Story and photos by Brian Earnest
Mike Kurtzweil wasn’t sure if he should drive his 1958 Jaguar Mark VIII back home to Wisconsin from Virginia when he first bought it, or if he should play it safe and have the car shipped.
He wound up making the right choice, even if it turned out to be a little painful.
“I called the guy and we talked. I asked him if he thought it would drive to Wisconsin,” recalled Kurtzweil. “He said, ‘Well, maybe, but you may want to take a look at it.’ I decided to have a transport service pick it up, and when they dropped it off, all the brake drums were in the trunk … so it wouldn’t have made it! He gave me a pretty good spiel on it. It wasn’t mad, but he definitely gave me a good spiel.
“I just said, ‘Well, you got me.’”
Nine years later, though, it’s Kurtzweil who is having the last word after completing a full restoration himself on the stunning Jaguar. The condition and “wow” factor of the car are off the charts, and even though the New London, Wis., resident never pictured himself owning a Jag of this ilk, he knows he stumbled onto something special.
“I actually found it on Craigslist. I was looking for an XK-140 and my girlfriend sent me a link to this car and said, ‘It’s a Jaguar.’ I said, ‘Well, this is not the one I was looking for, but it looked interesting and the price looked good, so I called the guy… I didn’t know anything about it. It had been in the LeMay car museum and I looked it up by the VIN number on Saloondata.com, and found an eBay auction on this when it as at the LeMay. They were selling it and this guy from Virginia bought it. I found out all that later. I traced it back and it came into Canada, That s where it came in on the East Coast. That’s about as far as I got. I don’t know how LeMay got a hold of it.”
At the time, Kurtzweil was looking for a car to work on in the winter months. He had done some restoration work previously on a 1977 MG he had gotten from his father and was eager to tackle another British car project. He realized he would have plenty of work ahead as soon as his big ’58 sedan rolled up on the transporter.
“It came off the truck with no brakes on it, then I looked at the interior and thought, ‘Oh my God,’” he chuckles “It had mice in it and everything else. You could hardly stand next to it because it smelled so bad from the mouse excrement. I knew it was a project. All the rust spots and everything had been puttied up so it looked halfway decent, but there was putty in the front and damage in the front of the car. They had packed so much putty into the holes there was just clumps of Bond-O in the rocker panels and everywhere else. It had had a hard life. It had 73,000 miles on the odometer when I got it. If that was the case, it was a pretty hard 73,000 miles. It was in pretty bad shape. It was silver at the time. It was two-tone originally, but somebody had just painted it a straight silver. It wasn’t a very good professional job.”
Kurtzweil doesn’t seem upset at all while recalling the whole buying experience. He seems almost thankful that the car gave him a lot do and provided a big challenge.
“I had gotten my ’77 MG from my father and joined the Fox Cities British Car Club,” he said. “I found out you could rent space there and work on you car … So I put a Land Rover V-8 in my MG, and I loved it. I loved working on it and being down at the car club. I had never done anything like that before. And I liked my spot at the Car Club, and I thought, ‘Gee, the only way I’m going to get to keep my spot is if I get another car. [laughs]. So I found this car and I said, ‘What the heck. It should take me awhile and take some time.’”
Kurtzweil adds that his car club buddies gave him plenty of support and encouragement to continue his restoration endeavors. They weren’t too keen on his choice of project cars, though. “They thought I was nuts!” he laughs.
The reincarnation of the big Jaguar turned out to be a four-year odyssey, but Kurtzweil insists that wasn’t the plan initially. He was just looking to turn the sedan into a reliable and fun “driver quality” hobby car. But it was the old “one things leads to another” story, and before he knew it Kurtzweil was neck deep in the project.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I can just get it running, this will be kind of a neat old car to be driving in.’ I thought we’d put brakes on it and just get it running,” he said. “But the more I looked at it … The radiator was full of rust. The carburetors were full of rust. I pulled off the [radiator] hose and sediment came out of it. I knew the whole engine’s gotta be taken apart. The brake drums, everything was just rust. The wiring — animals had chewed through a lot of the wiring under the dash. One thing led to the next. I pulled engine and wound up pulling the interior all out because it stunk so bad. It was all dried out with the weather and everything. I ended up tearing the carpet out and tearing the dash out. The next thing you know it was down to nothing.”
The Mark VIII: A full-figured Jag
Tackling a full-blown restoration on a Jaguar Mark VIII is definitely no small undertaking. The Mark VIII is a big, fancy, luxury machine dripping with styling details, plenty of complicated mechanicals and a large, curvy body with all sorts of contours. The car was also never famous for its resistance to rust. The big Mark VIII sedan was built from 1956-’59 and was a replacement for the Mark VII, which was similar in looks. The Mark VIII came only as a four-door sedan and carried an inline twin-cam six-cylinder 3442cc engine rated at 210 hp that was also used in the XK 140. It made use of two SU sidedraft carburetors and solid valve lifters. Fuel consumption landed somewhere between 11 and 14 mpg, while the top speed with a four-speed manual gearbox was reportedly about 110 mph.
The 1958 version could be had with a four-speed manual, five-speed manual or three-speed automatic. The front and rear drum brakes were both hydraulic for 1958. The cars rode on an ample 120-inch wheel base and tipped the scales at nearly 4,000 lbs.
