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Jaguar SS 100

Jaguar SS 100 Road Test

The Jaguar SS 100 was fast enough that it took a good-performing motorcyle to outpace it. In fact, driving the SS 100 had points of similarity to riding a big bike.

Although the Jaguar SS 100 came with a folding top (or "hood"), and while this allegedly could be set up inside 60 seconds, Britons who ran sports cars in those days took pride in taking as much of their motoring alfresco as was humanly endurable.

1936 Jaguar SS 100 cockpit
Driving the 1936 Jaguar SS 100 meant looking out
over a 49-inch-long hood and winglike fenders.

In this and other ways, this first great Jaguar -- considered quite modern at the time of its introduction -- now seems to hark back to very early times indeed.

It's easy to climb aboard a Jaguar SS 100. The rear-hinged door opens very wide, and the pillowy leather seat is not slung especially low. However, the four-spoke steering wheel is both big --18 inches is the standard diameter -- and rather close-in to the belt buckle.

Happily, it's easily adjustable for distance and, with tools, for rake angle. Even when closed, the door doesn't seem to be there because of its very deep elbow cutout.

There's not much but air all around, in fact, and you feel more atop the car than within. But your legs have vanished into a long, narrow tunnel and this creates a compensating feeling of security, as if you've been holstered.

That wondrous great bonnet with its four rows of louvers dominates the view. It seems remarkably long; it actually measures 49 1/18 inches along the chromed piano hinge linking its two "butterfly" sections. Jutting up proudly either side are the huge headlamps, borne by the flaring wings.

Not far above your lap is a curvaceous double-lobe instrument panel displaying a sextet of elegantly white-faced gauges, including a 100-mph speedometer down low to the right of the steering column, and a 5,000-rpm tachometer to the left.

The latter, which works counter-clockwise, has a red sector (lacking on some cars) beginning just above 4,500. Most secondary controls are spread across the rest of the panel, save two levers on the steering-wheel hub for lighting and ignition timing.

The Jaguar SS 100 still had the longish 104-inch wheelbase and substantial 53-inch track, but it was only 150 inches long overall and 63 wide, so it didn't take up that much road space.

It was fairly light, too. A figure of "23 hundredweight" is usually given for a typically equipped car. A "hundredweight," often expressed as "cwt." is one of those quaint measures still dear to the English, like "stone" (used to express a person's weight in 14-pound chunks) or "Guinea" (a coin of the realm equal to 1 British pound plus 1 shilling). A "cwt." is 112 pounds, so a road-ready SS 100 apparently tipped the scales at 2,575 pounds. A mere bagatelle to the mighty 3.5-liter, 125-horsepower Jaguar engine.

What fun it must have been to set off in a brand-new Jaguar SS 100 for a bracing canter along the narrow, twisting, usually quiet country roads of its homeland. The ohv engine retains much of the steam-engine torque delivery of the earlier side-valve, but there is more of it, so the six big aluminum pistons pull smoothly and eagerly from as low as 500 rpm.

The four-speed transmission uses a conventional H-pattern with reverse left-forward (and "LIFT," as marked on the knob). Its movement is short and not too heavy. Luckily, a tendency in early gearboxes to break teeth had been cured. However, first gear lacks synchromesh, and while the upper three have it, they still require a deliberate, sensitive hand.

With only 2.3 turns lock-to-lock, the steering is pleasantly responsive, yet light enough to make the car feel easy to handle. The front-end geometry-so long proven on Standards-is such that shimmying, tramping or other bad beam-axle habits seldom are noticed.

The rear axle, however, prefers England's typically smooth roads, as poorer ones can set up a wheel hop. Coupled with the car's natural tendency toward over steer (tail-sliding) at the limit, turns can abruptly turn wild.

Words such as "unpredictable," even "skittish," still aptly describe the cornering behavior. The ride on rough surfaces is pretty harsh, too, but drivers of this period believe discomfort is the necessary price of responsive handling.

Driven ruthlessly, the SS 100 can use up its tires rapidly, and an eye has to be kept on the water-temperature gauge. But the braking power with the bigger drums is considered entirely adequate for the performance and driving techniques of the day. And over long, arduous routes, often against time constraints, the car has begun to build up a surprising record of sturdy reliability.

The SS 100's most unsettling characteristic is the impression it sometimes gives at high speeds that the front end is flying. Whether this is caused by the rakish "wings" or perhaps by weakness in the steering mechanism, will never be resolved.

But some drivers who wind the speedometer right to the 100 mark -- or who encounter strong wind gusts at lower velocities -- feel the steering go light and vague.

For more on Jaguar and other great cars, see:

  • Jaguar Cars: Check out more information on the great sporting cats.
  • How Sports Cars Work: Get the lowdown on hundreds of fantastic sports cars from the 1940s to today.
  • Classic Cars: Learn about the world's most coveted automobiles in these illustrated profiles.
  • Ferrari: Learn about every significant Ferrari road car and racing car.
  • New Jaguars: Reviews, ratings, prices, and specifications on the current Jaguar lineup from the auto editors of Consumer Guide.
  • Used Jaguars: Reviews, recalls, trouble spots, and more on pre-owned Jaguars starting with the 1990 model year. From the auto editors of Consumer Guide.