Cozzi-Jaguar Special

Don Sherman
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Cozzi-Jaguar Special

Hurling out of Road Atlanta's esses, my heart is crossed with steering lock, my left ear is buzzed with exhaust blat, and the horn-button growler is baring teeth to bite my chest. The Cozzi-Jaguar Special strains at its leash as it sweeps through turn 5, scratching Dunlop claws into asphalt warmed by the noon sun. When I leg the throttle to leap out of the bend, the engine takes that opportunity to show who's boss. Instead of more roar, I get a sneeze and a stumble. Air and fuel demand a meeting to settle grievances. A gentler nudge of the gas is what the tall six needs to shoulder the load and hustle my red racer along the back straight.

Even though the mixture isn't dialed in and the brake bias is off, there is widespread elation when the Cozzi-Jaguar attacks the track after decades of dust and deprivation. Constructor Dan Cozzi is delighted that his mid-1950s creation eluded the crusher. The car's current co-owners, David Hinton and Larry Ligas, smile because their fervent prayers--please, Lord, don't let him wad up our treasure!--are answered.

Cozzi grew up in a pleasant San Francisco neighborhood and enjoyed an engineering career that included stints on one Formula 1 and two Formula 3 teams. He's now retired in Tuscany. The luck of his draw was his mechanical genius and supportive elders. Instead of convincing him that car enthusiasm was a silly stage that would pass, Cozzi's bank-manager father and his neighbor Bill Nielsen nudged his zeal onto fruitful paths.

The Cozzi-Nielsen friendship began when a wide-eyed boy on a bicycle spotted a chopped 1929 Ford roadster powered by a snarling flathead V-8. Instead of shooing the kid away, Nielsen invited Cozzi for a ride to the gas station. When he returned home with plans to build his own hot rod, Cozzi's father said no before he consented to an alternative scheme--tearing down and building up a junkyard V-8 to learn what makes cars tick.

When Nielsen's interests shifted from hot rods to sports cars, Cozzi came along for the ride. After helping soup up Nielsen's 1948 MG TC in 1952, Cozzi bought a one-year-newer model of the same car with savings he'd earned sweeping floors at a local race shop and pumping gas.

Cozzi's itch to build a quicker car than he could afford to buy was scratched by long consultations with his learned neighbor. Since speed was the priority, Nielsen recommended sourcing parts from a Jaguar XK120, a car he had owned.

It was a noble idea. The XK120 rooted Jaguar in every enthusiast's soul. When it was unveiled in 1948, this 150-hp Jag laid claim to world's-fastest-production-car status. Overhead-valve V-8s hadn't yet arrived in America, Ferraris were barely a glimmer in Enzo's eye, and Porsches wouldn't crack the triple-digit-horsepower barrier for years. The '49 XK120's overhead camshafts, hemispherical combustion chambers, twin carburetors, and aluminum cylinder head were racing features rejiggered for street use. A Jag roadster stripped of its windshield ran 132 mph on a Belgian highway, convincing skeptical media that the XK120 name was an honest reflection of the car's top speed.

The Cozzi-Nielsen concept was a thoroughbred hot rod with Jaguar running gear carried by a tubular frame. It would be a two-seat roadster without the frills. Properly constructed, such a car would not only rule the San Francisco streets, it might also be suitable for road racing.

A decade before Cozzi got the sports car itch, an avid bunch of Boston enthusiasts met to plan road racing's postwar renaissance. Their 1944 huddle launched the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). The West Coast version, called the California Sports Car Club (Cal Club), was established in 1947. By 1950, amateur street races, hill-climbs, and airport events had spread up and down both coasts.

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