Long praised as an automotive paragon, the Jaguar E-type can disappoint; but get your hands on a really good one and the superlatives will soon flow
You could call it a St Paul moment, a dawning realisation – make that a revelation – that not all Jaguar E-types are truculent old tuggers. No eruptive excrescences. No slack suspension. No creaks, groans or ghosts in the machine. There’s a real sense of majesty and excitement here. So this is what everyone’s been banging on about.
And don’t they just? Since its debut at the Geneva Salon in March 1961, the E-type has been eulogised like few other cars, purple gush a given. As are the words, ‘timeless’ and ‘iconic’. Oh and ‘big cat’, not forgetting ‘feline grace’. Which, if you’ve been a long-standing hater of all things E related – largely through over exposure to too many baggy examples – tends to make your teeth itch.
So my recognition that the E-type is, in fact, rather good is met with a jolt. This particular example has been restored to how the manufacturer intended – actually a little better thanks to bigger brakes, taller axle ratios and 6in wheels – and it’s been done so properly. And it’s utterly, totally, wonderful on so many different levels.
It’s pretty, of course. At the pinnacle of countless magazines’ ‘top 10 most beautiful cars’ lists, the Malcolm Sayer-penned, Sir William Lyons-refined outline is sublime. Jaguar has yet to better it, or even get close. And though the roadster edition continues to be the object of lust for many, the coupé inarguably has the purer form. Redolent of the D-type, the E showcased the Coventry firm’s sporting intent and remains more than a match for any Latin equivalent from the period. No matter that the shape is as aerodynamic as, oh let’s say, Anne Widdecombe, and gets front-end lift above 90mph – few honestly understood aero principles back in the day.
Compared to its weighty predecessor, the XK150, the E-type represented a quantum leap forward stylistically, the car’s deceptively diminutive stature being six inches shorter in wheelbase and as many lower at the roofline. If you were to be really pernickety, the rake of the windscreen is a mite lofty, but picking flaws with this car’s looks is futile. It’s gorgeous. But we’re sticking to the pre-1968 cars and strict two-seaters here, later editions (especially the 2+2) being lumpen and inelegant by comparison.
And this is the one which those in the know reckon to be the best all-rounder of the Series I cars: the 4.2-litre variant. Though ostensibly no more powerful than the original 3.8-litre straight-six – 265bhp (gross) at 5500rpm – the larger displacement unit introduced in 1964 usefully had more torque: 283lb ft of the good stuff (up from 260). It also came with an all-synchro gearbox.
So it’s quick, even if no production car ever managed to reach 150mph as The Autocar famously did with the breathed-on demonstrator. Even so, you can just imagine the reception at Geneva. Here was a car that was comfortably faster than most exotica, with advanced monocoque construction and independent rear suspension, yet it comfortably undercut them all on price. Back in 1961, a coupé could have been yours – if you didn’t mind waiting – for £1550. That’s £400 less than a Volvo P1800. Ferrari’s 250GT was £6600, the Aston Martin DB4, £4000. No wonder demand outstripped supply. No wonder it had its rivals running for cover.
Even more so after the E-type made its competition debut. It was a bit belated, because Jaguar didn’t manage to supply cars quickly enough for privateers John Coombes and Tommy Sopwith to race at Goodwood’s Easter meeting in 1961. It was left to Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori to ensure the car made an impression in the Trophy Race at Oulton Park a few weeks later.
Hill won in the Equipe Endeavour entry with ‘Salvo’ third, having led until the brakes faded. As debuts go, it was pretty emphatic. Ferrari thought so. According to Giotto Bizzarini, the Ferrari 250GTO was ushered in as a response to the perceived threat from Coventry. Which, when you stop to think about it, is one hell of a compliment.
Not that the E-type ever was a dedicated competition tool, the 12 ‘Lightweights’ aside. It was intended as a road car, pure and simple – just one that, at national level at least, proved pretty handy on the racetrack too.
The thing is, these days any number of hot hatches can best an E-type. Which is no great shock, but it’s the way this car feels at speed, and the choral bliss that accompanies it, that makes driving one so compelling.
Having negotiated the dog-leg door opening, and traversed the acreage of sill, the cabin is surprisingly spacious with bountiful headroom. The bucket seats are narrow but comfortable, the lovely drilled spoked wheel fronting an array of classic white-on-black instruments. And the view ahead: the long, long bonnet tapers away from sight with that massive protuberance masquerading as a power bulge appearing far bigger from inside the car.
Turn the ignition key and press the starter button. A long throw into first with a meaty, mechanical ker-clunk, and throttle response is immediate. Disarmingly so, pedal pressure being far lighter than with most moderns. More revs and up into second. It’s getting loud now. In a 3.8-litre car, Autosport’s John Bolster described reaching 60mph in 6.8 seconds as being ‘almost incredible.’ Which, for a car of this vintage, is still germane. By now it’s into altogether less legal territory and power keeps building. Popping your inhibitions cork, you just want to go faster. And faster.
Then you arrive at a corner. The car feels happy, communicative even. Through twisty esses, the transition from left to right, apex to apex, is easy enough, the steering metering out information without any fuss. It’s throttle-adjustable: in fast, drift a little and feathering the accelerator tightens the line. Lovely stuff. With the original braking system it’s doubtful you’d feel quite so confident (the all-round discs set-up – inboard at the rear – never was too hot) but here it all stops straight and true.
Which makes you think. The E-type’s value-for-money benefits still resonate the best part of five decades on since the car’s inception.
According to marque expert Henry Pearman, E-type value-levels relative to those of more rarefied exotica are still a nonsense: “I think people have the view that you can still pick up an E-type for about £20,000: you can, but it will need a lot of work,” says Pearman. “You can comfortably spend six-figures making one absolutely correct. When we fully restore an E-type, we expect to invest 2650 hours, a third of which are spent working on the body alone. For £50,000-£75,000 you could have a lovely example that won’t require constant repairs. The thing is, a lot of people don’t realise how few of these cars there still are. Is an Aston Martin DB5 – at twice the price – really twice the car?”
A persuasive argument. One that hitherto would have been dismissed out of hand (even if DB5s aren’t all that much cop. No really, they’re not.) Except that was yesterday. Today is all about purple gush. And regrets. Such as the one that involves a family member being talked out of buying an E-type. Yes, that Austin-Healey 100/6 with a cracked chassis worked out so much better… Idiot.