The most famous Jaguar XKSS - Jay Leno drives Steve McQueen’s original - build a new XKSS and history

Jaguar’s New XKSS Behind the scenes with Jaguar’s first reborn XKSS Plus! Jay Leno drives Steve McQueen’s original.

David Lillywhite Written by Sunday, 25 March 2018 02:41
2016-2018 Jaguar XKSS 2016-2018 Jaguar XKSS 2016-2018 David Lillywhite & Drive-My
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Jaguar’s 60-year tea break

Nought to 60mph in five seconds. In 1957. I love the thought of that. In this case, we’re talking about the Jaguar XKSS, though there were very few other road cars of the period anyway that could get close to such extreme acceleration. It was an astonishing machine, and it still is.

January 1957 sees the 60th anniversary of the XKSS; February, the 60th anniversary of the devastating fire at the Jaguar factory, which ended XKSS production after only 16 of the 25 cars had been converted from unsold D-types.

Now, as you’re probably very aware, Jaguar Classic is beginning to build the nine ‘missing’ XKSSs. On the face of it, this is a strange undertaking for a modern car maker, but Jaguar isn’t the only manufacturer to have thought of it – the most obvious other example is Audi with its phenomenal Auto Unions.


2016-2018 Jaguar XKSS
2016-2018 Jaguar XKSS

It might also seem an odd car for someone to buy. You could say it’s not a ‘real’ XKSS. It won’t be road legal. And it will cost over £1 million. So why is this new ‘continuation’ XKSS on the cover of Drive-My? Well, as with the Lightweight E-type that went before it, Drive-My COM was granted exclusive access to the XKSS build process, and to the people involved, and the passion, and the knowledge, and the extraordinary lengths gone to in order to ensure the authenticity of the processes and the materials used. We’re fully behind the project – and if any of us here had £1m-plus spare (an academic thought, admittedly), the ‘new’ XKSS would truly be a serious consideration.

As it is, each of the nine XKSS continuation cars was sold long before the unveiling of the prototype at November’s Los Angeles Auto Show. Nine lucky buyers will have an XKSS with none of the history but all of the dynamic appeal of an original, for a tenth of the price. Additionally, the owners of the original XKSSs now have access to previously long-unavailable spares, which will enable them to use their cars with more confidence. And that’s a win-win situation for everyone.



 

Steve McQueen’s original Jaguar XKSS The most famous XKSS…

There’s no better-known XKSS than this, owned and driven hard – very hard – by Steve McQueen. Here, it returns to McQueen’s LA home Words David Lillywhite. Photography Evan Klein. Jaguar XKSS Reborn Leno drives McQueen’s car, behind the scenes with Jaguar’s recreation, plus definitive history.


Steve McQueen loved cars and bikes. He loved fast cars and bikes still more. And of all his automotive loves, his XKSS was the greatest, to such an extent that he bought it twice. When McQueen’s fame began to build in the early 1950s, and his wealth followed suit, it wasn’t long before his long-suffering, oftbroken MG TC was replaced by faster, newer sports cars. First an Austin-Healey, then a Corvette were driven hard and fast around Los Angeles, until wife Neile Adams persuaded him to slow down a little, and he settled for a Ford Fairlane – for a while.


Steve McQueen’s original Jaguar XKSS The most famous XKSS…
Steve McQueen’s original Jaguar XKSS The most famous XKSS…

It was never going to last though. In 1957 he bought a Siata 208, closely followed by Porsche 356 Speedster and Lotus XI. And then, in ’1958, he topped them all with this XKSS. It had been bought new in April ’1957 by James E Peterson of Altadena, California, who kept it for just a year; it’s often noted that Peterson ran the XKSS at San Fernando dragstrip in August of that year, setting fastest time of the day, but just as interesting is that Peterson was one of the small team behind the Riverside Raceway, which opened in September 1957, and went on to be used extensively by Hollywood in TV and film.

Anyway, Peterson sold the XKSS in 1958 to radio and TV personality Bill Leyden, who by that point was two years into fronting the game show It Could Be You, touted as ‘The man who will amaze you by what he knows about you’ (thanks to hidden ‘spies’ and researchers in the audience). He drove the XKSS regularly, parking it in a studio lot on Sunset Boulevard, which is where McQueen first spotted it. It wasn’t long before he began to pester Leyden.

