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This rebuilt 1959 XK150(S) Drophead Coupe is owned by Peter Lewis.
This rebuilt 1959 XK150(S) Drophead Coupe is owned by Peter Lewis.

1959 XK150(S) Drophead Coupe

Drophead gorgeous: 1950s Jaguar now better than brand new Add to ...

Jaguar’s XK150 was, without question, a wonderful car in its day, but that “day” was more than five decades ago. How does a car of this vintage fare when facing the demands of modern thoroughfares in its second half century?

Those who like to actually drive old cars – rather than just polish their original parts to perfection, before trailering them to classic car show venues – have a couple of choices.

Keep them standard and drive them, making allowances for their vices and frailties in a modern world in which even hot compacts can embarrass cars that once boasted highly sporting pedigrees.

Or as Kingston, Ont.-area resident Peter Lewis has done with his 1959 XK150(S) Drophead Coupe, sensitively update it to cope with modern conditions, without harming either its charm, or its character.

The XK150, built from 1957-61, was the last iteration of the Jag XK series before the legendary E-Type arrived on the scene, and was far from a creaky classic to start with, particularly the ‘S’ variants that appeared in 1959, and which Lewis has replicated. These replaced the 250-hp (claimed in ‘S’ tune), 3.4-litre, twin-cam six with a 3.8-litre that produced an advertised 265 hp, and gave it a top speed of 212 km/h.

But Lewis’s spare-no-effort-or-expense approach has turned his XK150 into an even more “wonderful” car – as well as safer, more reliable and better handling – fully capable of surviving and thriving on today’s roads.

Although Lewis has to “survive” without Bluetooth connectivity or nav, cruise control, lane departure warning, rear-view camera and audio systems, the switches or buttons for any of which you won’t find in its immaculate red-leather-lined cockpit.

“The point to be made is, that you can take a car of pre-1960 vintage, and with care and attention, and sensible modifications, make it perform very similarly to a modern car,” says Lewis. Without losing any of what you bought it for in the first place. Brakes and tires are among the most important areas, but “I’ve also got power steering now. I can park like everybody else does,” he says with a laugh.

He wasn’t laughing much after buying the car more than a decade ago from an owner in New Jersey. In fact, it proved to be something of a disaster.

Lewis was born in England, served a mechanical apprenticeship in famed shipbuilders Harland and Wolff’s London operation, then signed on as a ship’s engineer, before coming to Canada in 1956. After working as a dishwasher, he joined bearing manufacturer SKF, acquired a math and physics degree from Concordia in Montreal and went to work for steel-maker Dosco. After some years as an entrepreneur and running various companies, he became “a corporate dropout” for eight years, living in a remote farmhouse north of Bancroft, Ont., without electricity. After a further stint in the business world, he retired to Kingston, and bought his XK150.

Although it looked good, it proved to be “a load of junk. It wasn’t rusty. They’d welded in all kinds of metal, but none of it was straight.

“And the brakes were appalling. Everything was wrong,” he says. After fixing the brakes, he drove it for a year, during which he “slid off the road after following a Honda around a bend” and realized its braking and handling couldn’t match that of modern cars.

“My real interest in this car was to drive it, and I decided at this point I’d turn it into the finest driving car an XK150 could be,” he says.

It was soon taken apart down to the last nut and bolt – each subsequently replaced by a stainless one. The bodged-body was turned over to Prince Edward County-based Brit car expert Andrew Taylor, who rebuilt it once again, but straight this time.

Meanwhile, Lewis embarked on a series of what would turn out to be 60-plus modifications. These began with stiffening the chassis, then fitting power steering, a modified rear suspension for the live rear axle, Minilite alloy wheels and wider tires, plus modern shocks. The original discs were replaced with Willwood racing brakes.

A $12,000 new engine was built around a 3.8-litre E-Type block and a later big-valve head, modified to accept three of the classic-look, two-inch SU carburettors as fitted to the original 150S. Lewis isn’t sure how much power it produces, but is impressed with the “tremendous torque” it makes.

It’s kept cool by a special aluminum rad, and its power is fed to the rear wheels by an all-synchromesh, four-speed transmission, with Laycock de Normanville overdrive, borrowed from a Jag V-12. “Forget that bloody Moss box,” says Lewis of the balky transmission originally fitted. Everything else has been restored to original condition. “At a glance, it looks just like a standard XK150S.”

Lewis figures perhaps 6,000 hours of his time went into the car, and he’s got bills for $110,000, “plus what I paid for it. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone.”

But he’s pleased with what’s been accomplished. “I don’t think you’ll find a better one, mechanically, than mine,” he says. “It goes like a dart. Absolutely sure-footed. Great road-holding and super brakes. You have a great feeling of total control.”

“He’s basically created a 54-year-old car you can drive in everyday traffic with no worries,” says Taylor, who points out this classic Jag wasn’t harmed by the process. “None of the modifications have been done in such a way that somebody couldn’t reverse them.”

Lewis averages 5,000-6,000 miles a year, and a couple of years ago drove it through the eastern United States to Halifax. Last year, he rolled up 4,200 miles on the Jag’s odometer on a five-week tour of Northern Ontario. “At one point, I was on this raised road through the bush, with nothing, not a house, for 180 km. And I never doubted the car.”

Back in 1959
Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone debuts on CBS. The Swiss appeared to be occupying a twilight zone of their own, turning down female suffrage in a national referendum.
Monkeys Able and Miss Baker became the first living creatures to survive a trip into space on a U.S. spacecraft and the Soviet spacecraft Luna 2 becomes the first man-made object to crash on the moon.
The U.S. Navy and Postal Service took a shot at “missile mail” – first tried in Germany in the early 1930s – using a submarine-launched missile, its nuke warhead replaced with a “mailhead” full of letters targeted on a Florida naval base.


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