FEB 09th 2015
A Le Mans winner turned road car: Andrew Frankel drives the Jaguar XKSS
Know what a ‘run out special’ is? Of course you do. These are the machines manufacturers produce at the end of a car’s natural life to try and extend interest for as long as possible and to ensure no excess stock ends up lying around unloved, unwanted and, above all, unsold. Usually these cars are given special names and some additional shiny bits to try to convince punters they are somehow different to standard cars on which they are based. You can, for instance, right now buy a Vauxhall Astra ‘Limited Edition’ (limited only by the number Vauxhall thinks it can sell) with big shiny alloy wheels and a ‘sports style front bumper.’
Or, if you can find one and are a little better resourced – to the tune of several million pounds – there’s this rather more appealing run out special you see before you now. It too had shiny additions – the chromed windscreen, bumpers and front and rear lights required to make it road legal, and a special new name; Jaguar called it the XKSS.
Of course, at the time Jaguar would have been delighted for the world to believe the XKSS had always been in the product plan, but in fact it was a car born from the purest necessity. When Jaguar had launched its D-type racer in 1954, it was absolutely state of the art but, as is the way with such things, by 1957 and despite winning Le Mans for the third consecutive time that year, it was nearing obsolescence. This was not lost on customers and soon Jaguar went from having a racing car everyone wanted to working out what to do with the 25 chassis it had built but remained unsold. It needed a run out special and the XKSS was it.
It is amazing how very different to a D-type an XKSS looks because, in fact, they’re hardly different at all. Chrome, lights and windscreen aside, all Jaguar did was remove the central divide in the cockpit and fit a passenger door. It didn’t even have to remove the D’s rear fin as that was never part of the racer’s standard specification. Inside you’ll find a handbrake and a horn, while there’s a spare wheel hidden in slot in the tail, but none of these is a concession to make the XKSS road legal, for the D-type was bound by the same rules of the road. Jaguar saw no need to modify the race-spec 3.4-litre engine, the ratios of its own four-speed gearbox nor even the spring rates of the suspension. Every major body panel is the same too. When some people call the XKSS a road-going D-type, they might not realise just how accurate they are being.
Jaguar aimed the XKSS at the American market where it was eligible to race as a production car with the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) whereas for some reason that always remained inexplicable to Jaguar, the D-type was not. And sales went splendidly, with 14 cars finding homes in North America, one going to Hong Kong and another staying home in the UK. But then a factory fire destroyed not only the remaining nine chassis but the means to build them too. With just 16 cars completed, the XKSS was dead, although in time at least two D-types that were not part of the original run were converted to XKSS specification.
Even by XKSS standards, the car you’re looking at here is very special, for it is the first. As a D-type it was known by its XKD 555 chassis number, but it became XKSS 701. It belongs to an American financier called Howard Lutnick and has just emerged from a total and quite superb restoration courtesy of CKL Developments to a specification inspired by Steve McQueen’s own XKSS, which means no side windows, no luggage rack and a furled tonneau cover slung across the body behind the rear seats.
It is, if anything, even prettier than a D-type and, at first, it is hard to see why; after all you’d think that anything added to a shape that pure could only lose more than it gained. Not so – the cosmetics actually help accentuate the D-type’s natural curves and draw attention to the headlamps that are its eyes. It is a stunning piece of work.
But at heart it’s still a racing car which means no creature comforts, even by 1957 standards. The cockpit is designed to accommodate snake hipped, slim-limbed racing drivers very well, but not slightly overweight, 6ft 4in, middle-aged hacks and there’s no point looking for the heater on this freezing winter’s day, because none exists. Just like a D-type you turn a key to activate the fuel pumps, wait a while until they have powered the triple twin-choke Weber carbs and then hit a separate button to fire up the straight six motor.
It is slightly silenced, enough for its voice to be heard as a simple, clean sound and not just a vast distorted noise occupying all the space in your cranium and making your ears itch. Of course if you’ve been in anything from a 1948 XK120 to a 1984 XJ6 you’ve heard this noise before, but I don’t think I’ve ever known it sounding more appropriate to its surroundings.
The XKSS is probably the worst shopping car in the world. Not only is there literally nowhere to put anything save in the passenger seat, the combination of a racing triple-plate clutch and a first gear designed not to pull away from rest so much as to power away from Arnage corner means the car is horrendously difficult to get off the line.
But once you are underway, the XKSS is superbly simple to drive. Indeed anyone with an ounce of common sense, a sliver of self-restraint and a driving licence could drive this triple Le Mans winning design with ease. Unlike its contemporary the Ferrari 750 Monza, the D-type doesn’t snort, bang, cough, wheeze, kick, buck, snap or try to kill you if you don’t treat it with the respect it deserves. The engine is flexible, the gears fitted with syncromesh selection and you can crawl around the track behind a camera car at 20mph for lap after lap and it will never get hot.
Alternatively you can give it a bootful of throttle and feel a car respond like the racer it really is. For a car whose design dates back over 60 years, it is phenomenally rapid. Stories of it hitting 60mph in not much more than 4.5sec sound ridiculous when you see how skinny are its tyres, how high is its gearing and the fact the engine gives only 250bhp. Then again it is awash with torque and has but 914kg to pull, making it both substantially more powerful and a little lighter than a supercharged Lotus Elise, which covers the ground in 4.6sec.
But despite its soft springs, it feels most like a race car in the corners. Compared to any car of a similar age that was primarily designed for use on the public road, the XKSS feels like a greyhound next to a Labrador – so much faster, more agile and precise that further comparison has no value. You fire it into the apex on a trailing throttle to break the back loose, then power through in the mildly oversteering condition that best exploits the grip and breakaway characteristics of the Jag’s Dunlop race rubber. It is fabulous, addictive fun.
Still, you don’t want to do too much of it, not in someone else’s immaculate and rarer than rare road racer. I do three quickish laps of Goodwood then hand it back to Chris Keith-Lucas from CKL. It has been a pleasure to get to know the XKSS even for a short while, and its memory will live on in me for years to come. And that is almost certainly the first time I have said that about a run out special, and I would be prepared to bet, the last too.
Photography: Tom Shaxson