Every once in a while you see something so beautiful that it freezes you in your tracks – like a few days ago, when a low-slung car glided down my street, turning the head of every person it passed.
I knew the shape instantly. It's a vision that's been permanently imprinted in my consciousness as far back as I can remember, along with a Monet landscape, some Shakespeare sonnets and my wife's face. Yes, I was looking at an early-'60s Jaguar XKE. Enzo Ferrari himself once declared the E-Type "the most beautiful car ever made."
The XKE stopped at the end of my street, and instantly drew a crowd of admirers. "It looks like an airplane," one woman said. "No," said someone else. "A torpedo."
They were both right. The XKE is one of the most evocative and iconic designs ever produced. You can look at it and see many things, all of them cool and beautiful. This car is the stuff of dreams. But in the XKE you can also divine one of the world's great industrial downfalls – the crash of the British car industry.
Even now, it makes me cringe to see what happened to England's iconic car business, but I could see it coming back in the 1970s, when I realized that some of my favourite car makers were doomed. It was a strange feeling to look at a huge, historic industry and realize that it was dead on its feet. I've had that same feeling twice since: when I walked through the deserted furniture floor of Eaton's flagship store back in the 1980s, and then at a Blockbuster outlet in the mid-2000s, when I realized that videotape, late fees and brick and mortar rental sites would be rendered extinct by digital technology that sent movies through wires.
As a little boy, I could never have believed that the British car industry could crash and burn. When I sketched cars in my notebook during French class back in the 1960s, the cars were Austin Healey roadsters and Lotus Formula racers. The motorcycles were Triumph Bonnevilles and Norton Commandos. When it came to vehicle design, England had the divine spark – no car was cooler than James Bond's Aston Martin, and no piston-engine airplane was prettier than the Supermarine Spitfire.
England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and there was still a lot of genius in the place in the decades that followed the Second World War. In 1959, Sir Alex Issigonis revolutionized vehicle design with the original Mini, which introduced the transverse engine and front-wheel-drive to enable a miraculous combination of exterior size and interior volume. Lotus designer Colin Chapman made world-beater racing cars in factories that were little more than glorified garden sheds.
By the 1950s, the U.K. was second only to the U.S. in car manufacturing volume, and it was the world's largest vehicle exporter. In the 1960s, the British car industry employed more than a million people. And no car embodied England's engineering and design wizardry better than the Jaguar XKE, which was introduced in 1961 to instant acclaim. The XKE was automotive alchemy, with an irresistible blend of style and performance that cemented England's position as the world leader when it came to populist sports cars. The Ferraris of that era were also beautiful, excellent-handling machines, but they cost many times more than an XKE, and in the eyes of many (including Enzo Ferrari), the XKE was the most beautiful shape of all time.
Although the XKE had cool technical features (like inboard disc brakes and fully independent suspension) its real genius was the way it captured and defined an era, in the same way that Carnaby Street and the Beatles did.
By all accounts, the XKE was the ultimate British sports car – an eclectic genre that included everything from wood-framed Morgans to the sleek XKE. My dad was never an English car fan, but I was entranced by their unique style and ambience – English sports cars made me think of Stirling Moss, moated castles and the Battle of Britain. When I was 10 years old, I dropped into the tight, leather-lined cockpit of an Austin Healey – I peered through the low windshield past a rows of mineral-glass gauges and black toggle switches and imagined myself banking high above the White Cliffs of Dover, my gun sights locked on a Messerschmitt 109.
By the late 1970s, I was working as a mechanic in a Porsche-VW shop, but I still had a hankering for a British sports car. I joined an Austin Healey owner's club, where my mechanical skills put me in high demand. But working on Healeys destroyed their mystique – they might be beautiful, but I realized that they were an archaic design with terrible reliability. Although I had once admired hand-made cars, working on them opened my eyes to a cruel reality – perfectly manufactured clones worked better.
Healeys seemed to be built with techniques similar to those once used to construct a medieval suit of armour, with heavy reliance on individual craftsmanship that meant wide variation from car to car. There were no concessions to modern performance – Healeys had cast-iron engines, traditional (and by traditional, I mean terrible) suspension, and fizzing electrical systems made by Lucas (a company that mechanics used to refer to as The Prince of Darkness.)
The Jaguar XKE went out of production in 1975. By then, the British car industry had lost its mojo. Sales plunged, and four of the country's major brands had been rolled into a government-controlled consortium called British Leyland, which was noted for substandard engineering, obstreperous labour, and an over-reliance on defunct models like the MGB, a once-iconic sports car that ended its run as a kluged-together parody. British Leyland burned through billions, and later went bankrupt, crippled by its internal problems and unable to compete with nimbler foreign rivals.
Some of my car buddies laughed when the English car business crashed. Not me. I was sad, because I remembered when they led the world, and made machines that were the stuff of dreams. Although I admire the Asian car makers for their engineering brilliance and fantastic manufacturing quality, none of them have inspired me in the way that Jaguar and Lotus once did.
There's a mechanic in my neighbourhood with a tiny shop that specializes in old English cars. I go there fairly often, because I like him, and because his shop is a time capsule that takes me back to the lost majesty of the classic British car.
My mechanic friend has no sign, and he doesn't advertise, because he doesn't want any more customers. I can see why. Ministering to his customer's aging fleet is a vastly complicated process that calls for the combined skills of a blacksmith and a psychiatrist, with a touch of Druid priest thrown in.
He may spend weeks trying to find a head gasket that hasn't been manufactured since the 1960s, or welding together new suspension pickup points for an old Jaguar, folding and shaping the metal like steel origami. Then there is the black art of balancing multiple carburetors on sclerotic old Triumphs – a job that is closer to witchcraft than mechanics.
I love this shop, and the cars that roll through it – especially the early-'60s Jaguar XKEs. They look like fighter planes. They look like torpedoes. Or maybe they look like mako sharks. Whatever they look like, they're stunning. Like my mechanic friend says: "They don't make things like this any more."
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