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Homage to the Jaguar C-Type

Homage to the Jaguar C-Type


Motoring journalist, John Swift, remembers the iconic Jaguar C-Type with personal fondness.

I have my late dad to thank for my lifelong interest in motoring, and in particular my passion for motor racing; he was a keen and committed racer in the 1950s, at the wheel, of first a Jaguar XK 120 and then one of the most beautiful cars ever built, the Jaguar C-Type.

Racing Jaguar C-Type on the track

Dad was good, very good – he was once on course to beat Stirling Moss at Goodwood before a mechanical problem intervened – but he didn’t race for long; an accident at work left him blind in one eye and he had to stop.

Maybe though he was lucky, because in those days racing was brutally dangerous. He once told me he remembered coming home on the ferry from the Tourist Trophy held on the Dundrod circuit in Northern Ireland with three coffins containing the bodies of drivers killed in that one race. Dangerous days indeed.

More liberal days too; despite being 150 mph racing cars which won the Le Mans 24 Hours at the first attempt in 1951, and again in ’53, and countless other races too, there was nothing to stop them being driven on the road. Can you imagine driving an equivalent Le Mans car from today on the public road?  No, me neither.

In fact, when dad first met my mum, he used to take her out, in the Jaguar, on public roads. Despite that, she said, they still married…

Jaguar hand-built just 53 C-Types of which 43 were offered for sale to privateers with a list price of £2,327, the rest were kept for factory-entered drivers. Today if you could find one of these rare beauties for sale you would certainly be looking into seven figures and well into them too. Alas Dad sold his not long after he and mum tied the knot, but while I never saw it, I grew up hearing all his stories about it.

Jaguar C-Type parked two thirds side on

So, you can perhaps imagine my thoughts when I had a letter from Jaguar inviting me to drive the C-Type from their Heritage Trust collection. This is a genuine car, not a replica, and was originally bought by an Italian driver, Mario Tadini, who entered it in the 1953 Mille Miglia, the 1,000-mile race around Italy.

I had a variety of feelings when I arrived at the Millbrook test facility in Bedfordshire; excitement for sure, trepidation at being entrusted with a car worth a million or two, an emotional feeling for my now late father; many feelings, all of them strong and visceral.

It was a slightly misty and abnormally quiet morning as I walked up to the Jaguar, a surprisingly low, but utterly beautiful car. Aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer designed the car to have as little drag as possible, so the drivers could get high top speeds down the long Mulsanne straight at Le Mans, but while there were solid engineering reasons for the shape its symphony of curves made it one of the most graceful too.

The Jaguar is small and the cockpit, accessed through a tiny door in the side, smaller still. You sit close to a large, upright steering wheel with a simple dashboard hosting a large rev counter and speedometer, smaller ones for the oil pressure and water temperature, but the eye is caught by the view through the small aeroscreen down the elegant bonnet ahead.

For most people, looking is as near as they ever will get to this gorgeous car, but I was about to get the privilege of driving it. Once the 3.4 litre straight six engine was warmed and settled down into a rhythmic burble, I slotted the gearbox into the first of its four gears, let in the heavy-ish clutch and used the torque to pull away onto Millbrook’s famous Hill Route, a fabulous mix of gradients, tight and sweeping corners, fast and slow sections.

Old race featuring a Jaguar C-Type

Within moments I left behind any earlier trepidation about driving such a valuable car for the C-Type is an absolute dream to control and instantly felt like my friend. I’d driven a D-Type, its successor, which was an out-and-out racing car and felt like it too, stiff, agile and instantly responsive, but unforgiving of those lacking the skill and delicacy to balance and blend the dynamics of applying the brakes, steering and acceleration into and through a bend.

The D-Type would bite you in an instant, whereas the C-Type would caress you, gently communicate to its driver that it wasn’t happy with the inputs from those three control elements, but not punish you for them if you got one, two, or even all three of them wrong. It feels softer, more forgiving, provides plenty of feedback and when the limits are overstepped it’s relatively easy to rein it back in. It feels like, what in part it was, a very fast sports road car, but one which just happened to conquer the race it was designed for, the Le Mans 24 Hours.

In truth I was almost fully focused on driving and enjoying the car, savouring the knowledge that I was being given a rare privilege and that those laps would always remain in my memory, to be retrieved and savoured again and again, as all the most intense memories are.

But, a part of my brain was thinking about dad racing his C-Type on those lethal circuits and what that would have been like; a little part too about what mum must have felt when she, a young woman from a working-class background in Stoke-on-Trent, was taken out in a car like this. In those days few people where she lived even had a car, so her introduction to motoring pretty much came in the passenger seat of a C-Type being driven at speeds simply unimaginable today.

It was terrifying, she used to say, but exhilarating too and after a brief courtship they got married and I am the third of the three children which followed.

So, in some small, tenuous way, the fact that I am here writing this today owes just a little to a Jaguar C-Type…