My Elegant Smilodon

Jag hood emblem for blogSan Diego – In the blog post on the trip to Santa Fe over Spring Break you may recall I made mention of my car and some rapid travel down the interstate.  Since there were no pictures of it in that post, a few have asked what it is I drive but I put off an answer since the car was in the process of some work.

But it is ready now for an unveiling so here is the semi-short version of the car’s story.    A warning however: this story may cause apoplexy in purists…  Depending on your point of view it either tells the story of saving a rare and beautiful car by transforming it into a one-of-a-kind gem… or of a barbaric and monstrous act of automotive vivisection.

Not truly a photography post, this does however contain photos I took scouting possible locations for a poster shot of the car.  When it comes time to do that shot I’ll do a post on the process so this might whet your appetite for that installment.  Meantime these shots will give you an idea of what the car now looks like after the treatment noted below.  (You can click on any of the shots to enlarge them!)  

Anyway…  The car itself started life being built in 1987 as a Jaguar XJ-SC, the Cabriolet version of the XJ-S Grand Touring car.  Not a true two-seater sports car like the famous E-Type XK but a nominal 4-seat (for very small kids) luxury “personal car” meant to compete with the Mercedes SL series, the XJ-S enjoyed the longest production run in Jaguar history.

However, due to concerns that the U.S. was about to outlaw convertibles as it was nearing production, Jaguar never intended to build a convertible version.  But when the fears proved unfounded, to meet the demand for an open top version while a real convertible was designed, they first created an interesting compromise: the XJ-SC.  It sported a removable set of roofs.  The rear portion had both soft and hard tops, the front portion had removable “Targa” Panels and they were separated by in integral roll hoop. With the rear seats removed it was now a 2-seater with storage bins where the seats had been.  Powered by a V-12 engine producing over 300 hp it was a true 150 mph car that actually had better aerodynamic numbers than the far sleeker looking E-Type.

From 1983 to 1988 Jaguar produced a total of 5013 (or 5014 depending on the list source) Cabriolets.  Mine is build number 3066.  Less than 2,000 were shipped to North America.  Due to the bizarre machinations required to build the cabriolet, by the time my car was completed and dispatched to California it was registered as a 1988 model.  Only 321 cars registered as 1988 models were brought into the U.S. and Canada.

This elegant car in its original Silver Birch paint was first owned by a lady mayor in San Diego.  Here is a shot from around 2003 or 2004 as it looked when I first got it.

This is the original look of my XJ-SC in Silver Birch.  Taken in Anxa-Borrego Desert State Park.

This is the original look of my XJ-SC in Silver Birch. Taken not long after I had the car built during a drive  in Anxa-Borrego Desert State Park.

The second owner had, unfortunately managed to overheat and blow the engine (a problem for the V12’s marginal cooling system here in the American southwest) and I first saw it sitting forlornly under a tarp at “Exclusive Jaguar,” a service shop owned by Alan Curtis.  I had brought my 1987 XJ6 Series III in for servicing and was drawn to the strange shape under the tarp.  One thing led to another and in relatively short order I now owned a rare body in need of an engine.

In these parts, there is an inverse relationship between the love of fast cars and the ability to drive them. so finding very hot engines from Corvettes, Camaros, Firebirds, etc. that have been rolled with body totaled and engine/running gear intact is relatively common and consequently not that expensive.  After looking at and testing half a dozen engines a 1995 LT1 and tranny were selected and the car was quickly being assembled.

A Vortech supercharger was installed along with better exhaust and the little screamer was finally ready back in 2003.  I loved it!  The car made several round trips back to Denver plus a couple up into Oregon plus being a semi-daily driver.

But by 2010 it had developed an intermittent firing problem.  Alan had retired so I was referred to Lawton at Top Flight Corvette, a serious racing guy specializing in Vettes and other muscle cars.  He and his son are renown for building very powerful engines.

The problem was elusive and by the time it was found, my engine sat in pieces on the floor of the engine room in his shop.  Since it was already apart it seemed like the ideal time (and the ideal shop) to think about some more engine modifications.  If ever there was a time to play some more with the internals this was it while the engine was already taken apart.  it was also the perfect time to really give it a close look for any potential problems.