Inevitably, it also wasn’t long before Leyden caved in, at which point McQueen turned his persuasion techniques onto Neile, who ended up having to hand over a cheque to Leyden for $5000. This was late 1958, and Steve McQueen was the excited owner of XKSS 713, previously XKD 569 in D-type form, supplied new painted cream with a red interior.

McQueen, though, preferred dark colours, and quickly sent the XKSS to be repainted in British Racing Green and retrimmed in black leather by renowned hot rodder Tony ‘The Loner’ Nancy in Sherman Oaks.

Soon he was roaring around LA in the newly painted XKSS, which he nicknamed the Green Rat, famously attracting the attentions of the traffic cops and apparently often outrunning them, to the point that the sheriff of the LAPD offered the prize of a steak dinner at Lawry’s in Beverly Hills to whichever of his men could catch McQueen. It’s reckoned that McQueen twice came close to losing his licence in his first year of XKSS ownership.

Another famous tale of McQueen and XKSS: he once tricked a patrolman into racing him and Neile to the hospital, claiming that Neile was in labour. Sure, she was pregnant, but only by six months, and once the patrolman had left he told the nurses ‘false alarm’ and headed home. Not that he got away with it entirely, of course… Neile was furious and didn’t speak to him for the rest of the day.

Google ‘McQueen XKSS’ and you’ll be rewarded with any number of images of the star and his car, including several of him dressed as a cowboy and toting a sawn-off rifle on the set of the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive. In some, his horse is even tied to the XKSS.

More evocatively, picture McQueen during the shooting of Love with the Proper Stranger, leaving his home on Solar Drive early each morning, blasting through the Los Angeles canyon roads to pick up co-star Natalie Wood for a pre-filming breakfast at the Old World Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard.

But after all this, in 1967 McQueen decided to sell the XKSS, apparently in fear of finally losing his driving licence – though ordering a new Ferrari 275 GTB/4 might have had something to do with the decision, too.

Not that McQueen was letting going of it altogether, as far as he was concerned at least. This was a ‘sale of convenience’, as it was later referred to by lawyers, to the famous Harrah Collection in Reno, under the verbal agreement (according to McQueen) that the car would neither be driven by anyone nor sold.

But when McQueen asked to buy the car back, Harrah refused, and only after legal intervention did the sale finally go through, at a much higher price than he’d sold for, ten years before. This was February 1978; less than three years later, McQueen died from a heart attack aged 50 after undergoing surgery for cancer.

The XKSS was sold in 1984 to McQueen’s former neighbour Richard Freshman, who had it restored by Lynx; in 2000 Freshman sold it to the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA, where it’s been ever since, run regularly and occasionally let out for – as here – a return to McQueen’s ‘Castle’ house in Brentwood, or for Jay Leno to drive – as you’ll see overleaf.


Right McQueen at speed in his beloved XKSS on Sunset Boulevard – a common sight during his mid-60s ownership of the car. Left Original red interior was retrimmed for McQueen, and customiser Von Dutch added glovebox for sunglasses and cigarettes.


‘McQueen sold the XKSS in fear of losing his licence – though ordering a new Ferrari 275 GTB/4 might have had something to do with it, too’



 

Jay Leno drives McQueen’s XKSS

‘I’ll never be Steve McQueen but for one brief moment I can pretend…’


Well how exciting is this! Not only is this one of the most legendary cars of all time, but it belonged to Steve McQueen. When I first came to Hollywood in the ’70s I would see this car occasionally around town, and it was really exciting even then. It was an old race car but it wasn’t just any old race car, it was an XKSS, with all the stories, the legend, the fire, the whole deal, and only 16 of them in the world.

The first impression is it’s so much lighter than an XK120. The aluminium skin and all the aluminium in the motor means it’s very light, and it’s incredibly powerful and long-legged. When I pulled away I thought, ‘Oh, am I in third?’ But oh, no no, this thing is just geared for top speed. At 60 you’re barely over 2000rpm. This thing’s got a really high top speed, and it’s so stable at speed I’m stunned.


Below Jay tries the Petersen Automotive Museum’s McQueen XKSS for Jay Leno’s Garage.
Steve McQueen’s original Jaguar XKSS The most famous XKSS…
Steve McQueen’s original Jaguar XKSS The most famous XKSS…

This is a car you could get in and drive to San Francisco and it wouldn’t be temperamental at all. Yet it’s a race car! It feels like a modern car… No, modern cars don’t even feel this good! It handles, and I’m astounded at how light the steering is and how light the front end is compared with XKEs and 120s and 140s and 150s. Back in the day you’d think they could have sold a million of these things. When you compare it with the other cars of the ’50s, sure Ferrari had the V12, but Porsche had, what, 90bhp? This has 250. It would give the Gullwing a run for its money.

