Big-cat diary

Big-cat diary

Lee ‘Lewis’ Gale is on the prowl with a 1964 Jaguar Mk II

GolfPunk, 2004

With multi-million pound heists back in fashion, it’s a sign of the times that our safety-conscious crooks are choosing Volvos as their getaway cars, a vehicle more closely associated with school runs and caravanning than villainry. You can’t help thinking that these latter day Ronnie Biggs have missed the point somewhat. Where’s the panache? As a wink to the stylish thefts of the Sixties, it would have been a wonderful gesture for the Securitas robbers in Kent and Cheshire to have used a Jaguar Mk II to carry the lolly to their lair, preferably a top-of-the-range 3.8.

According to Classic Cars Magazine, a Jaguar Mk II in decent condition will set you back somewhere in the region of £11,000-£18,000, which is chicken feed if you’ve just made off with £53 million, but for those of us running on tighter budgets, the gentile hire operation of the Classic Car Club at classiccarclub.co.uk will fulfill your desire for the gangster look, without… well, breaking the bank. CCC currently has four Mk IIs. We borrow a 1964 3.8 in opalescent blue for the weekend, and roll back the years.

A star is born
When it was introduced at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1959, the 220bhp Jaguar Mk II 3.8 was the world’s fastest production car, with a top speed of 125mph. Its acceleration of 0-60 in 8.5secs might seem sedate by today’s standards, but at the time the 3.8 was a revelation. Its curved, feline design captivated the stockbrokers of Surrey and the East End underworld in equal measure. Such was the popularity of the Jaguar Mk II with the wrong side of the law, that the police were forced to buy a fleet of 3.8s in order to keep up with criminals on Britain’s new motorways – which then had no speed restriction.

The Mk II featured more glass than the Mk I, with a larger windscreen and heated rear-window giving a bright interior, meaning the walnut dash glowed like gold on summer evenings, while its interior switches and dials would have pleased pilots of the Avro Vulcan. With knockout performance, it was little wonder that the Mk II enjoyed huge success in motor sports in the early Sixties, most notably the European Touring Car Championship which was won in 1963 by German driver Peter Nocker in a ‘virtually unbeatable’ Mk II 3.8. Away from the track, racing personalities such as Graham Hill and Colin Chapman drove Mk IIs, increasing the car’s magnetic appeal to alpha males.

Sporting prowess inevitably led to television and film work. A white, 1961 Mk II 3.4 with red leather seats was Bob Hoskins’ wheels in superb British gangster movie Mona Lisa, while Get Carter heavies Con McCarty and Peter the Dutchman arrived in Newcastle with a red 3.8 to bring Michael Caine’s Jack back to London, and quickly had their passenger door torn off by a Ford Cortina Mk I. And who can forget the alcohol-sodden Withnail being pulled over in a one-headlamped Mk II in the cult, highly quotable film Withnail & I (Policeman: ‘Bit early in the morning for festivities isn’t it, sir?’).

Despite these starring roles, the Jaguar Mk II’s crowning moment on screen didn’t arrive until 1987. Shortly after 8pm on Tuesday, January 6th, the nation caught a glimpse of a burgundy Mk II 2.4, registration 248 RPA, gliding into a garage forecourt. It was soon smashed in the side by a car full of baddies. The Jag’s owner, the eagle-headed Oxon sleuth Inspector Morse, was far from amused – but a billion viewers in 200 countries loved it.

On the road
Never drive a Jaguar Mk II in Britain if you’re in a rush. Everybody over the age of 50 has a story they’re desperate to share with you about this stunning slice of British engineering history. If you have a spotless model in superb condition, men will plead with you to pull over so they can observe your handiwork. Isn’t it great to openly lie? ‘Did you renovate this?’ you’ll be asked. ‘Yup,’ you’ll nod.

But how quickly we forget the rigmarole of driving prior to 1980. I’d forgotten that cars once needed warming up for 15 minutes before taking them on the road. Frighteningly, while still cold, our engine cuts out – along with the power steering – as we turn into a Tesco service station. Redirecting 3,136lbs with an icy steering wheel is a better Sunday morning jolt than a strong Americano. Once filled up (and engine thoroughly warmed), our amble takes us west from South London to the golf-belt between the M4 and M40. Men, strolling for newspapers, flash knowing smiles as we growl across town. 

The Jag’s brakes are less effective than Ark Royal’s, it takes a good stretch of open road to reach 60mph, and it’s advisable to pull over and let the radiator cool down if you get stuck in a traffic jam – always the Mk II’s Achilles’ heel – but this, I imagine, is what it’s like to fly a Spitfire. Our destination is Stoke Park Club (stokeparkclub.com) in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire. It’s the golf course where James Bond beat Auric Goldfinger with a technicality due to a switched ball. In brilliant sunshine, the Jaguar Mk II enthrals onlookers young and old as the metallic paintwork springs to life. Club members mainly driving German and Japanese SUVs look shamefaced as they crackle over the stones on the driveway. Eyeing the big cat’s 16-inch chromed wheels, they think, ‘How did we ever lose our car industry?’ And rightly so.

It’s on the drive home where we meet our most interesting character. Parking up by Wimbledon Common for a half of Morse-esque real ale, an excited individual shouts, ‘Stop there!’ It transpires that this man was an engineer for the Coombs Jaguar racing team in the Sixties. Inspecting the Mk II, he remarks favourably on the condition. I mention with concern I can hear a quiet cat meowing when changing gear, and he immediately offers a diagnosis: ‘Happy mechanicals,’ he says. ‘Leave it just as it is.’ He reminisces for an hour. We miss that beer, but we don’t mind.

Join the club
With bases in London, Edinburgh, Bath and New York, the Classic Car Club is a novel way of regularly getting behind the wheel of a motoring marque. You pay an annual fee, and this gives access to a sizeable list of vehicles. ‘The club is owned by three chaps,’ explains company director James Evans. ‘There’s myself, Nigel Case and Philip Kavanagh. We all come from various backgrounds – I headed a sales team in a printing company, Nigel was a professional photographer, and Phil was a quantity surveyor. We gave up our careers to take up this daft life of glamorous cars and making sure other people have a fantastic time driving them.’

For a full list of vehicles owned by the Classic Car Club go to classiccarclub.co.uk/stable.asp and feast on Aston Martins, Maseratis, Rolls-Royces and Ferraris. ‘Membership prices start at £3,500,’ adds Evans, ‘but this includes the one-off joining fee, instant sex appeal, desirability, ultimate coolness and of course the ability to park in the golf club captain’s car park space at will!’