Although there were no indications that the engine had ever overheated, the heads and decks were slightly warped so both were shaved down resulting in more compression.  Upon further close inspection during this process, the LT1 block was, as are many original engines from all makes, ever-so-slightly out of alignment, so it was bore-aligned resulting in less binding and friction.

This common front-to-rear misalignment is caused as the block cools after casting and slightly warps.  It is normally very slight and not a big thing; and for most cars and drivers it is never even noticed.  But it creates additional friction with the result of lowered mileage, lost power, and sometimes shortened engine life.  It is of consequence only to someone on a quest to maximize the output of their engine… as I was.

The engine and new innards were blueprinted, balanced, and put back together.   As it went back together, a hot mid-range cam was installed along with a water-methanol injection system from Snow Performance to help cool things down and, well, yes, to put a few more ponies at my disposal through even more improved compression.  And a new, larger dual exhaust system with mufflers from Moroso was installed so it could breathe better.  The larger pipes could no longer follow the normal route and had to be run UNDER the rear suspension which now gives me the clearance of a lowered Austin-Healy 3000… or a Go-Kart.  But the sound… oh my goodness.

Never one to leave well enough alone… since it was back in the shop awaiting a re-tune, I also had a B&M ratchet shifter fitted to it.

B&M Ratchet Shifter.  THe car now drives like a manual transmission but without a clutch.

B&M Ratchet Shifter. THe car now drives like a manual transmission but without a clutch.

I had kept the original Jaguar shifter so it would look to the casual eye like a stock Jag.  However, with this virtually new engine, and its cam and exhaust, listening to its throaty new roar, it was delusional of me to think anyone around the car would not know they were listening to something special the moment it fired up.

While back in Lawton’s hands, the car had so much torque steer and engine twist that under heavy throttle it kept pulling hoses loose so had to be chained down like a full-on race car.

Racing harness (here in the passenger seat) definitely hold you in place during vigorous driving.  For those who know there Jags, you will note that the car has the newer seats from a post "facelift" '90s car.

Racing harness (here in the passenger seat) definitely hold you in place during vigorous driving. For those who know their Jags, you will note that the car has the newer seats from a post “facelift” ’90s car.

I had also had proper racing harnesses fitted since I always hated the passive restraints it came with.  They had died anyway and no dealer here could repair them despite the “lifetime warranty.”   I guess they did their job of most likely keeping people in the car in case of an accident, but they did not hold me properly in the seat under, shall we say, “vigorous” driving,  And I had hated them from day one trying to strangle me as the car was started.

To provide an anchor for the harnesses, a cross bar was fastened to the cage that stiffened the body even more and again worked to improve handling.

Finally — finally —  after a year in and out of the shop, it was ready.  The car had already been very strong when it went in for its latest surgery; but now, coming away from the light at a controlled freeway on-ramp, this was an entirely new experience for me.  I couldn’t resist it, try as I might; the ramp control light turned green and a demonic possession (at least that is what I would claim if caught) forced me to mash the accelerator to the floor.   I know that Jaguar purists often refer to these hybrid or half-breed cars as “lumps” but I can tell you, at least in terms of how Americans understand that word, this is no lump.

Whoa Nellie, it was like being launched by a steam catapult off of an aircraft carrier.  It went zero (naught) to “change your underwear” in under 4 seconds!  Flooring the accelerator and dropping the brakes pinned me to the seat, the front end tried to come off the ground, the rear tires struggled and mostly failed to keep hooked up to the ground, and I was surprised to see that I was well into triple digit speeds long before the ramp merged into a normal lane.  So I let off the accelerator, looked quickly around to see if I had stupidly done that in front of a police car, and, finding none on the road, drove the rest of the way home in a far more sane and sedate manner.

