I Saw a ’50s Jag Le Mans Racer in a Desert Mirage
Similar to Jim Morrison, I too once had a hallucination in the desert, about 85 miles northwest of San Diego, near the Anza Borrego State Park. It was mid-August six or seven years ago, right in the fat part of an especially nasty summer. My dad and I were stopped for lunch at an abandoned-looking Mexican restaurant right on the corner of a block like something from a Western, surrounded by a handful of decrepit shops, three or four old pickups parked here and there, and a hungry dog pacing up and down the sun-bleached street. We sat in a sweltering adobe dining room decorated with hand-painted cacti and ate what we later agreed were the worst enchiladas ever served, sweating into our tepid well water, listening to the futile groans of a half-broken swamp cooler mounted above a wood-framed glass door.
Halfway through our meal/unspoken contest of the wills I happened to glance through this door, and I swear to God and all that is good I saw a Jaguar C-Type drive past, piloted by a white haired man in leather goggles and a pink and yellow striped polo shirt. I’d chalk it up to a fevered mind brought on by heat exhaustion and the early stages of very nearly hospital visit quality food poisoning if it weren’t so incredibly vivid. We both heard it long before visual contact was made, and it was unmistakably a Jag six; busy, blaring, and hollow. Dad claimed to believe me when I told him what I saw (his back was facing the street), but in that same patronizing tone he’d long ago used to assuage my doubts that Santa was a real dude.
The C-Type, as you may already know, won Le Mans twice—in 1951 and 1953. Designed from the ground-up with the intent of scoring victory at Le Sarthe, it used a very light steel tube frame covered in painstakingly hand-beaten aluminum panels. Powered by a highly tuned version of Jag’s already venerable XK6 twin cam six cylinder, it weighed very little and in ’53 spec made at least 220 HP. This healthy output, combined with the bravery and skill of drivers Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt enabled that year’s winning car an average speed of 105.85 MPH—the first time in Le Mans history that figure eclipsed 100.
Just like the XK120 from which it cribbed its engine, the C was a beautifully simple, almost plain shape—very rounded in hips and shoulders but somewhat slab-sided. Its evolution to the three-time winning D-Type would see its shape foreshadow the changes between XK and E-Type road cars, with Jag’s trademark organic curves becoming more pronounced. They’re both gorgeous things to look at, brimming with the kind of handmade detail that old race cars specialize in, but for me the C’s somehow the more attractive of the two, its restrained shape more timeless in my eyes than the almost cartoonish bulging of its successor. I know most won’t agree.
I saw one run at the Coronado Speed Festival a few years later. It was the same leafy, dark shade of BRG, but as far as I know they all were. It was incredible to see running at race speed, even if it was more likely 8/10ths max. I couldn’t stop imagining it was the same car I’d seen in the desert, to the point that I don’t remember any other cars from the field, who won, or anything else from that day if I’m honest. I went and looked for it in the pits soon afterwards, but continuing a theme it remained elusive. If you can imagine being disappointed while surrounded by original GT40s, 917s, prewar Bugattis, and GTOs then you’ll have a good idea of how distracted I was.
If you’re reading this, fabulously rich old guy who lives in the desert, sitting in an overstuffed leather chesterfield, iPad in one hand, Cuban cigar in the other, stuffed Jackalope on the wall above—drop me a line, help restore my faith in sanity, let me drive your C-Type.