2 March 2010

Driving the Dreams

Will taking the wheel of three icons from the ’60s confirm their timeless appeal or shatter the mystique?

When I was a kid, a Corgi model of a Jaguar XKE convertible sat on my dresser. It was a birthday present from my parents, and an interesting one given that they couldn’t care less about cars.

These are people who bought a slant-six Dodge Ram to tow a 4,500- pound lobster boat. So the fact that they gravitated to the XKE is a powerful statement of that car’s inherent appeal. They surely didn’t know what it was or its significance, but they could tell it was a hot car.

Few cars become icons, but Jaguar might very well owe its continued existence to the mystique forged by the XKE. And while the 1960s were filled with groundbreaking vehicles, two others in particular join the Jag as cars whose style and performance helped create an entire generation of gearheads: the 1964½-1966 Mustang and the 1963 split-window Corvette.

The most significant common thread between the Corvette, Mustang and E-Type is that all are among the great motor icons of the 1960s. These cars obviously capture the imagination in a way that resonates to this day. But what are they like to actually drive? Does the experience live up to the legend, or has the fuzzy glow of fond memories obscured some basic flaws?

I’m lucky enough to find out firsthand when I arrive in Traverse City, Michigan, to drive a split-window 1963 Corvette Sting Ray (340-hp 327, four speed) a 1965 Jaguar XKE coupe (265-hp 4.2 liter, four speed) and a 1966 Mustang convertible (200-hp 289, three-speed automatic).

THE SPLIT WINDOW

I climb behind the wheel of the Corvette first (if the earth gets eradicated by a giant meteor a half-hour from now, at least I’ll have driven a split-window Vette). The Vette is much smaller than I’d expected. I tend to think of ’60s cars as generally vast and unwieldy, but I’m about 6 feet tall and I feel like basketball player Manute Bol inside the little Corvette.

The top of the bucket seat hits me at the bottom of my shoulder blades, and I can reach behind the passenger seat with my right hand and easily touch the opposite rear fenderwell. The 1963 Vette is about the same length as a new C6 model, but has a wheelbase nearly 8 inches shorter, and hence a much more intimate-feeling cabin.

This car’s most famous and controversial feature is, of course, its bisected rear window, which was discontinued after only one year. As a practical matter, discerning anything behind you is a challenge. The bodywork splits the rearward view and the sides of the glass curve severely enough to create a funhouse distortion, making the rear window nearly useless. However, with its spindly A-pillars, the Sting Ray actually has better overall visibility than a lot of the claustrophobic sports cars on the market today.

It’s a cold morning in Michigan, and the Vette fires with a surly rumble. The 327’s idle is so ragged that you get the sense you shouldn’t rev the thing up, lest it fly apart in a cloud of oil and rendered metal. In fact, the opposite is true – the Vette has such an aggressive cam that you need to rev it up to smooth it out.

As I pull onto a vineyard road, the motor begins to warm up and I dare squeeze the gas pedal hard enough to open the secondaries on the four-barrel carb. As the revs climb into the midrange at about 3000 rpm, the V-8 begins making serious power, emitting a hard-edged bark as it approaches the top of the rev band. The car looks vintage, but this is fully modern acceleration – I would guess a 0–60 time in the fives. In 1963, this must’ve been wild power.

The chassis, however, is another story, especially the brakes. With four-wheel drums, the Corvette needs some heat in the brakes before it shows much interest in stopping. And even then, you’ve got to remember that the 205/70 15 Coker Classic tires offer a contact patch that you’d find today on a small truck – or a large motorcycle.

But what the skinny, high-profile tires lack in outright grip, they make up for in entertainment. You can feel them letting go long before you’re in any real trouble, so tight corners are a riot. Your perception of the steering’s accuracy is probably enhanced by the car’s proportions – it’s easy to tell what the rear tires are doing because you’re basically sitting on them. Ahead, the sharp creases of the front fenders give you a clear idea of where the tires are. So the Vette is easy to place in a corner, and you can explore the limits of grip without actually going very fast. That is, until you’re back out onto a straight, giving the notchy shift lever a decisive shove up through the gears and letting the 327 pull your face into an involuntary smile.

THE BRITISH BEAUTY

The Corvette, then as now, is an unsubtle car. So stepping into the Jaguar is a complete about-face. The steering wheel rim is a slender fig of woodwork that feels like it’ll snap off in your hands. The shift knob is so small, you feel like you should grasp it between your thumb and index finger. A sticker on the Jag’s windshield cautions about proper break-in of the motor: “Only if the above recommendations are observed will the high performance of which this car is capable be obtained.” The Jaguar is the tweed sport coat to the Vette’s leather jacket.

