IN 1970, aged 25, Richard Wolf bought himself an XKE convertible. In honor of the E-Type’s 50th anniversary, R.D. tells of the glory and the madness in owning the world’s sexiest roadster.
by Richard Wolf ::: imgs R.D. Wolf / Eagle GB / Jaguar Cars
In 1970, I had been saving money for three years to buy myself a “dream car” for my 25th birthday. Insurance premiums back then on high performance cars with drivers under 25 were punitive beyond my means and the last great barrier to ownership. I couldn’t age fast enough!
I was a designer surviving as a construction worker at the time. In the real world of actually affordable used cars there were only a fistful of choices if your heart was set on a sports car with power. The Vette, Porsche, and Jaguar XKE were the obvious choices.
MG’s, Triumphs, etc. were too underpowered. Astons and Ferraris – too rare and expensive. And, anyone who ever drove a Cobra knew better than to think of it as an everyday ride.
And that is what I needed.Whatever I bought was going to be my only car. So, some pragmatism, along with a healthy fear of repair bills, was in order.
Fat load of good practicality did for me.
Hell, I thought, I’m an artist! I went for beauty and got the XKE.
I found a year-old convertible with about 12,000 on the clock. A dentist owned it and I purchased the car directly from him. It was a 4.2 liter in British Racing Green with a saddle interior.
Driving off in that car for the first time, on my 25th birthday, top down, headed to pick up my beautiful girlfriend for a night on the town, was one of the great moments of my life. It was good to be me.
Oh, let me sing you the song of XKE ownership! A wondrous melody indeed, with highs and lows almost beyond imagining.
The melody first!
I understood enough to realize that what I was driving was actual Art with a capitol A. To this day that wonderful shape stops people and traffic like nothing else.
Most cars have at least a few detractions. Your Ferrari may be perceived as a rich man’s toy; your Vette a middle aged crisis, your Aston as Anglophilic to a fault: but, everyone loves the XKE. I never went anywhere where the car was not valet parked front and center. When I came out of nightclubs it was common to find a beautiful woman waiting to ask if I would take her for a ride.
That sure in hell never happened to me before or since with any other car I’ve owned. When you pulled up in an XKE women flirted, men bought you drinks, children squealed with delight and vicious dogs licked your hand. Everyone wanted to be seen in it. Everyone wanted a ride.
And some ride it would be.
The car had good if not stellar acceleration from its straight-six engine and it had long legs that would get to 140 mph handily. No small act of courage given those skinny little Pirellis and the lack of weight over the rear end. Today, those Pirellis look like they were stolen off a Schwinn.
Soon after purchase I took my mother for a top down spin on Boston’s twisty 35 MPH Storrow Drive. I asked if she knew what speed we were going. Her reply sounded like it was coming from a jaded teen.
“Oh honey, a little over 120.” Mom was hard to impress.
The highs and lows!
The car could be driven quickly in dry weather, and with that light rear end, was an early drifter’s dream. On the other hand I fled for my life at the first flake of snow. In snow the Jag’s first and only move (there was no speed slow enough to prevent this) was to do donuts around its own front wheels.
You know: those wheels! The under chromed, out of true, and out of round wire ones that were rusting with each breath you’d take. The ones that introduced you to your two permanent new best friends – naval jelly and Guido the wheel tuner. Those wire wheels.
The exterior shape was breathtaking (although the tail lights seemed a cheap afterthought.)
The chrome exhaust pipes, Praying Mantis like, were a terrific enhancement. I should know because I bought a new pair every spring. This after watching their predecessors disappear in my rearview mirror, having rusted off the car onto the highway, much to the consternation of following motorists.
And those beautiful louvers so subtly pressed into the hood. Sadly, the paint started falling off the untreated edges from your first day of ownership and never stopped. I, along with a friend who was a body shop guy, actually re-painted the car and got a far superior result than that from the factory.
And then, the superbly minimalist chrome trim surrounding the windshield.
Surprisingly delicate by any standard. It leaked buckets of water not only from where the top clamped down on it, but also between it and the top of the glass itself. Steering in a downpour was a one handed event. You needed the other hand to pull the top down hard onto the windshield frame in order to slow the dual Niagara enough to see out. Water sloshing in the footwells was a not infrequent experience.
You know, those footwells! The ones your girlfriend put her heal through (giving you an unimpeded view of the road below) early in the third spring of the Jag’s life. Turns out that the footwells were in a dead heat race with the trunk’s floor to see which one would be the first to rust to a fine red dust.
Hell, the wheels and exhaust beat them both by a mile.
The wonderful skinny wood steering wheel cracked in two around its circumference for no particular reason and resisted every attempt at gluing it back together. It was like driving with semi-circular castanets in each hand.
The Smiths instruments… well, do I actually have to finish this statement? Really? The fuckin clock never even worked.
The clock! Never!
But it was a wonderful interior to sit in and gaze upon. It looked luxurious and yet businesslike at the same time… with all those toggle switches and all that leather.
The XKE had maladies the most imaginative among us would be hard pressed to dream up. I paid hundreds of dollars to remedy its being out of level side to side. The door top was one inch higher on the passenger side than the driver’s.
Never happened to Dad’s Buick.
To start the car in freezing weather you turned the ignition to its first detent, got out and opened the trunk, peeled away the left side panel and beat the hell out of the fuel pump with the wooden handle of the wheel hub hammer. After a while you would hear a loud clicking noise from the pump. You could then re-assemble your car and start the engine.
The obvious solution for the thinking man…
At age four, after three years under my ownership’ the car was doing its best to find ever more adventurous ways to rust and break. It oozed oil from every orifice. Every other liquid, too, for that matter. It cost me an arm and leg to keep the Jag going and it spent a ridiculous amount of time in the shop.
And despite best efforts, the situation was not being held: the XKE was going backwards. As wonderful a time as I had had with this car there was no way to stave off its apparent four year shelf life.
Dust to dust, as they say.
Never before did I have an experience with something being so badly made. So self destructive. Those XKEs must have been hammered out of WWII salvage beer cans and finished with finger paint.
Disgusted to the max I did the only thing I could. The only thing anyone sensible would do: I sold the damn thing! Cheap.
And bought another.