When I was a child, there were two passions to pursue. One was to play with Märklin model trains and build a more or less fanciful model railway with tunnels, hills, small houses and all that. The other passion was model die-cast cars – Tekno, Corgi Toys, Dinky Toys and, more high-tech, Scalextric slot car racing tracks.
I was into the speedy world of cars. I collected these model cars and ended up having more than a hundred, which were never taken outdoors but looked like new – until I gave them all away to a children’s home in Trøjborg, Aarhus.
As soon as I could sit on a small three-wheel bicycle, I sat at the gate of our house and looked at cars on the quite busy main road. When an extraordinary car passed by – a Cadillac, Facel Vega, Mercedes Gullwing or other rarities – I told my father about them, and we looked up more about them in the evening after dinner, often in the Danish Bil-Årbogen (The Car Yearbook).
I obtained other yearbooks about cars, collected newspaper reviews, etc. I did not play much football – but did a lot of biking inspired by the most famous at the time, the Six-Day bike racing idols like Kay Werner, Evan Klamer and Palle Lykke. But cars, that was me!
And that was the time when cars were interesting – all kinds of shapes and forms, individuality or ‘personality’ – some strange and ugly, many with fine designs. Car producers cherished being different from the others.
Compare today’s ‘boxy’ designs … how boring, standardised and lacking every elegance. Many contemporary cars signal only raw power and are clumsy. SUVs, by definition, are ugly creatures. I take no interest in today’s cars; too much uniformity, sleekness and lack of personality. And, lo and behold, they are increasingly depriving you of the command and the joy of driving.
I admit to being very old-fashioned when it comes to cars. I want to drive the car, not be driven by it. I fancy the smell of real leather and the touch of a walnut wooden dashboard. I love to hear a real engine, smell it and also smell the fine petrol particles from the carburettor – and to sense how it moves more and more smoothly as it gets warmer.
I guess it’s a kind of Zen…
My father owned two Jaguars; first, a Mark VII and then a Mark 2. I could sit in them for hours in the garage and fantasize about driving them. It was my job to keep them clean inside. I smelled the red leather, let my polishing cloth caress the walnut dashboard, took out the carpets for vacuum-cleaning and put them back. It was a way to relate to something that was both a dream – namely, to drive it – and a reality for a 10-year-old boy.
Dreams are there to be realised, at least some of them. So in 1988, when I came across an old Jaguar E-Type from 1969 at a low price because it was ripe for renovation – but in good shape where it matters – I bought it. I still have it, a loving relationship ever since. And like with humans you love, you don’t throw them away just because they get older; you love and care for them in gratitude for all the joys they have given you.
For the enthusiast who may wonder, it’s a Series II, 2+2, 4.2 litres, 6 cylinders, and its name is Carol because her first owner in the US called her so.
It’s the only car I have ever had and the only car I am going to have.
So what are those joys?
One, to drive it, that feeling of lying low on the road, a solid feel of a racing car, of potential high-speed power combined with elegance. Feeling the quality of the cabin, everything old-style and mechanical. Opening the bonnet and seeing a piece of technological history.
Two, beauty. Enzo Ferrari allegedly called it the most beautiful car ever made. I think he was right; with a worn-out phrase, it is iconic. The immense beauty of the proportions, every detail shaped by and artistic touch – just look at those front lamps or the brilliant shape and fit of that bonnet.
Three, quality – largely handmade, and it can only be renovated by the – magic – hands of specialised experts. And think of its uniqueness; in the engine compartment sits a metal plate with the numbers of the engine, gearbox, body, etc.
Another dimension of quality and beauty is this: These old cars can be restored – from a heap of rust to a higher quality than when they rolled off the assembly line. The handicraft people who do so and the car owners are happy people.
Now, can you imagine someone 50 years from now working with love and pride on restoring a plastic-and-electronics car with basically the same look and components as every other car? I mean, look at those spiritless plastic parts in the photo.
