The End Of An Era For Me, Part 1

As you may already know, the first car I ever owned was a Carmen Red 1958 Jaguar 3.4 Litre Sedan with wire wheels and Lucas Flamethrower fog lamps, otherwise known as a MK1. I had seen this particular car many years earlier when I was on my paper route. I was so struck by its beauty that I pedaled after it and saw which driveway it turned into. The owner wasn’t one of my customers so I didn’t know who he was. Many years later in 1969 a friend of mine showed me a picture of a Jaguar XK, and the look of the car brought back the memories of that chance encounter so many years before. I knocked on the owner’s door and asked if he still had the Jag. He did, and said it was for sale, so I bought it with $600 of saved paper route money. It was a beautiful car, with lots of power and a luxurious leather and walnut interior. That started me on a long path of Jaguar ownership.
Later that year I went off to college in Massachusetts, but unfortunately freshmen were not allowed to have cars there. That didn’t keep me from noticing other cars, though. One day I saw, in a driveway across the street from my dorm, a beautiful car that I later learned was a Carmen Red 1958 Jaguar XK150 Fixed Head Coupe. It looked like a 2-door version of my own car, since it was the same year and the same color. I was familiar with the famous E-Type, but I was not familiar with older Jaguars, since my sedan was the first one I had ever seen. I went over to look at it, and the owner noticed my interest and came out to talk to me about it.

The story he told was that nine years earlier in 1960 he had bought an XK120 (whatever that was) that needed some work. He parked it in a rented garage, stripped the paint and removed the cylinder head. That’s when he noticed that the engine had a broken piston ring, which had scratched a cylinder wall. That sent him off looking for a parts car from which to source a donor engine. One of the cars he found was the beautiful red XK150, and reasoning that it would be better to have a nice running car right away rather than dealing with a long-term repair project, he bought the XK150 to drive and stopped work on the XK120. The XK120 sat there neglected, and by the time we met he had been paying rent on the storage garage for the previous nine years. Sensing a potential buyer, he invited me to go to the garage and look at it.

The two swinging garage doors creaked open for the first time in who-knows-how-long, and there it sat. The bonnet was up, the cylinder head was sitting on the front wing where it had been abandoned so many years before, and the entire car was covered with a decade of accumulated dust. The layers of dirt and grime caused the chrome and the glass and the body to appear indistinguishable from each other. I had never seen anything like it, but the shape had a resemblance to my new sedan, and the engine was the same. It had obviously had a hard life. Although the car had only been driven for 10 years before it had been put away, in that time it had received a new vinyl interior, which itself was now completely deteriorated. It was also impossible to tell what its color originally was, since the owner had carefully removed all traces of paint. It had a patina of oxidation everywhere on the bare metal, but no rust, and it appeared to be complete. The owner named a price, but since I had just spent all my paper route savings on my 3.4 Litre Sedan and knew nothing about restoring or even repairing cars, I was not in a position to do anything besides nod appreciatively and walk away. However, during the next few months I spent some time learning about the lonely car that sat in that garage.

To be continued…

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can’t wait for Part 2…and 3 etc. with photos !! Nick

…me too!! :blush:

…me three!

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I learned that it was a 1951 XK120 Super Sports, also known as an OTS, or Open Two Seater, and it was certainly open. It had never been designed to be an enclosed car, since the plastic windows, when they were not in use, were stored in the boot. The canvas top, which was nearly impossible for a single individual to erect, was stashed behind the seats. The edge of the cockpit was surrounded by a padded roll called “coaming”, just like an old open biplane or a hot air balloon basket. The doors were opened by reaching inside and pulling on a leather strap, since there were no outside door handles. Turns were signaled by sticking your left arm out in various positions, but that was impossible with the side curtains (windows) installed. It had single-speed, non-parking windshield wipers, and no heater or defroster. It was, however, the fastest production car in the world at the time it was made, and originally cost as much as a new Cadillac. A man named Al Keller had driven his personal XK120 in the 1954 NASCAR race (then called the Grand National) which was held at the Linden, NJ airport, and achieved first place by almost a full lap. Shortly thereafter the rules of the race were changed to only admit American cars. In addition to the OTS, the XK120 was later available as a hardtop or a convertible, both of which had the luxuries of turn signals, roll-up windows and outside door handles. Although the OTS was the most popular XK120 model, selling 70% more than the other two models combined, Jaguar still only sold a little over 7600 of the OTS worldwide over a 5 year period. That made it a pretty rare car.