This is one of those cars that you wait your whole life to drive and never think you can. Go and see this car in person; it will blow you away. It will be smaller than you thought, more compact than you thought, sexier than you thought. This has been the thrill of a lifetime. How do you top this?



 

How to build a new XKSS

Exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the build of Jaguar Classic’s prototype ‘continuation’ XKSS shows just what a huge task it is to recreate a legend. Words David Lillywhiite. Photography Amy Shore, Mike Dodd, Nick Dungan


It’s deadline day in an anonymous workshop tucked away on a Warwickshire industrial estate. Outside, only the scattering of new Jaguars and Land Rovers in the car park give anything away. Inside, away from prying eyes, a team of six are putting the finishing touches to XKSS Car Zero, Jaguar Classics’ prototype continuation XKSS. The atmosphere is intense.

By the time you read this, Car Zero will have made its public debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show, hence this push, in late October, to get it finished. The first of the nine ‘production’ cars should be ready for delivery around February 2017, 60 years on from the devastating fire that swept through Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory on the evening of 12 February 1957, effectively ending XKSS production after only 16 of the planned 25 cars had been built.

So, the way Jaguar Classic sees it, the production run is simply being completed now. ‘It’s like we took a long tea break,’ says Kev Riches, the project leader, who has been an engineer at Jaguar for more than 40 years (and whose leisure pastimes include building a C-type replica at home).

‘The English do take extraordinarily long tea breaks,’ deadpans German-born Jaguar Classic director Tim Hannig in agreement, before the pair launch into a useful reminder of XKSS history; most importantly that the XKSS grew out of the D-type, sales of which had begun to slow down by late 1956. The decision was made to convert 25 of the remaining D-types into a sports car version – to be named the XKSS (more on this on the next pages).

And then came that fire, destroying several remaining D-types and much of the tooling. Of the 16 XKSSs built by that point, 12 went to the USA, two to Canada, one to Hong Kong, and one stayed in Britain.

The most famous of the 16 is the car once owned, and driven hard, by Steve McQueen (see pages) Now in the Petersen Automotive Museum, it’s valued at over £25m. A less star-studded XKSS would generally fetch around £8m. Of the nine continuation cars planned, all have already been sold, at just over £1m each and, Kev reveals, ‘there are more staying in the UK this time than last time…’

The maths works, then, for customers and for Jaguar Classic, but it hasn’t been an easy ride, despite the team having gained experience building the six continuation Lightweight E-types for the 50th anniversary in 2013. ‘It’s the parts availability!’ asserts engineer Richard Traves in a rare break from final assembly of Car Zero. ‘It’s made it much harder than the Lightweight E-type.’

A full two months before this, the team (that’s Kev and Richard, Neil Grant, David Marshall, Phil Harwood and Simon Newman) had taken the unpainted, untrimmed Car Zero to the company’s private track at Gaydon for its first test, and inspection by former Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis. In case you’re wondering, it performed admirably once the panels had been adjusted slightly to prevent wheel rub, and the brake balance tweaked. Of course, Norman loved it.

Since then, Car Zero has been stripped right back, painted and rebuilt; now, with just hours left before the shipping deadline, there are still parts to be sourced and fitted. Two days before, the workshop had been alive with the sound of sewing machines and rivet-hammering. If ever you needed confirmation of how difficult it is accurately to recreate historic, handbuilt, thoroughbred machinery, it’s here.

‘We found that the cars [original XKSSs] are not symmetrical,’ says Kev, ‘and no two cars are the same. We scanned four originals and examined several more, which enabled us to get a good picture overall. We found that they’re generally within 10mm of each other in dimensions. One is out by 3/4in but that had been flattened on the Mille Miglia… What’s interesting is how close are the profiles of the wheelarches and the curves of the wings.’

Given that handbuilt cars are rarely found to be symmetrical, this isn’t bad, especially as most Italian carrosserie-built cars of the period would vary by a much greater degree. In the case of the D-type (and hence XKSS), aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer had insisted that the bodywork hugged the mechanicals as tightly as possible, to the point that there’s less than 5mm clearance in places, where on a typical car of the era there would be 24-50mm.

‘The scans enabled us to make a number of decisions,’ says Kev. ‘Should we use pressed tools, [modern-day] super-forming, Kerksite prototyping tools, wooden tools… We went to see a lot of restored cars, and some were just too perfect; to me they looked flat, too new.

