12-14 August 2010
1938 Jaguar SS Coupe by Graber
Sold for $385,000
- One-off coupe built by Swiss coachbuilder Hermann Graber
- From the collection of Kathy and Jerry Nell
- Underwent $270,000 frame-off restoration in 1994
- Awards at Pebble Beach, Meadow Brook and JCNA, with 99.96-100 points
When SS Cars introduced the 1938 Jaguar models, the company raised its own bar significantly. The new Jaguars sedans maintained the family resemblance, but there was a new stiffer boxed chassis, an all-steel body replaced the wood/steel combination and a new 125 hp, 3.5-liter OHV engine was introduced as an option to the trusty 2.5-liter unit.
The motoring press was suitably impressed, with the staff of The Motor not believing their eyes when they conducted their road tests. Both they and the staff of The Autocar achieved a 101.12 mph top speed in the SS 100 OTS (Open Two Seater), right down to the same decimal points. To put that in perspective, the SS 100 was little slower than 1949’s XK120 up to 60 mph and only two seconds slower over the ¼ mile. Both magazines also made much of the docile nature of the car, with The Motor noting, “it handles as well as it looks.”
From the first, the Jaguar was a driver’s car, with a classical elegance that resulted in very little visible change until the Mark 1V of 1948. Americans in particular liked the big sedans, especially with the 3.5-liter, 6-cylinder engines, wood-panel interior and leather upholstery. The cars were also reliable and easy to maintain, and the spectacular fitted toolkits seem to have been little needed.
During World War II, for example, Greta Lyons’ own 1936 2.5-liter sedan – which the factory still owns – was examined in detail with 65,000 miles on it. When tested, the car “returned 20 mpg, used virtually no oil, cornered most satisfactorily, the steering was firm and without appreciable lost movement and the Girling brakes were found to be excellent – light to operate and decisive when wanted to be so.”
An even stronger recommendation came from a 21 year-old student in Belgium, whose family had bought a Jaguar sedan in 1936 and absolutely thrashed it all over the Continent – 30,000 miles in under two years. Writing an unsolicited letter to The Autocar in 1938, he concluded, “I never expected such quality and resistance to wear at the price. I have no connection to the SS company, but I think it would have been an ingratitude not to recall the pleasure we have had with this car.”
The writer was Paul Frere, who would go on to become a Jaguar works driver, Le Mans winner and noted journalist. He died in 2009 at age 91.
While there were 1,065 3.5-liter saloons, 241 drop-head coupes, and 118 OTS built before World War II, closed coupes are much rarer, and except for one SS 100 built by Jaguar itself, they were coachbuilt to special order. Such is the case with Gerald and Kathy Nell’s coupe, which was shipped as a bare saloon chassis to Hermann Graber, at Wichtrach, near Berne, Switzerland, in May 1938.
Graber bodied several Jaguars, but Kathy Nell, who is Swiss, went by the Graber’s garage with her relatives and learned more of the story of this one. RM has also learned additional information about this car from Terry McGrath and his forthcoming book, The A to Z of Coachbuilt Jaguars. According to his research, Graber fitted the SS saloon chassis with a two-door, two-window, five-seater coupe body for one Monsieur Michel Dionisotti of Geneva. It is believed to have been finished in black over grey with a grey leather interior and built-in radio. It has two pull-down occasional seats in the back and also has a door for skis. He paid 2,000 CHF on June 10th and was invoiced the balance of 4,200 CHF on August 22nd, 1938. The car was ultimately dispatched to Grand Garage in Switzerland.
On March 31, 1949, the car was registered in Switzerland as a “Limousine Coupe” to Enterprise de Grads Travaux S.A. of Lausanne, as supported by the license plate number “VD13203” where “VD” signifies the canton of Vaud, of which Lausanne is the capital.
In 1953, the car was registered to “Labhart Thelma Violet” of Geneva but was eventually believed to have been purchased by a Canadian serviceman who returned to Canada with it. By May 1956, it was owned by Brian Metcalfe of Ontario before eventually being purchased by Frederick Corp, who drove it until 1963, when he put it into storage. Some time after 1972, it was sold to Greg Baker of Windsor, Ontario.
In late 1977, it was purchased by Richard Van Rozeboom of Fresno and registered in California. Dave Martin of California purchased the car in 1986, then sold it to David Gill of Chicago in 1987, who commissioned its restoration. The car was dismantled, and restoration began but was halted.
Kathy and Gerald Nell purchased the car in 1990. When RM Auto Restoration restored the car in 1994, they asked the Nells if they’d like some sloppy welds cleaned up, where Graber had extended the frame at the rear. The Nells asked the car be kept original “and we got dinged for that at Pebble,” Kathy Nell said with a laugh. In fact, one of RM’s employees cancelled his retirement plans to work on this car after hearing that Kathy was Swiss and that Jerry had once promised her, “If the Swiss ever make a car, I’ll buy it for you.” Henri stayed on to finish the car, and Kathy notes how helpful he was, as he had previously restored other Graber-bodied cars.
The Nells bought the car in pieces but were able to amass substantial records, and they were lucky to find previous owner Fred Corp, who confirmed that it had been his car. Corp was instrumental in the correctness of the restoration. The car was returned to as-new condition at a cost of $270,000, with the exception of being painted royal blue instead of the original black and gray.
This coupe was shown at the Meadow Brook Concours in 1994 and won the Designer’s Choice Award. It was JCNA National Class winner in 1995 and competed in seven JCNA shows from 1995-99, scoring 99.96-100 points. It also won a ribbon at Pebble Beach and won at Eyes On Classics and Masterpiece of Style and Speed. The Graber Coupe remains a unique masterpiece of understated elegance.
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