Which is not to say that it’s slow. The big 4.2-liter straight-six put out 265 hp and 283 lb.-ft. of torque, a little more horsepower (albeit, gross horsepower) than you get in a new base BMW Z4. In fact, the 45-year-old Jaguar feels remarkably similar in terms of power delivery and acceleration to a 1998 BMW E36 M3 convertible I used to own.

There’s plenty of low-rpm torque, and power builds in that velvety, linear way intrinsic to inline sixes. The evenly spaced power pulses produce a rhythmic exhaust snarl that asserts itself at high rpm but fades into the background when you upshift and lay off the throttle. And the brakes are a revelation. The XKE might not keep up with the Corvette in a straight line, but its four-wheel discs grab with markedly more urgency than the Chevy’s drums.

I know that the Series 1 XKE occupied a sportier market position than its modern-day counterpart, and it was more of a sports car than a GT coupe. Still, this car seems idealized for a long-distance road trip more than a lap of the closest road course. The motor is quiet and relaxed in fourth gear, and the lack of front quarter windows means that there’s less wind noise than you’d expect. Shoulder belts even provide a veneer of safety. You just want to point that hood out toward the countryside, invite a babe to the passenger seat and go on an adventure.

The Jag has that sense of occasion to it, with its gauges sporting a font that looks straight out of an RAF fighter and the elegant clamshell front end begging for an excuse to inspect something, anything, underhood every time you stop for gas. When a light drizzle begins to fall, I flick the toggle switch for the wipers and dare the Jag to defy its reputation for fiendish electric accessories. It doesn’t. So I squint through a blurry windshield in true old-British-car tradition.

THE PONY RIDE

While the Corvette and Jaguar were exclusive sports cars, the Mustang was a car for the people. If you type “1965” into Google, the search engine offers to complete your query with the most popular word associated with that year. That word? Mustang. Same thing for 1966. And 1967. The Mustang isn’t just a popular car. It’s significant in the context of the entire decade. This was a vehicle that brought affordable performance and high style to more than 1 million people within the first few years of its introduction.

Ford sold more than 600,000 Mustangs in 1966, and the one I get to drive is a red convertible with the optional 200-horsepower 289 (225-hp and 271-hp versions of the motor also were available). The Mustang isn’t hugely fast, but that wasn’t the point of a convertible then any more than it is now. The Mustang is a cheerful cruiser, its V-8 pumping out a muscular bass exhaust note and a ready supply of torque rather than outright horsepower. The three-speed automatic, with its necessarily long gears, contributes to the mellow personality, but when it catches a downshift that drops the motor into its sweet spot, the Mustang can hustle right along.

There’s a reason that new Mustangs look so much like their 1960s progenitors, and that’s because the early Mustangs were so right in the first place. The interior has some cool touches, too, like the horn buttons that protrude up through the steering wheel spokes. There’s an interesting Ford logo on the dash that looks like a family crest and features stylized lions. This car has the “Rally Pac,” which included a clock and tachometer, as well as factory air conditioning – a big box under the dash that’s unfortunately not necessary today.

The Mustang provides a reminder that ergonomics weren’t a big consideration back in 1966. For example, the armrest isn’t faired into the door panel, as it is on a new Mustang. Instead, it abruptly juts out of the door, a precipice with a padded top but sharp metal underside. I carelessly step up out of the Mustang and bash my leg into the bottom of the armrest, which slices my jeans and draws a gash in my thigh. The armrest doesn’t budge a millimeter. I suppose that in the ’60s killer armrests were a low priority.

It’s hard for a car to maintain its identity from one redesign to the next, never mind for more than four decades. But the Mustang remains the affordable American performance car that aspires to be all things to all people, from the relaxed V-6 convertible that you’d rent in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to the 540- horsepower Shelby GT500. Today’s Jaguar XK, like the original E-Type, is a sleek, refined coupe with big power. And the 2010 Vette retains the front-engine, pushrod V-8, plastic-bodied thrill-ride charisma that makes the 1963 split-window so entertaining.

The new cars have exponentially better brakes and all-around greater performance, safety and refinement, but the old cars give up nothing in terms of fun. And when it comes to cars that fire the imagination, cars you dream about owning someday, fun is the most important criterion of all. You’ll definitely go faster in modern iterations of the Mustang, Sting Ray and Jag, but you won’t have a bigger smile on your face.
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Spring 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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