Jaguar says this is the 75th anniversary of its cars and, though the exact date of when "Jaguar" was actually conceived is debatable - the company that would become Jaguar, Swallow Sidecars, was formed in 1922, the very first car built by Sir William Lyons in 1935 only had "Jaguar" as its model name, and the name of the company was not officially changed to Jaguar until 1945, a result of the Nazi connotations of the SS initials. But we'll cut it some slack; after all, they have deigned to invite us to drive some of their ultra-delicious cars just outside the Jaguar Heritage Museum in Coventry.
On one side, there was a bunch of new Jaguars - XF, XJ and XK, even one of the new 280kph "75" versions; pristine, technically advanced and outrageously powerful. The leaping feline company's product portfolio has often at times been sketchy, but let me tell you that packing, as they do now, 510hp worth of supercharged goodness, not to mention hedonistic interiors and oh-so-sensuous lines, the modern Jaguar is as desirable as automobiles get.
But not quite as alluring as the raft of ancient Jags on the other side of the car park. A little frayed, definitely rustier, and with more than a few seat cushions buckled from one too many bottoms behind the steering wheel, they were nonetheless as lovely as manufactured metal gets. There was a beautiful burgundy E-Type 2 + 2 Coupe, a perky little '58 3.4L saloon, a regal 1955 Mark VIIM and, my-goodness-gracious-me, is that really the very last E-Type ever built that I spy, a black 1974 Series 3 V12 roadster looking so darned pristine it could have just driven off a showroom floor? I'll give you just one guess as to which side of the car park I wandered to.
(It turns out I'm not alone in my love of all Jaguars ancient; according to Neil McPherson, administrator of the Jaguar Heritage, the museum had to be set up as a completely separate charity lest any of the management of British Leyland or Ford "liberated" one of these priceless four-wheeled artifacts during Jaguar's many corporate takeovers.) So, instead of screaming around the track at 280kph in a supercharged XKR, I'm trundling down the roads in a 1955 Mark VII Saloon much like Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon - the Queen Consort, the Queen Dowager, and, most popularly, the Queen Mum to you and I. Yes, this particular VII - since upgraded to Mark IX - carries a little M designation for its regal status as the Queen Mum's daily driver between 1957 and 1973 (the most popular of royals had a thing for the plum we're told, all her cars painted some hue in the claret spectrum). It's a grand old thing, spectacular in its ability to feel regal as it crawls along at 10kph. Easily capable of more - the 3.4L six was good for 163kph, say the brochures of the time - it seems somehow gauche to throttle it much past a monarchial 30kph.
I do let loose, however, in the 1970 E-Type Series 3 powered by that monstrous 5.3L V12. Originally designed for racing, even in road trim the 5.3L still manages a then (and still) impressive 272hp thanks to four Zenith-Stromberg carburetors. And, contrary to its reputation as a cranky, recalcitrant beast, the V12 E-Type is possibly the most civilised sports car I've ever tested, idling down to a tractor-like 500 rpm in top gear without bucking or snorting. Indeed, this particular E-Type can comfortably rip all the way from 24kph to almost 240kph without shifting a single gear. Very impressive.
Almost as impressive is the steering that, unlike the to'ing and fro'ing of so many classics, actually feels rack-and-pinion taut, though it makes a sound like an old English toilet flushing every time the steering wheel is turned more than 15 degrees (I'm told all early Jaguars with power steering are so sonically equipped, but it's no less disconcerting when your invaluable classic sounds like a men's room). The suspension is also notable, though appropriately composed as a sports car is wont to be, is nonetheless remarkably comfortable for something so old.
But not nearly as impressive as the slightly newer 1977 XJ12 Series 2 5.3 Coupe I test next. Yes, the steering pump does the same lavatory impression. Ditto for the electric window motors that, despite this particular XJ having less than 10,000 miles on the odometer, still sound like they're on death's door. And, yes, the seating is tight. But, in so many ways, this 33-year-old beast is thoroughly modern. The suspension, for instance, could pass as new. Indeed, I can think of more than a few 2010 models that would benefit from a transplant with 1977 Jaguar technology. The handling is likewise impressive, making the entire chassis package feel like it drove off a Jaguar lot last week. And this version of the V12, still displacing 5.3L but tuned for more torque and mated to a three-speed automatic, could pass for utterly modern were it not for the righteous amount of unburnt hydrocarbons it no doubt spews. My gosh, what a revelation they must have seemed in the 1970s, at least while they were running.
Indeed, every time I drive an old Jaguar, from the original SS100 through the XK120 to these slightly more modern sedans and coupes, I'm left awestruck by how advanced they feel. Jaguar has gone though some truly terrible times - and here's to hoping those are now well and truly in the past - but let us not forget they have, in their 75-year history, built some of the most memorable automobiles ever to turn a wheel.