Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

| 9 Nov 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

Just the name ‘Jaguar’ is enough to make most of us dream.

And whether you see the XK150 as the ultimate expression of the XK line or the softened, gentrified pinnacle of a dynasty that began with the XK120, few could doubt this handsome grand tourer’s enduring appeal.

For auctioneer Philip Kantor, the tall, bearded head of Bonhams’ European motoring arm, the draw of his childhood Jaguar never went away, even after the car’s mysterious disappearance, and he remained caught in its gravitational pull until a chance reunion that led to it finally returning to its rightful home.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

The XK150 is often unfairly overlooked by enthusiasts.

Never truly tested in competition, unlike its forebears, the model lacks something of the sporting appeal that made its earlier incarnations so irresistible.

But you don’t have to look far around Kantor’s stunning Indigo Blue fixed-head coupé before you begin to appreciate that this consummate grand tourer is very much standing on the shoulders of giants.

Take a glance at its rear badge, and the delicate dates inscribed around its weather-worn edge are evidence of Jaguar’s history-making run at Le Mans and a racing heritage that few rivals can match.

While the shape lacks some of the delicacy and raw sporting appeal of the all-conquering 120, enough of the magic remains to seal its place in the list of Big Cat greats.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

The family line became increasingly refined from that first groundbreaking 1948 XK120, but while the XK140 of 1954 represented a gradual improvement on the roadster-cum-racer, the 1957 XK150 was a bolder step forward.

Thoroughly modern, the 150’s body was wide and tall, with a higher scuttle and raised waistline that almost completely masked the 120’s elegant hips.

The split windscreen that was a feature of both earlier generations was replaced by a curved one-piece unit, while on coupé models such as Kantor’s magnificent XK150 3.8 SE the entire frame was subtly moved forward by four inches, an almost imperceptible change but one that gives the 150 a purposeful, muscular feel.

Beneath the bulkier bodywork there was a much-improved cabin, but the XK150 otherwise shared a great deal with its predecessors, with little difference to the chassis and running gear of the 140, except for sharper rack-and-pinion steering and all-round Dunlop disc brakes in place of drums.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

The venerable 3.4-litre twin-cam straight-six that had already proved itself for almost a decade remained and, though it now produced 190bhp thanks to a reworked head, performance was a touch underwhelming until the arrival of the Special Equipment variant.

Twin 1¾in SU HD6 carburettors and a big-valve head raised power to 210bhp, while the full-fat ‘S’ – complete with triple HD8 carbs and a straight-port head – put out an impressive 250bhp.

The biggest change came in 1960, when the MkIX saloon’s powerful 3781cc straight-six was made available for the first time.

With the larger-capacity engine the range-topping XK150S turned out a career-best 265bhp – enough to hit 60mph in just 7 secs.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

One step down sat the 220bhp twin-carb SE, for many the perfect blend of practicality, affordability and performance – at least for Kantor Senior.

“My father was a Lancaster pilot during the war,” says son Philip, “so he always knew how to get fuel and it allowed him to buy fantastic cars that nobody wanted because they consumed too much!

“The Jaguar was originally purchased by my father around Christmas 1959 and was delivered in April 1960. He put a model of the car underneath the Christmas tree to surprise my mother because it was intended as a present for her.

“It was the very last version with the larger tail-lights, an XK150 3.8 SE in dark Indigo Blue. The interior was what Jaguar called Light Blue, which is much more of a sort of grey colour that I’m not particularly fond of.

“Also, the SEs had chrome wire wheels, which I’m not especially keen on either so they’ve now been painted the same Indigo dark blue.”

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home
Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home
Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

“My mother used to drive it far too fast. She was very elegant and always well dressed, and very slight – not like me!

“She drove it a lot to our chalet in Austria in the mountains, and took it to Salzburg for the music festival. She basically used it more or less as her daily driver.

“My earliest memory of the car was captured on celluloid – a picture taken with me standing beside it and washing it, with the door not properly closed!

“I was very young, I must have been three or four years old in that photograph so it goes back a long time.”

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

“From the mid-’70s, the Jaguar was moved to my great uncle’s estate near Battle in East Sussex, a big plot with a lovely Georgian house.

“It lived in the barn and I remember sitting in the car, changing gear and pulling at the wheel while the adults were inside having brandy and cigars and talking about all kinds of grown-up things.”

The Jaguar didn’t lie idle for long, however, being a favourite of Kantor’s mother, and towards the end of the decade the car was recommissioned and put back on the road.

At that time it was sharing garage space with a collection of Italian exotics that included a handful of Maseratis and a Ferrari Daytona.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

“And then one day it just disappeared,” says Kantor ruefully.

The XK150 was spirited away in 1986 by a trusted mechanic who maintained the family collection.

“The crook took it to a provincial auction house because he realised my father was close to Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and if he put it in a sale there it would just jump out.

“My father in those days said ‘don’t worry about the old Jag’, but my mother was very upset because it had such sentimental value for her.

“I was heartbroken – for me it was the family car. I loved to drive the Daytona later on in life, but this Jaguar was my second introduction to motoring after playing with an Auto Red Bug [a 1920s go-kart] when I was eight or nine.

“It was the first proper car that I really fell in love with, and directly led to what I’m doing today.”

