Living the Jaguar dream

 

George Bell with his Jaguar Mark I.

Throughout my two-year tour in the Persian Gulf I dreamed about a Jaguar XK 120. It had been my favourite car since I first saw one.

I had always loved motorbikes and cars. I had my first motorbike when only 12. I worked for weeks to buy it and spent all my spare time – and money – keeping it more or less going so I could ride it on our village green and sometimes push it five miles to my friend’s place in Yoxford as he had a 500cc AJS… and a field.

Mine was a BSA Sloper and had a long-stroke single-cylinder engine inclined at about 30 degrees, hence the name. We had lots of thrills and spills on these old machines.

I had two or three cars that were never actually legal and I was underage anyway, but on my 16th birthday I was on the road with L plates and a BSA side-valve 250cc.

Five years in the RAF followed in 1959. During this time I spent time abroad and enjoyed a 500cc AJS 18S and a 500cc Triumph Speed Twin, which became the recipient of a very highly-tuned 650cc engine which transformed it. I had five accidents in six months, none very serious or involving anyone else, luckily, mainly due to the difference between Suffolk and Cornish roads. I was still in the RAF, based at St Mawgan near Newquay.

I passed my car driving test while in the RAF, but was never in a position of actually owning a road-legal car, although I had two more that I used to potter around in.

Five years with the RAF ended in 1964 and I headed for the Gulf for a two-year tour with the Decca Navigator Company – a complete change from the RAF, but for the first time in my life I was earning quite a lot of money.

With a pocket full of cash, I arrived back in London in 1966, determined to find an XK120. I went out each day – armed with a list of all the sports car dealers in the city. On the third day I found one – not wonderful, but I could afford it. Imagine my feelings when I found it impossible to get my 6ft 4in frame behind the wheel.

The owner of the garage was as disappointed as me and offered to dismantle the car and set the seats back, but I could see that it was not going to work. I asked what else he had, as I was sure my dream had ended and I wanted to get home. He pointed out a British racing green Mark I 2.4-litre Jaguar. It didn’t look bad and he took me for a drive. The first time I drove the Jaguar was when it was mine and I was on my way out of central London, going home to rural Suffolk. After two years driving Land Rovers in the Middle East, there were times when I relied on the experienced London drivers to get me out of trouble and keep out of my way.

The drive home was interesting – I had to stop and add some engine oil and pump up some rather dodgy tyres. However, it got me there and was quite fast, a good-looker and served as a suitable smart transport for the next six months in the UK while waiting for my next contract. I spent a lot of money on it – a top overhaul and new tyres. I tried to have new springs, but it ended up having a lot of expensive welding on the spring supports. The exhaust was changed for one from a lorry, as the correct one was so expensive. I still had a fair amount of savings and I just paid up.

TGV 275 played a big part in my life during this time. When my next contract appeared, in France, I tried to get it up to the standard where I could be confident that it would be reliable enough to take abroad. My garage, which knew the car better than me, said I would be pouring money down the drain if I spent any more on it. The new MOT test was coming and it would cost the earth to pass.

Finally, I saw their wisdom and sold it. It was not a profitable venture, but one I enjoyed. I learned a lot and I loved that car.

Once established in France my next – of many interesting and exotic cars – was a 1960 Citroen DS19. A car, years ahead of its time, that I kept for many years, but that’s another story.

George Bell, Otter Close, Salhouse

We’d love to hear your own story of your first car. If you’d like to see it on our drive24 blog, send your memory with a photo to Sadie.Jennings@archant.co.uk.

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