‘We had to try to lift the quality – on the original XKSSs, the doors crash into the sills for example – but we didn’t want to take it too far, so in the end it was easy to make the decision to produce the panels by hand. Then it was a case of finding who could do the volume.’

Several UK companies were visited but it was nearby Envisage, a Coventry engineering firm that quietly produces many well-known prototypes and low-volume specials, that was awarded the job. There’s a certain satisfaction in knowing that some of their most skilled metalworkers – and there are more than 30 of them, many encouragingly young – started out at Abbey Panels, where Jaguar bodies from XK120 to XJ220 were created.

Using English wheel and traditional metalbeating, Car Zero’s bodywork was formed over glassfibre formers, rather than the wood that would have been used in the 1950s. The production bodies will be made in the same way, but using ureol (high-strength polyurethane) formers, machined by the engineering company next door to Jaguar Classic’s workshop.

Formers aside, Jaguar wanted to use the same materials as in the 1950s whenever possible; the body, for example, is the correct combination of NS3 aluminium alloy and lighter but harder-to-form MG2 magnesium alloy for some of the smaller, flat panels. The steel frame too, produced by Huntingdon-based chassis specialists Arch Motor & Manufacturing, uses specially commissioned Imperial-gauge Reynolds 531 tubing.

And then we come to the mechanicals. The XKSS’s engine was pure D-type: that is the 3.4-litre iron block, canted over by 8.5 degrees, with alloy cylinder head, twin Weber 45DC03 side-draught carbs and dry-sump lubrication. In period it was claimed to produce 250bhp. To re-make them, Jaguar went to Crosthwaite & Gardiner, well-known for their recreations of the Auto Unions and countless restorations of the world’s most important racing cars.

The brief was for Crosthwaite & Gardiner to produce brand-new engines and transmission parts, casting new cylinder blocks, heads and gearbox casings, machining new crankshafts from billet (originals were forged), and even creating new water pumps and other ancillaries, with Jaguar Classic responsible for final assembly – and for paying for the tooling. That’s a huge investment but it will allow long-obsolete parts finally to become available again.

There’s a strange thrill in seeing brand-new D-type engine parts, six decades on from when they’d first been produced. The blocks in particular look stunning – a little too good, in fact, to the point that the team requested that Crosthwaite and Gardiner ‘weather’ them slightly to lose some of the crisp edges.

And then there are all those other parts, like the then-new Dunlop disc brakes, front and rear, which have 20 pads between the four calipers (and need the pistons removing to change the pads), power-assisted by a Plessey pump rather than a conventional servo – all remanufactured for the XKSS. Suspension parts, again difficult, have been sourced from Jaguar specialists Pearsons Engineering ( Jaguar Classic has been keen to work with the very best of the existing specialists).

Other tricky parts? Instruments: made by Smiths in period, incredibly rare now. For the last few years Smiths clocks have been made by Caerbont Automotive Instruments, which has been able to reproduce the XKSS instruments to Jaguar’s original drawings.

Other parts could have been bought off the shelf almost to the correct specifications, but almost isn’t good enough when dealing with £1m-plus cars. Steering wheels, for example… ‘Because we have the drawings [for the steering wheels] we could go back and understand the size of the rivets, the type of wood used for the rim, all that – we felt it was really important,’ says Kev.

‘Colours such as Indigo Blue and British Racing Green don’t show-off the curves as well as Sherwood Green’

Those technical drawings, along with specifications and letters from heads of departments, have long been stored in the Jaguar archives, deep in secure, dry salt mines close to the factory. Hundreds of hours have been spent researching the specifications of parts, right down to which fasteners should be used. The body features over 2000 rivets for example, but how to ensure that the right rivets were chosen? Incredibly, the team uncovered drawings that give the dimensions of every rivet – along with all the nuts and bolts too.

Next problem: sourcing these fasteners. The rivets and the bolts were still mostly available, as were the Nyloc nuts (yes, Nylocs were used originally), but the less-common Oddie nuts have had to have remanufactured.

Other parts, though, have had to be upgraded in specification. The team has designed a new fuel bag, developed from F1 and helicopter technology, to replace the original-type bag, which wouldn’t have withstood the higher ethanol content of today’s fuel.

All the continuation cars will be fitted with four-point harnesses, bolted to an FIA-spec hoop hidden in the rear. Carpets weren’t originally supplied either but it’s inevitable that some customers will require them, whether for asthetics or simply to cut down on the heatsoak through the floors – D-types and original XKSSs get so hot inside, particularly in the passenger footwells, that they’ve been known to melt the soles of occupants’ shoes.