The Mark VIII’s fancy grille and front end styling left no doubt about its luxury car leanings. The tall, narrow grille was reminiscent of similar Rolls-Royce and Bentley designs, and the arrangement of circular headlights, fog lights and turn signals gave the car a regal countenance. If it looked like a car that could carry a queen, the Mark VIII was indeed that. England’s Queen Elizabeth has had one in her own garage in the past.
Inside, occupants were greeted by a shiny burled wood dash that stretched from door to door and housed an array of cubbies and storage compartments, along with five round gauges located in the center between the driver and front seat passenger. The wood theme continued around the inside of the doors and into the back seat, where back seat riders had their own fold-down tray tables. The cars came with a full compliment of tools stored in cases hidden in the door panels. Seats were covered in leather. The big Jags even had a sunroof.
The base price for a Mark VIII in North America in 1958 was about $5,445 before any add-ons, which was about the same price as a ’58 Cadillac Series 62 Sedan Deville. “It was cheaper than a Rolls, but still about the price of a small three-bedroom house,” Kurtzweil noted. “Mine is an automatic, which was an option. Power steering was an option. I don’t know how you’d steer this car without power steering. Maybe that’s why the steering wheel is so big. But it’s amazing how much stuff is included in it.”
For as nice as they were, the Mark VIII never really caught on with North American market. Only 6,227 were reportedly built for the final two years of the model’s four-year run before the Mark IX arrived to continue the line.
A four-year grind
Kurtzweil admits he didn’t completely understand what he was doing when he started tearing the Jaguar down, but he had two big factors working in his favor: He had a great support system and place to work at the Fox Cities British Car Club; and he was able to find almost any parts he needed online.
“I took the body to D&D out of Green Bay and they soda blasted the whole body for me and gave me an idea of what I had,” he said. “I bought a little welder and started welding and I ordered all the panels from England, because it is a helluva lot cheaper ordering them from England than ordering them here. The places here order the from the same place I’d order from and they mark them up 100 percent. All the rocker panels, door frames, floor pans … sections for the fear, back end … They made all the pieces. Anything you could think of, they have. I started welding and it took me about a year to do all of it. Then I took it to the body shop.” The body shop was BRB Autobody in Rothschild, Wis. The shop proved to be a great choice, according to Kurtzweil, but not before they gave him a bit of bad news. “[They are] great guys … Bill Jach the owner came down and said, ‘OK, well, we’re gonna re-do this, re-do this, re-do this …” I had stitch welded everything, and he said it all had to be solid welds. He said just about everything I had done had to be re-done [laughs]. I thought that was kind of funny. They were great about it. They didn’t care.”
Kurtzweil either replaced or rechromed a laundry list of shiny parts. He ordered a new interior with all the fixings and replaced almost everything inside. He built his own wood console for the floor to match the wood dash, rebuilt the steering wheel, rebuilt the engine and tackled a number of other projects.
One of his biggest tasks was deciding on a paint color and scheme. The cars were originally offered in a variety of two-tone combinations, and they all looked pretty good. He wanted to go with something understated and a bit unique, and he wound up with the deep maroon-and-black. It’s a tough combination to pull off because the dark colors show off every wave and bodywork imperfection, but the end result was stellar.
“I wanted to go with something dark and I went online and looked at all the images online. My background is in graphics … I just went onto a program online and I plugged in a bunch of different swatches in there and decided, let’s go with the maroon,” he says. “He did an absolutely beautiful job on the paint. It’s phenomenal.
“It took four years. If I hadn’t been down at the clubhouse, I never would have done this,” Kurtzweil added. “I never would have done this at home in my garage. It’s way too much to do. They were very encouraging, and I think every weekend going down there, the camaraderie with the guys working on their cars and I’m working on mine … it was a good time. Every weekend for four years I was down there and there were always guys down there working on their cars.
“No, I never got discouraged. It was always, ‘What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing?’ During the week I’d work on my list of things to do, and do all the research … then come the weekend I was ready to go. Everything was a challenge.”
If he ever lacked for motivation, Kurtzweil said that his dad provided him with plenty of extra inspiration to keep plugging along. “[He] was keen on it because he gave me my MG and he always liked the British cars. And so every week we’d talk. ‘OK, what’s the progress?’ I think my pop was 88 before he actually saw the car and I was actually able to take him for a ride in the with my mom and he was tickled pink.”
Since the car didn’t have brakes when it first showed up at his house, and wasn’t in good running condition, Kurtzweil had to wait a long time — four years — to enjoy his maiden voyage in the Jaguar. He says drivers expecting a nimble, sporty car that’s light on its feet will be disappointed. Those looking for a luxurious 1950s Union Jack cruiser, though, will be humming along happily to “God save the Queen.”
“I had all these ideas because I had waited so long,” Kurtzweil says. “I guess I didn’t expect it to be so heavy, especially in the corners. It was pretty nice for its year, but it’s still heavy. But to drive it on the highway or just a country road is just beautiful. It just floats. It’s a nice-riding car. I’d like to take it on a long trip.”
Kurtzweil has had the car at the Milwaukee Concours (formerly the Milwaukee Masterpiece) and a few other car gatherings, but he hasn’t spent a lot of time on the road or at shows yet. He figures he will have plenty of years to show the car off and roll up some miles because he’s planning to hang onto it.
“I can’t imagine selling it. People ask what it’s worth, and it doesn’t really matter,” he says. I’m not planning on selling it. I’m not a flipper. I do it because I like ‘em.
“People will always say, ‘What is that? I say, ‘Well, it’s a Jaguar’ … But yeah, I get a lot of positive comments on it. It’s a neat car. It’s different, and I like different cars.”
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