Feline Eleganc

      

They say a Jaguar is forever a classic and Shahwar Hussain finds that this 1951 Mk V lives up to the saying.

 

Photographs: Ramesh Pathania

 

Just when the British auto industry was showing signs of recovering from the crippling effects of the Great Depression, that little man with the equally little toothbrush moustache, who went by the name of Adolf Hitler, decided to intervene. His increasingly threatening military stance in Europe had all the makings of a war and the clouds became darker by the day. The auto manufacturers of Britain were already on notice to contribute, in no small measure, to the military. And when the war clouds finally broke in 1939, all the automobile manufacturers joined in the war effort, and production of luxury vehicles ceased altogether. During the blitzkrieg, many industries that were located in and around London suffered heavy damages.

When the seemingly perpetual war finally ended in 1945, the economy and the industry were in tatters. Auto manufacturers slowly started getting back to manufacturing, but there were no new models - and Jaguar was no exception.

After putting the house in order, Jaguar introduced a 1.5-litre, four-cylinder saloon in 1947. This was not a new car by any stretch of imagination, rather a carry over model from the immediate pre-war years. The 1.5 had the same chassis as the pre-war 3.5-litre six-cylinder saloon, only it was shorter by a few inches. It was a lovely car, but a touch underpowered especially if you drove it up the hills. I helped restore one such car and whenever I took it up the hills of Meghalaya, I had to use the gears a little more than I actually liked, but when the gradients were not as steep, it just purred along sweetly.

In 1948, Jaguar launched the 3.5-litre Mk V model. If you overlooked certain styling changes, it looked strikingly similar to the pre-war 3.5-litre six-cylinder and the 1947 1.5-litre four-cylinder models.

And it was one such Mk V that I had the good fortune to sample the other day. This beauty belongs to Delhi-based collector Kishore Gidwaney, who added this beauty to his very impressive collection way back in the early 1990s. He bought it as a piece of junk and, needless to say, the car needed a ground-up restoration.

All the woodwork was rotten and the dickey, floor, engine bay and the lower portion of the doors had rust eating away at them, and the metal needed major surgery. These days, you get most spare parts in India itself (for a price and lots of time, of course) but Gidwaney got a few of them from England, like the Smiths meters, SU carb kits and lights.

 

It wasn’t a pretty sight when the body was taken off the chassis. It had been rusting in peace under the body all these years and had ugly sores all over. But these chassis are so tough that you can pull one out of the sea after years and can still sandblast it back to its previous glory without it losing any of its inherent strength. And that was precisely what was done. The chassis has seven-inch deep cross braces, which contributed to the strength and rigidity. The wood and the bodywork took the better part of two years, but the craftsmen had done the job remarkably well. The Mk V and all other Jaguar models have a whole lot of curves and, the guy who fabricated parts of the huge front fenders which integrate the running board (or foot board as you might call them), had put in very long hours of patient work - hammering, banging and tapping on the thick metal. And the good work shines through. The black paint job has been done well, but in the dusty environment of Delhi, it takes a lot of effort to keep it gleaming. The dickey can double up as a picnic table and the company had very thoughtfully concealed an elaborate toolbox in the lid itself.

 

Jaguar used the old 3.5-litre pushrod Standard engine in this model and used a new engine in the sporty XK120 that was unveiled in 1948. The 3,485cc engine developed 125bhp @ 4250rpm and the six cylinders are fed through two SU carburettors, with a gleaming aircleaner on top. The camshaft works the fuel pump, which Jaguar had changed from an electrical to a mechanical one a couple of years earlier. Just as well, because the points of the electrical pump often used to stick and the fuel supply would go kaput.

As you open the suicide doors and step in, the car’s pedigree and heritage is evident. The ‘trafficators’ are concealed inside the B-pillar and the door hinges are hidden from view unlike the 1947 model. On those models, the copper balls in the hinges used to wear out, resulting in the doors going out of alignment. Gidwaney had taken pain (and a whole lot of expense) to do up the interiors with leather, as they were then. The big steering is typically British and is close to the chest, with the trafficator switch located in the horn button. The teakwood dashboard houses the speedo, rpm, amp, oil pressure, heat meter and of course, the ubiquitous clock. And yes, the woodwork adorns the window sills also.

 

As I turned the ignition key, the starter turned the big engine smoothly and it fired immediately. It is amazingly smooth and, although it is a pushrod engine, there is no clatter of the tappet and rockers - very good adjustments. From the driver’s seat, the Jaguar seems to be miles away as it prepares to leap away from the radiator cap.

When I dropped the single plate clutch after engaging first gear, the land yacht gracefully pulled out, purring gently like a cat. It has a four speed synchromesh gearbox, but since those were the early days of synchromesh gears, it still needed double declutching to slot in the gears smoothly. Since we have got into this lousy habit of power steering, it takes a little effort to use the Burman-Douglas re-circulating ball steering system. Gently shifting through the gears, the car picked up speed and behaved very well through corners – on tight corners too. If one does not look down to the rpm meter, it would be rather difficult to guess the rpm the engine is doing

- it is that easy going. But things do get a bit scary when you have to stop in a hurry - the Girling twin shoe arrangement needs a little working. Compared with the bulk of the car, the 6.50 x 16 tyres look skinny and they skid if the brakes are engaged too hard.

 

The ride quality is smooth as silk and absorbs jerks like water on a sponge. The car sports an independent front suspension, along with a torsion bar and hydraulic shock absorbers. At the rear, damping is taken care of by extra long, flat half elliptical springs with hydraulic dampers. In those days of bad roads, it must have made life so much easier for the occupants.

Electricals are by a 12-volt battery and since I didn’t drive the car after dark, I wont be able to say how the lights function. But I guess, with the new lenses fitted on to the huge headlights, the beam would be more than satisfactory.

I was going through the manual of the Mk V and it says ‘air conditioning’. I could not find the air condition vents anywhere, but there were vents that allowed the cool outside air into the cabin. The car must have passed through a lot of hands in its lifetime, and I am sure a lot of things have been modified too but, in spite of that, it still retains its feline grace.

 

Although the Mk V was launched immediately after the war, it does not come across as a hurriedly done up car. All the new designs and parts of the car, like the frame, suspension, brakes, transmission and everything else have been thoroughly tested. Some of them had undergone tests even before the war.

The cars of that period had beautiful curves - but on the Jaguar, they seem more extravagant and graceful. Whichever way you look at it, it comes across as a fine looking car…and unmistakably…a Jaguar. '