Autoweek; Published: 6/12/1995
The C-Type Jaguar, a car Phil Hill says taught him precision and finesse, came to life blessed by its moment in history. England, gasping in exhaustion after barely winning the second world war and desperate for export dollars, was prepared to allocate rare strategic metals only to companies able to sell overseas. Jaguar was one of the most successful, having debuted its gloriously felicitous XK120 in 1948, and establishing its credentials by an audacious 132.596 mph two-way mile run at Jabbeke (near Ghent) in Belgium. If that weren't enough, and if somehow the 120's combination of voluptuous lines, blinding performance and modest price weren't enough either, there was always racing. First came a remarkable 12th place overall with a stock 120 at Le Mans in 1950. But that was mere prelude; waiting in the wings was the first of a splendid line of pure sports/racers, the C-Type. There were just six weeks left before the '51 race when Jaguar chieftain Sir William Lyons committed to a purpose-built racer based on 120 mechanicals, but with a sleek aero body covering a space frame.
Forty-four years later, Terry Larson, keeper of the C-Type (and D-Type) Register, would write: ``Not only did the C-Type of Peter Whitehead and Peter Walker win [the '51 race] they also came in 77 miles ahead of the 2nd place car.'' The C-Type would win again in '53, and then be superseded by the D-Type, a car Jaguar enthusiasts admire not only for its successes but as the precursor of their all-time favorite Jaguar, the E-Type.
Today, most Jaguar enthusiasts favor the D and the E. But C-Type adherents-the classicists-remain; among them is the late Tony Hogg, who seized upon C-Type No. 017 to use in a January 1967 Road & Track salon. Its marvelous restoration was an extraordinary achievement, Hogg thought, since the car ``.*.*.*had been raced to exhaustion.''
Little did he know. In fact R&T's salon car had been to the seamy underside of amateur American racing, 1950s style. No. 017 came to the United States as a customer car imported by Charles Hornburg in Los Angeles. It was sold to a northern California aristo named Sterling Edwards, who would go on to create the Sterling, much in the style of Cunningham. At some point in its early career, this particular Jag's birch gray exterior got badly rumpled when one of Edwards' mechanics shoved it into a hay bale; not much later it was sold to Lou Brero.
Brero is a fascinating figure in early northern California racing. This was an era of pure amateurism. Very much a time for Sterling Edwards, a skillful racer of gentlemanly aspect. Not so good for Brero, a charger and a man who raced for the joy of combat. He was splendidly-if not popularly-successful with the C; its golden moment in his hands, a first overall in a six-hour endurance race at Torrey Pines near San Diego. After two years of local wins, Brero sold the car to a Reno businessman called Ray Seher.
At the time Seher bought the car, racing may have gradually been getting democratic, but winning remained very much the province of the rich. Then, as now, successful cars were cars fresh from the competition departments of European companies building their reputations on the road circuits of the world: Ferrari, Porsche, Jaguar, Maserati. No sooner would one model from one factory come to dominate than another would eclipse it. By the time C-Type No. 017 got to Reno, its racing lifespan was almost over, which fazed Seher not in the least. Ray raced the car 14 times at places like Santa Rosa, Stockton and Cotati. He and it were waiting at Salinas in 1955 to compete against a Porsche Spyder that, famously, never got beyond Cholame on its drive along Highway 46 from southern California.
Seher won far more often than he had a right to, which may be the reason he said he had more fun in the C-Type than in any other car he ever raced. A good thing too. A photo survives of the car tilted at a 90-degree angle atop a hay bale at the Sacramento Fairgrounds circuit. Seher is holding his arm straight out as though he thinks he would be able to hold both physics and the road at bay. Happily for Seher, the car teetered on the hay bale and remained upright.
By then, C-Type No. 017 had indeed been raced to exhaustion. Perversely, that was a good thing for me. All I could afford in those days was somebody else's discard, and No. 017 came to me for bottom dollar. Even so, I had to finance it at the Crocker Anglo bank, handing the loan officer the California white slip that identified it as a ``Jagar [sic], SRDXK120'' (Some idea of what the state thought the car was worth is reflected in the registration fee: $4).
I owned it with a partner, Bob O'Brien, with whom I shared not only the C-Type but a Stanguellini Formula Junior. Mostly I drove the Stang, because the Jag, even though old and tattered, was far too fierce for me. Worse still, while it went like the absolute hammers of six-cylinder, Weber-carbureted hell, it wouldn't stop since the disc brakes that would appear on later Cs were only approximated by the Alfin drums of the No. 017. The person in our family who drove it most was my wife. When you're young and too poor to afford a race car and a regular car besides, the race car must serve many purposes. So the C-Type went to the supermarket, and in the evenings, it became the soothing cradle for a 3-year-old whose croup denied him the sleep that only a rumbling ride in the Jag could finally bring. No. 017 also became a night prowler. Nearby lived a Lister Jaguar and an RS60 Porsche and in those days it was still possible to use the light of the moon and the public road for an occasional encounter with destiny. The memory of those evenings remains vivid; most of all, how the car felt. Nowadays, driving is a coincidental occupation. Then, paying attention was a life and death matter. Particularly in a race car, most particularly, in the C-Type. Driving it was a full-time job. It was the Jag that taught me the meaning of Bump Steer. Hill remembers much the same: ``The car would not take any heavy-handedness,'' he says, ``you had to guide it. When driven at its limits, it required you to take a breath and do a precise job.''
Even so, or maybe because of its demands, C-Type No. 017 became very much a member of the family. At least until that moment it blew sky-high on the dyno and had to be sold; the cost of a replacement engine was way beyond reality.
Time passes. Things happen. One thing that happened is that two months ago I came into reasonable control of the leukemia my doctors had diagnosed the previous winter, and my son persuaded me to go to Arizona for the Copperstate. He had arranged, he told me, for our friend Harley Cluxton to lend us a 427 Cobra for the event. In fact, as I was about to discover, he and Harley had conspired far more intricately. As I stood in the cool Phoenix evening at the initial Copperstate driver's meeting, wondering how on earth I would ever forgive myself if I stuffed Harley's 427 into a cactus, I began to hear, building louder and louder, the sound of an unmuffled exhaust. Suddenly, the crowd to my left parted. I looked over my shoulder and there, almost touching me, was the broad, sensuous bonnet of an exquisite black car. In the minute or so it took me to understand what I was seeing, the car's owner climbed out and came over to me, key in hand. ``I want you to drive an old friend,'' said Terry Larson, who had spent all day every day for the previous two months bringing the C-Type back to life from its temporary existence in boxes at his shop.
I can't tell you why someone offers a perfect stranger a precious car from his own collection for a four-day wild drive over crowned roads in back country Arizona. I can only tell you that my son and I were blessed over the best part of a week with lovely memories, learning all the while to cherish more and more a noisy, bouncy, primitive, hot, inconsiderate, obsolete, roaring, leaping antiquity of a car: C-Type Jaguar No. 017. From our perspective at least, perhaps the most glorious automobile ever made.
Escape Road indeed.