Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The XKs Unlimited Short Story...
Located mid-way between Los Angeles and San Francisco and a mile or so from the heart of San Luis Obispo’s Edna Valley wine region, XKs Unlimited has served Jaguar owners with parts and restoration services for more than three decades. But the owner wasn’t exactly preordained into a life filled with Jaguars.
“My mom wanted me to be a doctor and my dad wanted me to be an architect, but a neighbor bought a restored MG TC when I was in junior high and that did it -- I was hooked as a car guy,” says XKs Unlimited owner Jason Len. Years later, as a student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, he was hooked again. “During my senior year at Poly I opened a British car repair shop – I went to class in the mornings and then wrenched until eight every night. When I graduated, engineering jobs were scarce so I continued with the shop full time.” That was 1973; three years later Len purchased what was mostly a Jaguar wrecking yard called XKs Unlimited and moved the business north from Los Angeles.
Pismo Beach is still just over the hill and Hearst Castle is still 45 minutes up Highway 1, but a lot has changed since Len decided to stay in San Luis Obispo nearly 38 years ago. While the surrounding acres of chardonnay vineyards expanded, XKs Unlimited moved three times, grew to 31 employees and now has separate parts sales and restoration/service divisions.
A staff of four (including one Spanish speaker) answers the incoming phone lines. “Our guys have more combined years in auto parts than they would care to admit and they’re all car enthusiasts,” says Len. The salesmen work from a detailed set of illustrated catalogs broken down by model range. They cover XKs, E-Types, early saloons, late-model cars and, later this summer, XJ-6 Series I, II and III/XJ-S. Len produced the company’s first catalog on an electric typewriter and the company hasn’t looked back. “We’re proud of our catalogs and feel they really separate us from the competition,” says Len. “When we finish the early XJ catalog, we’ll have something like 1,500 catalog pages. The problem is we’re never done!”
XKs Unlimited sells parts made on five continents and covers everything from the XK-120 and MK VII up to current production models. “Our competitors tend to focus on, say, XKs or E-Types and maybe carry some fast-moving late-model items,” explains Len. “We feel we’re unique in that we cover and catalog just about everything from the XK-120 and MK VII on.” The product mix includes more than 1,000 items the company manufactures or assembles itself. Parts made by XKs Unlimited include the E-Type upper ball joint, XK front wheel cylinders, stainless steel exhaust headers, V-12 E-Type switches, alternator and oil filter conversion kits and a host of gaskets and seals. “When we decide to make an item, it’s to improve quality, lower the price or simply ensure its availability -- or all three,” says Len.
Integral to the company’s manufacturing efforts is a division unique to XKs Unlimited – its service and restoration shop. “No major Jaguar parts supplier also services and restores cars like we do,” explains Len. “Product development and the shop work together to develop and test new items, and our sales staff and technicians work together to solve customer problems. And we know the parts we sell because we use the same parts in our shop. Having the two divisions is invaluable.”
The XKs Unlimited shop is divided by specialty: mechanical, body and paint, and interior trimming. With the exception of some engine machining and chrome plating, virtually every facet of a restoration is done in-house by longtime employees. And every job is different. “One trend that’s developed over the last ten years or so is the desire to update the cars and make them more comfortable, perform better and easier to drive,” says Len. “Things like five-speed transmissions, air conditioning, power steering, high-capacity cooling systems and audio upgrades are common, and most customers want these enhancements to be as invisible as possible. We have the fabrication skills and experience to make these upgrades and by doing everything in-house we can control the cost, the quality and the timing.”
There was a time when many local shops could repair a Jaguar engine or body, but those businesses are rapidly disappearing. “The average machine shop wants nothing to do with a Jaguar cylinder head, and the guy snapping new fenders on Camrys would be lost on a rusted XK body or twisted E-Type tub. We’re one of the few shops left that specialize in this type of work. In fact, we’ve built the fixtures required to completely remanufacture E-Type body shells just like they do in England,” says Len.
“We complete and correct a lot of work started by other shops. We’re finishing up an XK-150 roadster that looked great from 20 feet. The paint was actually excellent, but the previous shop had attempted to weld new sills to rusted hinge pillars. There was no way the doors would ever fit correctly, so the owner authorized us to strip the car down to bare metal and start over. We found all kinds of poorly repaired crash damage and a lot of rust, but it’s all been corrected now.”
As he approaches 40 years in business, Len has no regrets. “I probably could have taken over my dad’s insurance business and kept my original hair color a bit longer, but I’ve been a car enthusiast since my neighbor bought that TC. I like being surrounded by other enthusiasts – whether at work, vintage racing my E-Type or having coffee with a bunch of local guys.”
Visitors from the nearby Western States Meet brought that sentiment home for Len and his staff. “We had quite a few visitors from Western States and the other managers and I gave a lot of tours of the parts department and restoration shop. We thoroughly enjoyed sharing the business with like-minded enthusiasts.”
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