Surf icon Jack O’Neill’s unlikely Jaguar XK140
In the surf world Jack O’Neill is an iconic figure, both literally and figuratively. A stylized version of his face, with its trademark eye patch and bushy beard, graced the labels of his eponymous wetsuit brand for years. The vision of him driving his Jaguar XK140 through the streets of Santa Cruz, surfboard sticking out the back seat, was a common sight for decades.
Jack O’Neill was a dedicated surfer, a savvy businessman, a much-loved airship-flying eccentric who, in 1952, designed and sold some of the first neoprene wetsuits. (Whether he was the first is a matter of debate. Berkeley physicist Hugh Bradner most likely beat him to the punch the year prior.)
O’Neill was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991, the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1998, and in 1999 Surfer magazine named him the one of the “25 Most Influential Surfers of the Century.” In 2000 the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Given those accolades and his background, it might be surprising to those outside the surfing world to learn of Jack O’Neill’s preferred car, the Jaguar XK140. According to his son, Pat O’Neill, a surf industry legend in his own right, Jack purchased his first XK140 at some point in the mid-1960s.
“He just loved the car,” says Pat. “It was the only car that he really had, that he really drove around. He threw his surfboards in it, hanging out the back, the whole thing. You know, within the surf industry it was iconic, seeing Jack drive down the street in that car in Santa Cruz. Everybody knew that he had that Jag, and it was pretty cool. He just loved it.
“It’s really the lines on it. It definitely makes you look better than you look, sitting in that thing. It’s a real classic. The only car I could compare that to, when it comes to beautiful lines on a car, would be the 1974 Dino Ferrari. If you look at the lines on that, they’re not even close to being the same, but they’re so beautiful.”
Over the course of his life Jack O’Neill acquired three XK140s. Two convertibles and a coupe, the latter of which was restored to mint condition by Rob Kraft prior to Jack’s passing last year, in time for O’Neill to enjoy it. “He got to go ride around in it and it’s just gorgeous,” Pat told me.
“The other cars are just real drivers, the two convertibles. He probably bought them in the mid-60s, right around there. One I found down in Manhattan Beach, it had a ‘For Sale’ sign on it. I think it was fifteen hundred bucks.
“I called up Jack and said, ‘Hey, do you want this thing? Maybe you can use it for parts, or whatever?’
“It was in pretty good shape, but not great. He said, ‘Yeah, go buy it.’
“So I bought the thing, went around the corner, and the battery fell out through the floorboards. It kind of took us a little while to get that thing rolling again. That was probably around ‘67, ‘68. Something like that.”
Pat’s memories of his father’s Jags stretch through his entire life. As a child he remembers the regular occurrence of standing in front of the car, helping his father adjust the side view mirrors which sit outside of the driver’s reach.
“I remember doing that a lot. I remember pushing him down the street to get it started a lot. My understanding, the wiring in these cars aren’t the best, and there was always some kind of an issue. I’m sure he drove around at night a lot with no lights.”
Beautiful lines aside, the Jaguar XK140 is not the easiest car to maintain or drive. The lack of power steering means it handles “like a tank,” the aforementioned electrical issues were a common source of hassle and repair, and the convertible tops’ propensity to leak meant that Jack needed to drive the family’s work vehicle, a van, on rainy days.
But, in every other condition, Jack would be behind the wheel of his beloved Jaguar. Wife in the front, three children squeezed into the diminutive backseat. To work, his children’s school, or on any other errand that needed doing.
“I don’t remember, really, being in another car with him,” Pat says. “People that have concours cars, they keep them so nice that it’s not fun to be with them, or to drive with them, because they’re so, ‘don’t bring that in my car,’ or ‘don’t do that,’ kind of thing. You know what I’m saying? This was a driver. It had sand in it.”
The O’Neill family still owns all three XK140s, currently residing in a climate controlled warehouse in Santa Cruz.
“We call it the Jack O’Neill Toy Box. We have all the history of all the wetsuits in there, 65 years of wetsuits. We keep them in a humidifier area. It has all of his old balloons, his airships, all kinds of toys that he’s had over all the years.
“[The Jaguars] aren’t going anywhere. We plan to keep them in the family.”