2 December 2015

Classic Cat: The Jaguar Mk II

Classic car purists are apt to eulogise the Jaguar Mk2 in its ultimate incarnation, as the 3.8-litre, 125mph slingshot that tore up the tarmac in 1960s saloon car racing, in the manfully capable hands of legends like Roy Salvadori, Mike Parkes and Peter Nocker.

With 190bhp on tap, the same as a Rover SD1 3500 Vitesse of 1982 vintage, and the well-sorted drivetrain emblematic of the second generation of Jaguar’s compact sports saloon series, there was little doubt it was a force to be reckoned with.

That, however, is not the Mk2 that remains etched into many people’s memories. That car is a bottom-of-the-barrel Mk2 2.4-litre with a tacky vinyl roof – a car that was in such poor health that its handlers were often forced to push it.

It’s the 1960 Mk2 that accompanied actor John Thaw in his 13-year TV role as Morse, Colin Dexter’s perceptive but morose Oxford detective. It was ‘cast’ as part of Thaw’s real ale-savouring, opera-loving character. And the fact is, although the car used in the series was bought from a scrapyard at the start of filming in 1987 – and was so mechanically decrepit it was often rolled in and out of scenes – ‘the Morse Jaguar’ wrote everyone’s visual shorthand when discussing this totem of British classic cars. Today, indeed, it’s fastidiously restored, was sold for £150,000 10 years ago, and can be hired for upmarket corporate events.

Mk2s were never especially rare, with over 120,000 of the cars with this gracefully tapering body style – Daimler V8s included – built over a nine-year period. But they always had a reputation slightly outside the mainstream. With most of the 3.8-litre cars heading off to the USA, the remaining Jaguars supplied new in Britain were sold to the well-off and adventurous. These people might have had the money for something chauffeur-driven – perhaps the big MkX – but they preferred the visceral thrills of driving themselves, and loved the combination of the well-crafted interior ambience with the responsiveness of, in particular, the 3.4-litre XK engine.

Not many uptight British citizens used to the stately dignity of a Humber, Daimler or Vanden Plas 3-litre, would countenance such automotive rakishness. Zephyr and Cresta drivers, meanwhile, just couldn’t afford one, excellent value though the Mk2 was. Drivers of the Jag were a band apart.

And then, when the cars slipped through the gates and, via the secondhand car market, departed Belgravia for Balham, they remained a car for those free of middle class mores. Likely as not, they were run by flash Harrys, diamond geezers, and boys-done-good, whose company was but a Racing Post and a Castella away from the criminal hinterland.

Oh yes, the Mk2 was the car to have if you needed a fast getaway. Stolen ones started to be used in bank jobs from the early 1960s because, in the hands of an experienced getaway driver, nothing could catch a Mk2. Police Wolseleys were left flailing at the first corner.

Perhaps the law-abiding wider public didn’t really cotton on to this until the Great Train Robbery of 1963, when Ronnie Biggs and Co used them in their audacious mail train heist. A fictionalised version of events in the 1966 Peter Yates film Robbery had Mk2s really showing their backstreet fleetness to rude effect, and the notoriety of the Mk2 became as firmly established as a grass’s legs set in quick-setting concrete.

A ratty Mk2, from the late 1960s onwards, became the dodgy motor from central casting, popping up in everything from Richard Burton’s Villain and Michael Caine’s Get Carter to Bob Hoskins’ Mona Lisa and Richard E Grant’s Withnail and I. Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons, had he caught sight of any of these British movie classics, might have been appalled, but the Mk2 was an automotive metaphor for menace and sleaze. Admittedly, it was the later S-type that barreled through numerous episodes of The Sweeney; its superior independent rear suspension set-up extended the limits of spectacular stunt driving, and there were fleets of them available for silly money. But the Mk2 was the original carriage of debauchery and degeneration, on-screen and off.

The Jaguar ‘Utah’ series, beginning with the retrospectively titled ‘Mk1’ in 1955, was the firm’s first monocoque. The development team in Coventry, starting in 1952, certainly made sure they did a solid job. It was a very strong car. That’s why, at its value nadir in the early/mid 1970s, the Mk2 was a mainstay of Britain’s banger racing scene.

I well remember a holiday trip to Spedeworth’s dusty stadium at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk in about 1974. Most of the audience, munching their hotdogs, guffawed at the ancient ice cream van that careered around the dirt track before it was pushed over by an Austin Cambridge. But I was transfixed by the vista of so many Jaguar Mk2s – some pretty straight despite their smashed-out windows – barging and sliding their way through the destruction-derby pack.

I was bewildered, even then. It seemed a curious fate for one of Britain's finest classic sports saloons, one that was a centre-spread pin-up for the nascent classic car magazines of the time.

The cars being destroyed were just unsightly old Jags that were all but unsaleable, and there were plenty of unwanted examples around. I didn't realise it at the time but these cars were among the must rust-prone, high-maintenance secondhand saloons in Britain. They were unfashionably curvaceous next to a chunky new Ford Granada Ghia; their engines drank oil and ventilation was absolutely appalling.

The Mk2 wastage throughout the 1970s seems, now, shocking, and thankfully by the early 1980s it had been halted. People suddenly realised this extraordinary car, with its gorgeous twin-cam engine, walnut-and-leather interior, and delicious driving experience, was something special. The cash-rich 1980s saved its bacon. There were enough survivors, the 1970s carnage notwithstanding, to provide a renovated MK2 for every city trader who wanted one. And far-sighted restoration companies like Vicarage went one stage further, reinstating every bit of the outer glamour and character of the car in all its chrome-laden, Connollised, detail-perfect glory but rethinking troublesome innards in the electrics, starting and handling departments.

The work required was always extensive, because original factory quality of the Mk2 was never came close to Mercedes-Benz standards; rust was always an issue, and Jaguar's body-makers had filled crude panels with molten lead to get an even finish, storing up more problems in later life. Yet a pukka Mk2, once expensively righted and updated, was every bit as practical a daily proposition as a brand new BMW 5 Series. A classic car scene without this amazing Jag just wouldn’t be the same.

Hagerty is one of the UK’s foremost insurers of classic Jaguars and a partner to Jaguar Heritage. For more information read about our classic Jaguar insurance here.

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