One for the road

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Sometimes seen as the staid cousin of its racing kin, Jaguar’s XKSS is in fact a far rarer bird than a D-type. And this one sparked them all
writer Andrew Frankel | photographer Stuart Collins

Sixteen cars, that’s all. Eighteen if you count the two that were converted later. Either way, there are more than twice as many Ferrari 250GTOs in the world as Jaguar XKSSs.

Of these few, is any one of them more special than the others? The market will tell you Steve McQueen’s car stands out, but only because the movie star owned it, and whether that actually makes the physical property more special I leave you to decide. But one was different because it was the very first. It was the only XKSS to be built in the Jaguar experimental department and was the prototype on which expert ex-Cunningham panel man Bob Blake went to work to determine how a D-type racer could be turned into a XKSS road car. And if you know where to look, you can tell it from all other XKSS models: the shut lines of its doors are straight, not curved, just like those of the car seen here.

That’s because that car is this car, the XKSS prototype, the car that started its life as a D-type, chassis number XKD 555, and was turned into the first XKSS, chassis XK-SS 701. We meet at Goodwood, the car so fresh from its restoration by CKL Developments that there has only been time to set up the carburettors on the bench, so at part-throttle and low revs it fluffs just a touch. I think we can forgive it that. Otherwise and in every other respect I can discern, it is perfect. By the time you read these words it will be back in the US where almost all of the XKSS production run was sold, a proud possession of Howard Lutnick, chairman and CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald. We’ve not even attempted to insure it because I don’t like being laughed at by people I’ve not met. Mr Lutnick, however, has agreed to shoulder the risk of me driving his car, merely adding a hand-written ‘Be careful!’ on the pro forma agreement we need nowadays to send out in advance of such exercises in these sadly litigious times.

But before it can be driven, it must first be understood. The story of the XKSS as popularly told begins with desperation and ends in disaster. The conclusion I think we can all agree about: a fire that began in a tyre bay and ripped its way through Browns Lane on the evening of February 12, 1957, destroying the last nine of the intended 25 XKSS chassis.

The reason for the car’s creation, however, is more hotly disputed. To this day Jaguar itself states clearly that justification for the XKSS was to use up and recover the costs of unsold D-type chassis. And it seems a fair enough deduction: Jaguar had stopped racing at the end of 1956, and by the time of the fire the D-type was already three seasons old. It had won at Le Mans and Reims, but on other tracks that didn’t play to its super-slippery strengths it was considerably less competitive against the Ferraris and Maseratis of the era.

But there is another version of events that says that far from making a virtue out of necessity, the car was created to satisfy a very real demand. A man of the stature of no less than Lofty England said the XKSS was made because the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) had refused to accept the D-type as a production-based sports car despite the fact that, like all sports racers of the era, it was made to road-legal regulations. But Jaguar didn’t need to make a whole other car to satisfy this pent up demand, it just needed a new identity for the one it already had. And a dash of lipstick here, a change of chassis plate there and a proper windscreen later, the D-type was a racing car no longer, but a butter-wouldn’t-melt street machine with a name related to all its other XK road going sports cars.

I expect that, as is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere between the two: Jaguar did have D-types it had been unable to sell, and there was great demand from the US for just such a car as the XKSS. Besides, we know that 14 of the 16 ended up in North America, leaving just one to head east to Hong Kong and one to stay home. We know too that XKSSs including this one were indeed raced in SCCA meetings all over the US.

But the biggest difference between the XKSS and the D-type is the name. So long as you have the parts, turning one into the other takes a matter of hours and, like other XKSSs, this one has been both. Like them all, it started life as a D, became an XKSS, turned back into a D-type in the 1980s before reverting to the XKSS specification in which it is seen today. But this should no more compromise its provenance than you should be seen as an imposter just because you’ve changed your running shorts for a jacket and tie: all the important bits including the tub, frame, engine, gearbox, back axle and suspension of an XKSS are identical to that of a standard, customer D-type, as is the vast majority of the bodywork.

The main and most obvious changes are the deletion of the D-type’s bar dividing the driver from his or her theoretical passenger, the removal of the fairing behind the driver (if the paint on XK-SS 701 were not so good you’d be able to see where it and the optional fin could be mounted on the rear deck) and the fitment of a passenger door. Beyond that and the full width windscreen complete with wipers, it really was just cosmetics: vestigial bumpers, a luggage rack, chromed headlamp surrounds, a rolled-up hood behind the cabin and, if required, side screens.

