My first car after leaving active duty in the Army in 1953 was a 1948 Buick convertible that I sort of inherited from my cousin. She was a truly beautiful girl and had moved to New York City to work as a fashion model. The car was a lot of fun, especially when filled with friends cruising to a California beach with the top down. It hardly qualified as a sports car, though Jim Sitz has reminded me that it was called a “sporty car,” hot stuff when new.
While attending West Point, my cousin (the same cousin) invited me to escort her to a party at a friend’s apartment in New York City. The affair was rather formal, so she insisted I wear my dress uniform. As the party was winding down, some of the guests decided to go to Toots Shore’s, a famous Gotham nightspot. My cousin decided to ride with a fellow she had met who was the son of Hattie Gimbal from her first marriage. A year later, my cousin ended up being his wife and he eventually became the president of Saks Fifth Avenue. Anyway, I got a ride with an older gentleman in an XK120 Jaguar roadster. Wow, what an experience for a young soldier whose only prior experience in an open vehicle was in a Dodge Weapons Carrier.
A few years later while attending a race in Palm Springs, I got the bug and started looking for a sports car to buy. Without a great deal in my exchequer, it would have to be used and the dealer would have to accept my Buick in trade as a down payment. I went to a dealership in the San Fernando Valley—a suburb of Los Angeles—owned by cowboy-star Roy Rogers and his partner, Frank Millard. I was looking at a 1952 Jaguar XK120 roadster, very similar to my New York City ride. Rogers being unavailable—perhaps taking care of his horse, Trigger—it was Millard who offered to give me a demonstration. He wouldn’t let me drive, but did take me for a ride. We went to the top of the hill between the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood where we turned around. When we got back to the bottom of the hill, we had to stop for a red light. There, waiting on a bus bench, was a really cute girl. Frank remarked that if I had this car, girls like that would run over and jump right in the passenger seat. Now I knew I HAD to have that very car. So I traded in the Buick for the Jaguar and many not-so-easy payments. I must have been only the second owner, because the car was in exceptional condition with only a relative few miles on the clock.
That night, with the top down, the Jaguar and I drove and drove and drove. I wouldn’t want to do that in Los Angeles County now, but in those days it was a delight. I fell in love with that car. I loved its feel, its smell, its sound. A Jaguar was great for me because I don’t have any kind of mechanical skill. I can’t tell the difference between a crescent wench and Whitworth ale. And at that time, I could only afford one car. A fifties-era Jaguar was so well-made, it could be raced without any alterations other than checking the tire pressure and putting on the numbers with water-soluble paint.
In those days, my dad lived on a ranch northeast of Los Angeles. One night we were invited to a party some distance away. My dad had gotten me a date with the daughter of a friend; so this attractive gal and I set off over hill and dale in my Jag sans top, Gardner-Reynolds racing recapped tires humming.
After the party, we headed back toward the town where my date lived with her parents. Thinking to have some fun and impress the girl, I got a little heavy on the loud pedal. Much to our surprise, when we got to the little town, there was a roadblock. We were stopped and asked to wait. Eventually, a California Highway Patrol car came chugging up. The officer got out, asked for my license and started to write me a ticket. (My license had just been returned to me after three months on my bicycle due to a previous problem.) Meanwhile, I asked the officer what I had done. He replied that he had been chasing me, but was unable to catch up to pull me over. He told me that while he was following me, he could see my taillights. But as time went by, the two lights became closer and closer together until they were one, and then finally vanished. He wrote me up for 90 mph, which was, he said, as fast as his patrol car would go.
A few weeks later, I was in a courtroom accompanied by my dad, standing before the judge. Surprise, he was my date’s father! When my case was called, the judge adjourned to his chambers with me and my father in tow. Boy, did I get a balling out. Putting his daughter in jeopardy! In consideration for his friendship with my dad (who happened to be the mayor), he levied a $50 fine rather than putting me in the slammer. That was a lot of money then, more than I had on me. So rather than seeing me go to jail, my dad floated an on-the-spot loan. I never could get another date with that girl; I think maybe her father told her to stay away from me.
Art Evans can be reached at email@example.com