On the subject of trim, once again the aim was to get as close to original specification as possible. The graining of the seat leather and of the Hardura centre console and doortrims is spot-on, and the range of trim colours offered is just as it was 60 years ago, though when you’re paying over £1m, if you want non-original, you can have non-original. The same goes for the paintwork – and mention of that prompts talk of the colour of Car Zero, which had generally been expected to be British Racing Green. ‘Actually it was going to be Indigo Blue, and then British Racing Green,’ laughs Kevin. ‘But those colours in that period, especially the British Racing Green, were very dark, and I don’t think they show off the curves as well as this.’ He gestures over to Car Zero, freshly painted in the much lighter Sherwood Green, while pulling the cover back from the original British Racing Green XKSS. He’s not wrong.

Does erring from the original specification concern the team? ‘We had to make it authentic but bring it up to today’s standards,’ asserts Kev, and brings our attention to one of the parts that’s caused the most head-scratching – the windcreen surround.

‘The original surround was an alloy casting, chrome plated, but from what we know and can see, the finish was never that good. For the production cars, we might polish and lacquer the alloy. The bumpers were cast alloy too, then plated, but the castings were clearly a bit porous so the chrome wasn’t perfect. We’ve cast new bumpers but we’re also trying them machined [by Titan Motorsport] from billet aluminium because they should look much better.

‘We’ve painted the inside of the bonnet but that would not have been painted originally. These screws [Kev points out the fixings around the rear cockpit] have fibre washers under for now – they wouldn’t have had those originally but, without them, the paint will crack eventually. Do we leave the washers there?’

Kev’s contemplation on fibre washers is disturbed by workshop activity. It’s time for the first electrical power-up of the refitted loom. The battery is connected, and each component checked. Lights? There’s a sidelight out, soon fixed. Indicators, horn? Yes. Ignition on, all OK? Yes… But the revcounter has flicked momentarily to the redline, and the guys aren’t happy. ‘It’s the self-calibration function,’ says engineer David Marshall, unhappily.

‘We can’t have it doing that,’ agrees Kev. ‘It wouldn’t look authentic.’ He dives under the dash, and we leave him and the team to get on with it, keeping in touch over the following day for reassurance that Car Zero will make it to Los Angeles in time. It does – and by now you’ll probably know how it was received.

And if you’re wondering what comes next from Jaguar Classic…well, we can’t tell you, but the official line is that ‘it has to be something with a story – otherwise it’s just a replica’.


TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2016 Jaguar XKSS continuation

Engine 3442cc straight-six Jaguar XK, DOHC, twin Weber 45DCO3 carbs

Max Power 250bhp @ 6000rpm / DIN

Max Torque 240lb ft @ 4500rpm / DIN

Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion

Suspension Front: double wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, transverse torsion bar, telescopic dampers

Brakes Discs

Weight 914kg

Performance Top speed 142mph. 0-60mph 5.2sec


 

Above and right Paintwork on Car Zero was carried out at XK Engineering but the production XKSSs will be painted at Jaguar’s state-of-the-art SVO facility. Left and below One day to go before shipping out (Lightweight E-type and original XKSS under covers). Kev gives David Gandy a tour. This page Kev Riches and David Marshall take Car Zero for its first test run, and gain the approval of Norman Dewis, who was first to test the original, back in 1957. Left and below Kev Riches talks editor Lillywhite through the last day jobs, while Richard and Phil work on; David Marshall goes through the wiring.


‘We went to see a lot of restored cars, and some were just too perfect; they looked flat, too new’

‘We had to try to lift the quality – on original XKSSs, the doors crash into the sills – but we didn’t want to take it too far’

‘Hundreds of hours have been spent researching the specifications of parts, right down to which fasteners were used’



 

XKSS HISTORY

Here’s some they made earlier…

It’s 60 years since Jaguar last built an XKSS. Marque historian Paul Skilleter explores the metamorphosis of one of Jaguar’s greatest sports cars Archive photography Paul Skilleter and Jaguar Heritage.


The XKSS was a car born both of Le Mans and of the end of a Le Mans era. This massively quick road-racer was based squarely on the ‘production’ Jaguar D-type of 1955, itself a car produced partly for homologation purposes, partly for private owners to race. Jaguar built 67 of them through to 1956, each of them tested at MIRA and ready to go.

