We take a look at the original mid-market Jaguar – the oft overlooked MkI.
So much for Fifties ventilation – it’s bloody warm in here. In such temperatures (today is the hottest of 2013 so far), you yearn for the pampered cool calm of a modern car’s air-con. Especially when Mr Hughes is looking so unbelievably smug in his modern FWD refrigerator.
Praise be! The queue of traffic quickly breaks up and the MkI Jag can climb up though the gears onto the motorway slip road. Windows down and quarterlights open, the air blasts away those terrible modern car thoughts and a few precious sweaty degrees.
Retrospectively dubbed the ‘MkI’ the 2.4 and 3.4 were the original baby and/or mid-market Jaguars. Models which due to lower production figures (36,740 built between 1955 and 1959) have always lived in the shadow of its younger, more hip brother – the MkII 2.4/3.4/3.8 (83,800 built between 1959 and 1967 plus 17,620 of the 1962-’69 Damiler 2½-litre/ 250 V8). A groovy model with a broad range of pop culture references from Inspector Morse to Get Carter and Robbery – whereas the MkI really only has one claim to automotive fame… Or should that be infamy?
Registered 882 VDU, this green MkI 3.4 is an evocation of the car in which Mike Hawthorn – Britain’s first F1 world champion – was killed. That car was registered VDU 881, was on long-term loan from Jaguar and is thought to have boasted a racing engine with 70bhp more than the standard 3.4’s plentiful 210bhp. A car which, it must be remembered, was one of the fastest saloons of its day.
Modified by the Hawthorn family business, Tourist Trophy Garage in Farnham, on the track he won the 1958 production car race at Silverstone in that very MkI – but it is a contentious dice with team owner Rob Walker in a Mercedes 300SL during inclement weather on 21st January 1959, which is arguably for what that car was and remains infamous. On a fast flowing downhill section of the A3 near Guildford, he lost control; the car left the road, hit a tree, was completely wrecked and Hawthorn was dead.
This car isn’t an exact replica in the vein of Nigel Webb’s exacting recreation 881 VDU. Indeed, one element of the original car which I won’t be missing is a set of early radial-ply Duraband tyres; 882 VDU is fitted with modern radial-plies, therefore grip won’t be here one second and gone the next…
Built by Guy Broad using a 1959 MkI, this machine has been modified for ease of use and to perk up its performance in keeping with the spirit of Hawthorn’s 3.4. The interior is a different colour from Hawthorn’s car and it lacks the C-type seats – but it doesn’t matter to passers-by who smile and enthusiastically wave up-turned thumbs.
It’s an incredibly easy car to drive, if you are used to the eccentricities of the ‘I refuse to be rushed’ Moss four-speed gearbox with overdrive. The suspension has been rebuilt with poly bushes and Koni dampers, while the steering is assisted rack and pinion to make the most of the aforementioned radial tyres. These Jags – along with their more numerous MkII successors – enjoy an unenviable reputation for being hard work to drive, but such is the lightness and precision of this car that you quickly and easily keep pace with modern traffic.
Running twin 2 inch SU HD8 carburettors, the 3.4-litre XK ‘six’ features ported inlet manifolds, ported and flowed cylinder head, D-type camshafts and a Broadsport six-brand extractor manifold. It is an engine which manages to be extremely capable no matter what you ask of it – be it swift acceleration, relaxed motorway cruising or urban dawdling on its vast reserves of torque.
In all honesty though, the latter two don’t get much of a chance to shine – for once you have discovered the vocal range of the XK, your right foot cannot help itself. The urge is impressively linear, so unlike many engines there is no obvious notion of it coming on cam. Having said that, the delivery of the urge just gets more wide-eyed and louder around 3000rpm, where the XK’s creamy baritone alters its pitch to that of a gargling tenor. At 4000rpm and beyond it is really shifting and a cock-sure Transit driver is put firmly back into his box.
Ride is good and body control is well-contained, but what this 3.4 really enjoys is bitumen of the bendy variety. Here, its combination of an exceedingly accurate and enjoyable front end, allied to deft turn-in – assisted by the MkI’s narrower rear track – makes the Jag one of the faster cars across country.
