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1936 SS Jaguar owned by John Woods Bob English for The Globe and Mail
1936 SS Jaguar owned by John Woods Bob English for The Globe and Mail

Car Enthusiasts

73-year-old Jag still a marvel Add to ...

The larger-than-life "leaper" mascot, seen mounted on the radiator shell of the raffish 1936 sports saloon built by SS Cars Ltd. and pictured here more than seven decades later in virtually original condition, isn't quite the real cat's meow.

Coventry-based SS Cars had apparently used up its annual allotment of cleverness coming up with the Jaguar name for its new 1936 range and didn't get around to creating the famous chrome feline, now known as the leaper, until a little later.

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These first Jaguars came with unadorned rads, but an aftermarket firm soon began offering a pussycat mascot that looked, as company PR guy and amateur sculptor Bill Rankin put it, "like a cat shot off a fence." He soon created something more anatomically correct, which was then stylized by Autocar magazine artist Frederick Gordon Crosby and offered as an option in 1937. It didn't become a standard fitment until 1957.

The Jaguar tale actually began some 15 years before all this was going on. Motorcycle enthusiast William Walmsley built himself a racy aluminum-bodied sidecar that looked so neat, others wanted one. He formed a partnership with a young and ambitious William Lyons to produce and sell them through their Swallow Sidecar Company.

Coach-built car bodies were soon added to its repertoire and it became a recognized motor manufacturer in the early 1930s with the introduction of the SS1 and later SS2, and another name change to SS Cars Ltd.

SS Cars produced increasingly sportier saloons and sports cars and in 1936 launched the great-looking SS100 sports car and new more powerful saloons, all now known as Jaguars. Jaguar became the company's official name after the Second World War.

The somewhat-outsized leaper on the 1936 SS Jaguar owned by John Woods of Erinsville, Ont., was actually purchased from a Highway 401 truck-stop hood ornament display. "It just looks so much better with it," says Woods, who was given the car by his father more than four decades ago.

Woods's first car, a 1928 Ford two-door, was purchased when he was 14, fixed up and used during his high-school years. But his insurance-agent father, who obviously recognized burgeoning automotive enthusiasm in his son, came home one day in 1966 and asked a then-19-year-old Woods, "How'd you like to own a Jaguar?"

The car - powered by a 104-hp, 2.6-litre, overhead valve, inline-six - had been brought to Canada along with two other Jags by a person or persons unknown in 1947. One reputedly went on to be owned by Toronto Maple Leafs player Ian Turnbull in the 1960s. Another apparently burned. And the third ended up as a sort of personal war reparation scheme of an ex-serviceman who lived in Tamworth and had been stationed in Great Britain during the Second World War. He'd also brought home a British bride.

Woods and his father (who'd paid $765 for it) did a little work on the sporty and elegant looking classic and had it painted, but, despite their efforts, couldn't get it to run properly. "We were told some racing parts had been installed," says Woods, to which they attributed its lack of enthusiasm for slow-speed operation.

They got it running well enough to drive in that year's Santa Claus parade, however, and on the way home, with a young Woods at the wheel, its performance seemed to confirm the notion its motor had been modified. And that led to an unforeseen turn of events for the young enthusiast and the Jag.

"I recall my father saying, 'I think you're driving it a little too fast for a 30-year-old car,' " he says. "I was doing about 65-70 mph. It would definitely go. But it also took a long time to stop." One, or perhaps both of those factors, brought on a sudden and fatal attack of parental paranoia. "I backed it into the garage and I handed him the keys - and he never handed them back to me again," laughs Woods.

The Jag sat in the family woodshed while Woods attended the University of Waterloo, graduated as an optometrist and practised in Napanee, Ont., for the next 30 years. "It never ran again until just a couple of years ago," says the now-62-year-old Woods, who'd been assuaging his enthusiasm for old machinery in the meantime with a 1953 Ford pickup.

His father passed away in the early 1990s, but the Jag didn't become his again until after his mother's death in 2005. It was then turned over to friend and local mechanic Steve Marshall and "was running again within 20 minutes." Which was encouraging, but it still didn't run properly. And it wasn't until some months later, after various other mechanical ills had been sorted out, that it was determined the problem that had basically sidelined the car for more than 40 years was as simple as the engine's ignition timing order being out of whack.

With all six pots firing when they were supposed to, the Jag was once again restored to robust health. And perhaps good for the almost 90-mph that the copy writers in the SS advertising department claimed it would do.

Today, the Jag is definitely "showing its age;" a car that has survived for 73 years without having undergone much cosmetic restoration. It's still basically sound, mechanically in good shape and runs well, but its paint is weathered, its chrome dulled and pitted. And inside, its woodwork's varnish is glazed and its leather upholstery worn and cracked.

Woods has no plans to submit it to a full restoration. "I don't have the money to do it the way it should be done," he says. But he is working on the interior - helped by classes in leather refurbishing - and will keep it sound mechanically.

And that's the way it should be. Much of this wonderful car's charm in its near-original condition, and its true value to Woods lies mostly in the memories it evokes.

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