All the original work was tried out on the prototype by Bob Blake, who’d previously built Briggs Cunningham’s 1951-55 Le Mans racers. He stayed at Jaguar for more than 20 years, working on the E2A and XK13 prototypes as well as the E-type.

The prototype was completed on January 14, 1957 and a list price of $6900 announced (a little less than £2500 at the time). Four days later it was shipped resplendent in Sherwood Green paint to America, where Jaguar US vice-president John Gordon Bennett raced it at Mansfield, Louisiana and won.

Happily its history from then to now has been extensively documented, but never more thoroughly nor recently than by renowned Jaguar historian Paul Skilleter in 2013. The car was sold to one Robert Stonedale who raced it extensively in 1957, entering it at Galveston, Texas, that November… apparently powered by a Chevy V8 motor. He raced on to 1959 before the car went through a succession of owners until, in 1972, its tub and frame went their separate ways during its first restoration. However this appears not to have been completed until 1981, when it was sold to a Japanese customer who enjoyed the car in D-type specification for a little more than a decade and then as an XKSS for a further eight years. In 2000 it was bought by Graham Love, who in 2008 also bought the car that had inherited its original frame back in 1972. CKL Developments reunited the two main structural components in 2010, putting to bed any question as to the car’s entitlement to the identity of XK-SS 701 or, indeed XKD 555.

So today the car stands with the same body, tub, frame, rear axle and almost certainly the front and rear suspension and brakes with which it left the factory 58 years ago. The engine is to original specification but clearly not the unit it had when new, while the gearbox might or might not be the one with which it was born.

Consider for a moment the proposition made by this car in 1957, not as a Le Mans-winning weapon (it should be remembered that at the time XK-SS 701 was winning in Louisiana, the D-type had yet to take its final win in France), but as a road car. I guess its closest competition at the time was the roadster version of the Mercedes-Benz 300SL, introduced in the same year as the XKSS. But while the 222bhp of the Merc’s fuel-injected 3-litre motor was not so far removed from the 250bhp offered by the Jag’s triple 45mm Weber-fed 3.4-litre twin-cam engine, at 1330kg the Mercedes weighed almost half as much again as the svelte 914kg Jaguar. A 0-60mph time of 4.7sec was quoted for the XKSS, limited not by the characteristically slow gearchange as the car would reach 60mph in first on the standard 3.54:1 rear axle, but by the limited traction of its live rear axle and skinny 6.5in Dunlop race rubber. To put this into some kind of perspective, in the same year as the XKSS was launched, Jaguar released the XK150, its most powerful production road car to date. And that required almost twice as long to hit the magic 60mph mark. As J B Boothroyd wrote in Punch in October 1957 after taking an XKSS for a run, “It eats up an immense amount of road, converting a 10-mile straight into something the size of a bus ticket…”

It still does. Climbing aboard is easy but I suspect Jaguar fitted some rather more generously padded seats to the XKSS than the D-type because there is clearly less leg room here. But everything else seems the same: the dials, that peerless view down the bonnet, the masculine growl of that motor.

The XKSS lacks nothing in comparison to modern supercars. Because it is newly restored, and aware of Mr Lutnick’s understandable exhortation, I can’t go howling up to 6000rpm in every gear, lob it into Madgwick on a trailing throttle and see if I can drift it all the way to the exit, but even if you drive defensively the XKSS still comes alive. And here it has something modern supercars do not: right on the limit a LaFerrari is very special and beautifully balanced, but how many owners will actually drive their cars this way, and for how much of the time? What the XKSS does at any speed is flood your fingers with feel from the road, your ears with the cultured bark of that wonderful engine and your eyes with a sight that differs in no great way to that seen by Mike Hawthorn thundering down to Mulsanne in 1956. You can drive the XKSS fast, you can drive it slowly or you can park it and just look at the damn thing. And that sense of privilege, of being in the presence of something quite exceptionally rare and special will never leave you.

I hear rumours, louder by the day, that Jaguar is going to make some more XKSSs, and to be honest the only surprise is that it has not done so already. Having flogged six new lightweight E-types for a seven-figure sum each, resurrecting the nine XKSS chassis plates that burned in 1957 and completing the originally intended run of 25 cars is as big a slam-dunk, no-brain-required decision as I can imagine in the car industry today. These will not be replicas or recreations, but genuine Jaguar-assembled continuation cars, and if they can’t sell each of them for more than they charged for the E-types I would be very surprised.

But to Howard Lutnick it should not matter if there are 16, 25 or any other number of XKSSs on the planet for, indisputably, there is but one prototype: this is it and it is his. To become acquainted with it even briefly is to know the most special example of perhaps the rarest and most special road car of its era.