I say ‘one of the faster cars across country’ because something faster has just boomed past me on a straight with Mr Smith behind the wheel. That familiar-shaped thing is SDW 740, a Jaguar 2.4 racer with decades of track history which amounts to five box files’ worth of exploits. Although the 2483cc XK is due to be changed for a 265bhp 3442cc XK to make it FIA HTP eligible – this smaller engine will remain with the car. Featuring a trio of Weber 45DCOE carbs bolted onto an unusual inlet manifold, the 2.4-litre screamer is running a compression ratio of 10.1:1 and D-type camshafts.
Posting myself past the rollcage, the door-bars and the side-bolster of the racing bucket seat, I scarcely have time to notice the stripped out and black-painted interior, before I’m clobbered by the tidal wave of heat… Hell has to be cooler than this Jag.
Sliding into 882 VDU and the first thing you savour, is the unmistakable Jaguar fragrance of old wood and gamey leather, before noting the genteel aesthetics of the cabin and caressing the slim four-spoke wheel. Not here. In here, it’s stripped to the bone and with utilitarian controls – some of which resemble a communist stomach pump.
On with the harness. You sit lower and further back than in the 3.4. Key turned, immobiliser de-activated and starter stabbed. The XK bursts into life. It is harsher, more urgent and sharper-edged than the 3.4, even without taking into account the vocal induction from the twin-choke trio.
On the move… The shrieking racing clutch has all the intellectual inflexibility of Fred Kite with regards to matters being ‘in or out bruvvas’. The manual steering is as chunky as the rim of the leather-bound Moto-Lita steering wheel. The thigh-straining brakes feel completely unassisted and positively pre-War but the pedals are perfectly placed for heel and toe downchanges through the quick and positive ‘crash’ four-speeder. The all or nothing delivery of an engine that will apparently rev to 7000rpm. Oh yes!
Fettled highlights of the suspension include: poly bushing, uprated lowering spring and Koni dampers; plus a wider tracked rear axle from a MkII and this time, bias-ply Dunlops of the racing variety are fitted. Meaning this Jaguar doesn’t have the straight-line stability nor the keen turn-in of the green 3.4.
All the windows and quarterlights which can be opened are opened, but I am still being swiftly poached in my own juices. My fevered grey matter then squelches out a thought: go quickly, create a draft and get cooler…
The noise from the engine and gearbox. The heat soak. The fumes.
Through corners, the bias-ply tyres grip and drift, grip and drift – so steering lock is not applied in one smooth turn, it is necessary to tackle bends one nibble at a time.
The crash ’box, echoes the macho inclinations of the brakes and clutch. There’s no need for a split-second pause as with the 3.4’s Moss ’box, here you physically jab up through the gears as quickly as you can.
As the speed swells, the noise gets more intense and less coherent. At 4000rpm, it sounds like a glorious and very familiar racing XK – uncompromisingly shouty and serrated with an underscore of angry gargling. However, past 5000 and heading for 6000rpm it explodes into a brutal four-stroke screaming match which infiltrates everywhere and everything. Could it be the con-rods begging for mercy? Whatever – it overcomes your ears and penetrates your skull so completely that you can’t hear yourself think. Oli remarks most succinctly that ‘it’s the sound of war’.
Thankfully, a looming bend, physics and self-preservation demand that I lift and grant mercy to my frazzled brain and pummelled eardrums.
Catching my breath and wiping my brow, the 2.4 returns to a canter and a more sensible volume. In comparison with this, the 3.4 feels positively ‘normal’ – it is refined, chuckable and relaxing – an all-rounder that could easily cope with the daily grind. Yet, despite being old enough to know better – enjoying a healthy no claims bonus and driving licence – this Browns Lane berserker has got into my blood and wiped years off my attitude.
We come to a halt. The big flabby heat floods back in. The engine is killed and the resultant silence is almost oppressively deafening.
I clamber out – wet-through, slightly dazed and really rather knackered, yet for some reason this daft semi-cooked bugger can’t stop bearing a ruddy great grin.
To hell with air-con!
Thanks to Fender-Broad Classic Cars. Both Jaguars are currently for sale with details at: www.fenderbroad.com