Steubenville, Ohio, is about as far from the sulky world of Jaguar advertising as you can get. Whatever money was here has long vanished. The stone churches and plate-glass storefronts that dominate downtown are relics from before the steel mill across the river shut its doors for good.
The F-type R Coupe is an anomaly here. With a price tag of more than double the town's average household income and all the subtlety of a leather riding crop, the car stands out. I drove five hours to be here, leaving R&T's Michigan office and traipsing across Ohio. I know I've arrived when I find the nose of a Silk Cut XJR-9 hanging in the window of a building that could pass for a Greyhound station. Welcome to Welsh Enterprises.
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Bill Welsh started selling Jaguar parts as a hobby in the early Sixties. He quit his job at the mill 10 years later to make a full-time go of it. Now his company is one of the largest Jaguar parts suppliers in the world.
"I've cut up so many cars, you wouldn't believe it. XKs, E-types," he says, laughing. "Back then, they weren't worth anything, even restored."
We're standing around a $90,000 E-type convertible that Bill's son, Dave, who is also Welsh's head of sales, just bought from out west. You can smell the car at five paces—that perfect perfume of leather, gasoline, and moisture that makes an old British car what it is. Welsh Enterprises fills between 100 and 150 orders a day, buys and sells parts from all over the world, and occasionally takes in the odd stray for a little love. There's no better place to try to figure out where Jaguar went wrong and if the F-type R Coupe, the latest heir to the company's GT throne, is enough to put the brand back on track.
The E-type defined Jaguar for more than half a century. Depending on how you look at it, the marque spent 50 years either riding the car's coattails or suffering in its shadow. While the E-type left production in 1975, the car kept reappearing in Jaguar advertising through the Eighties. You can't blame the company for trying to draw a connection between the style and class of the E and the soft XJ sedans that clogged its showrooms and work bays. While BMW and Mercedes-Benz were happy to serve a hungry world a long line of sport sedans and coupes, Jaguar and its corporate parents continued to think that the dated, indifferently built, occasionally reliable XJ6 was a good idea.
Maybe that's why we had to wait so long for the successor to the E-type to arrive. Cars like the XJ6 and 2007–present coupe, though pretty in their own right, were so far removed from the iconic E that Jaguar didn't dare look further down the alphabet. There were four years between the end of Jaguar D-type production and the first E-type. We waited 38 more for the F to arrive. It was worth it.
This is the most beautiful car on sale today. Like the E-type, the F-type can be had as a roadster but was born to be a coupe. Catch the car standing still and you're transfixed. The long, arching roof tucks into the body with rare grace, setting off the muscular haunches. The only thing louder than the exhaust is the chord struck by eyes strumming the car's flanks.
The design is both delicate and brutal, with universal appeal. The old guy at the gas station, the kids on the sidewalk, the lady in the Camry. It gets hooks in all of them, and the result isn't always pretty.
The drive to Steubenville was a long slog over busy four-lanes and construction zones. I passed a rental Impala just outside Cleveland. The Chevy was loaded with guys, and every window was filled with defiant middle fingers. This isn't the kind of car you drive to make friends.
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The F-type R Coupe is sharper than any Jaguar in recent memory, a machine conceived and executed to kick in the sports-car-world's door. Engineers started with an F-type V8 S and then threw stiffer springs and a second-generation electronically controlled locking differential at the car. Various chassis sensors and a computer tell a small electric motor inside the differential when to engage a multiplate clutch, controlling exactly how connected the two rear wheels are—and thus how sideways the F-type will go.
"It's impossible to ignore the common strands between the E-type and the F-type: stellar engine, beautiful car, enough quirks to drive you mad."
A persistent desire to be sideways is this car's defining attribute. Ample oversteer is always a toe-twitch away, but the coupe hasn't entirely abandoned Jaguar's grand-tourer roots. The suspension takes road imperfections in stride, and the cabin is a good place to blow a few hours of your life—you can throw a bag in the hatch, head for the horizon, and not think twice about it. But predictably, the car isn't perfect. Jaguar still hasn't updated its ancient infotainment package. The screen offers the quick responses and resolution of a pile of gravel. If you can spend five minutes with it and not try to pry it from the dash with a hatchet, your business card probably has the world "Lama" on it somewhere.