A few months passed and my dad came up to college to drive me home for Easter vacation. While he was there I took him to see the car. It didn’t look any better this time around, and it would have taken a very imaginative person to see through the obvious crud and observe the jewel beneath. My dad was certainly NOT that type of person. However, to his credit, he was not inclined to squelch my enthusiasm. The owner, who had just spent an additional three month’s rent on the garage, hit me with an even lower number than the previous time. I turned to my father and repeated the words that every college kid has said throughout history, “Can I borrow some money?”. My father scowled at me, scowled at the car, and then pulled out his checkbook and wrote the owner a check for $150, as payment in full. I had only received my driver’s license a few months previously and now I owned two cars, one that I couldn’t drive at college and one that I couldn’t drive at all, since it was disassembled and hadn’t run in a decade. I spent the next month cleaning off nine years of accumulated crud, polishing the “finish” with steel wool, and using a paint roller to coat it with green Rust-Oleum.

Transporting it from Massachusetts to New Jersey was the next problem. For some unknown reason we chose Labor Day weekend to bring it home. My father had rented a tow bar, but the XK120 had virtually no front bumpers. I solved the problem by cutting 4 lengths of threaded rod and attaching them to the frame where the original tiny bumpers bolted, with the rods protruding forward through the body. Then using nuts and washers on the threaded rods I attached a railroad tie across the front of the car, and thereby created a reasonably sized bumper on which to attach the tow bar. The ancient 6.00-16 tires on the car were all different brands, and one had an add-on wide whitewall, but they miraculously still held air, and I carefully cleaned and greased all the wheel bearings so we would be sure to have no trouble on the way home. The irony of that assumption would become apparent later.

To be continued…

image

Al Keller at the Linden Airport in 1954

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I am enjoying this story very much thank you for sharing it. You remind me of how I rescued my first MG TC.

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Thank you for the feedback, Syd. I will continue with my saga:

My dad was a straight-laced, law abiding citizen and since we would be travelling through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey he inquired to the various states about the laws regarding towed vehicles. He learned that there was no consistency whatsoever in these laws among the states. For instance, Massachusetts required that the towed car be registered, inspected and insured, which in this case was obviously impossible to do, since the Jag didn’t even run. The other states had various different requirements. Eventually we simply decided to sally forth regardless, so we put a “Vehicle In Tow” sign on the back and hoped for the best with local law enforcement.

The largest, most powerful car my father owned was a nine-year-old Rambler American, which at the time was the cheapest American car made, with a 127 horsepower 6 cylinder engine and three speed manual transmission. Nevertheless, it was pressed into service as a towing vehicle, despite the fact that the Jaguar weighed more than the Rambler did. We disconnected the Jaguar’s driveshaft, connected the cars together and headed south towards New Jersey.

Everyone who owns an old British car knows they are a source of never-ending adventures. My first adventure with that car occurred on that trip towing it home. The Rambler’s three speed transmission had a high first gear, so it normally took a bit of clutch slippage to get even that light car rolling by itself. With the Jag attached behind it the Rambler now effectively weighed twice as much as it normally did, so getting all that mass in motion from a stop required extended clutch slippage, with the attendant ominous burning smell. Luckily it turned out that we never needed to start moving while heading up a hill.

All was going reasonably well until we crossed into New Jersey. We were travelling on a divided highway with a grassy median when suddenly the Rambler gave a lurch, followed by a loud scraping sound and a precipitous drop in speed. At that point we were horrified to see a heavy Jaguar wheel, tire and brake drum assembly pass us on the left, doing about 50 miles per hour. There was nothing we could do but watch helplessly as it careered diagonally towards the opposing traffic. As we stared, transfixed, the tire hit the curb of the median and vaulted into the air, flying straight towards the windshield of a bus that was approaching in the oncoming lane. By a stroke of luck there was a large speed limit sign in the middle of the median, and the heavy wheel hit it squarely in the center, bending it over. The kinetic energy of the wheel having thus been dissipated, it dropped to the grass as the bus motored on, oblivious to its narrow escape. My dad scraped the now three-wheeled Jaguar to the side of the road as I darted among the traffic, salvaging all the brake parts I could find. Pistons, seals, spreaders, springs, adjusters, shoes; oddly enough, I found them all. Because the XK doesn’t have one axle extending all the way across the car, the people at Jaguar refer to the front axles as “stub axles”. Well, the left one on my car was a lot stubbier now. In spite of my preparations the outer wheel bearing had seized, which twisted the axle in two, thus releasing the wheel to go its independent way.

