Collecting cars is a passion in both the U.S. and Europe, but—as with a lot of other things, food for instance—we’re a bit more casual about it over here. Maybe it’s because we don’t have many centuries of history weighing us down. For whatever reason, we don’t get as excited about cars with racing history as the Brits do. I once pointed out to a vendor of an old Volvo that it had stickers from race tracks all over New England and New York. “Does it?” he said.
“The odds are high that this car will go to a European collector,” said Jeff Lotman, the CEO of Global Icons and a big car collector/reseller. He was talking about a certain 1952 Jaguar XK120 that broke the world land speed record, hitting 172 mph circa 1953 on the Jabbeke Highway in Belgium with the notable driver Norman Dewis at the controls.
Dewis’ heroic feat is in the “every schoolboy knows of it” category, but only if you’re a British schoolboy. We tend to get more excited about the later jet-powered record setters that flamed into history at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Those don’t come up for sale often. Old race cars used to be worth very little, particularly in the U.S., but their value has been climbing. A Grand Prix Mercedes W196 associated with the great driver Juan Manuel Fangio recently set a record auction price for any car—more than $29 million.
The Jag actually held the land speed record twice. Dewis took the honors in April of 1953 at 140 mph, but then a V-8-powered Pegaso went faster a few months later. MDU was further refined and hit 170.412 in October of that same year. The feat was immortalized in a plaque that went onto every XK120. Dewis, still very much alive at 93, was a consultant on the restoration of MDU.
“I like to find rare cars and restore them,” said Lotman. “Cars with racing history sell better. We returned the Jaguar to exactly what it was in 1953.” Lotman owns MDU with the English Jaguar restorers JD Classics, which restored it. He thinks the car will eventually go to a European collector, though probably via one of the premiere American auctions such as that held at Pebble Beach August 17 and 18 by Gooding and Company. “The biggest sales are still in the U.S.,” Lotman said.
Lotman had previously made headlines by finding and, with JD Classics, restoring an early XK120 that had been owned by Jag enthusiast Clark Gable (who’d said he wanted one “like a child wants candy.”)
Derek Hood, the owner of JD Classics, told me that restoring MDU took 18 months. To make it more streamlined, the car had the canopy from a British jet fighter installed, and recreating that was one of the big hurdles of the restoration. “We studied period photographs, took measurements, made a buck to the same size, then had a local company make the canopy in resin,” he said. “We spent 120 hours on that alone.”
Hood actually thinks the car could end up in an American collection, but a Swiss enthusiast has expressed interest in it. But who knows? “There are a lot of car collectors in Qatar now,” Hood said.
MDU had a racing history both before (it won its class at the Alpine Rally in 1952) and after the land speed record (races at Goodwood, Crystal Palace, Brands Hatch and Mallory Park.) It “retired” after a Jaguar Drivers Club sprint at Brands Hatch in 1957.
The land speed record equipment was designed to be easily unbolted, and MDU eventually became a road car again. Brian Redman, who bought it in the early 1960s, used it for his honeymoon. By the time Hood got his hands on it, the car had covered more than 100,000 miles, much of it as a family transporter. “So you mean that sometime in the ‘60s you’d have seen it parked at the supermarket, with no clues as to its racing history?” I asked Hood. “Exactly,” he said.
Lotman’s personal collection is the stuff of those same schoolboys’ dreams. He has a Ferrari 275 GTB/4, an SS Jaguar he races, an historic Mustang, a ’54 Lincoln Capri he also races, and a rare BMW 507 sports car currently being restored by BMW. Lotman’s work includes brand licensing for Ford and BMW. Maybe he could ask BMW why it doesn’t license the 507 as a clone car, since it’s as least as handsome as the much-copied Shelby Cobra.
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Jabbeke record, Jaguar held this historic procession of cars past and present: