A 1500-mile round trip to Geneva in the brilliant Jaguar Mk2

| 14 Aug 2013

In Britain, 1959 was the year of frothy coffee in glass cups, ban-the-bomb and Harold Macmillan’s ‘most of our people have never had it so good’ conservatism. You could still get hanged for murder, jailed for buggery and called up for National Service, but through a haze of nostalgia they seemed to be simpler, happier times. Certainly the monochrome world of bomb sites, Woodbines and winter smog was giving way to a new era of consumerism and a sense of hope for a more exciting future, where anyone could realistically think of owning a modest family saloon and a black-and-white television.

More cars meant more roads and a new kind of road. In November, Ernest Marples (you don’t get names like that any longer, do you?) opened the first section of the M1, and just a month before that Jaguar Cars had launched a new version of its unitary-hulled compact saloon, badged simply and enigmatically ‘Mk2’. This car became the bullet-nosed sovereign of these wondrous six-lane strips of landscaped asphalt for years to come. In the early days of the M1, the outside lane was known as ‘the Jag lane’.

With its increased glass area, 12in Dunlop discs and wider rear track, this was emphatically a prettier, more stable and much safer compact Jaguar. Even better, with the exciting new option of a 220bhp 3.8-litre engine, it was a much quicker one, easily the fastest saloon – 126mph, according to The Autocar – in Jaguar’s impressive repertoire of twin-cam luxury four-doors. 

More sophisticated Jaguar tin-tops came and went, but none captured the raw appeal of the Mk2 3.8. In manual/overdrive form it was probably the most rapid true production four-door in the world: 0-100mph in 25 seconds was a level of urge that only racing drivers had experienced. Like the E-type that followed, the 3.8 Mk2 democratised high performance for a modestly well-off but not absurdly wealthy constituency of buyers who could find its £1842 purchase price. Predictable success in saloon car racing fed the Mk2 legend and left an indelible impression on young men with 5-Star flowing in their veins, who could only look on in awe. 

Many who watched the likes of Salvadori and Parkes cornering the small Jaguars on their doorhandles in production saloon events made a quiet promise to themselves that they would one day have a Mk2 of their own. For former prison officer Simon Cronin that day came 20 years later when, for a mere £400, he captured a 3.8 that had been gently festering in a neighbour’s garage with the family dog sleeping in it. Although it had not been used for a few years, the Jaguar went straight through an MoT. Says Cronin: “The Thursday after I got it, I hitched up the caravan and took it to the British GP.”

Thirty years on, the founder member and director of the JEC and his wife Ann have toured Europe, South Africa and America in the Mk2. In the process, the car has racked up a quarter of a million miles and become part of the family. 

Sold new by Henlys (then on the Euston Road) to a Yorkshire MP, DVY 774C started life as a 3.8 auto in 1965 but was uprated to manual/overdrive spec, with correct Salisbury limited-slip diff, when Cronin restored it in the late ’80s. Other modifications include a 420 front axle with the three-pot calipers and the variable-ratio power steering of the later car. Under the Coombs-style louvred bonnet, the handsome straight-six has a 420 manifold with bigger 2in SUs, electronic ignition and a Kenlowe fan. These are all sensible, not hugely expensive mods on a Mk2 that is used throughout the year, tows a caravan and returns 25mpg on a run.

Our plan is to recapture the flavour of early ’60s road testing, when cars as powerful as the 3.8 Mk2 had to be taken abroad to stretch their legs and allow the writers to get their figures. Europe was opening up to motorists and promised mystique, adventure and new experiences to those who wanted to enjoy a car to its maximum. As a destination, Geneva offers the right combination of European glamour and sufficient distance – a 1500-mile round trip – to do justice to what The Autocar called the ‘Gran Turismo qualities’ of this most celebrated of British saloon cars. It also recalls an epic journey that one Christopher Jennings of The Motor made in April 1960, in convoy with a Facel Vega.

To get some miles under our wheels on the first day, we take the A26 autoroute straight out of the tunnel to Reims and enjoy several hundred kilometres of restful overdrive-top wafting. Standards have moved on, so the Mk2 no longer seems as quiet as it did in 1960 but the cabin is luminous, with easy views around slender roof pillars that modern drivers, hemmed in by air bags and high waistlines, can only dream of. 

What strikes you as you look along the tapering curves of the modestly dimensioned bonnet is how genuinely compact the Mk2 seems. The fragrant leathers and gleaming veneers give a real sense of occasion, yet there is something quaint about the dinky switchgear, the handsome Smiths instruments and the narrow ’screen only inches – rather than feet – from your knuckles. The all-steel body is not a triumph of packaging, but it has a decent-sized boot and really substantial rear legroom – better even than its modern equivalent, the XF, which we have brought along as back-up and photography car. 

The Mk2 treated rear passengers with a respect that is rather lacking in modern cars. There are picnic tables, big courtesy lamps that glow an inviting yellow and a posh coachbuilt aura that doesn’t square with the modest price, nor the fact that nearly 100,000 were built.

Viewing the Mk2 from behind as it hums along, the car has lost none of its squat, voluptuous elegance. Sir William Lyons was a possibly unique combination of hard-nosed industrialist and true aesthete. He couldn’t actually draw all that well, but had a masterful feel for the way the light should fall on a panel so that his cars looked good from any angle. In a decade when saloon car styling became more angular and modernist, the Mk2 remained immune to the fashions of the day and its romantic English curves have served it well. Apart from the Armco bumpers and aggressive overriders – probably fitted to fend off clumsy drivers in American parking lots – the detailing is sophisticated. It also occupies much less road than its modern equivalent and, shockingly, is half the weight, despite its decadent interior trim and hefty drivetrain. 

Long-striding and directionally stable, the Mk2 still has a rightful place in the fast lane of the péage. Of all the XK engines, the 3.8 has the ideal combination of sweetness, smoothness and effortless torque with a willingness to rev that was lost in the rather coarse 4.2. There’s lots of heat soak through the bulkhead, so the quarter lights are brought into use even on an autumn afternoon. In summer, Ann says she usually ends up draping her feet out of the window to cool off. The heat haze through the bonnet louvres is a reminder that the original body architecture was built for the physically smaller 2.4 engine.

Heading south on the N44 to St-Dizier – our first overnight stop – I ask Simon why he has remained loyal to the Mk2 for so long. Great though it is, it’s hard for me to get my head around what makes somebody keep the same car for 30 years. “I think it’s because it does everything I want it to do,” says Cronin, who also runs an XJ of the X300 generation as an everyday smoker. “It’s a sports car and a family car at the same time. The only thing I would consider replacing it with is a Gordon-Keeble.”

The next morning we get straight back on to the autoroute, mindful that we still have a way to go and of how much time the demands of photography can swallow. Towards Poligny, the streets are awash with gendarmes, as if someone very important is due to arrive, so we burble past unobtrusively. It’s bright and warm for October and the roads are almost eerily quiet as we set a course for Doucier along twisty roads of vibrant autumnal colours. On decent tyres and properly set-up, the understeering Mk2 in its original form is acceptable to say the least, even with five turns between surprisingly tight locks. But with the later power steering the ratio is faster and the Cronin Mk2 feels much more nimble. “Go in on a trailing throttle, turn it in towards the apex and then use the throttle to balance it through,” explains Simon. “Because it naturally understeers, you can point the car in very deep.”

It rolls a little uncomfortably, but the Powr-lok diff deals effectively with wheelspin from the unloaded wheel as we make a mildly spirited assault on the Col du Marchairuz in the Swiss Jura. While the squat and menacing XF is almost absurdly capable and flattering of its driver here, the Mk2 makes you work hard, pumping on its hefty clutch and swapping between second and third in the satisfyingly notchy gearbox, a later all-synchromesh job rather than the slow Moss unit. Hard work, yes, but still a satisfying tool with 240lb ft of thrust and a wonderful 98mph third to boost you to the next curve with a heroic note from the twin exhausts that must surely border on the illegal in killjoy Switzerland. Later all-independent Jag saloons had quieter and more level rides, with less pitch and bounce than the live-axle Mk2, but it’s far from uncouth.

Purely in the name of art, we turn off at Nyon just north of Lake Geneva and make a long, steep ascent up a single-track, thickly wooded col for a view of the Jura and a thermal inversion: clear blue skies, with cloud in the valley. In protest at having to slog up so far, the Mk2 piddles a cupful of coolant from its overflow pipe. 

We hit Geneva in rush hour and struggle at first to find a hotel to match our modest budget. In the traffic, the Mk2’s headlights look yellowy, its slender tail-lights red pin-pricks compared to the glare from the moderns. Inside there’s an evocative green glow from the dials and a warm hum of satisfaction from the XK lump. 

Still so capable in so many areas, the Mk2 is the sort of car that makes you want to just keep on driving. But the next morning, after a photo-call beside Lake Geneva, we had to retrace our steps to Poligny then drive purposefully towards Calais to make our appointment with the Chunnel. The 3.8’s power and long legs make it perfect for this trip and it is enthusiastically received everywhere, its shape and sound as much the essence of all things Jaguar as an E-type or XK. 

Sports cars with limousine appointments are commonplace in 2010, but 50 years ago this Jag had the field all to itself. Its beauty, pace and very British style of luxury still impress in a way that no other saloon of its generation quite matched. Ignoring the nostalgia and the bullshit that has too long surrounded it as a ‘cultural icon’ for lazy writers, this is still a truly great car.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words; Martin Buckley; pictures: Tony Baker