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Driving '54 Jag in France

A conundrum: Under what circumstances should you not remove your Ray Bans in a driving rainstorm?

  • Car queue in the bad traffic road. Selective focus.

BAGNOLS, France — A conundrum: Under what circumstances should you not remove your Ray Bans in a driving rainstorm?

When you’re motoring through it on the high side of 100 km/h in a 1954 Jaguar XK120 with the top down, hoping that if you keep the speed up, the water will blow straight over the car.

Fat chance.

Most of it may well be missing you, but a fair amount is still finding its way in.

It’s not easy to see through streaming sunglasses, but with them off, the raindrops batter your eyes like tiny piledrivers.

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

You could, of course, pull over and erect the canvas top, but where’s the fun in that? Besides, you can see the sun breaking through the clouds a few sodden kilometres ahead and, uncomfortable as it is, this is also the greatest fun.

This is living. This is what it’s all about.

This is also what comes of riding shotgun with a generous man Hubert Andeol, a dentist, classical pianist (he plays a mean trumpet, too) and veteran of the New York Marathon who lives in Grenoble in southeastern France.

He’s part of a loose knit group of classic car enthusiasts who organize rallies social in the summer, highly competitive in the winter on the back roads around Lyon and on into and up the French Alps. Roads that have tested the world’s best in the Monte Carlo Rally.

We stop for coffee somewhere northwest of Lyon. When we leave, Andeol casually tosses me the keys.

So what am I supposed to say? Oh no, really, I couldn’t (which is actually what I’m thinking)?

Uhuh. I say, “Merci beaucoup, Hubert. Tu est tres gentil.”

Tres trusting, too, but we won’t get into that.

BRUTAL ENGINEERING

I guess I’ve been driving modern cars for too long haven’t we all? because the Jag cockpit feels somewhat alien. No seatbelt, for a start, nor adjustment on the seat.

The huge wheel is way too close to my chest (this, it turns out, allows the shoulder muscles to play their essential part in steering) and the pedals are awkwardly placed for my feet.

And as for the four-speed manual transmission . . .

It’s the famous/infamous/notorious Moss gearbox that Jaguar used for decades, a piece of truly brutal engineering. Even Andeol refers to it as “unfortunate.”

“I’m a dentist,” he adds. “I’m used to precision instruments. But they call this charm. A charming gearbox.”

The rule of thumb is slow up changes, to avoid crunching the gears, and double-clutch down the box, taking special care with your 32 shift. You have an unwanted choice of several slots where second gear might be, but only one of them is right.

And when you’re pressing on through the mountains, you have to be able to find it first time every time.

Andeol plays the transmission with the inspiration of a born musician, a virtuoso solo up and down the scales.

We’ve come through the Alps in a fast convoy with his wife Brigitte, in her pretty white ’65 Alfa Romeo 2600 convertible, and a striking black and yellow Aston Martin Le Mans, vintage 1933.

The Swiss owner of the latter vehicle is planning an outing at the legendary Nurburgring circuit in Germany. Serious stuff.

Andeol, racing to catch up at one point, handles the XK120 like a pro wrestler, grappling with the wheel, lots of body English. The car is rarely moving in a straight line, sliding through the hairpin curves, the Michelin X tires squealing, the engine howling, the dual exhausts bellowing.

All in approval, one can’t help feeling.

It’s such a beautiful car, at rest or in motion, metallic blue with wire wheels and the stance of a big cat about to pounce that makes the Jaguar name wholly appropriate.

The best looking Jag ever? I wouldn’t vote against it.

But now it’s my turn. Can I live up to the beast or will it bite my head off? Only one way to find out.

Turn the key, push the starter. The 3.4 litre, dual over head cam straight six grumbles into life. The twin SU carburetors gulp. Clutch in it’s not too heavy and muscle the shift lever into first. A little throttle, okay, a little more (please don’t let me stall it, please), clutch out gently, let the “fly off” handbrake go, more throttle.

We’re moving!

STAB THE CLUTCH

Into second slowlee give it the gun (the rev counter is redlined at 5200), into third and suddenly we’re really moving. It isn’t exactly shove you through the back of the seat acceleration, but the Jag picks up speed impressively.

Into fourth, here’s a curve, find the brake pedal, give it a shove . . . the car lurches to the right.

“Sorry,” Andeol smiles. “I should have said. The brakes pull sometimes. Sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left. It keeps you awake.”

Sure does. Haul on that big steering wheel. No power assistance, of course. Stab the clutch, gearshift into neutral, off the pedal, hit the gas, stab the clutch, into third.

The engine roars, the car slows down hey, it works! do it again, into second. That’s second . . . second . . . it’s here somewhere . . . into the right place on the third try.

As my sometimes sarcastic instructor used to say when I was learning to drive in England in the ’60s (on a Vauxhall Viva) and had trouble with the gears, “If you can’t find one, make one!”

This all happens quite quickly and we’re into the curve, dragging on the wheel again. Very good for the biceps. Accelerate out, shift up . . . this is serious fun.

And it turns out to be a surprisingly forgiving car, at least if you’re not pressing on really hard, in that it’s not like today’s twitchy little pocket rockets that change direction if you blink. You have to throw yourself body and soul into driving the XK120. Subtle movements, and thus a lot of little mistakes, are lost upon it.

The hardest part turns out to be parking the thing. Finding reverse, battling with the wheel which objects mightily to turning at very low speeds looking over your shoulder and all the while conscious of those vulnerable metallic blue flanks and

all the critical eyes that are upon you.

But that’s way up ahead somewhere.

Right now, I’m beginning to get the hang of this. For a while the rain won’t stay away, so eventually we do put the top up. With no side curtains, the water still comes in, but at least I can take my shades off and my enthusiasm remains undampened.

TWITCHY BACK END

I’m even getting used to the idiosyncracies of Mr. Moss’s gearbox, with crunchless shifts finally outnumbering the noisy ones. And I’ve finally figured out that the speedometer is in miles per hour, not kilometres, which is why I seemed to be going a lot faster than I intended and wondering why the back end was so twitchy on some of the tighter turns.

The sun comes out again. Stop. Top down. We’re behind a Renault hatchback now, that’s doing an . . . awkward speed. Not quite slow enough to be a major nuisance, but not fast enough to stay out of our way.

Okay, here we go, a couple of hundred metres of clear road. Drop into second, and for once I get it right, floor the

throttle.

The exhaust note rattles off the hillside, we’re alongside the Renault, up into third, now we’re in front of him. Tight left hander coming up. Stab the brakes, anticipate the pull on the steering, got it, back into second right again!

Haul the wheel around, on the gas, back end drifting just a touch. Into third, grinning like an idiot.

My friend Hubert is grinning, too. “A good place to drive, no?” he says.

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