Cars International, Ian Hyne December 1998
Suffolk Sportscars SS100 replica is a perfect marriage between pre-war styling extravagance and post-war engineering pedigree, with Jaguar's hugely acclaimed XJ6 taking a leading role as the best man. Ian Hyne shrugs off drizzle and chill to revel in the resulting sensations.
Replicas have become a rather controversial subject in recent times. While it's one thing to faithfully flatter a model of yesteryear with a creditable modern-day physical facsimile, it's a subject that tests legality when current models disappear beneath a pile of foam and fibreglass. That they emerge as pseudo copies is a potential injury to the originator while the application of authentic badging inflicts the final insult.
No matter how much one lusts after a particular car and reacts to its availability in replica form, one cannot deny that the ethical high ground is unassailably held by the originating company. It has created the form, designed the mechanical base, promoted the model and orchestrated everything that has led to its historic and classic status. What's more, it has picked up the tab and therefore has a commercial interest to protect. Naturally there is another side to the argument but it's seemingly all irrelevant when it comes to Jaguars.
Besides the SS100, kit form replicas have flattered the XK120, XK140 Coupe, C Type, D Type, E Type and XJ13. Not only that but many of these cars have carried unashamed Jaguar badging with no apparent comeback, legal or otherwise. The classic car world has, in the past, led the condemnation of many replica cars while seemingly rolling out the red carpet to anything glorifying the products of Browns Lane. Why should this be?
Two factors are important. The first relates to the utterly faithful, physical reproduction of almost every Jaguar model copied, while the second is the XJ6. Just like the string of success stories that preceded it, the XJ6 was universally admired on its debut in 1968 and was the most convincing winner ever of the Car of the Year Award, which it collected in 1969. Where pre-XJ6 Jaguar produced separate lines of Sportscars and luxury limos, the XJ6 represented all things to all men in being a perfect sporting saloon.
SS100 aside, the car also used the latest version of the classic XK engine that had powered every Jaguar since the XK120 in 1948. The XJ6 therefore presents replica constructors with pretty well identical mechanics to the car they seek to flatter whilst it also enables the appropriate performance to be incorporated whether it's a 170 mph, 3.8 litre racing D Type or a slightly less frenetic XK120. For the Suffolk SS100, the XJ6 running gear creates a very fast and hugely entertaining car that instils enormous pride of ownership whilst generating pure joy behind the wheel.
The Suffolk SS100 is as close a replica as one is likely to get. True, the mechanical underpinnings are rather more sophisticated than the originals but, physically, it's absolutely blob on down to the last detail. Dimensionally it's millimetre perfect down to the 18" wires in place of the 15" ones that have graced previous attempts at an authentic SS100. None of them are made any longer although Heritage Engineering would probably knock one out if you prevailed upon them.
In seeking to present ultimate authenticity, the Suffolk car abounds in fine detail which amply demonstrates the pains taken to get the job right. There are a few pounds of excess metal in the dummy fittings which include, brake drums to conceal the discs, Andre Hartford friction dampers to conceal the front Avos, rear mounted tank breather, dash mounted fuel cock, bonnet mounted radiator filler, front valence mounted crank handle bracket and a few more things, but they all contribute to a wonderful visual thrill.
This car is just beautiful. It's as cosmetically perfect now as it was when Sir William Lyons first penned it all those years ago. Suffolk's Roger Williams told me that Sir William had it parked outside his study window and had his gardener regularly move it about so he could gaze upon it from every angle to ensure its purity of line. The gardener probably got a bit fed up with it but his services are greatly appreciated a few generations down the line.
Side by side, you'd be hard pressed to spot the replica against the original but that's as it should be in a perfect world. Though the world is most definitely far from perfect, the Suffolk SS100 equally certainly is. There's passion in its lines; that subtle blend of head and heart that conspires to create something truly great. Something that stands head and shoulders above its rivals while nobody is quite sure why.
Certainly the 1935 SS100 was hardly smouldering with the white heat of innovation. Nor, for that matter, is the Suffolk car but the XJ6 mechanics are given every opportunity to demonstrate their sporting pedigree beneath the heavy gauge chassis.
It's a simple deep box section ladder frame carrying a braced scuttle hoop. Up front the double wishbones and adjustable coilspring damper units complement the narrowed dimensions of Jaguar's classic IRS. There's four-wheel disc brakes with optional servo assistance and rack and pinion steering minus the over-light XJ6 power assistance. It's a far cry from half-eliptics, Luvax dampers and Burman worm and nut steering. The 18", 72-spoke, centre-lock wires are shod with 5.50x18" crossplies and though some might doubt that car's ability to stay in contact with modern tarmac, the contribution of IRS makes the whole driving experience very different to initial expectations.
