06/05/2012 05:59 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

My Jaguar Time

While I watched the Mad Men episode with Lane Pryce trying to end his life in a Jag that wouldn't cooperate, I remembered the car's faulty starters, but I also remembered the beauty and power of the three Jags I drove during 20 upside/downside years of my roller-coaster life.

We measure our lives through symbols -- things like seasons, age, health, kids. And sometimes a material thing that resonates and defines us, if even for a time, if only in a certain way. For me, this extraordinarily beautiful, extraordinarily undependable car was one of those things.

1972: Fantasy

The XKE gleamed like a shiny panther in the showroom near Green Park, in London. My young husband and I oogled it, ready to bring this trophy car back to the States.

We were lucky kids in our late 20s, students living extra-large on my husband's inheritance -- as I've written about before. (And we already knew about English cars. On our honeymoon in 1965 we drove a British Racing Green MGB roadster on European roads for two months, loving the rough and raw quality, and we shipped it home.)

The Brits call the XKE roadster an "E-Type Jag-U-Ar." We test-drove it, top down, steered on the left side through the streets of London. And after several days of discussing the purchase, we decided it was too indulgent (most cars back then cost about $2,000; the Jag cost a whopping $11,000).

We ended up buying an uber-sensible VW Pop-Top that we used to camp around Scandinavia with our two toddlers. And we brought the dependably shaky camper back to the States, often fantasizing about steering that XKE, wind in our hair into the starry night.

1982: Reality

Newly separated and living in Westchester County New York, I remembered the Jag in the English showroom 10 years before. Money was tight, but I was embarking on a new life, and I knew just the treat I wanted.

So with part of my savings I splurged, and despite the warnings of friends and family, bought a Vanden Plas V6, the color of a lioness: "Pre-Owned." I knew Jag's reputation, so I made sure it was certified, from a dealer, with a guarantee.

Over the years the guarantee was that it never seemed to cover what so often went wrong.

But the car smelled like hope and love whenever I opened the door, and there was the burl of the wood glove compartment, the suppleness of the leather seats, the feline figurehead springing forth on the hood, beckoning me to join it. All this made me smile and feel free to move on.

To the costs involved I should have added the many speeding tickets I accumulated as I drove from New York to visit my beau in northern Virginia. The car was happiest the faster it went, and so was I.

I kept that Jag for half a dozen years, unable to part with the dream, until I came to my senses, looked at my income, and traded it in for a Mazda 626, cute and dependable and appropriate for my single lifestyle, and my budget.

1992: Moving On

I moved in with the man in Northern Virginia, and he bought me a Jaguar, the same model and the same year as the one I first saw in the window of the London showroom.

This Jag was a 1970s E-type coupe with a 12(!)-cylinder engine, primrose yellow with black leather interior.

We joined a Jaguar club in the D.C. area and we'd go off on weekend rallies through Virginia horse country, a string of classic Jags winding through the hills, picnic baskets and champagne in coolers filling the boots.

I drove the Jag once at 100 mph along backroads, and it simply purred back. Drivers and pedestrians would smile through their windshields as they saw the it go by, and gesture with a thumbs up.

Once I was sitting in the car in front of a Giant supermarket in metro D.C. A bunch of kids came by: "Damn lady. Is this a car from the past or a car from the future?"

The relationship with the D.C. beau lasted six or so years, on and off, and as a parting gift I got the E-type after all, 20 years after seeing it in England. It slept in a shed near my house in Westchester County, rusting away. Every so often I'd take it out for a weekend drive.

And every so often it would start. It took 13 quarts of oil. The dream became more of a nightmare.

I finally sold the XKE for $10,000 to an owner of a Ferrari agency in Connecticut. He put it in the window of his agency, as a lead to draw folks in with its sleek beauty, and to ultimately buy the more expensive but better-running Ferrari.

In that showroom window in Connecticut perhaps others felt how I did when I first admired the Jag in the London window 20 years before, my mind filled with dreams and fantasies.

But for me, in 1992, Jaguar time was over. I desired things I could count on.