Roy “The Weasel” James was a hot-shoe with light fingers and a fairly open approach to other people's money. It is rumoured that he once broke into John Cooper's garage (that's Cooper as in Mini Cooper), stole his racing trophies and then melted them down for the silver.
That's pretty bloody cheeky. However, The Weasel's specialty wasn't burglary, it was driving getaway cars. An experienced kart racer who would eventually have some success in Formula Two, he was the wheelman of choice for some of the most daring robberies in Britain during the sixties. His vehicle of choice? The Jaguar Mk I and Mk II.
Instantly recognizable for its jelly-mould shape and slight rear spats, the Jaguar Mk I and II are this year's featured marque at the All British Field Meet. The ABFM is held this Saturday at Van Dusen Gardens, and is a can't-miss spectacle for any automotive enthusiast. You don't even have to like British cars in particular: I have it on good authority that there'll be a Mini there with a motorcycle engine mounted where the rear seats should be, and a Ford Cortina with a Honda S2000 engine swapped in. Both nuts, and both worth the price of entry.
But along with inventive modifications and acres of gleaming Rolls-Royces, mud-spattered Land Rovers and the like, the Mk I and II will wear the tiara this year. And rightly so. Despite their semi-nefarious image as a result of criminals like The Weasel thumbing their noses at the coppers while speeding away down country lanes, the Mk I and II are genteel delights.
To sample a bit of what makes them so wonderful, ABFM organizer Patrick Stewart kindly loaned me the keys to his 1961 Mk II 3.8. Immediately, you have to admire the restrained elegance of the Mk II's design. Introduced in 1955, the Mk I was Jaguar's first unit-body construction, and featured fully independent suspension up front, and plenty of space inside. Initially equipped with a 2.4L engine, power eventually improved until the Mk II came along with a 3.8L straight-six as an option. It made around 210bhp or so, which was pretty stiff for the time.
Even now, 200hp in a car that weighs about as much as a Honda Civic is pretty stout. Slotting the Jag's hefty lever into first, we head out of Queen Elizabeth park, and take aim for the docks on False creek. You have to imagine many a Mk I and II would have made a similar late-night run, perhaps on the way to pick up a little illicit contraband from the bowels of a grubby tramp steamer.
While body roll is pronounced, in all other respects the Mk II is extremely easy to drive. It's not slow at all: in fact, it might even be a little too fast. The long gears and the ripping performance of the straight-six give the car a reined in feeling around town. It's champing at the bit, and ready to go.
In stop-and-go traffic, lots of lovely details emerge to the wandering eye. Amongst the switchgear, for instance, is a push-button marked “Cigar.” The race-spec wheel looks like it's been lifted off a club racer's E-type. Yes, this car wears a business suit and a bowler, but there are whiffs of its performance credentials to go along with the smell of leather and wood.
This is just the sort of thing The Weasel would have loved, from the fade-into-the-background grey colour, to the burble coming from the stainless steel exhaust. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for banks, postal offices, and gem merchants everywhere, it wasn't long before the police got their own Jaguars. The London Metropolitan Police force had dozens of them, and were soon hauling in would-be crims by the scruff of their necks. You're nicked, mate.
There would also be some genuine motorsports pedigree for the Mk I and II, as Formula One and Le Mans champion Mike Hawthorne drove a highly tuned version. Like The Weasel, he preferred the whippy 3.4L variant.
And as for The Weasel, he'd land in prison for his role in the Great Train Robbery, but come out the other side to have another chance at life. This time, in an odd twist, F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone would give him a chance to smelt silver trophies for the series. Instead of melting them down, now he was making them.
The Mk I and II have also had their images thoroughly rehabilitated, helped in part by regular on-screen appearances as the preferred vehicle of sleuth Inspector Morse. There are no car chases here, just elegant wafting and brilliant deduction.
Usually, the Jaguar E-Type gets all the spotlight, which is understandable given its scandalous shape and performance pedigree. However, this year the Mk I and II get their due at the ABFM, and it's about time. They are the original gangster Jaguars, and they've served their time in the shadows. But don't crack wise around them: the guv'nor's still got some steel behind that grey hair.
The All-British Field Meet is held Saturday May 20th at Van Dusen Garden, with cars starting to roll in at 7 a.m. On Sunday the 21st, 120 cars will gather at Park Royal in West Vancouver for a run up to Whistler.