To be continued…

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Just to put this into perspective, we are now in 196?

Could we ask for more photos please, while we sit comfortably and read? :slight_smile:

Remember that this was 1970, long before the invention of cell phones that we now take for granted. My father walked a quarter mile to the nearest phone booth and called my mother at home and explained the situation to her. She then got out the phone book (not Google) and made arrangements for a tow truck to pick us up. A few hours later a giant mountain of a man drove up in a flatbed truck. From the looks of him it would have been appropriate to see him living at the top of a beanstalk. He said that since the car was a low-slung Jaguar, with only three wheels, he had chosen to bring the flatbed instead of a conventional hoist truck. Nice, thoughtful, probably correct, but much more expensive. He hooked up the winch and dragged the three-wheeled Jag up the ramp, causing me to cringe as the now flat-bottomed brake backing plate scraped along the diamond-plate truck bed. My new car, which was not in very good condition to start with, was now in even worse shape. I had no money, and my ownership expenses had already begun. The tow operator was getting ready to strap the car down when I asked him if we could put a piece of wood under the brake backing plate to cushion it. “Sure, kid”, he rumbled, and grabbed the fender with two hands that looked like catcher’s mitts and with sheer brute strength lifted the front quarter of the car high enough that the suspension hung to its lowest extent and I was able to put the wood under the backing plate. If the winch on his flatbed ever broke I’m sure he could have loaded a car without it. We put the errant wheel and the tow bar in the Rambler’s trunk and I climbed into the flatbed’s cab to direct the driver on my new car’s ignominious first trip home. All the way there I dreaded the thought of how much this was going to cost me. I had needed to borrow the money from my dad to even purchase the car, and this failure was just adding to the debt. So, what was the cost of having someone come out on a holiday weekend and drive over 50 miles with a tilt-bed truck, then load up and carry my crippled car the 50 miles back to my parent’s house? “Gimme seventy bucks and we’ll call it even.” I was expecting it to be a lot more. I guess he must have felt sorry for me since he knew I would be subjected to ongoing “I told you so’s” from my father until I was able to repay him, and probably for some time thereafter. Little did I know that it would be thirty years before I would be able to even drive my new XK120 on the road.

Post Script:
Back in the day there was a junkyard on Staten Island called “Stuckers” that contained only foreign cars. They didn’t have any XK120’s but scattered out in the woods they had a few of the big MK VII sedans that Jaguar sold during the same era. Taking a chance, I pulled a stub axle from one of them and, luckily, it was the same one that Jaguar had used on the sports car. The wheel bearings were also the same, so I took them too. New parts? Who could afford new parts?!

The broken piston ring had indeed scored the cylinder wall, but the mark was entirely superficial, and a few strokes with a glaze breaker hone were all it took to make it disappear. So much for the reason the original owner had abandoned the project.

I think this is where the term “Shade Tree Mechanic” comes from.

These cars are much easier to take apart than they are to put back together.

This was the entire extent of my driving the XK120 for the next three decades.

To be continued…

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Thanks for a great history of your first Jaguars. What memories it brings back to me of my first XK in the Sixties. Please continue at length!

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You, sir, are a tall drink of water!

The 120 must be fun for you to ingress/egress!

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Thanks for sharing Mike. My story has a lot of similarities. I was looking for an Austin-Healey to restore in the late seventies. I found an XK 140 that was a non-runner but it was out of my price range. I told my Dad about it and he decided to buy it thinking we could restore it together as a father/son project. When he retired five years later he decided to take it apart, but then lost interest and restored his E-Type (which I still have) instead. So there the car sat in pieces in his shop until he died in 2015. I have been actively restoring it since about 2017, but it is now tied up in body shop never, never land. All I can do is write checks and pray for an end to this process. I would love to drive it, but to date my biggest thrill was getting the engine to run again after forty years. There is something strange about having a car in your life for many decades, but never getting to drive it. Like you, I am hoping for a happy end to this saga in the not too distant future.