Four, everything mechanical, nothing electronic, things can be repaired by the work of the brain and hands. Kind of understandable – which doesn’t mean easy to repair. It requires special tools and treatment by people who love such old cars. But over the years, the car has given me opportunities to learn a lot about mechanics, materials, paints, and processes – and I have been permitted by my repair shops to be present and see how they did it. For instance, when I decided to paint the engine compartment and the engine, I had to find high-temperature paint for the exhaust manifolds (see the gold pieces in the photo below) and ended up with a jet engine paint that sustains 800 degrees centigrade).
Five, speed and sustainability. It was built as a racing car with the famous XK engine. It will last a lifetime if cared for. The mere thought of building obsolescence into the product would have been a disgrace to Sir William Lyons and everybody working at the Jaguar factory. Quality impliea lifelong sustainability – if you care for it.
Six, it’s a piece of history – from the roaring 1960s. I still remember how the media reported when it was presented to the world at the Geneva Motor Show in 1961. I was ten, and who would not dream of acquiring such a car when getting old enough? It was wild, different, experimental, curvy and sexy – and no car had a remotely similar, elegant design. With a contemporary, worn phrase, it was a game-changer in the industry.
It broke down all ideas about what a fast car should look like. And it was half the price, or less, of its competitors, such as an Aston Martin or a Ferrari. It made automobile history.
Today it reminds us of those ‘Swinging Sixties’ – the Beatles, Stones, pop artist Richard Hamilton, hippie movement, mini-skirts – and the creativity of the otherwise deeply conservative Britain. A car that it could not produce today – and certainly not at an affordable price. Ironically, Jaguar is now owned by Tata Motors in India and produced in different places, including some parts in China. They’ve lost everything that defines what Jaguar means. Today’s Jaguars are of no interest to me; they completely lack that “X” factor that made Jaguars Jaguars.
Here is an old photo of what it was like to produce it back then in the 1960s in Coventry:
Seven, it creates positive energy. When I am out and about, people stop and ask what model or year it is from, or they want to sit it and imagine how it might be to drive; they admire its beauty and ask to take photos of it. Earlier, women used to look at me first and then the car, now it’s the other way around, or only the car…
Eight, Carol has brought me into contact with the finest repair specialists. I do not know what you associate with the concept of a “car repair shop,” but this is something way more positive. Those few who deal with the repair, maintenance and renovation of such cars are among the most conscientious craftsmen. They handle original and old materials, and they see themselves as conservators as much as those who restore paintings. There is no cutting corners; things shall be done according to original measures, drawings and criteria exactly like when the car was produced. They would not even think of deceiving you. They aim to maintain not only the physical objects and spare parts but also the ‘soul’ of the car.
I have three such repair shops for different aspects of the car, and their people have become my friends over the year. I admire them tremendously and sometimes visit them just to see what old cars they are re-creating from a rusty barn find to mint condition.
Nine, it is cheap. People – wrongly – assume that you must be wealthy to have such a fine old car. I am not, and you do not have to be. The philosophy is that I buy something that can last and then care for it. Just think long-term. Repairs are pretty cheap – spare parts, even original ones, are mechanical, nothing electric or electronic. If a pump dies of age, you get a new one; you do not take out and throw away a whole electronic system to change a rear mirror. I love everything mechanic – yes, old-fashioned again.
I have never been able to afford to buy a new car; you lose thousands of dollars when you drive it home from the shop. Even less would I buy a new car every three or four years, even if I could. Think of what that does to the global environment. If I had changed car every four years, I would be about to buy my 9th car now.
In contrast, Carol is now a collector’s car, and the day I have to part with it, it will be several times more valuable than when I bought her. And I’ve decided long ago that the next owner shall be an experienced enthusiast who must accept to have it cared for only by the repair shops I have used.
Ten, I would maintain that it is safe. My father crashed his first Jaguar in a frontal collision with a truck due to a front wheel explosion at a relatively high speed. He survived, was even unscathed, due to the thick all-metal metal body and the heavy engine there in front. I do not believe much in plastic bodies and airbags.
