As our editor’s $500 Jaguar XJ40 clearly hadn’t suffered enough already, we then subjected the British 200hp saloon to a European rally with a difference - Ben Coombs' Pub2Pub expedition. Here's what happened
There was an acrid burn of anticipation as guttural exhaust tones burbled upon the start line. The air was still, as though the world had momentarily stopped spinning. Amid the parade of gleaming TVRs and high-end exotica, amid the throaty plunging of stationary V8 swell and riotous haze of warming drivetrain, crowds gathered along the automotive line-up that enhanced an already impressive Neil Garner TVR open day.
The excitement of Ben Coombs' new Pub2Pub rally franchise appeared to radiate between spectators as they descended from car to car, cladding each TVR with animated chatter. But that all stopped as the mob made their way to the rear of the parade – twelve cars down. The infectious zest halted as the marque-hungry crowd clapped eyes on the rally’s underdog entrant; our dishevelled XJ40.
As if the old barge hadn’t suffered quite enough already, after some convincing from organiser Ben Coombs and some prompting from the AutoClassics team, I had agreed to subject my $500 Bangernomics Jaguar to the inaugural Pub2Pub continental rally.
Travelling from Britain through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Austria over a 3500-mile run, the finishing point was Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat on the Austrian border. That’s 3400 more than the old girl had previously managed before setting something on fire or losing a wheel.
It’s amazing how much it matters to have the support of those one least expects – especially when presented with a challenge. In our case, it was the presence of Derek Stewart-Brown, a partner in Duke’s Garage; the establishment where every emergency procedure the XJ40 demanded was undertaken. The Jag had been ill for sometime, but garage owner Rabb McMillian and mechanical guru John Young has prepared the big cat with gusto. It was even running on all cylinders.
Upon arrival at the start line, team XJ40 inspected the accompanying vehicles as teams plastered their steeds with rally stickers, and decided to position ourselves at the very rear of the procession. Besides masking our outright lack of comparative performance, this action avoided stumping the convoy’s progress – made up of seven TVRs, two Porsche 911s, a tuned Mazda MX-5, a BMW Z4 and two Jaguar XKs. Quite frankly, we didn’t have a snowballs chance in hell.
With the drop of a flag, Ben shot off in his TVR, followed in quick succession by a raucous crack of further eight-cylinder offerings from deepest Blackpool. One by one, participants tore across the starting line, thundering down the first straight before diving between hedgerows to tackle tight undulations across Wiltshire’s B-roads.
Right from the off, the XJ40 struggled to keep pace. The twisting roads of Surrey provided no mercy for our aging barge. As the TVRs and Porsches tackled each crook and bend with steely determination, the Bangernomics Jag flailed and thrashed like a demented wheelie bin.
Tucking the front end into swollen corners delivered an intoxicating blend of both over- and understeer. The front-end wallowed round with the tenacity of a drunken sumo wrestler, subjecting both driver and passenger to bouts of sliding anxiety. Tyres barked under stress as junctions very quickly became sideways affairs, riding upon a crest of deep-seated torque.
The hull appeared to lift with each earful of screeching rubber for a heart-stopping moment where steering correction, and prompt pedal balance, remained the only difference between ending up in a ditch or keeping on tarmac. After only five minutes, both the car and driver were clearly very much out of their depth. With the rev needle buried well beyond 5500rpm, a conscious decision was made to hold back, or else face the reaper.
As the snaking, tree-lined country roads gave way to larger highways, the troop soon descended upon the M3 for a live-action rendition of Wacky Races. Headed for the Channel Tunnel, drivers jostled for position with inane grins and blipped throttles. The camaraderie was largely infectious, and despite the lack of consummate powerplant grunt, even Team XJ40 became embroidered in good-natured warfare.
As you would expect with such a fuel-hungry assortment of cars, such behaviour landed us all in the nearby petrol station, purchasing copious amounts of chocolate and energy drinks for the final leg towards the continent – alongside eye-watering fuel bills. So far, the Jag was averaging 18mpg.
Dusk draped the land with an orange glow upon arrival at the EuroStar terminal, but the diminishing radiance didn’t offer the same panic as clocking the XJ40’s glaring engine warning light. Clattering into the train carriage, the big cat celebrated an end to the first ‘stage’ with an almighty electrical fit.
