Even Blind, Winsted’s Jaguar Master Knows the British Beauties Inside & Out

Stew Jones brushes his fingertips along the frame, ducks his black leather cap beneath the curved roof, and buckles up. We’re in a new Jaguar F-type SVR with nearly 600 horsepower and neon blue paint that screams Miami, not this 35-degree afternoon in Winsted. I promised him a ride, yet aside from Ralph Nader’s museum on Main Street, I have no clue where to go. Jones directs me to a lonely stretch of Route 44, a favorite cruising road. “Not this left. The next one. Turn here.” I’d have let him drive, but Jones is blind.

His neighbors on Highland Lake know he hasn’t seen these roads in some 30 years, or the narrow path joining his brown home to a brick garage where he fixes a bunch of old British cars. But they don’t know Jones like his customers, and that he’s inarguably the country’s most esteemed restorer of vintage 12-cylinder Jaguars and celebrating his 40th year in business under Stew Jones Restoration. I’ve brought Jones the F-type to bridge old and new, to better appreciate his craftsmanship against a modern sports car. Turns out, Jones builds an even better Jaguar.

“Some people take drugs,” he says. “I fix Jaguars.”

At 74, Jones is trim with barely a wrinkle, his blue eyes sharp and clear. Mechanic Sam Walker gently takes his arm, if for only a moment, as Jones leads us into his sun-drenched showroom, a former ice house perched on the lake’s edge. Five immaculate E-type roadsters sit under tall window arches, the golden light glinting off water, steel and chrome. New York’s Museum of Modern Art has an E-type on permanent display for one reason: It’s beautiful. But Jones specializes in the E-type’s final years, especially the last 1974 model that he calls “the ugliest of them all.”

To meet federal safety laws in the early ’70s, foreign automakers retrofitted their bumpers with blocky extensions for 1974. Beyond looking like a buck-toothed bunny, these E-types were longer and heavier than the early ’60s cars, which are worth several times more than a comparable ’70s E-type. While Jones can restore most Jaguar models dating to 1948, he’s happiest perfecting the late E-type — including Jaguar’s first production 12-cylinder engine. “Jaguar had a reputation for being undependable, but the V-12 was the ultimate undependable, and it was well deserved because they were awful,” Jones says.

Jones runs a palm along the hood, then wedges a finger beneath the windshield and traces his way to the rear fender. He knows it’s the 1974 silver roadster. “Jaguar’s [stamping] press for the hood louvers was flat and didn’t match the curves of the hood,” he says. His louvers do. What about those funny bumpers? Jones made a sleeker design that fits better than the originals. Walker lines up bolts on a plywood table, leafing through factory diagrams for the exact threading. If one bolt is wrong — even if it’s hidden deep within the body — Jones insists he fabricate new ones. On another car, Jones discovered the driver’s door was an eighth-inch longer than the other. He cut the car in half just to make them equal.

“He’s a real perfectionist,” says Wayne Carini, who runs F40 Motorsports in Portland. “It’s hard to comprehend he can do it.”

While studying industrial arts at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Jones had to be the slickest undergrad on campus in his 1955 Jaguar Mark VII, a stately sedan he picked up for a mere $100. It was this car — and all the constant repairs a British car required in those days — that stoked his passion for Jaguar. He went to work at Pratt & Whitney and would later teach automotive repair at Torrington High School for 20 years. By 1977, his Jaguar shop was in full swing. “If you do a ham-and-egg job, this is how people make money,” Jones says. “They’ll buy one that’s kind of beat up, they’ll do some quick and dirty stuff, make it look pretty good. Me, in the beginning, I used to do that.”

Eight years later, Jones went into a coma for eight days. Driving through Winsted on Halloween night, another vehicle crashed into him, sending his ribs into his heart and lung. He woke up permanently blind. And yet, fearing he’d never fix a car again, Jones didn’t change course. He married his second wife, Karen, and went back to business, uncompromised. When he’s not working, Jones trains for bench-press competitions.

Karen calls us into the kitchen for roast beef sandwiches and cranberry juice. She manages the office and is one hell of a driver. Piloting the “Beast” — the couple’s gutted E-type track car — Karen holds one of the fastest slalom times in the Jaguar Club of North America. Five more E-type coupes and roadsters sit in a second warehouse up the street, with extra parts stocked in a Torrington warehouse. Walker and four other employees sometimes meddle with insane projects — like a 10-liter V-12 that Jones admits, with a cheeky smile, will hit 800 horsepower.

“For his lack of eyesight, it’s an incredible thing,” says Carini. “When you have a disability, fantastic things happen.”

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