Atop the mechanical magnificence of the rolling chassis goes the equally praiseworthy body. Unusually for this style of car, it's moulded as a one-piece section with integral wings, boot and running boards. It also has a bonded-in steel tube frame that provides the mounting points for seat-belts, door hinges and strikers and the column support. The separate, rear hinged doors are double skinned around a steel frame and the bonnet is a four-piece affair in 18 gauge aluminium.
Having said there was nothing ground-breaking in the mechanical specification, there was nothing trend-setting in the styling: a long, low bonnet, cutaway doors, Le Mans slab tank and rear mounted spare. That said, the proportions and execution were just brilliant. The lavish curvature of the wings which rose almost as high as the radiator shell on either side and then those wide eyed headlights snuggling between them. Indeed, approaching an SS100, replica or original, is probably a great deal more exciting in 1998 than it was in 1935 when the car was very much a case of the same but differential.
In faithful replica style, the cockpit is pretty cramped but the rear-hinged doors make entry as easy as it's ever going to be. There's a practised art to threading yourself through the door and under the large diameter wheel but once there it proves to have been well worth the trip. The view over the dash and down that long, elegantly tapered bonnet is both evocative and exciting. It almost takes you back in time; much like arriving at Suffolk Sportscars' rural HQ. You just couldn't make a car like this in a modern industrial unit. It needs the dose of old world charm that comes with its homely, converted farm building base.
Twisting the key and pressing the starter had the silken six bouncing its refined echo off the courtyard walls as it warmed in the early autumn drizzle. Adverse elements notwithstanding, there's only one way to drive this car; helmet and goggles on and screen down.
It may seem daft but you get far less of a battering with the screen down than with it up. Even the seats are perfect copies of the pukka jobs and have bent plywood back instead of modern GRP mouldings. They are comfortable and provide a fine, upright driving position behind the voluptuously undulating dashboard. The large diameter, four-spoke wheel sits close to your chest but it's far from awkward. Dead ahead are the Smiths 6" main instruments with replica faces. The smaller clocks are spread out; one between the speedo and the rev counter and three on the passenger side. The dash layout and every single fitting down to the dummy fuel cock and passenger grab handle are spot on.
Engine warm, all needles in the correct sectors of their respective dials, Suffolk's hugely enthusiastic Roger Williams issued the directions that would take us on a drizzle drenched tour of a fine country drive.
As soon as you let in the clutch you can feel the Jaguar pedigree in the XJ6 underpinnings. Even on a single track, rough surfaced, rural lane the SS100 wafts along in regal style. The steering feels a little strange at first, the wheel seeming to dance about in your hands, but it all firms up with a little speed. And speed the car has aplenty. Running sedately through Bury St Edmunds, Roger directs me onto the main A14 dual carriageway where I put my foot down. With 4.2 litres under the bonnet, the SS100 will never feel strained and as it loped along I thought one or other of the main instruments was woefully inaccurate in showing a steady 80 mph at under 2000 rpm. Then I remembered 18" wheels which give the car its long-legged gait that gobbles the miles in impressive style.
With just a few revs in evidence there was always more to come in terms of pure speed but, as with most replicas, speed is only half the experience. It's the reaction of other road users who skitter out of your way in a fashion they would never employ for any old Ferrari or 911. And even above that is the entertainment in actually driving the thing. The ride is the right side of firm. It's far from uncomfortable but has strayed just the right distance from the sort of limousine luxury that insulates the driver from events underfoot. You can feel exactly what the car is doing and it does plenty.
You can barrel up to the turns, reach under the dash for the gear lever and drop down the box as the discs bite. A far cry from Girling rod brakes. These ones really work. As you feed the wheel round, initial expectations are for the front end to run wide but not a bit of it. The crossplies exert excellent grip even on the very damp roads that welcomed me to Suffolk and, as Roger pointed out, they break away at the back so progressively that they almost send you a telegram. I didn't try it.
In truth, so novel was the driving experience after the rash of more modern machines that I could have done with a full day and a closed airfield to really get to grips with this fine machine. That said, even the briefest of encounters can only impress upon the tester the sheer excellence of every rivet of the Suffolk SS100.
The company does have a price list but Roger says it's all pretty irrelevant. If you want to build your own car it'll cost you £30,000. If you want Suffolk Sportscars to build it for you, as many do, it'll cost you over £40,000. It's all a little richer than the average car but it's far from the average car. In fact, it's so good, I bet even Sir William Lyons wouldn't object. No wonder Jaguar doesn't seem to!
Back issues of the December 1998 magazine which include 7 colour pictures and background of the production of the original Jaguar SS100 are obtainable from Cars International, 1 Howard Road, Reigate, Surrey, RH2 7JE. Tel. 01737 225565 Fax. 01737 240185.