Driven: XK 120 C-type Jaguar

Driven: XK 120 C-type Jaguar

Phil Reilly’s big restoration shop in Corte Madera, California, was as bright as a hospital emergency room when my wife, Tracy, and I arrived at about 10 o’clock one Wednesday evening.

Larry Crane in the Jaguar C-type at the 16th Monterey Historics | Larry Crane archives photo

Larry Crane in the Jaguar C-type at the 16th Monterey Historics | Larry Crane archives photo

Phil Reilly’s big restoration shop in Corte Madera, California, was as bright as a hospital emergency room when my wife, Tracy, and I arrived at about 10 o’clock one Wednesday evening. Ross Cummings was waiting to release the last automotive patient before the four-day car guy’s bacchanalia affectionately known as the “Monterey Weekend.”

In the dark shadow’s of the parking lot, illuminated by the glow from the windows, stood the C-type Jaguar that the Monterey Historic Automobile Races chairman Steven J. Earle was graciously lending me for the second time in the season.

Cummings went through a cockpit check: “The button above the amp gauge is the starter, the chrome button on the central panel to its left operates the lights, and the duplicate button to its left is for the fan, if you’re caught in traffic.”

Traffic? In a C-type? You bet your exhaust port. Earle had assured me that his sports racing car was meant for sport and racing, and driving it on the road was the very essence of sport.

At 10:30 p.m., I switched on the ignition, the fuel pump ticked twice, and I hit the black button. A noise bigger than reality filled the still night as Jaguar XK 120C 050 and I headed south toward San Francisco, followed by a jealous, albeit warm, wife in a heater-equipped Mazda MPV.

As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, the Jag’s virtually unmuffled sound was swept across the bay on a blustery Pacific wind, but as we drove into town, the noise seemed to explode. The buildings along Van Ness Avenue were like an echo chamber.

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I faced the age-old problem of speed versus cold: do you drive faster and suffer the bone chilling draft or slow down and motor along in interminable agony?”

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Bright lights, traffic, and warm air surrounded me as we burbled and blatted through the city’s heart. Years of police paranoia forced me to disengage the clutch and let the engine idle whenever a patrol car caught my eye. We made it past the airport and San Jose without causing unnecessary alarm to the civilian population — except for guys in old sports cars headed for Monterey who couldn’t resist broad grins and thumbs up as we roared by.

A weak wave of the frozen fingers of my left hand was the best response I could muster.

Through the open fields of the artichoke capital of the world, I faced the age-old problem of speed versus cold: do you drive faster and suffer the bone chilling draft or slow down and motor along in interminable agony?

Predictably, I opted for the shortest exposure time. An hour later, the gate guard at the Seventeen Mile Drive told wonderful stories about the C Jags he remembered from the old days while I smiled a frozen smile and waited impatiently. Finally, he handed us our passes into the Del Monte Forest and the Inn at Spanish Bay.

The phony (gas) fireplace and a genuine cognac brought the sleep of the incredibly lucky, if not just.

Thursday morning dawned with scheduled registration and tech inspection, the beginning of a weekend of frustrating sixty-second conversations with hundreds of friends, thrills without victory, and the agony of the feet.

Practice was uneventful while I attempted to learn which way the new sections of Laguna Seca Raceway went. During the Friday practice session, John Evans (Rupert Murdoch’s key guy), Automobile magazine’s patron saint and owner of a perfect reproduction C-type, joined Mrs. Crane at the pit wall and offered enthusiastic encouragement. In fact, he yelled, “If he doesn’t break two minutes, he’s fired.”

My 2:09 wasn’t good enough. Fortunately for me, during a boisterous exchange of end-of-weekend euphoria, he shouted: “You’re reinstated. Great drive!” But we’re getting ahead of the story.

After turning a good practice time without drama on high-mileage rubber (near slicks), the car owner thoughtfully installed new rear tires for the race. Morning warm-up on race day was no less than thrilling. New tires don’t stick immediately. They have to be scuffed in — I know this because I read all those magazines. But geez!

The big Jag slipped and slid through the warm-up until the tires were well and truly scuffed in. In an attempt to reduce the pendulum effect, I removed the tail-mounted spare tire before the race. Ha! The learning curve remains steep. What I should have done was lower the tire pressures to reduce the tip-toe effect of over-inflation—and left the spare in place to hold them down. Never a dull moment.

On the pre-grid on Saturday afternoon, I heard a shrill voice that seemed to be directed at me. “Get out of that car! As soon as someone finds out its you you’ll be in trouble!”

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I fell in behind him from my second position on the grid and rushed toward the humiliation I expected a few hundred yards past the crest of Turn One. David McCarthy wasted no time.”

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It was Allen Girdler, former editor of Cycle World and noted author of The Racing Harley Davidson. He reminded me I was only L. Crane, itinerant car nut, and I shouldn’t go around insinuating myself into other people’s expensive racing cars. He was right, of course, but the belts were on, and the pit marshal was vigorously waving me to get under way.

The green-flag moment arrived, and none too soon. John Buddenbaum simply drove away in the Parkinson Jag Special. I fell in behind him from my second position on the grid and rushed toward the humiliation I expected a few hundred yards past the crest of Turn One.

David McCarthy wasted no time. When I tiptoed into Turn Two with the tail slowly rotating around the radiator he nipped by on the inside and was gone. That was the last I’d see of the Bob Baker C-type Jaguar that McCarthy handled so well. By Turn Four, Mike Shehan was by in his brutal-looking Kurtis 500KK coupe, and I never saw him again either.

Bruce Trenery had graciously stayed behind me in Kerry Manolas’s Aston DB3S for another lap, but he too saw no reason to spend much time observing my antics. As painful as it was to have that Aston get alongside me in Turn Two and watch it creep away as I lost the tire-smoking drag race (1953 Jaguars had no limited-slip, unlike 1956 Aston Martins) to Turn Three, it was fantastic to see it working hard right in front of me and hear the howl of its big six at peak revs.

By the fourth or fifth lap, I had rediscovered smoothness and just managed to stay in sight of the Aston. What a pretty car.

Maybe the best thing about vintage racing is seeing those old cars up close, in action.

Automobile racing has lost its elegance. Current racing cars are simply, brutally effective without being nice to look at. When everybody was making pretty, if inefficient, racing cars, it was just as competitive as racing is today, but it was nicer to watch.

An uncontested fifth place in a group of 24 cars was the anticlimax of a memorable four-day adventure.

It’s hard to image a better place to watch old racing cars than through and around an ancient aero screen with the aroma of burnt castor-bean oil wafting through your helmet. Rare indeed are the opportunities to play among your fantasies, but a vintage race is as close as a car guy can get for a $50 bill.

Second only to sliding through the Corkscrew on replica R6 Dunlops is sitting along the hill under the oak trees with a pretty friend and a picnic lunch watching someone else do it. The sun falls on the cars just so, the sounds reverberate in the little valley, and the intoxicating aroma of Castrol R settles over you like a great romance.

As the light turned gold and the chill returned to the ocean breeze that continually cools Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, I lifted the vast aluminum bonnet of my weekend C-type to check the oil, the coolant, and my heart rate. Everything appeared normal.

The bonnet closed with a thump, and the side clips slipped quietly into place before I pulled the blue cover over the aero screens for the last time.

I walked slowly through the nearly deserted paddock toward the marvelous replica of the 1959 Le Mans pits that Victor Gauntlet had built for the 30th-anniversary celebration of Aston’s great victory. Those 16th annual Monterey Historics were one of the best. A vintage event. Thanks Steve Earle. And thanks again.

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