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Looking forward to the continuation of this story!

Me too. The composition of the b&w pic is intriguing.

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…working on the next chapter…

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With bated breath, we await!

:smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

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People have asked me why I squeeze myself into the XK120 and I explain that it’s because I REALLY want to.

A Little More of the Saga:

In the decades after 1970 I disassembled, sandblasted, painted and undercoated every piece of metal on the car. I disassembled the car outdoors, cleaned every part and made a pile of parts inside the garage. At the end of the process I was able to drag the chassis inside the garage and attach all the parts back onto it. I went to night school at the local vocational college and learned tin-knocking and lead-loading. The class was listed as a Bodyworking class and was held in the auto shop, but I soon learned that the students didn’t want to learn anything, they were simply paying for the class so they could have a place to do their own mechanical work on their cars. The instructor was an elderly gentleman who was amazed and enthusiastic to find out that I actually wanted him to teach me the old and somewhat obsolete skills that he had learned over a lifetime in the auto body repair business. The XK120 was covered with dents, so I went over every square inch of it to make the curves accurate and the sides flat. I also kept my eyes open at autojumbles and Ebay and snatched up any parts that I could use to improve the car when I finally got around to putting it back into running order. As everyone has experienced, life gets in the way of our hobbies, so over the years I worked on the car sporadically without a definite completion goal in mind. I knew that Jaguar never made very many of these cars, and the odds of anyone in my area knowing any details about them to help me with my restoration was very slim. That changed when I discovered the Jag-Lovers internet list. I found it amazing that I could tap into the combined knowledge of people all over the world to help answer my questions.

I also belonged to a motorcycle club and rode with them on most weekends. We had meetings every week so I got to know a lot of interesting members over the years, people with vastly different backgrounds but all having the common interest in riding motorcycles. One night I was talking to Rick Holland, one of my fellow members, when another member came over and said that he had heard that I was into Jaguars and wanted to know if I was interested in looking at one that someone had abandoned in his barn. That’s another story for another time, but the mention of “Jaguar” perked up Rick’s ears. When I told him I had an XK120 he expressed his disbelief in strong bovine scatological terms. I was somewhat taken aback, and asked him why he was skeptical. When he told me that he actually owned two XK120’s it was my turn to return his expression of disbelief. It turned out that one of his cars was his first car and the other had belonged to his cousin, but that’s another story for another time. It had been my impression that since Jaguar had only made a few thousand of these cars many decades previously there were probably very few of them left. Through Jag-Lovers we found that there were no fewer than five XK120 owners within 20 miles of my house, and we started getting together for beers and discussion. Those meetings evolved into Rick and myself hosting the Jag-Lovers’ Picnics. The year was 2000, and I made it my goal to get the XK120 roadworthy so I could drive it to the picnic. People from as far away as Ohio, Vermont and Florida came together at our motorcycle club house, but that’s another story for another time.

Anyone know Pascal Gademer from Florida? That’s his S3 E-Type behind my car. Yes, he drove it from Miami to New Jersey. And back.

Many things happened to me in the next few decades, including marriage and birth of a son and all the responsibility that goes along with that situation. I had plenty of other important things to occupy my time, so the XK120 sat neglected in its garage for many years. Fast-forward through a divorce, retirement and a house move and that brings us to the present day.

To be continued…

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Lucky you for finding as many XK owners near you as you have Mike. Here in San Jose, CA I have yet to cross paths with another XK local.

Great story with its tangents here. Keep 'em coming please.

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I count three “stories for another time” in that essay. Looking forward to them, too.

Thanks for sharing “your adventure” Mike. As I am sure it does for a great many others reading it, it brings back a flood of memories of my own life with cars. The story of my first car, a 1953 MG-TD, follows very much the same script; coming home on a rope in a pile of pieces behind the family 1960 Buick. From the photo of you at the wheel of the stripped chassis it is obvious you are quite tall; did you incorporate any changes in the rebuild to accommodate your stature?

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