Luckily, I knew the solution – but not because I’m a skilled mechanic. During a previous run to John o’Groats, my XJ40 had suffered the same symptoms. All it seemed to require was a sensor reset, achieved by shutting the engine down before re-firing the ignition. To Derek’s sigh of relief, the light went out on cue.
With Britain left behind, it was time to venture across foreign land. The first night’s pit stop found attendees staying on the outskirts of Dunkirk, but although our journey from the train station to hotel was short, it proved enough to melt my brain.
Not having driven on the continent for some time, tackling the first roundabout messed with my head. Going against all embedded highway rules, negotiating a common roundabout on the opposite side of the road damn near caused a stroke. I proceeded to navigate dual carriageway and Dunkirk’s outskirts with the grace of clowns across a minefield. It all felt so wrong, but the pint of Heineken once parked at the hotel was glorious. After 12 hours on the move, and various beverages as proceedings became spirited, I slept like the dead.
Day two’s first stop was in Belgium, not far from Brussels for a meet with the Belgian TVR Club and, after poor performance on the ‘wrong side of the road’, I was relegated to the passenger seat. Derek took over driving duties, and he was clearly more experienced at barging the locals from our path. In fact, Derek was efficient enough behind the wheel to arrive at the venue first, much to the confusion of foreign TVR Club members.
We sat and drank coffee, defying the language barrier with impressions of engines, for almost 20 minutes before other drivers showed up – but it wasn’t outright speed or smashing the speed limit that bought us time. The higher-performance vehicles had required a further fuel stop, whereas the Jag’s larger tank still housed 40 litres. Without bragging, I casually pointed out that we had arrived first, in a relaxed state of affair, with a healthier-looking wallet. I sat alone for lunch.
After a three-course meal, keen to reaffirm our position as the slowest car there, the TVRs and accompanying speed machines shot off into the distance. As I was back on point duty, we initially tried to keep up, throwing the car into line as the rally dived into picturesque back road towns.
There was perspiration on my brow between overtaking manoeuvres, lobbing the Jag through spaces with only a whisper between us and oncoming traffic. Even then, with drivetrain screaming for mercy, the other drivers boiled down only to colours on the horizon. Trying to remain as part of the procession was proving impossible. Then the final nail was struck.
We had lost the convoy and missed a turn, enveloped in angst at being left behind. The scenery thickened and the road grew quieter until it was only us, the Jag and the hills. Strangely, despite the gut-wrenching sensation losing our way, it was the first chance for relaxation on the trip. We sat in the grass, taking a moment to admire our surroundings; the faint sigh of wind through the grasses, the calming trickle of a nearby burn, the glorious ray of sun that warmed the skin.
It was here, gazing upon the XJ40’s battered, fly-dotted body, that I fell in love with it. To others, it was a hindrance. A tarnished, 1990s relic boating an entry level engine and base level specifications. But, despite the situation, it had given every road 100%. The accelerator pedal had spent most of its time in the carpet, yet the Jag hadn’t grumbled. We never said it, but the mantra passed between Derek and myself – the Jag was simply incredible.
With mutual respect, we vowed not to thrash it anymore. Last place? It didn’t bother us. Firing up the engine after quarter of an hour in the wilderness, we sauntered in the vague direction of a main road, eventually joining the motorway for a three hour cruise to our next stop.
Rolling through the city of Trier towards the hotel, we expected to find ourselves ridiculed. Depicting a beer-laden scene where others had arrived an hour previously, instead we found nothing. No TVRs. No Porsches. No Mazda, XKs or BMWs. It felt like the wrong hotel.
Sitting at the bar, having checked in and already explored the local surroundings, other drivers slowly filtered through reception. Over several lagers, we had discussed the potential that another fuel stop had delayed the convoy, but as time passed something else was clearly wrong.
In fact, everybody had managed to successfully get themselves lost. The route was pre-planned, but following each other had landed the remaining cars down a dead end. They had struggled to find a way out. Stranded down single-track, damaged roads in the pitch black of Germany’s encroaching countryside, rival drivers appeared tired, traumatised and hungry.
Without bragging, I casually mentioned that we had arrived before them, in a relaxed state of affair, with a healthier-looking wallet. I drank alone for some time after ducking the odd cast-iron stare or two.
Yet, our hardship was about to begin. For all the smugness, things were about to get tough in the Jag, alluded to by the engine warning light plotting our demise. And this time, it wouldn’t go out.
Images courtesy of Pub2Pub