Daily Telegraph, Alan Clark August 1996
The SS100 is the most obviously charismatic of all the sports cars built in the Thirties and Forties. It has a long, louvred bonnet, huge headlights with built-in mesh covers to protect the lenses from stones thrown up by vehicles you are pursuing in the Alps, and a snarling exhaust note. Add to this acceleration which still allows the driver to mix it aggressively in modern traffic and a simple, understressed engine which is completely reliable, and you have the perfect toy for a rich, but slightly retarded, male.
I have had one in the garage for nearly my entire motoring life. At one point, when they were very cheap, I had two (the car auctioned by Robert Brooks last week is not my "real" car, which features in the Diaries and presently reposes in a shed at Saltwood, but the "support" version which I hardly ever used). I’ve never actually taken a driving test. At the end of the war there was some kind of procedure whereby you could get a provisional licence with a demob certificate and then after a bit it got upgraded. I was long on theory, short on practical experience.
As far as I was concerned there were two positions for the clutch - in or out; either the engine was connected to the transmission or it wasn’t. This made manoeuvring in confined spaces, such as the garage of my parents’ house in Hampstead, somewhat abrupt. And they were relieved when I substituted the SS for my first car, a 1926 6½ litre Bentley weighing nearly three tons, which I had bought for £325 on long leave from the 1945 summer half at Eton.
I mastered by experimentation the knack of going round corners in the wet. The SS was not, repeat not, the same as the old Bentley in this kind of situation. Indeed on the way home from buying it (opening that very day an overdraft with the Clydesdale Bank, an admirable institution with which I don’t think I have ever been in credit since) I accelerated firmly and confidently on the rain-sodden woodblocks which at that time formed the road surface where Fitzjohn’s Avenue branches off from the Finchley Road.
The car spun right round. Passers-by cheered. This was generous of them. All I can say is that I’ve never spun a car since, not right through 360 degrees anyway. A little later - and more, I thought, accomplished - I learned about the front-wheel skid. Road bone-dry, but going far too fast; tight corner, granite wall, hub gouges, king-pins shear, tense flesh strikes brittle aero-screen - as Ted Hughes might put it.
God was certainly kind in those days, just as he was 30 years later, to my sons. And if anyone is thinking "he should have been punished" - well he was, lying awake until the small hours night after night, waiting for my children’s return, knowing exactly how over-confidence and the need to show off causes young people to drive idiotically no matter how fervent and well-grounded is the advice given to them by their elders.
In my own youth I undertook some epic drives in the SS. Once in June I got to Skye from London in a day, helped by the midnight sun. But I was then so exhausted that I slept round the clock and missed the only opportunity to get round to Coruisk in fine weather (an expedition I have still not accomplished).
I took her to Portugal and "left the road" as a climax to a long duel with some locals in a new (1948) American Ford. They sportingly stopped and towed me out of the ditch. American cars were boss in those days, particularly the big Chryslers and the Lincoln-Zephyrs with Columbia axles which could absolutely sing away from the Jaguar on long hills.
I did, however, once have a fabulous race with Nubar Gulbenkian from Estoril to Sintra. He was in the back of a chauffeur-driven Buick Super, with the hood down and a very ornamental lady by his side. The chauffeur wasn’t really up to it and I expect the wind, in every sense, affected the passengers. Anyway we almost dead-heated to the cathedral square in Sintra, where I posed for a photograph.
While I was an undergraduate I kept the car in the Morris Garages, a long tunnel of a place with a glass roof, formerly stabling I would think and now demolished, for seven shillings and sixpence (that’s about 38p) per week.
Undergraduates were not allowed cars until their last year, so I just spent the evenings polishing. That paintwork must have taken more coats of beeswax than a Louis XV commode. But sometimes, late at night, I would run the risk and drive out on to the Witney straight where in still air you could get a speedometer reading of 100mph.
Not another vehicle in sight and the great headlights cleaving the darkness. Very Dornford Yates. And the precursor of hot July evenings 30 years later, when I would drive back from the House of Commons with the windscreen flat after a late Division.
One of the delights of the SS is that it is still very competitive. Ian Appleyard was winning Alpine cups, against far more exotic machinery, even in the Forties. But I won’t "strip" it or change to thick wheels or commit any of the other acts of vandalism necessary to win in Vintage Sports Car Club events.
Untouched and untuned, she is still quick enough uphill to disconcert the fanatics. My wife, Jane, and I went on the AGM Rally in Scotland in 1989 and the SS was the fastest pre-Second World War car up the long Rest-and-be-Thankful hill climb and only beaten overall by a Mercedes 300SL.
I don’t know if the SS is my favourite drive. It would be a close thing. But it is steeped in nostalgia. Whenever I climb into the seat, memories rise at random from the subconscious, prompted I suppose because nothing on it has changed - seats, colour, smell, relationship of all the secondary controls, sound, responses.
It is the nearest thing I have to a time machine - for going backwards."
"Remember the old Jaguar slogan "Grace - Space - Pace"? The latter virtue was notably absent from William Lyons’s earliest productions, which combined cosmetic appeal and outstanding value for money, but were short on performance. "Pace" only became a serious component of the equation with the launch of the SS100 at the 1935 Motor Show.
The car was part of a new range known as "Jaguar". After the Second World War this glamorous model designation was adopted as the marque name when Lyons’s company SS Cars - which had started life in 1922 as "Swallow Sidecars" - needed a new identity, for obvious reasons. That was entirely appropriate, for the 1935 Jaguar range had marked the transformation of SS into a proper manufacturer rather than a customiser of modified standard chassis.
Before the SS100, the company’s attempts to build a sports car had not been entirely successful, as pre-war racing driver James Wright told me some years ago. Wright had been chosen to drive one of a three-car team of SS1 tourers in the 1933 Alpine Trial and damned his car as "a bloody awful thing … a four-seater tourer, terribly long in the wheelbase, with a six-cylinder side-valve engine that wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.
"When I picked the car up at the RAC in London, on the back seat was a cardboard box containing a spare cylinder head.The head was aluminium, it warped and we had to change it.It warped again, and we abandoned the car." There were no such mistakes with the SS100.Its 2½ litre engine – the larger of the two options fitted to the 1936 Jaguars - was an amazing transformation by cylinder-head wizard Harry Weslake, who converted the sluggish side-valve Standard Twenty unit to overhead valves and produced a near 30 percent increase in power.
If the top speed wasn’t quite the promised 100mph (and the 1937 adoption of a 3.5 litre engine would rectify that little oversight), the SS100 looked every inch the part, thanks to the styling genius of William Lyons.Its flared front wings curled over knock-off wire wheels like the forelimbs of a leaping cat, its V-fronted radiator had echoes of such sporting immortals as Alvis and Bentley, the windscreen could be folded down to reveal a pair of skimpy aeroscreens for what the enthusiast press coyly called "speed work", and an exposed fuel tank hinted at endurance racing.
If the SS100 never actually made Le Mans, it did achieve honourable results in sports car racing, rallying and hillclimbs.And, at a modest £395 in 2.5 litre form, it was quite astounding value for money.Only 314 SS100s were made, but it was the tremdendous dash and excitement the SS100 added to the new Jaguar name that made it so significant."