through The Who’s sound system. It’s hard to comprehend just how ’60s driving greats like Graham Hill or Roy Salvadori manhandled this car for an entire race.

“It gets easier the faster you go,” said Neville Foster, our instructor. “The 3.8 needs to keep its revs up, and it helps to drift the car through the curves. Just keep your foot in,” he advised from the Mk2’s hip-hugging Restall bucket seat. He should know about drifting; he used to race TVR Tuscans back in the early 2000s.

Three laps was enough of that workout. Next up was the dark green, near-concours 1959 XK150S coupe, again from the James Hull Collection. This is the S version, so its 3.4-liter straight-six comes with a Harry Weslake-designed cylinder head and three HD8 SU carbs bumping the power up to a healthy 250 bhp.

We forget just how astonishingly beautiful and sophisticated these cars are: It’s all long hood, tall roof and cropped, elegant tail. Big doors make it easy to slide in and out, while a small rear seat and decent-sized trunk add to this big coupe’s versatility.

And to drive it is to love it. The big straight-six delivers effortless thrust, surging away from rest with locomotive-like torque, while the four-speed manual clicks through the gears with the ease and precision of flicking a light switch. At low speed the big, four-spoke wheel needs muscle to turn, but as speeds increase, it all lightens up and you can revel in its precision and feedback. And with big discs at each corner, it stops as well as it goes. Lovely, just lovely.

Taking Your Vitamin C and D

Your first reaction may be mild disappointment when you hear that the main attractions of the day–the D-Type and C-Type–aren’t actually the real thing, but perfect, Jaguar-approved and FIA vintage race-eligible facsimiles, built by the best-of-the-best craftsman back in the ’60s.

Dan Davies’s explanation makes perfect sense, however, when he says that with Ds and Cs now commanding huge prices, there’s no way originals could be used for pounding ’round a track all day for fun drives. They’re just too valuable.

Cars like these from the Hull Collection–remember, they’re still worth upwards of half a million bucks each–can give visitors a truly authentic experience of what the originals were like to drive. And remember, Jaguar Classic does have the real things in its own collection in case you want to compare.

Thread your way into this short-nose D-Type’s cockpit–and this really does feel like an aircraft cockpit–buckle up the full racing harness, slide on the must-wear racing goggles and breathe.

The car was built in the U.K. back in the ’60s by David Duffy, a man renowned for his 100-percent-correct recreations of Ds, Cs and XKSSs. At the time he owned an original D, and every rivet, every curve, every louvre, every nut and bolt is acknowledged as being indistinguishable from the real thing.

Sadly, safety requirements require the car to have that gad-awful, black monstrosity of a roll-over bar fitted, but it does add an element of reassurance as you’re blasting down the straight at 120-plus mph.

And blast it does. That mighty Weber-carbed twin-cam six chugs and chunters as the revs build, then suddenly clears its throat and delivers this almighty rush of raw, adrenaline-charged power. The noise, the roar, the hammery cacophony are simply breathtaking. Click to the next gear with that rifle-bolt-action shifter, and it all happens again.

There’s a delicacy, a precision, an accuracy with the D’s unassisted steering that you don’t get with modern cars. That glorious, skinny, wood-rimmed wheel feels just so alive, so tactile in your fingers that when the back end eases out of line as you pour on the power through a curve, all that’s needed is a flick of the wrists to bring the car back in line.

The experience of piloting this D-Type is, alone, worth every cent of the admission. It’s something you’ll reference and remember the rest of your life. Something you’ll tell your kids, your grandkids, about. Start planning your trip to the U.K. right now.

Driving the Legends

Last year, a full VIP day of driving Jaguar’s heritage cars would have cost you £2,000. For 2016, the price of the Jaguar Classic Track Experience is a bargain at £650. Yes, the time behind the wheel of the beloved D, C or E is reduced to four hours rather than six or seven. But you’ll easily have time to get through all the cars if you don’t stand gazing at them too long.

Jaguar Classic is currently offering a few new options to suit your interests and pocketbook. The Jaguar Classic Le Mans Experience gives you the chance to get behind the wheel of an XK120 and C-Type for an hour and a half for just £295-around $400. Then there’s the Jaguar Classic Sports Car Experience, which gives you the chance to pilot an XK150 and an E-Type for one and a half hours for £250, or roughly $330.

Then, for history buffs, the Jaguar Classic Tour & Track Experience offers the added bonus of touring Jaguar’s famous Castle Bromwich plant where WWII Spitfire fighters were built. You’ll also get the chance to drive the latest Jaguar model lineup on the road before hitting the track in everything from an XK150 to a Mk2 to an E.

Book now because the schedule is limited, largely because of the availability of track time at the MIRA proving ground. While the Jaguar programs kicked off at the end of April, the remaining Saturday-only event for this year is October 8. If demand is high, other dates may be added.

For more information, go to, click on “About Jaguar,” then “Jaguar Classic” and finally “Jaguar Classic Collection.” Or you could simply call +44 121 786 6000.

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