But motor racing does not stand still. Almost as soon as they were completed these D-types were uncompetitive, especially in shorter events on small circuits where most potential owners were likely to race. The list price was high, too, at nearly three times that of a MkVII saloon. They hardly flew out of the door.

By November 1956, 25 of them still languished at Browns Lane, obsolescence inexorably growing. Then on 21 January 1957 came the announcement of a ‘new sports-racing model’. The news release described a car based on ‘the already famous Le-Mans-type Jaguars’ but with ‘full-width orthodox windscreen, folding hood, completely equipped touring-type instrument panel, well-upholstered seating, luggage grid, bumpers and other refinements appropriate to a car intended for fast touring as well as for sports car racing’.

This new model was, of course, nothing less than a production D-type with road equipment. A dollar price of $6900 was quoted because, claimed the release, the car was intended to meet ‘increasing demand from America for a type of vehicle equally suitable for normal road use and sports-car racing’.

Racing in this context meant circuit events sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America, but some have asked if the true reason for the creation of the XKSS, as the new model was named, was to convert expensive stock into cash. Jaguar’s former team manager, FRW ‘Lofty’ England, denied this.

‘The real reason for doing XKSS,’ he later said, ‘was that the SCCA would not accept the D-type as a production sports car. And since Cunningham [then the leading Jaguar race team in the US] wanted to make some wins in those events, we agreed to build 50 examples.’

It’s not possible to verify that Lofty really meant 50 XKSSs, but certainly the figure of 40 was quoted by Jaguar in a letter to the SCCA. However, even 40 seems unlikely as it would have entailed building a further 15 new cars beyond the existing 25 D-types available for conversion. And that seems an impossible aim: the production line had long been dismantled, and there wouldn’t have been enough parts.

However, Cunningham and perhaps other keen SCCA racers may have put pressure on Jaguar to modify D-types so they complied more truly with the SCCA’s definition of a production car. Not so Jaguar’s sales organisation in the US, which felt that the stupendous performance of such a car would take people’s eyes off the new XK150 road sports car and, worse, steal the thunder of the all-new E-type, which was under development.

As for the conversion itself, this was devised, appropriately enough, by an American, Robert Blake. He came to Britain with the Third Army during World War Two, met and married a British girl, then returned to the US. A truly gifted metalworker, Bob Blake worked for the Cunningham race team in New York and then Florida, building and painting the bodies for all the Cunningham race cars. Following a conversation with Bill Lyons and Jaguar’s chief engineer Bill Heynes at Le Mans in 1955, Blake joined the company’s competition department in November that year.

Blake evolved the changes needed to convert the D-type into a road car by the simple expedient of collecting a production D-type – XKD 555 – from storage, bringing it into the Competition Shop, deciding what was needed and making the parts on the spot. More than that, in an early 1990s interview he claimed that the whole idea for the project was his. He recounted how he looked at the D-type, ‘and I thought they could make a good roadster out of this.’ He told Sir William so. ‘And he said “Go ahead”… he always said that about things I had ideas about. The upshot was that I brought one in and started work on it.’

This claim is impossible to verify absolutely, though those who knew Blake consider it credible. Peter Jones certainly does. Jones worked in Jaguar’s Competition Shop at the time, and is one of the few remaining people who worked on the XKSS – perhaps the only one. ‘Bob had Sir William’s ear,’ reckoned Peter. ‘Most were in awe of the great man, but Bob would be quite at ease in his presence and would often carry out little jobs for him.’

Once the project had been approved, Blake wasted no time. ‘It took me about two weeks from the start until where all the bits were together, except the windscreen,’ he recalled. Producing a proper two-seater cockpit entailed removing the centre division that separated the D-type’s driver and notional passenger, and Jones recalls some discussion about whether this would compromise the rigidity of the D-type’s monocoque tub. Evidently it didn’t. The characteristic head-fairing also went and, along with other changes, Blake made up an instrument panel, devised a hood mechanism and sidescreens and, for the first car, designed and handmade slim bumpers in steel. They were then chrome plated, as were the cast aluminium ones used on all subsequent cars. Jones remembers having to file down these ‘half elephant tusks’ to fit the body. Being hand-formed, the bonnet and tail contours varied quite considerably from car to car.

The only major item that called for additional help was the windscreen. Here he brought in Jaguar’s aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, the man who penned the D-type’s shape. ‘I said we want a good clean windscreen, not too rakish but more than production. Malcolm drew that up exactly to fit on the scuttle because we didn’t want to alter the scuttle. Malcolm was a prince of a fellow, he really was.’

