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Monday 20th August 2012


JAGS, PLAYMATES AND PEBBLE BEACH

How was your weekend? Probably not as good as Alistair Weaver's, not that we're envious or anything


Miss April 2012 is debuting her Playboy bunny suit. “It’s been made especially for me,” explains Raquel Pomplun, “but this is the first time that I’ve had the chance to wear it.” The traditional satin bodice, bunny’s tail and rabbit ears are as incongruous as ever but here in Pebble Beach, California, Miss Pomplun and her pompom look quite magnificent.

Is that an E-Type in your pocket, etc...
Is that an E-Type in your pocket, etc...
Raquel and I are chatting (and posing for cheesy photographs) at a party co-hosted by Jaguar and Playboy. It’s at a private mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean and it’s being attended by some of America’s richest folk. These are the ultra-affluent enthusiasts who have made the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance the most exclusive event in the automotive calendar. Since 1950, they’ve gathered every year to celebrate the automobile as art.

The playboy's choice
Playboy was founded three years later but came to epitomise the new found confidence of America. It was cool and aspirational. So too was Jaguar. This was the era of the C-, D- and E-Type. It was a time when movie star Clark Gable drove an XK120 and Steve McQueen posed happily beside his XKSS. Gable’s car will be at this year’s Concours in a couple of day’s time.

Weaver's XKR the (relative) model of restraint
Weaver's XKR the (relative) model of restraint
More than 60 years on, both brands are trying to rekindle the spirit of their glory days. Both were guilty of getting stuck in the past: Jaguar with its retro-pastiche styling and Playboy with Hugh Hefner showing his age and out of touch with the times. Having accepted their failings, both are now trying to rebrand and reconnect. Playboy is moving upmarket and hoping once again to represent an aspirational lifestyle, while Jaguar has ditched the dullard styling and is embarking on a rapid period of expansion.

The car I’ve driven here from San Francisco was the first rallying call of this renaissance. The XK was the first of the modern Jaguars to be designed by Ian Callum and was launched in 2006. Over the past decade or so Callum has grown in confidence and so have his cars. With its multitude of slats and spoilers, my XKR could best be described as ‘pimp’ and not just because it’s dressed in white. 

Our man tests the Jag's pulling power
Our man tests the Jag's pulling power
New era
Every since its mid-life facelift introduced a 510hp, supercharged 5.0-litre V8 and a few chassis tweaks, the XKR has been my favourite Jag. The XKR-S might hit slightly harder, but the teatray boot spoiler is not to my tastes and in the pursuit of performance, it’s sacrificed the standard R’s enviable balance of comfort and control.

On the famous Pacific Coast Highway that links San Francisco with Los Angeles, it just feels sorted. You can select Dynamic mode, turn off the stability control and engage in all manner of tomfoolery, or you can just let the systems do their thing and cruise. The ZF automatic gearbox is also happy to play host or let you get busy with the paddle-shifts. So good are the downshifts that the case for all-conquering double-clutch ’boxes appears suddenly weaker.

XKR still impresses in this context
XKR still impresses in this context
At one point, we play footsie with a ’67 Mustang Fastback also en route to Pebble. The Ford remains the ultimate blue collar icon, but in twitch of a big toe it is despatched in an instant. 50 years of muscle car progress gave the Jag an easy win.

British muscle
It might have been around for a while, but it’s still been fascinating to see just how much attention the XKR gets, even before the Playmates arrive. For all its woes and despite selling just 12,276 cars here last year, the Americans retain an affection for Jaguar. It’s a brand that people want to succeed.

This XKR is showing its age - the cabin style and quality feels at least a generation behind the XF and XJ and the gearbox lacks a couple of ratios – but it remains a convincing proposition. If the new F-Type (essentially a cut-down version of the XK), can build on this, then it will be some car. Couple this with the new four-wheel drive XF and XJ – critical for the states in the US snowbelt – and Jaguar should finally have the tools it needs to satisfy to Uncle Sam.

Old or new, it's all about shifting metal
Old or new, it's all about shifting metal
Playboy is similarly optimistic. Hugh Hefner’s son, Cooper, is here and speaking openly about a need to renew. I hope he succeeds. As the evening progresses I learn more about Bunny etiquette – touching the tail is a huge faux pas – and even where they keep their mobile phones. Not that I’m telling.