All designs have their shortcomings, and the price of the Jag's gorgeous roofline is visibility. The speed-actuated rear spoiler reduces the already narrow rear glass to a laughably small opening. Jaguar calls this color Italian Racing Red Metallic. I'm guessing that's a subtle reminder to adhere to that country's first rule of driving.
"15-inch front rotors and dual-piston calipers are weapons-grade jewelry."
As in the F convertible, there's a bronze toggle on the center console that switches the car to Dynamic mode. Slide the switch back and the F-type curls its lips—the delinquently loud exhaust grows even louder, the dampers stiffen, and the eight-speed automatic changes from gentle enabler to outright accomplice. The Jag isn't exactly polite in normal mode. Go for Dynamic, and you produce fistfuls of unhinged.
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With the baffles open, the F's exhaust is a weapon. It snarls and pops. If this car were a party, the exhaust would be the dude who keeps turning up the music. (Listen, man, we're all just trying to have a good time. If you don't chill, someone's going to call the cops.)
The 5.0-liter supercharged V-8 under the hood isn't anything new. The engine, derived from a Ford design, has been banging around the Jaguar Land Rover toy box since life first dragged itself up from the primordial sea. The company has used that eight like a cure-all, shoving it in everything from the XJ and Range Rover Sport to the deceivingly quick XF sedan. But it feels like it was built for the F-type R.
There's 550 hp and 502 lb-ft of torque on hand, and the car weighs a shave under 4000 pounds. Predictably, acceleration falls somewhere between expletive-inducing and pants-soiling. In our testing, the 0–60-mph dash came in 3.7 seconds. There's pull in every gear, at every speed. This V-8 has always been a big, blunt instrument, all muscle and noise, and that's exactly what this car needs.
As for the gearbox? I'm told I should accept the end of the manual transmission with something approximating grace and nobility. I'm working on it. The F's ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic is brilliant. It's as fast as any dual-clutch unit and can shift as smoothly as any soft-riding luxury sedan, but it's just another filter between you and what's going on with the rest of the car. Maybe I'm an ape, but I'd give 100 hp for an honest clutch.
Still, every second behind the Jaguar's wheel feels righteously transgressive, like you're getting away with something outlawed. I kept scanning the road for blue lights, anticipating the need to explain how I wound up with someone else's viciously loud European car. All of the scenarios playing in my head ended in handcuffs. It's good in a way that's been foreign to Jaguar for longer than many of us have been alive.
Bill Welsh says Jaguars were everywhere when he was in high school. Cash from the steel mills flooded the local economy, and where there's wealth, there are sports cars. XK120s, -140s, -150s, and eventually E-types were common sights in the Ohio hills.
"People treated them like Camaros," Bill says. "They'd rev them up and drop the clutch, you know. Smoke the tires."
"The warehouse at welsh enterprises is a trove of rare metal and timeless beauty. The F-Type R coupe fits right in."
It only took one stuck SU carburetor or toasted clutch to put the car in the shop, and eastern Ohio was a long way from the closest Jaguar dealer, then in Cincinnati. Even if you could find a local wrench willing to take on the mysteries of the British Motor Corporation or British Leyland, sourcing parts was a nightmare. Most of the cars wound up parked for minor issues, which is how Bill's father, Dave, came to own an XK120 of his own. Bill helped him yank the straight-six, drop a 425-cube Buick Wildcat V-8 in its place, and bolt in a Corvette four-speed.
In 1965, on the way home from a hospital visit, Dave lost control of the car, crashed, and died. Bill's in his seventies now, and there's no grief in his voice when he talks about how his father passed. "He shouldn't have been driving," he says, and moves on.
At the time, Bill had a six-cylinder XK of his own. He pulled the driveline from his dad's 120 and dropped it in his car, which left him with a stack of extra parts. He sold everything but the completed car. When he wasn't working at the mill, he was wandering the county, looking for Jaguars. He'd stop in, chat up the owner, and wind up taking home a 140 for $400.
Welsh Enterprises still buys cars to part out. Most come through the salvage yard. When we walked out there, I couldn't help but feel anxious for the red E-type parked in the yard, as if one of the bent and broken Eighties XJs nearby might suddenly reach out and snag a corner panel. It's irrational, but so is owning a Jaguar.
