Sampling Jag's Greatest and Latest at the Jaguar Heritage Driving Experience

Leaping through history.

Martyn GoddardphotographerDale Drinnonwriter

When India's Tata Motors acquired Jaguar in 2008, hot on the heels of MG Rover's similarly foreign buyout, there was much dark muttering about yet another venerable British marque falling victim to heartless corporate pirates. But instead of plundering the brand, Tata seems to understand Jaguar's remarkable history is an asset worth cultivating. As evidence, the long-standing Jaguar Heritage division has expanded into restorations of customer cars, not to mention special projects such as the continuation-series Lightweight E-type project.

In 2014 Jaguar also bought one of Britain's largest private car collections, mostly to augment its existing fleet of Heritage cars with 140 more classic Jags. Thanks in large part to these additions, Jaguar Heritage has created a gutsy new high-performance program called the Driving Experience. Jaguar is inviting you to come to its test track in the U.K., fork over a few (hundred) pounds sterling, and sample the historic cars that made Jag famous—from Le Mans racers to sports sedans. Brand new F-Types are available to hot lap as well, allowing customers to drive vintage and new cars back-to-back. Naturally a professional driving coach is included.

We've opted for the all-day, all-inclusive Grace and Pace Experience. The standard track-day driver briefing includes warnings about confusing the braking distance afforded by modern ceramic brake rotors with that delivered by 1950s-era steel rotors, which date to the time when disc brakes were, you know, brand new. The tips also cover double-clutching because synchromesh transmission gears were new then too. The briefing includes the news that we won't be using helmets. The emphasis here is on smooth and controlled speed, not tire smoke and power slides—a notion reinforced repeatedly. (Did they know I was raised in Tennessee?)

We start our day with the oldest car of the program, a 300-ish-horsepower, 150-mph racing C-type. Lesson No. 1 from our ride-along pro is wiggling into the beast without dimpling its tissue-thin aluminum-alloy bodywork. These C- and D-type race cars are reproductions, but they're the FIA vintage-race-eligible kind, built to original specs and worth Ferrari-style money. After a couple of recon laps with the coach at the wheel, we swing back into the paddock and strap into the driver's seat.

From 1951 to 1953, the C-type was the car to beat at Le Mans (although it lost the race in 1952), and romping around the track in it—big ol' Weber-carbed XK straight-six wailing—brings an immediate time-warp adrenaline rush. It's a growling, elemental sort of machine, and when you're going fast, you know it: wind rush, gear whine, and a firm foot on the brakes. There's plenty of grunt out of slow corners, and at rational track day speeds the car proves solid and tight. We soon have enough confidence to help the steering with the throttle.

Like the D- and the early E-types, the C uses the infamous Moss gearbox, a fussy four-speed that has synchros on the top three ratios but resolutely refuses to use them. You can compensate with a hesitation rhythm in the shift protocol, but double-clutching is tons more fun and makes you feel like a genuine race driver.

Next up is the D-type, which equally dominated Le Mans in 1955, 1956, and 1957. A veritable revolution in technology and personality, the D-type is like stepping from a road-going Jag XK120 converted for track use (which the C-type essentially is) to a clean-sheet race car design.

The same twin-cam six and live axle driveline from the C was transferred to the D-type. But the D behaves like a ballerina by comparison, a car you drive with your fingertips that comes across as startlingly modern. (The tiny wisp of a driver's door even opens scissor-fashion, like in a Lambo.) It makes its power in a smaller rev range than the C-type and has a more aggressive clutch, albeit with balkier synchros that aren't helped by the distinctive up-and-down action of the shift lever. To make the D-type really go, you need to bring your A game.

You'd have to be a month dead not to love the D from the very first lap. Its luscious aluminum body is highlighted by a drop-dead sexy view across the front fenders. Designed strictly for low drag long before aerodynamic downforce became an issue, by the end of the track's roughly half-mile straight we're knocking on 125 mph like it's only 65 mph, wind lightly tousling our hair.

After the D-type, options include a freshly restored Mark 2 sedan (the bad-boy four-door sedan of its day), an XK150, or one of the last V-12 E-types off the assembly line. (Word to the wise: Brits aren't big on the name XK-E, which was an American affectation.) But the crowd fave is clearly the E-type Series 1, the only covered-headlight model. For many Jag fans, getting behind the wheel of a Series 1 is a lifetime dream, as the line to drive it illustrates.

For many Jag fans, getting behind the wheel of a Series 1 is a lifetime dream, as the line to drive it illustrates.

The E-type proves more than worth the wait. Employing Jag's long-serving, twin-cam XK inline-six engine, Moss gearbox, semi-monocoque construction, disc brakes, independent rear suspension, and slick bodywork cribbed from the D-type, the E became one of the fastest sports cars of the early 1960s. It boosts your ego just standing beside it, keys in hand.

Out of deference to its provenance and never-restored originality, we don't exactly beat it up on the curbs. But at any kind of decent track speed, the Series 1 is quick, responsive, and rewarding to drive, its Jaguar DNA clearly evident.

The DNA thing is doubtless the whole point of the Heritage exercise for Jaguar. Design boss Ian Callum, who drooled over Jags as a kid, references the E-type often in relation to the contemporary F-Type, particularly in coupe form. You can see E-spec elements in the two-seater F-Type's nose and tail contours. Callum even reportedly considered using a version of the E-type's side-hinged rear hatch before practicality won out.

On the track, the E to F lineage is naturally more spiritual than actual; shift-paddle transmissions share precious little with the Moss box. But the F-Type's massive chassis stiffness owes plenty to a monocoque-like cross-bracing panel across the full rear of the interior space. As with the D-type, a stable chassis makes for a stable suspension, so it's no wonder the F-Type R steers toward the apex of a corner at a mere thought.

With the all-wheel-drive F-Type S, you can feed power back in amazingly soon after you turn into a corner, as the front tires get just the right amount of grip to keep the nose in check. On our last lap (made ever braver by the ceramic brakes), we carry all possible speed through the corner leading onto the tiny straight and go beyond any previous braking point. We steal a glance at the speedo just before stomping on the binders: 140 mph. In an instant we're almost motionless, still 50-odd yards from the turn, no drama. Score one for evolution.

Where, When, and How Much

Jaguar's test track at Fen End is near its spiritual home in Coventry, roughly a two-hour drive from London's Heathrow Airport. Accommodations in Coventry are plentiful and reasonably priced by British standards, and there's enough to see around the area both car- and non-car-related (the kids will love Warwick Castle) to easily justify a few days there as part of a U.K. family vacation. The track itself is a typical British circuit, built on a former airbase. It's flat and featureless yet quickly learned and quite safe. No personal driving equipment is needed, but a waterproof jacket is always wise anywhere in Jolly Olde.

While the 2016 calendar is still to be finalized, expect track dates for the Jaguar Heritage Driving Experience to run between April and October. Be sure to book early; it's the tourist season. Prices begin at about $150 for a passenger ride with a racing pro or a couple hundred bucks for a turn at the controls, and they vary from car to car. The full-day experience in 2015 was about $2,500; all prices originate in pounds.

For booking details and the latest schedule updates, go to www.jaguar.co.uk, click on "About Jaguar" and "Jaguar Heritage."