Out of the Ashes: Jaguar Is Rebuilding Legendary Cars Lost in a Fire

Story by Howard Walker

Before you ask, they’re all sold. Nine perfectly recreated Jaguar XKSS roadsters, just like the one Steve McQueen thrashed along Mullholland back in the ’60s, will be delivered in 2017 for a non-trivial $1.7 million apiece. What’s worse, the reserve list stretches a mile long.

Back in March, Jaguar Land Rover’s newly renamed Jaguar Classic division announced it would build the nine new XKSS’s to replace the nine that were flambéed in the famous Browns Lane factory fire back in February 1957.

It’s the latest continuation series from Jaguar. Remember May 2014, when they announced a run of six “missing” Lightweight E-Type racers? Like the XKSS, these were also snapped up within weeks. Sticker price: $1.5 mill.

Selling the reproductions, it seems, has been the easy part. Actually building them will be a whole different story, as Jaguar Classic aims to create obsessively accurate copies of this legendary D-Type-based roadster. The man given the task of replicating these staggeringly gorgeous race cars for the road is the 37-year-old director of Jaguar Land Rover Classic, passionate Jaguar enthusiast Tim Hannig.

But first, a little history lesson. Back in 1956, Jaguar had been popping the Champagne corks over its second 24 Hours of Le Mans victory with its D-Type race car. New regulations, however, were poised to make the car obsolete, so Jaguar decided to pull out of racing. The problem for the company was that it had 25 ready-to-race D-Types gathering dust at Browns Lane, with little chance of finding buyers.

That’s when Jaguar boss William Lyons came up with the inspired idea to convert the 25 race cars into road cars and target them at rich U.S. buyers. To keep costs down, the conversion would be limited to installing a taller windshield, putting a door on the passenger side, and removing the strip of bodywork separating the seats along with that trademark fairing behind the driver.

Of the 25 cars being converted, 16 had been completed and moved out of the Browns Lane service department where the cars were being built. But on the night of February 12, 1 957, fire raged through the production area, destroying the nine remaining cars along with another 300 Jags nearby.

Valued at $10 Million and Up

Today, any one of those 16 survivors is valued at between $10 million and $18 million. For the McQueen car, arguably the crown jewel of the Petersen collection in L.A., the sky is the limit. Not that any have appeared on eBay lately.

“The XKSS occupies a unique place in Jaguar’s history. It is a car coveted by collectors the world over for its exclusivity and unmistakable design. It is one of the true sports car icons,” says Hannig.

“It was also pure madness, taking a pure race car that won Le Mans and doing the absolute minimum to turn it into a road car. No major carmaker could do that today. But what Jaguar essentially created was the world’s first supercar.”

As for timing, Hannig’s plan is to have an engineering car built–he’s calling it Car Zero–which will be used for dynamic testing. It won’t have a chassis number and will stay in the Jaguar collection. The first customer car will roll out in February or March 2017, coinciding with the XKSS’s 60th anniversary. The final car will be delivered sometime in 2018.

“As you might expect, building these cars is hugely labor-intensive. We’re looking at three technicians working three months to assemble each one. But that doesn’t include all the extensive work that has already gone into researching and creating all the different components.

“The plan is to build two cars at a time and, just as with the originals, we’ll fully build them without paint and only at the end paint them. It’s amazing; we have pictures of cars that were literally ready to go but didn’t have paint.”

Sadly, there’s no available space at Jaguar’s historic Browns Lane workshops to do the assembly. Browns Lane is where Jaguar is running its new and hugely successful restoration operation, and it’s backed up for the foreseeable future working on customer cars. Instead, the nine XKSS reproductions will be put together at Jaguar Classic’s new Experimental Workshop in nearby Warwick.

Getting Into Shape

So what is the main hurdle Hannig and his team have faced in recreating the XKSS? “Without doubt our biggest challenge has been getting the form, or the shape, of the car absolutely right. We do have all the original drawings, but drawings simply don’t tell you how the shape was created.

“So we borrowed two original cars, one of which was the well-known, completely unrestored XKSS owned by Gary Bartlett from Muncie, Indiana. We digitally scanned both cars and, funnily enough, each one was slightly different. So we had to do a bit of guessing and go somewhere in the middle.”

As you’d expect, sourcing original parts has been impossible, so the Jaguar Classic engineers are making their own. Interestingly, they’ve been using advanced 3D printing not to create components, but to make the tooling to produce forms from which parts can be forged.

“We were unbelievably fortunate to track down an original and unused D-Type engine block. It was in the parts warehouse of the London Jaguar specialist RA Creamer and still in its original greased paper wrapping. We’ve used it to create the die cast to build the new blocks. Without it, we would have been looking at removing an engine from one of our D-Types to strip down and use as a template-not something we really wanted to do.”

The original XKSS’s 3.4-liter straight-six, with its trio of twin-choke Weber carbs, produced 250 horsepower, Hannig explains, and the recreations will deliver the same. While 250 horsepower may not sound especially potent, remember that an original aluminum-bodied XKSS tipped the scales at a featherweight 914 kilograms. That’s just 201 5 pounds. The new cars will weigh exactly the same amount.

Customizing Your XKSS

Despite Hannig’s single-minded focus on originality, the lucky nine buyers will be able to mildly customize their cars. We’re not talking 22-inch rims or Bose sound systems. There are five color choices: Old English White, British Racing Green, black, red and gray.

The rest of the options will reflect variations in the original cars. Some came with a chrome luggage rack on the rear deck, while others didn’t. Cars like the McQueen XKSS skipped the folding top for a simple tonneau cover and even left off the chrome-framed glass side windows.

There is one exception: “The original cars never had a fuel gauge. As they were based on race cars, the thinking was that someone else would look after that. So we’ll have discussions with the customer and maybe hide one under the dash.”

Of course, the $64 million question is whether Jaguar Classic will make money from selling nine hand-built XKSS recreations at $1.7 million a pop.

“I don’t think we’ll lose money on the project,” Hannig says, “but the intention here is not an economic one. This is a labor of love, a quest to recreate a missing part of Jaguar’s heritage.” It’s also an investment in skill: “As with the Lightweight E-Type program, it has allowed us to master so many capabilities with respect to D-Types and XKSSs that any type of restoration that now goes through our hands will be to a standard no one else can achieve.”

You can bet on one thing: The first recreation XKSS that hits the marketplace will fetch considerably more than its original $1.7 million sticker. Memo to Tim Hannig: Maybe you should have asked more.

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