Despite how it may sound, I really did not build the car to be a drag racer.  I briefly had a 3.50:1 rear end installed but could not give it gas from a stop without wheel spin so went back to the 2.88:1 original.   It was envisioned, rather, as a road car, a grand tourer to help me on the twisty back roads that I love, so I could hardly wait to take it out for a spin.   At 100 mph the engine is barely into its power band turning only 2700 rpm (nominal red line is at 6500 rpm) so it has no trouble going down the road at speeds far in excess of both any speed limit this side of the Autobahn and also our aging highway system’s ability to give a safe surface for fast cars.  So I, of course, only drive it like a little old lady.  At least that is my official story and I am sticking to it!  And it is even occasionally true…

The XJ-S series had a design flaw in my opinion and this car had fallen prey to it; in hotter climates than England heat is a problem.  But there is no place for the under hood heat build up trapped in the engine bay to vent allowing a better flow of cooler outside air.  The previous E-type designers wisely had included hood louvers but this model had none.  So I looked at the louvers on a lot of cars and with input from Larry at the Corvette Shop (another GREAT place for Corvettes and Corvette engined cars), settled on a set from a Chevrolet Lumina that seemed to be the right size and of solid appearance and Larry’s son Shane inserted them into the bonnet.

Why someone thought a Lumina needed louvers is beyond me but they did design a set of good looking ones that seemed perfectly designed for the hood of an XJ-S.  A cooler engine is a happier engine and also a stronger engine since cooler air is denser air.  It is not a BIG difference but it adds to the mix.

Detail of louvers from Lumina installed on the hood of the XJ-SC.  In this shot you can see the effect of the chameleon effect of the new exterior as angles of view change the color.

Detail of louvers from Lumina installed on the hood of the XJ-SC. In this shot you can see the effect of the chameleon effect of the new exterior as changing angles of view on the slightly curved hood (bonnet) change the color.

In addition to the heat issue, I also wanted to at least slightly diminish the build-up of under hood pressure trying to lift the front end since the front air dam is really too far off the ground to solve the problem entirely.  However were it low enough to be effective no speed bump would be crossable and the car would be drivable only on a track, so another solution was mandated.  Venting the air was the solution.  Great, two solutions for the price of one.

But another problem was inescapable.  Nearly 25 years in the California sun had taken its toll on the beautiful Jaguar paint job but I was unsure, at first, as to what to do with it.  For anyone hearing the car’s engine and supercharger whine made it obvious I had already left the purist corral far behind in assembling this one-of-a-kind vehicle.  So I wanted an exterior look to match the uniqueness of the car itself.  Unburdened by the need to use a proper Jaguar paint scheme I prowled through paint sample books to find something I liked.

But no paint I sampled quite had the look I wanted so, in the end, I went with a vinyl wrap using a product from Hexis that changes colors as the light angles change.  It had to work with the tan interior so the vinyl’s base color of sort of a light metallic bronze, went from metallic brown to a metallic gold cast with green and red-burgundy accents depending on the angle of light source and viewer.  It is called “Autumn Mystery.”

Side view of Jaguar XJ-SC along the San Diego River.  Here you can really start to see the color changing effect as the anfle of view and the angle of the light change.

Side view of Jaguar XJ-SC along the San Diego River. Here you can really start to see the color changing effect as the angle of view and the angle of the light change.  the base color is a gold/bronzish color but as the angles change accents or whole panels turn gold, brown, red, burgundy and even green.  it is amazing to walk around it and watch it change color.

These next shots were taken at different angles so you can see the effect of the vario-color vinyl.  Remember, except for the obvious black trim, the car has only one type of vinyl applied; any change in color is due entirely to the angle of view and light.

View of the Jag from the front where, at this angle with slight curves to the sheet metal, the color chage is subtle just giving some accents.  Here you can also see how the Louvers fit into the hood.

View of the Jag from the front where, at this angle with slight curves to the sheet metal, the color change is subtle just giving some accents. Here you can also see how the louvers fit into the hood.

Viewed from the rear you can see the black trim.  The areas of red along the trunk (boot) lid are due entirely to the change in angle and are not a different vinyl.

Viewed from the rear you can see the black trim. The areas of red along the trunk (boot) lid are due entirely to the change in angle and are not a different vinyl.  you can see it again along the fender flare as it gets near the verticle angle.

