4/14/2006 - The Long Wait
Decades Later, the “Jagwar” with two speedometers and the spinning engine still provides miles of smiles.
By D. Randy Riggs
Truman was President. The Korean War was in full swing. I had just learned to ride my bicycle sans training wheels and was about to enter kindergarten. My daily concerns centered on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the Howdy Doody TV show. My favorite toys consisted of a great variety of cars and trucks and it was no coincidence that my reading preference was a Little Golden Book entitled, “Tuffy the Truck.”
In 1951, I was fortunate enough to be living in an affluent neighborhood of Bucks County, Pennsylvania and the good life of a child born on the leading edge of the “baby boom” generation. The garages near my home were filled with Cadillacs, Buicks, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles. Heck, there was even a Duesenberg owned by the local furrier who exercised it every Sunday morning and parked it prominently in his circular driveway. Not a bad place to grow up if you were a “car nut” and I most certainly was well on my way to becoming just that.
I knew the difference between a Chevy and a Ford and all the rest too, but what really wowed the grown-ups around me was how I could correctly name a passing car by its sound alone. Most cars had very distinctive exhaust notes back then, so to me it was no big deal to tell the difference between, say, a straight-eight Buick and a flathead Ford.
Yet one day I’d been fooled by an exhaust note that sounded like no other car I’d ever heard. I was at my Dad’s office and one of his friends had bought a new car—and he zoomed it down the street to show it off. I hadn’t caught a glimpse as he roared past, but could tell by my Dad’s excitement that it was something special.
“Comon, Bub,” he said. “Mr. Bracker got his new Jaguar. Let’s go see it.”
Jagwar? Jagwar? What’s a Jagwar? I wondered. Ed Bracker was even a bigger car nut than my old man and his place of business was a short few blocks away. So we clamored into our ’49 Caddy fastback and headed for Bracker’s shop.
And there it was… right out on the front lawn of his big electrical supply business, a shape so alluring I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a brand-new Jaguar XK-120 fixed-head coupe, a silver-gray color with disc wheels and fender skirts. It had to be the swoopiest car on the planet.
My Dad called it “a beaut,” and walked around it several times with his hands jingling the change in his pockets. He was probably thinking that his friend had one-upped him. Then he glanced at me and said, “It’s made in England, it’s a foreign job,” a term that was lost on me.
I gazed at the wooden dashboard and exclaimed, “It’s got two speedometers!” Mr. Bracker laughed and said, “No, that one there’s a tachometer. It tells you how many times your engine is spinning over.”
So in my five-year-old mind I got a mental picture of the engine spinning around under the hood. Until then, I didn’t know engines did that. So when they opened the hood, I asked to see the engine spin around. Mr. Bracker and my Dad laughed. “No, the engine doesn’t spin around—the inside of the engine spins around.” They lost me there, too.
Mr. Bracker invited me into the cockpit for a look around. I was dazzled. “How fast can it go?” I wondered out loud. “Hundred and twenty,” Mr. Bracker answered. My Dad just whistled and said, “Give him a spin around the block.”
I held my breath. “Wanna go for a ride?” Mr. Bracker smiled. My look must have said it all. He turned the key and pressed the button. Thrummmm. No seat belts, no child safety seat, and no releases to sign—this was when America was America—and off we went down Greenwood Avenue under the big Dutch elms that lined both sides of the street. The DOHC inline-6 hummed like Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. Up until that moment, nothing I’d ever experienced came close to this kind of excitement. The aroma of fresh leather and varnished walnut was intoxicating, and the whine of the gearbox sweet music to my ears. I raised myself up to see over the dash and the hood looked as though it was a mile long. I have never felt such a rush of power. I was hooked—hooked for life on cars like this one. No “American” car would ever quite carry the same allure for me, until my Dad brought home a new Corvette in 1956.
Of course, the ride in the Jag was over far too soon, but I never forgot that day. And the irony is that in spite of my 40-year profession involving automotive journalism and legions of acquaintances that are car nuts, I had never again sat inside of a Jaguar XK-120. That is, until I met up with Bruce Carnachan a few years back on the annual California Mille.
Bruce was a participant in the rally, and his Robin’s Egg Blue, two-owner original caught my eye, a 1954 roadster. Much to my surprise after some Jaguar chitchat, he offered me the opportunity to slide behind that nearly straight up and down steering wheel. Only this time I didn’t have to stretch to see over that dash.
I turned the key and pushed the starter button, chuckling to myself and thinking back 50 years to Mr. Bracker. Thrummmm. Sure enough, still “two” speedometers on the dash and that distinctive whine of the Moss gearbox. The DOHC six hummed along, spinning ‘round under the hood just fine. At that moment, all was right with the world. Adjusting the rear-view mirror, I caught a glimpse of myself, and wiped all over my face was the smile of a five-year-old.
Photo by D. Randy Riggs (Nürburgring)