Jaguar SS100 by Leonida

This unique SS Jaguar 100 hides a tale of mys­tery, Roy­alty and tur­bu­lent 20th Cen­tury pol­i­tics within its art-deco lines. We drive it, the only Jaguar to be bod­ied in Ro­ma­nia

Classic Cars (UK) - - Welcome - Words SAM DAW­SON Pho­tog­ra­phy CHAR­LIE MAGEE

For the best part of half a cen­tury, the car you’re look­ing at here en­joyed al­most myth­i­cal sta­tus. Like the feet of the Colos­sus of Rhodes or the grainy Thir­ties film clip of the last sur­viv­ing thy­lacine, the ex­is­tence of the ‘Ro­ma­nian Jaguar’ was con­firmed only by doc­u­men­ta­tion: a dou­ble-or­der in the books of SS Cars for a pair of Jaguar 100s; chas­sis 39001 – the very first 3.5-litre road­ster – and this one, 39070, spec­i­fied as a bare chas­sis to be de­liv­ered to the coach­builder Leonida & Co of Bucharest and built as an Open Two-seater. It went un­seen by British eyes un­til it fi­nally emerged in a rusty, dis­man­tled state at a Coys auc­tion in 2000. Now it’s fully re­stored and sit­ting in the grounds of Orsett Hall, ready for me to drive.

That dou­ble-or­der was placed in 1937 via Bucharest dealer An­glo Cars by Queen Marie of Ro­ma­nia. The com­plete 39001 road­ster with its stan­dard SS coach­work was pre­sented to her grand­son Michael, then Crown Prince of Ro­ma­nia, upon his 17th birth­day in 1938 as part of a com­ing-of-age cer­e­mony in which he was also put in cer­e­mo­nial charge of the Ro­ma­nian Air Force. But the story of 39070 is much less clear-cut, yet all the more tan­ta­lis­ing for it. All be­cause of the tur­bu­lent events oc­cur­ring in the coun­try be­tween the late Thir­ties and the late Sev­en­ties, and the pres­ence in the tale of a flam­boy­ant en­gi­neer and oc­ca­sional rac­ing driver by the name of Jean Cal­cianu.

In 1937, the much-loved Queen Marie was suf­fer­ing from ter­mi­nal pan­cre­atic cancer, and was con­fined to a san­i­to­rium in Italy. Her son, King Carol II, who had re­turned from ex­ile fol­low­ing his af­fair with so­cialite Magda Lu­pescu and en­su­ing di­vorce, de­posed the Re­gency of the teenage King Michael, de­moted him and es­tab­lished a dic­ta­tor­ship.

But dur­ing her time in Italy, the Queen also re­ceived a vis­i­tor in the form of her ‘favourite son’ Ni­cholas, for­merly the Prince Re­gent, ex­iled to Spain by Carol II in a power play that used his mar­riage to di­vorcee Ioana Du­mitrescu-do­letti as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. The dash­ing avi­a­tor Time mag­a­zine dubbed ‘speed-fiend Ni­cholas’ also con­tested the 1933 and 1935 Le Mans 24 Hours be­hind the wheel of a Due­sen­berg SJ spe­cial.

At Leonida, a coach­builder founded by the Ro­ma­nian en­gi­neer Dim­itrie, a stream­lined shape took the place of the SS100’S usual stark sports-car body­work. The dis­tinc­tive ra­di­a­tor grille with its wish­bone-shaped head­lamp sup­ports makes it seem more fa­mil­iar at first glance. But then you see the hel­met-like wings en­clos­ing the front wheels, the higher scut­tle with its low, speed­ster-style wind­screen, and the slop­ing tail which el­e­gantly semi-en­closes a spare wheel. View it from the side or rear three­quar­ter and there’s some­thing dis­tinctly French about it, and it’s not just the blue paint. There’s a good rea­son for that.

The man who de­vised this car was Jean Cal­cianu, a poly­mathic en­gi­neer who left Bucharest for Paris in 1914 to work for Re­nault, help­ing to in­vent the tank dur­ing the First World War be­fore mov­ing to Greno­ble to work for Corniot and look after An­dré Dubon­net’s fleet of rac­ing Bu­gat­tis. Dubon­net in­dulged Cal­cianu with an old Type 37, which he mod­i­fied aero­dy­nam­i­cally, achiev­ing 173.6km/h (108mph). Cal­cianu’s at­ten­tion to de­tail – in par­tic­u­lar, the coun­ter­sink­ing of screws into the body­work and the sub­tle smooth­ing of square edges – im­pressed Et­tore Bu­gatti, who hired him to work as a test driver.

