A vintage Jaguar made my gentleman driver dreams come true
Sports cars have come a long way since 1958, but the Jaguar XK-150 retains its charm
Alex is a New York based automotive writer and content producer. He drives a '08 Mustang GT/CS when not driving everything else.
More than anything, driving a classic automobile is refreshing. All the comfort and refinement we take for granted on modern cars is stripped away, and what’s left is a machine emblematic of our pursuit of sublime performance. Raw, yet still the pinnacle of design for its era, a classic car is a time capsule of a bygone age. It allows us a glimpse into the past and, as it travels from caretaker to caretaker, adds chapters to its own unique story.
Alluring as all that may be, we can easily fall into the trap of over-romanticising the cars of old. Sometimes the reality of having a vintage car in the modern era is enough to sour the dream, but you never know until you take one out for a spin. What’s it like having a classic car? How does it drive? What do you do with it? To find these answers, I needed to find the perfect car.
I was going to need help with this. For starters, I don’t operate with a classic car owner budget, so the car in question would have to be graciously on loan for my purposes. Apart from that, I didn’t know where to start. How old of a car am I looking for? Should I search for something with particular provenance? Thankfully, my friends at Autosport Designs were on hand with not only a staggering collection to choose from, but provided experts to guide me through the selection process.
With their help, I was reeled in from being too much of a kid in a candy store, and I settled on a stunning 1958 Jaguar XK-150 S Roadster. It encapsulated the romantic image I had in my head: sleek, elegant, and sporty.
Only one of 326, this XK-150 S originally housed a 3.4-liter straight-six engine that produced around 250 horsepower, though it was bored out to a 3.8 liters to produce… “more” horsepower. Its current output wasn’t available but as a benchmark, Jaguar did develop a 3.8-liter version of the XK engine a year after this car was bolted together, and that upped the power to 265hp. A five-speed gearbox has replaced its original four-speed, sending power, naturally, to the rear wheels.
Beyond the technical details, I’m enraptured by the sheer magnificence of the roadster. The car’s silhouette flows away from the curvy front fascia, giving the car an appearance that is as dignified as it is vivacious. It’s easy to trace its graceful styling back to the automaker’s early days, before it was even called Jaguar. It’s a design language that would come to an abrupt halt with the XK-150, which would be heartbreaking if its successor wasn’t the incomparable Jaguar E-Type.
So I’ve got the car, and apart from simply driving it, I wanted to do what classic car owners are wont to do - show it off. To that end, I entered the Jaguar into the Americana Manhasset Concours d’Elegance.
Blast from the past
Celebrating its 15th year, the Concours in Manhasset, NY has been a prestigious event that brings together some of the finest vehicles in the New York area. The free event offers near-unfettered access to some truly special vehicles, allowing crowds to get up close and personal to cars they’ve only pined for through magazines, posters, and social media feeds. It’s an event I’ve attended many times over the years, and I can attest to how wonderful it is to walk down the rows of dream cars old and new, getting swept away with fantasies of what each would be like to drive. This time around, I get to participate in a whole new way. Before I do, though, I have to get familiar with the vintage vehicle in my charge.
Climbing in, I find myself filled with more trepidation than anticipated. I’ve spent time behind the wheel of some fairly expensive cars, but those were mostly new. This is irreplaceable. Before the straight six fires up, I’m giddy over every small detail: the Jaguar logo relief on the seatbelt buckles, the minuscule gear lever in comparison to the large steering wheel, and so much more. Small comforts we take for granted like adjustable seats and doors that lock out when opened are notably absent, and they’re reminders to not be lulled into complacency when driving this car - there’s no modern safety tech underneath to bail me out of a jam.
I finally set out on a drive with the XK-150 and I’m instantly charmed. The five-speed gearbox is synchromeshed, so I can drive it like any other modern stick without altering my behavior too much. Though my legs are awkwardly bowed around the massive steering wheel, its size gives me the leverage needed to torque it around low speed maneuvers.
Before long, I’m ripping the Jaguar through back streets, living out the fantasy I’ve dreamed up for such a car. It’s a little daunting, but the car shows off more performance than I was prepared to give it credit for, holding bends with stiff confidence and powering out of them with a boisterous exhaust roar as a reward. It’s neat watching instrument needles float around ambiguously in their gauges. The imprecision isn’t doing me any favors, but it makes the machine feel more alive and less clinical. The readouts aren’t delivered via electronic sensors; there’s physical pressure moving mechanical parts, and I feel like an active component in the operation.
Englishmen in New York
There’s excitement in the air the morning of the concours. If you were just on the road, unaware of the event, you would feel like you’ve accidentally wandered into trailer for the latest Forza game. Cars of all calibers meet on the way to the concours, some to be entered in to be judged, others just out to join the car-festival atmosphere.
It’s a bit hectic, but it’s a cheerful chaos. The organizers of the event work diligently to carefully stage hundreds of cars precious to both owners and automobile history. I’m in good company in the British section, surrounded by various Rolls Royce models and Aston Martins. Naturally, the other Jaguars present are E-Types.
As people trickle in, I chat with the neighbors, one of whom has brought a white Jensen Interceptor. He loves talking about his car so much, he has self-imposed a time limit on how long he’s allowed to discuss it. I get my five minutes and then move on to the owner of an Aston Martin DB6. Him and his wife are happy to lounge out the day by their car, answering any and all questions that come up. “I drive this around so people can see something they don’t normally see,” he says, when asked what he likes about attending the show.
His fantastic answer is a poignant reminder that my Jaguar isn’t “my” Jaguar, and that I have very little to share in terms of stories when people come around. Still, while watching from afar, I get oddly proud when attendees stop to take a photo or give it careful scrutiny. I’m equally miffed when someone walks past without giving it so much as a glance. These feelings are elevated when the judges come around to give the XK-150 a thorough once-over. I ask the judges what things they’re looking for, and apart from the usual things like style and condition, the story behind the car plays a big part in their decision process. My story with the car only started a few weeks prior, so I have little to offer in terms of sway.
It's no surprise then when my little red roadster fails to win “Best British Sports Car,” an honor deservedly bestowed upon a lovely Aston Martin DB2 drophead coupe. I’m not upset, though. When it’s time to pack up, the Jaguar is still attracting folks nabbing a quick photo with it, and I’m not in a hurry to give it back.
My time pretending to be a gentleman driver of the late '50s showed me how enriching the classic car experience can be, not just for the owner, but for everyone. It instills an appreciation of even the smallest, almost invisible advances in automobile engineering and connects you back to the roots of what made you fall in love with cars in the first place. Sharing the experience only enhances this further. Maybe I’ll look into scooping up a classic car for real, one of these days. Better yet, let me try and keep my Mustang running for as long as possible and let it continue its story.
Do you want to know more?
To get the full low-down on the classic Jaguar XK series, including the XK-150, check out Nigel Thorley's Essential Buyer's Guide.