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

Though his father hadn’t taken the theft very seriously, the loss of the XK was acutely felt by Kantor Jnr, who persisted with the search, writing to the police after graduating from university – but to no avail.

Decades passed, with each year the hope of one day recovering the family Jaguar fading further.

Until, that is, a chance piece of correspondence landed on his desk in 2013 – a request for information on a car that, according to the documentation, had once belonged to him.

“The writer pointed out that my name was on the logbook as a former keeper, and did I know anything about the car,” explains Kantor.

“You only get these opportunities once in a lifetime, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s to seize them. Isaid to him, ‘In fact I do, I’ll come and see you.’ So I flew to Manchester and he picked me up from the airport.”

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

It emerged that the car had been sold at auction twice since its disappearance, first through a smaller auction house and again through Coys in 2000 – the latter a sale that Kantor himself had attended, but at the time he hadn’t realised the significance of the tatty old Jag in the corner of the saleroom.

“At the beginning the owner didn’t know quite what to expect,” says Kantor, “but I was perfectly friendly and civilised, and said that I would love to see the car again.

“We went to his bungalow on the outskirts of Manchester. There was a wooden garage with a Carcoon, and inside the Carcoon sat our old car.

“He’d obviously taken quite good care of her, but he’d jazzed it up a bit – he’d fitted bucket seats and removed the bumpers.

“What mattered to me was the chassis and the body, so I took him out for a pub lunch and told him the story over a couple of pints.”

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

“He was a very decent chap. I knew he hadn’t stolen it and had bought it in good faith, so I suggested we come to a gentlemen’s agreement.

“He told me how much he wanted and he wasn’t far off. I told him I would let him know what I would do with it and where I would take it – taking my children out for rides and that sort of thing.

“I was sweetening him up, but in a very honest way because I was just desperate to have it back. He understood, so we came to an agreement, I paid him the very next day and had the car sent straight to a British XK specialist.”

Deal done, the former owner invested in a ’70s Morgan Plus 8 while Kantor commissioned a full mechanical overhaul of the Jaguar, returning it as close as possible to the condition it was in when it served as his mother’s runabout.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

“The overdrive wasn’t working so we had to have that repaired,” Kantor recalls. “I also had a few things modernised: a Kenlowe fan, plus an uprated ignition system and brakes.

“It was just a neglected old Jag really, with the exception of the body and paintwork, which the previous owner had done and which held up quite nicely – he spent a lot of money on it.

“I had the interior completely redone by Mike Turley of Suffolk & Turley, with the original-style seats retrimmed in a very nice RAF Blue Connolly hide”

A few choice modifications were also made, including a smart conversion from right- to left-hand drive [Kantor’s work has taken him to live in Belgium], whilea pair of in-keeping Heuer clocks were fitted beneath the dash.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

“They were actually a birthday present from my mother to my father when I was about seven or eight. In those days, opticians used to sell these Heuer clocks and this Monte-Carlo set was on display.

“She asked me, ‘Is there anything here your father might like?’ And I said, ‘Mummy, he would love these.’ So she bought them. They had been living on a wooden plinth on my desk at home, so I put them back in the car.

“Remarkably, her original His Master’s Voice radio was still fitted; she studied classical music, so that was a little trip down memory lane for me.”

The final step in the restoration came when Kantor was able to reunite the Jaguar with CD 373, the registration number it wore throughout his family’s ownership, and which had graced a number of the collector’s cars in the years since.

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

“Period Brighton registrations begin ‘CD’,” explains Kantor,“so you’ll find quite a few of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run entrants have ‘CD’ numberplates – the Mayor of Brighton has CD 1.

“In those days, ‘CD’ also meant Corps Diplomatique, so we basically had diplomatic plates for the entire European continent!

“My mother used to drive the Jaguar abroad a lot and you could get away with murder. You could park anywhere, you could speed – as long as you were properly dressed, they just saluted and let you go.

“I had always kept that number, so it was the final touch.”

Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

Now back where it belongs at last, Kantor’s XK150 is smart but not quite concours – “You can restore a car 15 times, but you can never replace original patina” – and driven in the manner its maker intended.

“It is not a sprinter, but it is an ideal grand tourer,” Kantor explains. “I’ve probably put about 10,000km on her since the restoration – you can take her up to about 130-135mph.

“I’ve gone straight past the French police on the way to judging at the Chantilly concours. They just see a chap with a grey beard, a CD registration plate and an old car!”

It seems certain that Kantor’s mother would approve: “She drove it at just about the same speed I’m sure! She drove it like hell.”

Words: Robert Puyal/Greg MacLeman

Images: Cathy Dubuisson


Classic & Sports Car – Jaguar XK150: the Big Cat that came home

Jaguar XK150 3.8 SE

  • Sold/no built 1960-’61/809 (all fhc 3.8s)
  • Construction steel chassis, steel body
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 3781cc straight-six, twin SU HD6 carburettors
  • Max power 220bhp @ 5500rpm
  • Max torque 240lb ft @ 4000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, optional overdrive, driving rear wheels
  • Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 14ft 9in (4496mm)
  • Width 5ft 4½in (1638mm)
  • Height 4ft 6in (1372mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2591mm)
  • Weight 3260lb (1480kg)
  • 0-60mph 8secs
  • Top speed 131mph
  • Mpg 22
  • Price new £1942 (1959)
  • Price now £50-100,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication


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