It isn’t every day that you get a second chance, and it’s even rarer that it comes 60 years after the fact. On February 12, 1957, a devastating fire broke out at Jaguar’s Browns Lane plant, destroying dozens of new cars. Among those were nine of its newest sports model, the XKSS, along with all of its tooling. As a result, just 16 made it to customers, and in these past 60 years, the car has gone on to become one of the most sought after classics ever built, and an important part of Jaguar’s history. Now, Jaguar is finishing what it started, and the results are nothing short of spectacular.
There’s a certain inevitability to history that obscures just how strange things can turn out; this rings especially true for the XKSS. From 1954 to 1957, the Jaguar D-Type was one of the most dominant racing cars in the world. Blending design and technology from the aerospace industry with one of the finest engineering teams in Europe, the lightweight D-Type won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1955, ’56, and ’57. Sharing its XK engine and then-radical disc brakes with the ’51-’53 C-Type, the program abruptly came to a halt when Jaguar brass announced that the company would be retiring from endurance racing before 1958. After 71 cars (18 factory works cars, 53 customer cars) had been built, the company had a problem: It had too many leftover parts. And in an era when a car was largely forgotten once the last one rolled out of the factory, the D-Type was old news, and Jaguar needed to figure out what to do with them.
The solution was a D-Type tuned for the streets, with designer Malcolm Sayer tapped to turn his endurance racer into a road car. Sayer was an ex-engineer at Bristol Aerospace Company who worked on plane designs during World War II. He joined Jaguar to work on the XK120-based C-Type, but by the time a replacement was needed, Sayer designed something completely radical. It shared the XK straight-six and disc brakes with the outgoing racer, but almost everything else was new. The D-Type had an aluminum-intensive construction and monocoque body. In 1955, it benefited from a longer, more aerodynamic hood, and changes made to the engine from year-to-year kept it competitive. With enough parts left to build 25 cars, the company began converting its remaining D-Types to road cars.
Sayer and his team added a wraparound windshield, wipers, and delicate chrome frame to replace the cut-down plexiglass screen. A bulbous folding top and side screens were thrown in for inclement weather too. Since the fuel bladder was kept in the trunk, the driver’s side headrest and faring were ditched and a luggage rack was mounted behind the rear seats. The front end got chrome rings around the headlights, small turn signals, and simple quarter bumpers. A second seat and door were added for a passenger, and the interior was made to be a little more civilized. In all, the modifications only added around 100 pounds to the D-Type’s fighting weight.
Under the long hood was a 3.4 liter straight-six with three Weber carburetors, putting out 250 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque — a serious amount of power for a 2,000 pound car. Jaguar wanted to move the cars in a big way too: Depending on sources, it had plans to build 100 to 300 cars. And at $7,000 (around $60K today), it was about as expensive as a Cadillac, but more than $3,000 cheaper than a competition-spec D-Type.
The XKSS debuted on January 21, 1957 to a positive response from the automotive press. Road and Track clocked its zero to 60 time at a seriously quick 5.2 seconds. It ran the quarter mile in 14.1 at over 100 miles per hour, and had a top speed of 144. Less than a month later, XKSS production would end for good.
The fire started in a mechanic’s bay, but quickly spread along the assembly line and eventually ended up engulfing a mass of cars that were being prepped for shipping. When production was restarted just three weeks later, the XKSS was history. Despite its limited appeal and tragic ending, the car caught on with well-heeled enthusiasts, and its relative scarcity and racing pedigree quickly made the car a hot commodity.
Steve McQueen bought one from a friend in 1958. Dubbed the “Green Rat,” he drove the car on the street well into the mid-’60s, before making the leap to a Ferrari Lusso. He sold it to Hurrah’s in 1968 (then the world’s largest car collection), but had a change of heart, and bought it back in the late ’70s. Even without the cult of McQueen, the XKSS legacy has loomed large, prized as the bridge between the D- and E-Type Jaguars, for their gorgeous, sinewy looks, and incredible (if sometimes unwieldy) performance. Today, the surviving cars are well accounted for, and they rarely change hands publicly.
This year, an ex-works Jaguar D-Type sold for $21.78 million, becoming the most expensive British car ever sold at auction. Analysts expect that if McQueen’s XKSS ever sold (which isn’t likely), it could fetch upwards of $30 million. Seeing the reverence (and demand) for the car, Jaguar Land Rover’s new Jaguar Classic department began planning to use the serial numbers of the destroyed XKSSs to build nine exact replicas. A full 60 years later, these cars are almost indistinguishable from the originals, right down to the size of the rivets and the decals on the Dunlop pressed-steel wheels. All nine were snapped up months before they were built, and reportedly at the bargain price of $1.5 million apiece.
The XKSS has a pretty big place in automotive history for a car that was officially in production for less than a month. But its combination of racing pedigree and timeless looks has made it one of the most lust-worthy cars ever built, and deservedly so. The nine 2017 models may be the only ones with real ’50s-era serial numbers, but we wouldn’t complain if Jaguar decided to build a few more. We’re sure we could scrape up enough buyers to fill that rumored 300 car production run.