Sayer also drew up the panel that faired the bottom of the windscreen into the bodywork. From these drawings, Blake made wooden formers, which were sent to Abbey Panels for manufacture in what he described as ‘soft aluminium’. Blake also constructed master jigs for the windscreen pillars that, along with various other special parts, were also made by Abbey Panels. The screen itself was made by Triplex, using another jig made by Blake.

With the prototype XKSS finished, Sir William came to the Competition Shop to take a look at it. Blake recalls the boss’s words: ‘Get it to the New York Show,’ he said; ‘we can sell all of them just like that!’ This was around 14 January 1957, when it is recorded that XKSS 701, formerly known as XKD 555, had been completed. So, via the drawing office where it was drawn up ready for the replicas to follow, the prototype was shipped to Jaguar Cars New York on 18 January to be the sales demonstrator.

As it turned out, only 15 more XKSSs were made, mainly because a major fire at Browns Lane broke out on the evening of 12 February 1957. This affected the main assembly hall and the service department, where some of the XKSS conversions were about to start. Nine production D-types awaiting conversion were destroyed, along with jigs and tooling. Peter Jones vividly remembers the huge draught created by the flames; even the heavy signs slung from the ceiling in the assembly area were blown horizontal.

Despite this disaster, Jaguar production soon resumed thanks to the efforts of the workforce and help from suppliers. All the XKSS cars in build that survived the blaze were finished after the fire. But with sales slow, and with the loss of those nine ‘base’ production D-types, the project ended. The last example (XKD 550/XKSS 769) was dispatched on 17 July 1957 to Jaguar New York.

Of the 16 cars built (some later converted back to D-types), 12 went to America as intended, where most were raced to some extent. Two went to Canada, one to Hong Kong, one stayed in the UK. Later on, the works converted two more D-types to XKSS specification. But although ‘John’ Gordon Benett, vice-president of Jaguar USA, took 701 to victory at Mansfield, Louisiana, in the XKSS’s first-ever event, he either couldn’t or didn’t take the trophy home because it was alleged that not enough cars had been built for the SCCA to categorise it as a production car. So the Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing – the car Jaguar was gunning for – was left unchallenged. How should the XKSS be judged? Those who worked on the car in 1957 probably had no particular view on its merits; it was just another job to be done. Development driver Norman Dewis tried one at MIRA and found it had drawbacks as a road car. But what most people remember is its incredible acceleration, beyond the comprehension of the average motorist of the late 1950s. In retrospect, it is surely one of the greatest sports cars Jaguar ever produced.

‘Its incredible acceleration was beyond the average late- 50s motorist’s comprehension’

 

Below and right US press release and advert highlighted the XKSS’s suitability as a fast road car; this example, XKD 572/ XKSS 719, was reimported from the US in 1970, hence the ‘H’ registration. Right and below Bob Blake worked up the engineering sketches that would transform D-type into XKSS – he’s pictured below (on the right) with Malcolm Sayer and the ex-Hawthorn/Bueb Le Mans D-type.



 

Royal appointment: Norman Dewis’s test report

Jaguar legend’s XKSS shakedown ahead of Duke of Edinburgh’s VIP visit Words Paul Skilleter


Jaguar’s chief test development engineer, Norman Dewis, assessed an XKSS in March 1957, ahead of an important deadline: Bill Heynes wanted Dewis to take no less a VIP than the Duke of Edinburgh round the MIRA test track early in April.

Dewis reported that the conversion was not without faults. His missive to Bill Heynes on 20 March 1957 noted, for a start, that access into the car with the top up was unsatisfactory. ‘To enter or alight from the car with the hood raised is a work of art,’ he wrote. ‘One almost has to be a contortionist. The small door opening and sill one has to step over, plus the low line of the hood, seem to be the main offenders. It may be argued that a simple way would be to unfasten the hood at the screen fasteners, lay the hood back, climb in the car and then manipulate the back and fasten onto the screen.’ We assume that few owners ever put the top up.


Jaguar XKSS
Jaguar XKSS

Nor was the XKSS a paragon of comfort once you were in it – especially for the passenger, which the D-type was not really designed to carry. No structural changes were made to the bodyshell or frame, so legroom was minimal and the passenger had to sit with his or her knees high up. ‘A gain in legroom for the passenger could be obtained if the facia was cut away completely from that side and replaced with a leather roll,’ wrote Dewis, but the ‘facia’ with its cubby-hole was to remain.


