How a ’74 Jag taught me to just relax and look good
Whether you marry for love, money, or security is frankly none of my business. Who’s to say what works? Same philosophy for cars. If that new ride is a savvy investment, a doomed project for the love of wrenching, or a purely practical purchase—you do you. For my part though, how I look in a car has never entered the picture. At least, not until I spent four days in a 1974 Jaguar XJ6. It was a lesson in vanity, and I think I’m forever changed.
I rented the car via Hagerty DriveShare in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I was greeted by Riley, the owner. He’s a young, spritely looking guy, someone you wouldn’t peg as a driver of an aging British luxury sedan. “Oh, I’ve had about five of these things,” he says nonchalantly. “I just love the way they look. And they’re not worth much, which is nice when I want to get another one.”
We walk over to the car, parked amidst hordes of late-model used vehicles at the dealership where he works, and I immediately understand. Good lord, this thing oozes cool. It’s bygone elegance par excellence—a timeless, balanced design that explains why Jaguar left it essentially unchanged for decades. That it was the last Jaguar penned by company founder William Lyons is painfully evident.
These days, “Basel,” as Riley calls it, contains a considerable alteration from the original 4.2-liter straight-six. Under the hood bristles a hefty 350-cu-in Chevy V-8, which is apparently a very common surgery to keep these old beasts ticking. “Three of the five XJs I’ve bought have had this swap,” Riley says. He’s also keen to point out that the swap is by no means for performance—it’s all about reliability. The 4.2-liter engines are still out there, but for A/C-equipped cars, cylinder head gaskets are prone to fail. Thus, the trans-Atlantic Chevy V-8 swap to keep things simple and affordable.
Consistent with that theme is the upgraded cooling system, complete with aluminum radiator and electric fan; neither heat nor A/C are connected to keep things even more basic. But as Riley points out, “all the windows roll down, as long as you don’t try to do more than one at a time.” Speedometer? Busted. Speakers? Blown out. Ash trays? All intact, thank heavens.
On the road, the Jag’s dwindled roster of once-functional features doesn’t matter. There’s just enough grunt from the 350 to keep up with traffic and sound interesting doing it, but nothing about the car tempts you to push it. Even at 45 years old, it’s a remarkably steady and comfortable cruiser. The anti-dive suspension and four-wheel power disc brakes hold up, and aside from needing a little gas on cold starts, it’s a breeze.
And that thin white steering wheel! Stunning visibility! You’re up to your eyeballs in crinkled red leather and tacky walnut, and you’re en route to who cares where and you’ll get there when you get there, old boy.
That feeling of loving a car purely for vanity’s sake threatens to ruin me. My dad’s 1962 Morgan 4/4 got me hooked on old cars at a young age. The Morgan is all about purity, history, and the love of quirky British engineering. You get one because it’s weird and it’s special and who the hell cares about rust when you have to worry about termites? My first car was a hand-me-down 1998 Acura TL with 140,000 miles, which was a lesson in being grateful for what I was entrusted. I treated that car well as a teenage driver, and it literally never let me down. My current stable: A 2001 BMW Z3 that I bought for summer drives, and a five-speed 2000 BMW 3 Series wagon I acquired as a way to have fun and not compromise on utility.
Til now, every car that’s been a part of my life has had its place and purpose. Each with something to teach me. Now I’m spending my days daydreaming about lithe cruising in a pair of Wayfarers, whilst I browse Craigslist for four-decade-old symbols of English decadence and aristocracy. And hey, that one looks trusty, and it’s got the 350 swap and it’s only three grand…
Basel, I wish we’d never met.