Prowling Through History In The Derwent Valley In A Jaguar XK150 3.8S
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
Watching the British government engulfed in a frenzy of acquiring masks from the other side of the globe, one would be forgiven for ignoring that this country was once one of the world’s textile powerhouses. It was only surpassed as the world’s leader, by the United States, in the 20th century. Seems a lifetime away, but it’s not just ancient history. More and more people talk about reviving our local manufacturing, to try to avoid such embarrassing situations as the one we are facing right now, being brought to our knees by not being able to produce enough of those miracles of technology that snugly cover our mouth and nose. But where do we start? We went to find some inspiration from the British textile industrial heritage, guided by a drop dead gorgeous Jaguar XK150 3.8S.
We headed out to the Derwent Valley first, as the river valley is credited with the establishment of the factory system—well before steam power, the force of the river was enough to get things going, and water mills established some of earliest carbon neutral industries. To visit this history, we are in the town of Belper, facing the former jewel of the Strutt family empire.
If you expected some sheds and a few informative plaques for kids on field trips, well, you are in for a big surprise. A giant, and rather surreal, brick and iron towering surprise. One look at it and you instantly understand both why people loved and hated it. Sure, it’s still awesome, an undeniable achievement of industry and engineering, but it’s also a little spooky, even without the noise that surely must have inhabited its cavernous interior. And it is not a remnant of a wholly rose-tinted history either.
Working conditions back in the day were nothing short of dismal. They only got slightly better with the introduction of face masks, but let’s be clear, working in a place like this was never a paradise (productive, yes; pleasant, not so much) and the masks themselves were unable to prevent some epidemics spreading in factories like this. Certainly, not a future to be looking forward to. In the notoriously moody weather of the Midlands, the almost deserted structure makes for an appropriate den for our XK. After all, a big cat should could be expected to have a menacing keep.
Frankly, there’s hardly a car that fits into this scene better than the Jag. Not only it is a great piece of design, a delight to be in, but it also seemingly tames this imposing, defunct factory. The XK150 is the last evolution of the beloved original XK formula—the car that put Jaguar firmly in the post-war map, the opening act in the brand’s golden age, which culminated in five wins at Le Mans, a feat nicely celebrated by the badge on the rear of this black 3.8S Drophead Coupe.
This example was restored some 28 years ago, by the famous British restorers at P&K Thornton, a Jaguar specialist since 1967. At the time of writing, it was fresh out of another six-month-long “touch up” by the same company. One of only 69 XK150s made in RHD configuration, this particular one has—in addition to the standard front an rear disc brakes—upgraded front calipers, stiffer suspension bushings, Koni Classic dampers, a powered rack-and-pinion steering kit, a fully rebuilt motor including cylinder head conversion for unleaded petrol, electronic ignition, and some LED lights to take the place of the dim originals. All signs that this car is meant for driving, not just resting and looking handsome in a collection. It can take its fortunate owner from 0 to 60 mph in seven seconds, courtesy of some 265hp, a number that would make the old mill green with envy. It still slurps rather than sips its fuel, a habit that’s even harder to kick with the extra power. Those three Weber carburetors make short work of whatever’s in your fuel tank, and this cat likes to stretch its legs.
Despite the potential on tap, we cruise along at legal speeds in the village, trying to place ourselves in another time. It’s hard to say looking at the after without living through the before, but if the cotton mills revolutionized manufacturing, they seemingly did so without destroying the local character of this place. Sure, no modern architect would give planning permission for the mammoth dominating the valley, but conservationists would approve of the center square of Belper. The old cobbles are framed by period buildings, and the central water fountain pays homage to the mill’s founders, the Strutt family, who also provided housing to the workers. And who also paved the market square, with the stones that so nicely complement our black cat from Coventry. We feel inspired here, so much so that, in an act of unprecedented bravery, we take the top down—to the utmost surprise of the clouds directly on top of us.
A local says something to us as we pass by at a crawl through the center. We laugh and nod in approval, even though we have no idea what he was on about. He seems pleased by our reaction though, or maybe he just likes the Jag and lets us get away with it.
And get away we do. In search of the last piece of the puzzle. For that, we leave Belper to discover what was once the home of Sir Richard Arkwright, early partner of the Strutt family and the industrialist who started the cotton mills revolution. Not far from his world-changing site at Cromford, his old house, Willersley Hall, is still standing.
As we cross the gate, we stop to admire the blooming tree by the side of the road, probably one of the many that were planted at the time the house was built. And then, magic. The sun comes out. It couldn’t have happened at a better time. The black Jaguar reflects the flowers and the red leather upholstery complements the pink hues of the petals as if this photoshoot were taking place in Photoshop. The character of the car is transformed. It started as a powerful status symbol, more than a match for the imposing Strutt’s Mills. Power and pace. But here underneath the flowering trees and blue sky, we discovered the softer side; a certain warmth, the inimitable Jaguar grace. With just a change of scenery, the black wraith has bloomed into a beautiful feline stretching in the sunlight.
Once we are done living through the reality wrought by this virus, we will likely change our world again. Some of the “new normal” will be a clear advancement, while other aspects could be reversions. Change is constant, but cars like this are often considered timeless. Of course, that’s just a bit of romantic nonsense we say when describing pretty things. Beauty is subjective, changed by context, and what I think we really mean by timeless beauty is adaptable beauty. It feels stranger than usual to shoot and write about cars when more important things are going on, but one day the bad days will be behind us, and things like this XK150 will be there to remind us how to appreciate the sunnier side of life.