x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The cat that came back: 50-year-old crashed Jaguar rebuilt

A rare car that crashed in 1959 has just been restored, making it an old yet almost new classic.

Mike Hill and his stepfather Ray Miles have spent the past decade restoring a 1958 Jaguar that had uniquely covered just 553 miles.
Mike Hill and his stepfather Ray Miles have spent the past decade restoring a 1958 Jaguar that had uniquely covered just 553 miles.

In 1959, John Dolce became one of only 724 Americans to own a Jaguar XK150S, the performance version of the sleek, two-door, low-slung car from the famed British marque. It was fast for its day, and Dolce wanted to see just how fast it could go. He took it to the expansive salt flats at Bonneville in Utah and let it loose. It turned out to be a mistake. Dolce flipped the car, managed not to kill himself, but was left with a sorry looking, battered Jaguar with just 553 miles on the clock. Not surprisingly, this rare car was repaired. What is surprising is that it took nearly five decades, three changes of owner and its return to Britain for this to happen. The odometer now reads just 574 miles. Harworth, near Doncaster, in the English county of Yorkshire, is about as far removed from Utah as is possible to imagine, but it's here that Mike Hill and his stepfather, Ray Miles, have spent the past decade gradually restoring a vehicular contradiction - a virtually new car that's more than 50 years old. "We know an American haulage contractor whose hobby is sourcing old cars," says Miles. "He'd seen this one advertised with the original engine, gearbox and chassis numbers, and asked if we'd be interested. We said yes; then he told us it was 3,000 miles away, so we told him to get on a plane."

As with many antiques and collectables, originality is prized among old car fans. In the world of hyper-classics like vintage Bentleys and Bugattis, people have gone to court to try and establish - or refute - a car's provenance, so Hill and Miles realised that, if the XK still had all the original vitals it had been given at Jaguar's factory, it would be pretty unusual. Many of its surviving contemporaries have had things like engines and transmissions changed because of wear and tear or damage. "We were sceptical at first, but all the numbers checked out," Hill says. According to Anders Clausager, archivist with the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust, Jaguar made 836 of these two-seat cars, with all but 112 going to America. "Jaguar did the S version to keep up with the Chevrolet Corvette, which had a thumping V8 engine and was cheaper," he says. Clausager describes the sort of people who bought these XKs "as what we might now call Yuppies", youngish professionals who could afford something exotic, often as a second car. One customer was the actor Paul Newman. To help keep up with the Corvette's brute force, the XK150's 3.4L, inline six-cylinder engine was given a power boost in the S version, in the form of revised cylinder heads and bigger carburetors. It was quick, even by current standards; with 220hp, it was capable of reaching 60kph in just more than seven seconds and ran out of urge a little beyond 220kph. But all this was academic for the Dolce Jaguar, because after the crash he sold it, unrepaired, in 1960, and subsequent owners just never got round to fixing it. It was the last one's widow who put the Jaguar up for sale. "She realised it was a bit special," says Hill, who first clapped eyes on the car when it was unloaded, in bits, from several crates.

Hill and Miles run a crash repair business, specialising in modern cars to giant German motor-homes. But they also deal with classic cars, so the damage suffered by the Jaguar didn't give them nightmares, even if it dated from an era when Dwight Eisenhower was the US president. "It was a bit squashed in places like the windscreen surround," Hill says, "but the bulkhead and chassis was fine, and the engine was absolutely perfect." This was discovered after the pair stripped down the car's mechanical bits to see if they'd sustained damage after years of inactivity. One of their worries was that the Jaguar came from an era where motor manufacturers recommended that their products were driven gently, or run in, to start with, and this one had been raced and crashed. The gearbox too, was fine, and also unusual. Despite Toyota's recent, high profile travails with sticky accelerator pedals, recalling cars to have bits that don't work as well as they should changed is nothing new. Jaguar had encountered durability problems with gearboxes fitted to the XK, and dealers had been kept busy pulling them out of cars and beefing them up. This usually meant a sort of transmission musical chairs, with the box of one car finding its way into another. After that, if the thing changed gear properly and didn't break, why should the customer care? Not being in a fit state to drive anywhere meant the Dolce car was never attended to, and although Hill and Miles say it has, finally, been given appropriate attention, the car retains its original box of cogs, and for many marque fans, that's important. The pair entrusted fixing the Jaguar's crumpled extremities to restoration specialists in Coventry, where it was made in the first place. Men who worked at Jaguar's now-closed Browns Lane factory applied panel-beating skills to the body, skills that are a dying craft in the car world. This also gave Miles and Hill access to presses which had actually stamped out the car's original body panels when it was new. Although the interior was largely complete, they decided to give this a comprehensive re-trim. "Jaguar used materials like horse hair for the seat cushions. That doesn't age particularly well, and the interior was pretty shot," Miles says. The end result is very shiny, new-looking and awash with the sort of period detailing that would keep a hobby car expert occupied for hours; right from the original, grey, stove-finish wire wheels (many owners changed these for chromed ones) shod with period cross-ply tyres. Modern fuels generally reach higher combustion temperatures than with the petrol John Dolce poured into his car in 1959, and it's unusual to find a Jaguar XK without an auxiliary electric fan, but this one's cooling system hasn't been upgraded. For a car aimed at the American market, the XK150S's mix of period gear whine, smooth, rumbling engine and sit-up-straight, leather-lined seats all feel very British. For such an old thing, it feels rapid and easy to drive, and with four disc brakes it stops properly too, a facility denied some of its contemporaries. It's also rakishly beautiful to behold. Maybe these characteristics got the better of John Dolce on that winter's day at the end of the 1950s, causing him to take a drive that ended in tears. What made him sell rather than fix the car after that isn't known, but it's ironic that this disaster quite possibly made the car even more rare and unique today, as it avoided the usual wear and tear that happens with most other cars older than a half century. The XK150S is now up for sale. Though Hill or Miles can't say exactly what they will ask for it, Hill expects it to be upwards of £280,000 (Dh1.6 million). At that price, it's unlikely a potential buyer will want to bump up its miniscule mileage; but it shouldn't give them trouble should they wish to do so. As Hill says, "It's just about ready for its first service." motoring@thenational.ae