Carbon fiber treatment to "B" pillars

Carbon fiber treatment to “B” pillars

I also had the nirrors and the B pillars given a more modern carbon fiber treatment to provide an accent and some relief to the vibrant colors of the main wrap.

In the shot of the wrapped mirror below, you can really see how the angle of the body panels changes the color. I confess I have no clue how this works for with the vinyl sheet or when it is done as a custom (and incredibly expensive)  paint color.  I thought it was different colors of metallic flakes but close examination of the vinyl wrap material does not reveal that secret.

But I have loved the effect since I first saw it on a Hummer H1 of all vehicles.  And now, driving this around it is most definitely an attention getter.  The downside, as pointed out to me when we were making these photos, is that it also readily attracts the attention of the officers of the law who just seem to know instinctively that this is a car wanting to go very, very fast.

Carbon fiber treatment given to mirrors.  Note how the angle of the camera turned this area to red.

Carbon fiber treatment given to mirrors. Note how the angle of the camera turned this area to red.

ACG Automotive in San Diego did the beautiful vinyl work!  (And you should see some of the exotic  cars in their workshop…!)  At a fraction of the price of a comparative paint job this is an option worth considering.

Now, driving this velvet rocket makes me think this was what the car was supposed to be in the first place: an elegant British grand touring car quite able to motor at a stately pace around the countryside in comfort and aplomb; but, when asked, a mere dip of the toe on the accelerator effortlessly turns it into one astonishingly powerful beast.

I was out looking for a location to do a “poster” shot of the car for a portfolio and to potentially solicit some work since i love cars as subjects.  They are functional sculpture to my eyes and when well designed are not only fun to drive they are pleasing to look at.  I intend to do a serious portrait of the car using lights but have not found the right spot for it quite yet.  But one possible was near the UCSD campus and the Scripps Oceanography Institute in La Jolla.  The weather was interesting, a dark cloud bank to the northwest but to the south and east the sun was coming through and was dappled by the Eucaluptus trees that cover this coastal hillside.  This more specular light ont he body brought out a new set of colors from the Hexix vinyl wrap.  People were definitely noticing the car as we drove by.

Shot near the UCSD campus, here is a shot in different light showing a whole new set of colors coming fromt he vinyl wrap.

Shot near the UCSD campus, here is a shot in different light showing a whole new set of colors coming fromt he vinyl wrap.

As noted above and in a previous post I drove it on a Spring Break trip to Santa Fe, NM to see an old friend (about 900 miles one way) and it performed flawlessly.  It definitely turned heads wherever it went even before the vinyl wrap..

And, best of all, virtually any mechanic anywhere over here in the Colonies can work on it.  I love it!  Next up will be some interior work and some new wood and leather.  I haven’t settled on a design and material yet but when I do, if I have not already been subject to an honor killing for brand blasphemy I’ll post some of the photos here.

Oh, by the way, for those still scratching their heads, “Smilodon” is the scientific name for the family of Saber-toothed cats combining feline grace and agility with powerful muscles and incredible teeth.  it seemed like a workable metaphor for this car.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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8 Responses to My Elegant Smilodon

  1. Carole Massey says:

    I am amazed! Hope to see you driving it one of these days!

    • ndking says:

      Well, I drive it frequently so it is quite possible.  It is not a car that makes it easy to be descreet…

      On Tue, 11 Jun 2013 03:40:37 +0000, Travels with Rocinante

  2. Matt says:

    Hi, do you still have this car, I’m a photographer myself and have just started my own 84 xjs project. Love you work and would love to see what else you did with this motor?
    Matt

    • ndking says:

      Yep, I still have it and love it!!! Since I didn’t build the car to race I’m not sure what else I would do to the engine… I can still get arrested on any road this side of the Autobahn with barely any throttle so I’m pretty pleased and I need it to stay reliable so do not want to push that LT1 too hard constantly.

      • Matt says:

        Great stuff, love the hood louvres they fit great, will have to source some of those myself although I’m in the uk so might not be so easy. Did you do anymore with the interior?

  3. ndking says:

    I have the “post face-lift” seats but would like someday to swap those for some nice Recarro seats. Otherwise the interior is pretty stock.

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