Cal­cianu held the po­si­tion at Mol­sheim for six years be­fore re­turn­ing to his na­tive Ro­ma­nia to set up a Bu­gatti deal­er­ship in Bucharest, lodg­ing a FF5000 de­posit guar­an­tee with Et­tore. But the ar­range­ment didn’t last. Cal­cianu’s af­fil­i­a­tions switched to Due­sen­berg, and a cus­tomer who’d be­come a close friend – Prince Ni­cholas. His Le Mans Due­sen­berg was an early Cal­cianu-leonida col­lab­o­ra­tion, so it’s not hard to work out who the ul­ti­mate owner of this ex­pen­sively-cre­ated, Royal-or­dered Jaguar was in­tended to be. But events would ul­ti­mately turn against it.

I don’t know how tall Prince Ni­cholas was, but he wouldn’t have had much room in­side this Jaguar. Get­ting in is an or­deal un­less you’re markedly shorter-legged than av­er­age. I have to crank my left knee over at an an­gle known only to yoga in­struc­tors to clear the vast steer­ing wheel, be­fore slid­ing into the seat, open­ing the rear-hinged door wider, and drag­ging my right leg in at a sim­i­lar an­gle. Space is at such a pre­mium that my lower legs are

com­pletely folded round, and I have to op­er­ate the ped­als with the out­side edges of my feet. Amaz­ingly, the higher scut­tle of Cal­cianu’s de­sign was sup­posed to give the Leonida Jaguar more legroom than the stan­dard SS100.

Press the starter button, tap the throt­tle, and the 3485cc straight-six bursts into life with a deep, per­cus­sive bari­tone. It would have been even louder when it was new – Cal­cianu in­tended it to be a racer, pos­si­bly to suc­ceed Prince Ni­cholas’ Due­sen­berg, and it sported four deaf­en­ing open ex­haust pipes. The ad­justable fric­tion-disc dampers re­main, as does the larger, lower-pro­file en­durance-spec­i­fi­ca­tion coolant tank. The early dou­ble-he­li­cal-cut rac­ing ver­sion of the Moss gear­box is sadly long gone – it was a short-lived ex­per­i­ment adapted from heavy-duty marine prac­tice, also in­ves­ti­gated and aban­doned by Citroën and MG in the Thir­ties after it proved prone to strip­ping teeth.

The con­ven­tion­ally-cut For­ties-spec Moss gear­box in­stalled to­day en­gages slickly and cleanly. I twist my right foot painfully and ac­cel­er­a­tion is in­stant and vig­or­ous. It’s a prod­uct of the car’s light­ness – Leonida used alu­minium rather than SS’S stan­dard pressed steel, so even given the more ex­ten­sive met­al­work of Cal­cianu’s de­sign, it’s a fair bet it weighs a lot less than the nor­mal 100 3.5-litre’s sur­pris­ingly hefty 1181kg.

It’s even more im­pres­sive in cor­ners. I aim it at a very tight left­hand oë-cam­ber bend run­ning into a nar­row av­enue of trees, and al­though the wheel de­mands a lot of shoul­der power to mus­cle it through, the low-slung chas­sis is un­fazed by the sud­den change

‘As I pick up speed I can feel Cal­cianu’s aero­dy­nam­ics work­ing’

of di­rec­tion, the car re­main­ing im­pres­sively neu­tral. I change up through the gears, still im­pressed with the ’box – the Moss never felt this pre­cise and pos­i­tive in an early E-type, let alone an XK. If your shift tim­ing is slightly out you’ll feel a jar­ring crunch jump­ing through the palm of your hand like a mild elec­tric shock, but this merely forces you to think more care­fully about chang­ing gear.

Ac­cel­er­at­ing harder, the thud­ding en­gine note is re­placed with a high-pitched, al­most su­per­charger-like whine from the gear­box. It’s the so­phis­ti­cated note of a neatly-bal­anced in­stru­ment ma­chined to fine tol­er­ances and run­ning at high speeds.

Al­though it’s a very hot day with cor­re­spond­ingly still, muggy air, as I pick up speed I can feel Cal­cianu’s aero­dy­nam­ics work­ing. My face is ex­posed be­hind this low-set wind­screen but I’m not be­ing blasted by the wind – it’s rush­ing neatly off the scut­tle and over my head. I’ve no doubt a sim­i­lar flow-smooth­ing func­tion is be­ing per­formed by those low-plung­ing front wings too. Tellingly, Cal­cianu worked for Ro­ma­nian air­craft man­u­fac­turer IAR fol­low­ing the ter­mi­na­tion of his Bu­gatti deal, so un­like some of the French car­rossiers of the Thir­ties, there was gen­uine aero­dy­namic the­ory be­hind his de­signs, rather than ex­tra­vant guess­work.

