Occasional reporter Jan van Hylckama Vlieg was present 19 years ago when Jaguar celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of their first Land Speed Record in Jabbeke, Belgium
It’s 1949, Belgium just put down its first motorway, connecting Brussels with Ostend. The road is barely used, since the unfinished tarmac ends in the middle of a West Flanders field near the village of Jabbeke. This remote piece of motorway appears to be the best trafficless flat straight piece of road the English manufacturer can find to test how fast their 1948 XK120 really is. In a XK120 prototype Jaguar’s test driver Ron ‘Soapy’ Sutton crosses the English Channel to take the car to the test on the 30th of May of 1949. The prototype is meticulously prepared, with modifications to the floorpan and a streamlined dome over the passenger seat. The standard windscreen is replaced by a small, aerodynamic screen.
That 30th of May brings fair weather and Sutton does exactly what he and Jaguar came to the main land for, reaching an average speed of 132,598 mph (213,386 km/h). Never be for such a speed was reached by a production vehicle. The Jaguar XK120 and the village of Jabbeke share in the instant fame! Four years later, on October 20th 1953, Jaguar returns to Jabbeke with another test driver. Norman Dewis pulverises Sutton’s record and crosses the piece of motorway with a flying mile averaging 277,47 km/h, the highest speed ever to be reached in an XK Jaguar. However the first record, Sutton’s, is the one that is remembered best. Reason enough for Jaguar to organise a ’50th Anniversary Jaguar Jabbeke Record Celebration’ on the 29th and 30th of May of 1999. In close collaboration with the council of Jabbeke the exact same piece of road is completely closed of for the public to recreate the exact same circumstances as in 1949. At the same time Jaguar cleverly uses the event to present its all new XK180.
In 1999 Ron Sutton is nog longer with us, he dies in 1957, age 62, Norman Dewis himself, at the time 79 years old, is driving the XK120 he managed to push to such heights 45 years ago. Besides his appearance in the XK, Jaguar clubs form England, Belgium and The Netherlands are present as well, taking their change to race the sacred stretch of public tarmac themselves. Today it is exactly 69 years ago that the Jaguar XK accomplished its first ‘Land Speed Record’ near Jabbeke and if it is up to Norman Dewis he will be there next year to celebrate his record despite his poor health. After all the man will only be 99 years of age by then.
As one of the 1999 sweepstake winners writes after attending the fiftieth anniversary of Ron ‘Soapy’ Sutton’s record: ‘250 kilometers an hour, on a public road, in Belgium, I can hardly suppress the feeling that I am doing something highly illegal though so good. Or the sure feeling there will be a policeman at the end of the road, ready to write me a ticket… Today it’s allright, it is all allowed. The adrenaline in my veins is streaming just as fast as the fuel is injected in the growling V8. The beautiful leather and aluminium in the XK180’s interior make the experience complete. To bad this feeling will only last this short. After all, this piece of N377 near Jabbeke isn’t all that long…’
Jan van Hylckama Vlieg