Eleven, it is pure Zen. Let me allude to Roberg Pirsig, the author of the wonderful book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – a copy of which I always keep in the car’s glove compartment – and say that it’s zen to maintain such a car. I is a philosophy, it is cultural heritage management, it is a relationship with technology and beauty – and it is as enigmatic as Pirsig’s motorcycle.
Look at that XK engine. Can you feel it?
Twelve, it has a design history that is both charming and an example of just how unfair the world can be.
Several Jaguars in the 1950s and 1960s – racing cars as well as sedans – were designed by Malcolm Sayer (1916-1970). At some point, he had been a visiting professor at Baghdad’s University and sat with a German colleague in the desert doing experiments with aerodynamic shapes, wind tunnels etc. There were, of course, no computers at the time, so Sayers calculated the various wind speeds and other data manually to make the car as aerodynamic as possible. Much later, these tests were replicated, and it turned out that they were as good as a computer could have made them.
Sayer was also a painter and a musician, a life artist and an experimenter. Sadly, however, he never got reasonable recognition for this piece of world design history while alive. I have not even been able to find a single photo of him with his masterpiece, the E-Type. It seems that Jaguar’s brilliant founder and CEO, Sir William Lyons, and the company got all the attention.
Sayers suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 53 – perhaps it was a broken heart? As a principle, I never mention my E-Type without also mentioning Malcolm Sayer; he designed the most beautiful car ever made, and he does not deserve to be forgotten.
Here is The Malcolm Sayer Foundation, and here is the spot-on statement by the Museum of Modern Art, MOMA, in New York when it displayed the E-Type: “Sayer uniquely blended science and art to produce timeless shapes of exceptional and enduring beauty. He brought science to the art of car design; and scientifically produced works of art.”
A friend – who had not quite understood this idea of old cars – once asked me – Jan, how can you drive such a car? You should sell it to show that you care for the environment.
From an environmental perspective, the only problem with this 1969 car is, of course, the high petrol consumption; it runs only 7-8 kilometres per litre. But here are the counter-arguments: a) I drive rather little per year, max 3000 kilometres; b) its exhaust values are as good as a car with a catalytic converter; c) the car has no electronic components, no plastic, no cobalt from Congo, Zambia, etc. as in modern electric/battery-driven cars such as Teslas; d) it lasts a lifetime, no car does today; e) to have such a car is much more environmentally acceptable than buying a new one with short intervals.
In addition, I’ve always believed that cars were for longer trips. You don’t use a car to buy bread around the corner on Sunday morning. You walk or jump on your bike. So, as minimum 75-100-kilometre trips, these engines were not built for shopping but for high-speed racing and touring. This cat spins and purrs at its best between 100 and 150 km/hour.
Over all these years, it’s been my car for pleasure and routines such as picking up people at the airport, driving to give a lecture, visiting friends, and even taking garden garbage to the recycling station. These cars should be exercised and used; it’s not good for them to stand for long in a garage. You cannot always avoid rainy weather, but it has never been taken out when, in the wintertime, roads are salted.
I have not ventured into working on the car. I have no talent for it, neither any experience nor the special tools needed. I wouldn’t run the risk of ruining this sculpture on wheels. But what does give me joy is washing and polishing it, caring for the leather seats and making small aesthetic improvements. When I recently had to get a replacement engine, and the engine compartment was empty for weeks, I cleaned out almost 50 years of dirt and painted it by hand and also painted details on the new engine before it was put in place.
Funnily, many – if not most – people who own a car like this care for everything except the engine compartment. I see it as the heart of a car, and when you open the bonnet, it should be as clean and beautiful as the car’s body or interior.
Put simply, it gives me tremendous joy to make things beautiful – for hours to polish stainless steel until it is as shiny as a mirror or chrome. I can anyhow not sit at my computer all the time.
And from a Zen perspective, I know that Carol is enchanted by such loving care…