The brakes, sadly, are one ma­jor re­minder that I’m in a ma­chine of the Thir­ties; they fade alarm­ingly quickly no mat­ter how pro­gres­sive you’re be­ing. Un­for­tu­nately the body­work prob­a­bly doesn’t help – these flow­ing teardrops will trap heat like an oven.

We don’t know whether it was these brakes, the ul­ti­mate lim­its of its road­hold­ing or Cal­cianu’s own short­com­ings that made for the first in­ci­dent in this car’s long fall from grace. Shortly after build­ing it, he drove it in a street race at Câmp­ina and crashed, dam­ag­ing the body and re­pair­ing it him­self at IAR. It’s un­likely, given his ex­ile in Spain as of 1937, that Ni­cholas ever got the chance to drive the car cre­ated for him, be­cause ten years later it was still in Ro­ma­nia. Ac­cord­ing to cor­re­spon­dence cur­rent owner Nick Wil­liams had with King Michael I dur­ing his restora­tion of the Jaguar, Ni­cholas’ cars were never kept in the Royal garages, so it’s likely Cal­cianu stored it along­side the Due­sen­berg.

The car was lucky to sur­vive World War Two. In 1940, fol­low­ing the threat of Soviet in­va­sion, Carol II ceded power to Ion An­tonescu, a Fas­cist who aligned Ro­ma­nia with Nazi Ger­many and per­pet­u­ated the Holo­caust on do­mes­tic soil. Michael led a suc­cess­ful coup in 1944 and re­aligned the na­tion with the Al­lied pow­ers. How­ever, the Soviet troops who had aided Michael’s vic­tory then re­fused to leave. A rigged elec­tion fol­lowed re­sult­ing in the in­stal­la­tion of a Soviet pup­pet regime. Michael’s tri­umph had lasted just three years be­fore he too was ex­iled by Stalin.

This sud­den rise of anti-monar­chist Com­mu­nism meant Ni­cholas knew he still couldn’t re­turn to Ro­ma­nia. In 1947 he signed the decade-old car over to his fly­ing in­struc­tor, Cap­tain Cula of the Ro­ma­nian Royal Air Force, but Cula was killed in an aero­plane crash not long af­ter­wards. The car passed to Cula’s wife, whose so­lic­i­tor took it in lieu of pay­ment for a debt.

The late For­ties were a tough time to be a car en­thu­si­ast in Ro­ma­nia. In 1948 English­man Ernest Dawyl, owner of SS Jaguar’s Bucharest im­porter An­glo Cars, was ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of es­pi­onage. Mean­while, the con­tents of the Royal garage were quickly sold to trusted en­thu­si­asts with­out ob­vi­ous con­nec­tions to the fam­ily – the new owner of Michael’s SS100 had it re­bod­ied in Cal­cianu’s style by Leonida, al­beit with­out the re­vised scut­tle. All the while the Com­mu­nist se­cret po­lice, the Se­cu­ri­tat, mon­i­tored sales of cars, ready to req­ui­si­tion any for­mer Royal prop­erty.

Amid this cli­mate of fear, Mrs Cula con­tacted Ni­cholas Mazilu, a trusted car en­thu­si­ast who she fig­ured would make a bet­ter owner for the Jaguar than her so­lic­i­tor, and whose pur­chase of it would clear her debts. To make sure of the sale, Mazilu bribed a Se­cu­ri­tat of­fi­cer to ac­com­pany him to the so­lic­i­tor’s house. It worked, but iron­i­cally Mazilu was stopped by an­other Se­cu­ri­tat of­fi­cer on his way home in the car for mak­ing too much noise – it still wore its quad open ex­hausts. Mazilu was lucky to es­cape with a stamp in his li­cence. Just three stamps would have seen the car con­fis­cated.

Mazilu’s own­er­ship lasted un­til Jan­uary 1955 – his wife re­put­edly said it was at­tract­ing too much at­ten­tion. Mazilu sold the car to Dr Viorel Pop, an un­savoury char­ac­ter who made a for­tune per­form­ing il­le­gal back­street abor­tions. He crashed the car and had it re­paired in se­cret at Cal­cianu’s old work­shop in the Brasov IAR fac­tory. After this the trail goes cold un­til a room of dis­man­tled, rusty but com­plete parts was un­cov­ered in neigh­bour­ing Hun­gary in 2000. How­ever, what hap­pened to an­other of Cal­cianu’s cars gives us a fairly clear pic­ture of what fate might have be­fallen chas­sis 39070.

