Simanaitis Says

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WHAT FUN IT IS TO DRIVE an out-and-out competition car on the street! I’ve had that pleasure a few times, most memorably a week or so with the Fiat Abarth Brava Alitalia Group 4 rally car. Imagine, then, the fun of driving a Jaguar XK-SS, this British firm’s “dual-purpose” version of its all-conquering D-Type. 

Come to think of it, I once drove a D-Type replica (not a real one) ever so briefly on the streets: Namely, one mile up and back down Wilkes-Barre’s Laurel Run at the Giant’s Despair Hillclimb. My experience, brief though it was, coincided with those expressed by R&T editors after their testing an XK-SS in August 1957. Here are tidbits of their road test.

Thinly Disguised Road-racing Machine. R&T wrote, “The latest SS Jaguar is advertised as a genuine dual-purpose car, and certainly as a ‘thinly disguised road-racing machine’ it will delight the enthusiast. On the other hand, anyone contemplating buying the SS for the purpose of driving it to and from the office and running in an occasional rally would be well advised to forget it.” 

This and other images from R&T, August 1957.

“The SS,” R&T said, “is essentially an all-out racing D-Type with windshield and top added…. The driver sits on the right side. Getting in requires agility, and once seated, one gets a feeling of claustrophobia, especially if the top is erected, because there is no room to move about. In fact, the driver feels that he wears this car like a glove.” 

Indeed, my impression too. I also recall something of an odd seating position, with one’s feet seemingly higher than one’s butt (no doubt like a modern F1 car). 

Ride Comfort, But…. “Ride qualities,” R&T reported, “are firm in comparison with most dual-purpose sports cars but rather soft in comparison with the spine-jarring ride of Italian road-racing machinery.” I recall reading that the D-Type was designed specifically for the smooth surfaces of the Le Mans circuit.

R&T noted, “The passenger has an equally comfortable snug-fitting seat, but leg room is a foot shorter of being adequate and, worse yet, the exhaust system directly beneath appears to have been designed solely for winter driving. (The toe-boards get unbearably hot.)” 

“The exhaust is also much too loud for legal driving in most areas,” R&T reported (perhaps through first-hand experience?)

XK-SS Prowess. The XK-SS’s 3442-cc dohc six-cylinder produced 260 hp at 6000 (10 more than the 1956 D-Type’s). R&T found that “the engine idles nicely at about 700 rpm and pulls well above 1000 rpm. At about 3500 rpm it really comes alive and in 2nd gear, for example, it is easy to over-rev without desiring to do so, so quickly does 6000 rpm come up.”

Ah, yes; let me emphasize that, Your Honor.

Encountering Dawdlers. R&T recounted, “100 mph is so effortless that it seems like 50 mph. When balked, you engage 3rd or even 2nd gear, and smugly blast past the dawdler. However, this procedure is bound to increase the demand for ‘Help Stamp Out Sports Cars’ stickers. A quiet muffler would be common courtesy and sensible public relations.” 

I recall the Fiat Abarth Alitalia had an essentially open exhaust—but a feathered throttle foot could moderate the rap, sorta. 

Quirks. Other than a thirsty “14 mpg in general driving,” R&T reported few racing-machinery quirks in the XK-SS’s powerplant. Its generator was one: “The racing generator pulley gives a cut-in speed of about 2000 rpm; the small battery has to be recharged frequently as a result. A smaller generator pulley is suppled as standard equipment for keeping the battery up to par in tooling about.”

“Unfortunately,” R&T said, “this forces one to keep the revs down to avoid throwing the generator windings—and one is liable to forget this in the momentary heat of an impromptu stop light GP.” 

“Dual-purpose” Recollections. Not that the Fiat Abarth was free of quirks: “For example,” I wrote, “firing its competition-tuned engine from cold was a ritual: Pull out the choke cable, set the ignition switch, hold down the spark-retard control with the right thumb, push the starter button with the index finger. The engine barks to life. Then release the retard control, finesse the accelerator to coax the revs to 2000 rpm so the electric system will start charging, and don’t forget to push in the choke.”

What’s more, whereas the XK-SS had a “special synchromesh-low gearbox,” the Fiat Abarth’s five-speed gearbox was “not for the uncommitted: Its close-ratio gears were straight-cut and devoid of any synchromesh. Upshifts profited from slight pauses to avoid crunches. Downshifts required perfectly executed double-clutching.”

In fact, if one of the dual purposes is fun, in retrospect both the Fiat Abarth Alitalia and Jaguar XK-SS seem to qualify in my assessment. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023 

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