Bill tells me that 10 years ago, the lot was full of E-types and XKs. Now there's just one rusty E coupe shell in the last stall of the long pole barn that runs along the back fence. Even though it's hollowed out and virtually worthless, I can't stop looking. Dave catches me eyeing it.
"We'll make you a deal on that."
He knows a mark when he sees one.
Strolling through two of the company's warehouses is an exercise in rarity overload. Here's a pile of perfect XK120 hoods. There's a cabinet with complete intake and carb setups. Need a set of new-old-stock XK heads still covered in factory Cosmoline? Welsh has you covered. Dave walks me by two complete, never-fired 6.0-liter V-12s. He had 10 of those, he tells me, all in crates, but people started using them for racing.
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He disappears down a corridor of parts before I can process that. Welsh is unique in that the company doesn't just serve early models. If it's a Jaguar, the company sells parts for it; most of the bits come from dealers looking to shed inventory, but it also does a brisk trade in used components. That once meant buying salvage cars for parts, but Dave says most of those now go to Russia and Poland to be repaired and sold. These days, it's easier for Welsh to buy high-mileage used cars off lots around the country. Dave says about 40 percent of the business is late-model parts, and that's worth the effort.
Inside the long warehouse at the end of the salvage yard, it's sweltering. Rows of big straight-sixes line the back wall and spend their days sucking up the Ohio heat. When the sun goes down, the cast-iron engine blocks breathe that heat back out. They hold it longer than you'd think. Dave walks up to a crate the size of a New York flat. There's a perfect aluminum re-creation of an E-type hood inside, built by a craftsman in Poland. It's beautiful.
"Argue all you want: This is the most beautiful car on sale today."
Dave has spent his entire life in and around Jaguars, but he's no more sentimental about the cars than a rancher with cattle. I don't blame him. It's been 40 years since Jaguar made a car capable of getting your pulse up. For him, the cars are business. Standing over that massive aluminum hood, I ask him what makes a Jaguar special.
"It's the lines," he says. "That classic design, you know?"
"If you aren't a hero, the F-type R Coupe has no interest in making you look like one. Damned if that doesn't make me love it more."
Dave's words bang around my head on the drive home. Just before I left, he let me take the restored E-type for a quick sprint around the block.
"Just stay close," he said, opening the door. "We don't have plates on this one yet."
Once again, I found myself in someone else's brilliant European sports car with a greater than average chance of having a chat with law enforcement. It was impossible to ignore the common strands between that old E and the new F-type R Coupe. At their cores, both follow a simple recipe: a stellar engine, a beautiful car, enough quirks to drive you mad. At least you'll get to the asylum in style.
Back in the F-type on the ride home, I spot a twisted line on the map and go tearing through the Ohio hills. The car's more alive than it's been all week, wagging its tail out of apexes and barking at the trees. It feels lighter than its weight, transitioning from one ridgeside switchback to the next with poise and precision until I get too cozy with the throttle. The right pedal in this car has as much control over lateral grip as it does forward thrust.
That sort of live-wire feel has been bred out of most sports cars. If you aren't a hero, the F-type R Coupe has no interest in making you look like one, and damn if that doesn't make me love it more. It's powerful, dangerous, a little uncouth—an ultimate trifecta of sexiness.
The road slinks down beside a railroad line and unfurls into a rare pinpoint straight. I bury the throttle and snap off a few whip-crack shifts with the paddles. The gearchanges are violent and fast, and I ponder whether England has grown better than us at building muscle cars.
This is a brilliant car, but it finds itself in fast company. The seventh-generation Corvette. The Porsche 911. These are cars with decades of racing and engineering development behind them. The cold truth is that the F-type R isn't better, in any purely objective sense, than any of its main rivals. But it doesn't matter that it's slower around a track, or that it will never win a performance comparison outright. The draw is inescapable. The desirability that Jaguar has relied upon since before the E-type, the quality that made otherwise-sane companies like Ford and Tata seemingly lose their collective minds and buy a money-burning brand from Coventry—it's fully realized here.
The F-type makes you want it so hard that you'll ignore every shred of logic, every fact staring you in the face. You don't care about the regrettable navigation, or even that you can't get the car with an honest clutch. You just want it. Welcome back, Jaguar.