For all his prow­ess as an en­gi­neer and his sig­nif­i­cance in mo­tor sport – in 1934 he or­gan­ised the first Ro­ma­nian closed-road race, in Brasov – Cal­cianu was never the driver he wished he was. He was ac­com­plished as a na­tional-level sports car road-racer in France and Ro­ma­nia, with wins on the Laf­frey Coast and at Mi­ra­mas in a Tal­bot. How­ever, amid the fog of war and later as the Iron Cur­tain de­scended, Cal­cianu had a ten­dency to em­bel­lish his own past.

He’d claim it was his prow­ess on the track, not as a de­signer, that led Bu­gatti to hire him. His big­gest fib in­volved him win­ning the 1939 Bel­grade Grand Prix when Tazio Nu­volari was un­able to get from Italy to Ser­bia due to a travel ban im­posed upon Mus­solini’s ci­ti­zens. In re­al­ity, Nu­volari’s pas­sage to Bel­grade was se­cured by a col­umn of Wehrma­cht tanks, and the race was a vic­tory for his Auto Union. Not that any­one no­ticed – Hitler in­vaded Poland on the same day. As the Cold War be­gan, Soviet au­thor­i­ties had any trace of this Axis pro­pa­ganda vic­tory on Balkan soil air­brushed from his­tory, so Cal­cianu could say what he liked about it.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, it wasn’t long be­fore Cal­cianu at­tracted the Se­cu­ri­tat’s at­ten­tion. In the same year the Leonida Jaguar’s his­tory comes to a halt, of­fi­cers paid a visit to his work­shop and found the ex-ni­cholas Due­sen­berg un­der a tar­pau­lin. It was req­ui­si­tioned and taken to the Club Sportiv Steagu Rosu (Red Flag Sports Club), a col­lec­tion of rac­ing cars deemed to be­long to the na­tion. A car like the Leonida Jaguar would have had to be taken off the road and hid­den to avoid this fate. The ex-michael I SS100 was smug­gled into Greece and re­stored.

Two decades later, things were even more des­per­ate. Un­der the to­tal­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor­ship of Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu, with the coun­try plunged into poverty, the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment started to liq­ui­date na­tional as­sets. Cal­cianu’s Le Mans Due­sen­berg was iden­ti­fied as an ideal can­di­date, but in re­sponse some­one from the Dim­itrie Leonida Tech­ni­cal Mu­seum dis­man­tled it, re­mov­ing sev­eral vi­tal en­gine com­po­nents to en­sure it couldn’t be sold as a work­ing car. It re­mains in the Mu­seum to this day, a mon­u­ment to Ro­ma­nian crafts­man­ship rather than po­lit­i­cal wran­gling.

It’s not hard to see, against this des­per­ate back­drop, how the Leonida Jaguar ended up dis­ap­pear­ing for 45 years only to be found in bits in a Hun­gar­ian garage. How­ever, there’s a bizarre foot­note to its story. In his 1984 book Jaguar SS90 & SS100 Su­per

Pro­file, the late Jaguar au­thor­ity An­drew Whyte, hav­ing un­earthed a pic­ture of Michael I, Ernest Dawyl and the first 3.5-litre SS100, noted that the Royal fam­ily ‘im­ported this car, plus a chas­sis (39070) sub­se­quently re­ported in the USA with a MKV en­gine.’

When the car’s re­mains were dis­cov­ered, the chas­sis plate was miss­ing. It was iden­ti­fied by its unique body, and the en­gine num­ber M774E. Could it be that a Ceaus­escu ap­pa­ratchik man­aged to rake in some Amer­i­can cash by sell­ing off a gen­uine SS Jaguar 100 chas­sis plate, al­low­ing a back­yard re­storer to au­then­ti­cate a bitsa? As with so many as­pects of this car, it’s a tan­ta­lis­ing mys­tery.

Be­neath the long bon­net sits the stan­dard SS100’S 3.5-litre straight-six

Body by the brother of Ghe­o­rghe Leonida, a sculp­tor who worked on Rio’s ‘Christ the Re­deemer’

Unique scut­tle redi­rects air­flow over the oc­cu­pants

Grille is one of the few stan­dard SS100 fit­tings

De­spite a later trib­ute, this is the only Leonida SS100

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