It is the perfect day for a spot of villainy. The sky is cloud-dappled. The spring air crisp and clear. I have two strong cups of tea inside me and the keys to a big bore straight-six saloon with wire wheels and a capacious boot. Welcome to the firm, guv. Time for a bit of the old mischief.
Grace, pace and space; Jaguar’s creed was intended to stir passions among the moneyed. Instead, its muscular Mk II saloon found itself an accomplice to grand larceny. The tool of choice for men like Roy (The Weasel) James, the Mk I and Mk II Jaguar became the ultimate getaway car.
In 1962, a team of criminals disguised as businessmen, loitered at Heathrow Airport, waiting for a plane carrying sacks of money filled with company payroll. The crooks, who had cunningly concealed leather coshes inside their furled umbrellas, thumped the security guards and nicked the loot – some £62,000. Then they jumped in a couple of Jags to make their escape. The Weasel, who’d come up racing karts in the early days, easily eluded police thanks to a combination of skill and his Mk II’s superior power and handling.
Today, I’m driving a much reformed machine, one belonging to All-British Field Meet (ABFM) organizer Patrick Stewart. “It has a few sins,” he says, indicating a small blemish on the driver’s side mudguard. Who among us does not?
The ABFM is the largest gathering of British cars in Western Canada, and when it is held in Vancouver on May 20, the Jaguar Mk I and Mk II will be front and centre. Launched in 1959, they’re fabulous machines, possessed of a restrained elegance that’s hard to find in the modern automotive world. Many regard them as the first proper sporting saloon.
Settling into the delicious wine-coloured leather interior, there is much to be admired here. The period-correct wood-rimmed racing wheel is just the sort of thing you can imagine the Weasel fitting as a final touch to some hopped-up getaway car, and the simple elegance of the Smiths instruments contrasts nicely with the rich burl of the wood dash. Amongst the switchgear is a button marked “cigar.” The leather flexes as I lean forward to prime the ignition. It sounds like a fist tightening in a glove.
However, Stewart’s Mk II apparently doesn’t trust me yet and the starter button does nothing. “Ah,” he laughs with his Northern Ireland burr. “It never does this – figures!”
Happily, Jaguar’s engineers knew enough about the limitations of the machinery they were working with to install an underhood switch called a mechanic’s starter. Stewart pops the bonnet and fires up the 3.8-litre straight-six. It clears its throat with a warning rasp and we head out from Queen Elizabeth Park.
The only thing smoother than a straight-six is a V-12. Perfectly balanced in firing order, Jaguar’s 3.8-litre engine produced an exemplary-for-the-time 220 bhp (about 190 horsepower by today’s engineering rules). Performance was stout: a sprint to 100 km/h in about 8.5 seconds and it could run on past 200 km/h. Police Z-cars (Ford Zephyrs and Zodiacs) struggled to get past 160 km/h.
That’s not bad by today’s standards, and Stewart’s freshly rebuilt 3.8-litre six gives his Mk II long legs. The car simply leaps forward, the throws of the gearbox as heavy as one of those lead-filled blackjacks. There’s a fair amount of body roll present, but the Mk II easily has the steam to keep up with modern traffic. There’s grey in the hair, but muscle under that old-fashioned suit.
But the Mk II is no blunt instrument. While there are those who prefer the fizzy delicacy of the smaller-engined versions, this big-hearted saloon is a delight. It’s a diamond geezer, mate. We cruise slowly past the local police headquarters and stop in the middle of the street. In an Explorer, an officer glances up from his laptop. He can’t help grin from the cheek of it.
The legends about the Weasel are almost too numerous to list. That he stole jewellery in Monaco and helped himself to Formula One champion Mike Hawthorne’s Jaguar as it sat parked outside the Steering Wheel Club in London. That he stole and melted down silver trophies belonging to John Cooper (as in Mini Cooper) and that he paid cash for a Brabham Formula Junior racing car with the proceeds from the Heathrow heist. After a lengthy stretch in prison, when he was nabbed as part of the gang that pulled off The Great Train Robbery, he was hired on by Bernie Ecclestone in the 1970s to mint trophies for Formula One. It’s the oddest postscript to a tumultuous life.
Then there’s how the Metropolitan Police Service eventually turned the tables on the criminal element, purchasing hundreds of S Type Jaguars to run the Mk IIs to ground. When John Thaw accepted his defining role as Inspector Morse, he insisted on a red Jaguar Mk I as the fictional detective’s car. It takes a thief’s car to catch a thief.
We stop at gravel lot near an abandoned warehouse, its flanks streaked with rust. Next to a modern XE sedan, the Mk II’s spiritual descendant, the old Jag looks positively tiny. However, its legend looms large.
Based on the Mk II’s earlier performance, I’m reluctant to shut it off, but Stewart does anyway. “It’ll be fine,” he says. “Go on. It likes you now.”
Sure enough, this time, the straight-six bursts to life immediately. We zip out of the parking lot, down a back alley. Change up to third, walk on it. No one’s around. Better give it the business then – and if anyone asks, I never done nothing.