Jaguar XKSS
Jaguar XKSS

He also observed that ‘both doors will not stay open, angle of opening insufficient’ – this being a D-type complaint as well. The door situation was partly corrected but his suggestion that the rear bumper should be dropped 3in as he thought it looked ‘much too high’ was not acted upon.

Norman also discovered the XKSS’s tendency to cook the passenger, who sat next to the silencer. ‘Are the exhaust bolt fixings that protrude through the passenger floor insulated from the seat cushion?’ he asked. ‘The heat transference has burnt the temporary cushion used on this test.’ Heat was also melting the glue used to attach the Hardura vinyl to the scuttle and gearbox cover.

Also experienced was the ‘very noticeable’ smell of petrol after fast cornering. The XKSS lacked a head fairing and the fuel-filler cap was positioned just behind the driver, which meant that any petrol spillage tended to flow into the car. One suggestion of Norman’s was adopted. ‘No means are available for giving signals… I would have thought that a simple flasher unit could easily have been installed.’ It was.

As for the Royal test ride at MIRA, to Dewis’s astonishment the Duke made him stop out of sight of the other VIPs so he could take the wheel himself…


Below and right Sir William Lyons looks on as Dewis gets into the car with Prince Philip; the Duke of Kent later came for a driving assessment, and also took the wheel.

 

Jaguar XKSS
Jaguar XKSS

‘Norman also discovered the XKSS’s tendency to cook the passenger, who sat next to the silencer’


 


 

Fire at the factory

Jaguar authority Philip Porter on the apocalyptic tale


The fire on 12 February 1957 ensured the end of the XKSS after 16 cars. A quarter of the Browns Lane factory – 200,000 square feet of it – was affected. So how did it start? ‘Nobody’s very sure,’ said ‘Lofty’ England. ‘There was the service department and the sawmill, and a press board wall between them, and for some reason that got on fire. Whether it was a cigarette or what, I don’t know. Nearby was the tyre stock and that got on fire, and that got the roof on fire, which was bitumastic, and in five minutes it was neither here nor there.’

Bill Cassidy was superintendent of the prototype machine shop. ‘We were working overtime and it was reported to me that they had seen smoke. So I picked up the phone and rang the gate, and told them to get the brigade, and I told them to get the city brigade as well, because it looked as if it was in the tyre stores. As it spread, we were pulling the finished cars out because it was travelling along the roof and bitumen was dropping onto the cars and they were catching fire. We got most of them out. The sawmill was next door, so we had to get rid of all the wood. We pulled tons of that out.’


Fire at the factory
Fire at the factory

‘The only thing that kept the whole damn place from going up,’ England recalled, ‘was the cars hanging from the roof. We were just changing over from the 140 to the 150 and in those days we always used to keep a few bodies-in- white, complete shells. So the easiest thing was to hang them down from the roof girders. ‘At that time, there were no sprinklers and none of the release panels that automatically open and let out the fire. We hadn’t done any of that because it was an old wartime building, and the underside of the corrugated iron was bitumastic painted, which doesn’t half go! ‘We had 16 fire brigades and it was a roaring furnace. The whole roof structure got so hot that the weight of these bodies pulled the roof girders down, and the fire went out of the top.’

Press reports suggested that production would be halted for several months, but Lyons wrote to all the distributors and dealers the next day, to reassure them that restoration work would continue day and night. The fire had destroyed the despatch shop containing several hundred cars, plus part of the assembly line, the stores, the test department and the sawmill.

The Queen sent a telegram: ‘I am so sorry to learn of the terrible fire at the Jaguar works and I hope that your factory, which my husband and I visited last year, will soon be in production again. Elizabeth R.’ Lyons responded: ‘May I thank Your Majesty for your gracious message of sympathy which I deeply appreciate. We are greatly encouraged in our work of restoration by Your Majesty’s kind interest.’ Prime Minister Harold Macmillan also wrote in support.

Everyone pulled together and Dunlop, which had bought and extended the old Jaguar factory at Foleshill but had not yet moved in, insisted Jaguar borrow it. Only six days later, limited production resumed.

‘Lofty’ always reckoned that all the publicity increased sales, which was one reason why Jaguar did not return to racing. ‘Production went up, instead of down. Successful fire!’ Except, that is, for the XKSS.


‘Lyons wrote to all the dealers, to say restoration work would continue day and night’


 

David Lillywhite

Drive-My classic cars premium editor

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