Cheshire

At Oulton Park 40 years ago, this Jaguar E-type won on the models race debut. Graham Hill drove it then. Now it's David Malsher's turn

While gazing at one of the most famous Jaguar E-types of them all,ECD 400, I initially tried to push its heritage to the back of my mind, and just absorb its impact as 'an E-type'. No matter what a bargain it was in the 1960s, there are three fundamental reasons why I will never look on the Series 1 as a ten-a-penny car. There are its sensational lines (in both roadster and fastback form), its gem of an engine and its D-type bloodline.

Look at the figures, though, and you have a car of bizarre proportions: at 4450mm, it is as long as a Fiat Ulysse people-carrier, but is no wider than a Punto. With that in mind the E-type's designer, Malcolm Sayer, has to be hailed as some kind of genius to make the overall effect so visually appealing. But I soon discovered that the eye doesn't lie: in roadster form at least, this Jag is all bonnet (beautifully sculpted) and tail (muscularly pretty). My 6ft 3in frame could not get in, and the wide sills and closed roof exacerbated the problem.

After two or three goes I remembered some moves from hard-fought games of Twister, put my hand on the seat, ducked my left leg under the steering wheel, and levered myself into position — knocking off a piece of door trim on the way. Next problem was that the steering wheel was jammed against my legs, just above the knees. With my legs splayed like a frozen chicken awaiting removal of its giblets, and my head jammed against the roof-frame, I realised this was not a day for heroics. Even with my hands at five-to-one on the tiller I was not going to have sufficient lock to catch any major slides.

It's amazing how humans can adapt, though. I soon forgot my discomfort. With the door shut, I looked around, and the car's history came seeping back. I was looking over the dials that Graham Hill had scanned in the fleeting seconds he had while dashing along Lakeside straight at Oulton Park on the E-type's victorious debut. That credit card-sized rear-view mirror was what he used to check his lead on Roy Salvadori's similar car after passing him at two-thirds distance. That gear stick was the one Graham used to grab third before drifting elegantly through Druids. Yep, I'm not afraid to admit I was slightly overawed.

Overawed but impressed that so little had been changed in the cockpit in preparing a road car for racetrack glory: the transmission tunnel houses radio speakers, and underneath the row of switches is an elegant push-round ashtray. The seats, steering wheel, crackle finished dash are standard E-type too.

Present owner Steve O'Rourke has owned ECD 400 since 1975.

"A chap named Michael Scott had a tip-off about it, and we went round and checked its engine number and chassis number. But its owner had no idea of its history, and just thought it was a rusty old E-type. So I paid £600 for it, and I gave it to Michael Cane, who restored it for me over the course of two years.

"The only non-original item is the bonnet, because it was in such a bad way when we found it, but the engine, the chassis and the rear end are all the original car. We have restored it again recently, but it just needed refettling, really."

James Watkinson is in charge of maintaining the E-type, but he manfully hid his trepidation as I pointed out my misguided choice of footwear meant I could press all three pedals at once with one clumsy plate of meat (This is, after all, a flat-bottomed pre-62 model without the enlarged footwell.) With that ill-timed declaration still hanging in the air, I turned the key, pressed the starter button and was in rapture as that wonderful 3781 cc straight-six garumphed into life.

Edging towards the track, I found the Moss gearbox, though occasionally obstructive, was always positive. That lever was either going in or not no crunching of cogs except on non-synchro first. Still tentative, reminding myself which way Chobham went, I rejoiced in the engine's flexibility. In third it pulled cleanly from 1000rpm, and was easily capable of going from standstill in second.

But if the car behaved itself, its driver was straining at the leash until finally, coming onto a straight, I floored it and with an angry growl the car sat on its haunches and surged forward. Up past 3500rpm that growl turned to a howl and at 4500,1 grabbed third, where I was rewarded with more 265bhp surge, more animal noises. Not long into fourth, I was at three-figure speeds. At this point, I expected the car to wander further than Dion and the Belmonts, but instead it felt very secure. Okay, a 150mph car should be inherently stable at two-thirds of its potential, but there can be no doubt that this is an exceptionally well-sorted machine. I would have happily used ECD 400 to drive to Monaco and witness its original incumbent win the first of his five GP victories there.

My misgivings about that lack of room to twirl the steering-wheel meant that confidence building was a gradual process. Pitching it on only partthrottle through Chobham's fast banked left-hander in top, the car followed my chosen route without deviation, but at this stage, I was barely stretching its talents. More impressive was the way it behaved when flicked left at 70mph before entering the twisty part of the course. Yes, by modern car standards there was quite a bit of body movement but it was well damped, and this softness would have made the car reassuringly predictable in the wet.

Drivers that starred in this car in 1961 such as Hill, Mike Parkes and Jack Sears would have taken some of Chobham's tighter corners in second gear, but I initially chose third, got on the throttle early and let the torque pull me through. But in fact, this cautious policy proved my undoing once or twice where the corner exit tightened; the power was chiming just as I was running out of road, and there was nothing for it but to lift the throttle, tighten the steering lock and pray no-one witnessed my cack-handedness.

Remarkably soon though, an E-type inspires confidence, and that is not just down to familiarity with its handling traits. It is more because the driver feels his backside is directly over the rear wheels, which communicate their messages straight up his spine to his grey matter. At that long banked first turn I was going quicker and quicker, well into E-type understeer territory, but flooring the throttle at the apex and minimising the steering input there was just enough tail drift so that its nose faithfully followed the arc of the comer. As we went faster on the infield section, that understeer was coming into play more and more in third gear; there simply wasn't enough room to alter the car's angle of attack with the throttle. Going for second was the answer, and suddenly everything felt right Just as well really, since after 20 laps, the brake pedal was awfully long, and I was having to scrub off speed with the tyres.

The Jag is an easy car to place in corners. Because of its huge amounts of side overhang, when the front wing is clipping the apex, you know that the wheel it contains still has an inch or two to spare. And whenever there was a threat of understeer — and even when there wasn't — a prod of the throttle would bring first the predictable body roll, then the predictable bending of tyre-walls, and finally the predictable (but gentle) tail-end breakaway. Perfect.

Though the mantra 'this isn't my car' would keep me in check whenever I entered a corner, by the exit this had turned to 'I wish it was'. The glorious engine I knew about and the E-type's beauty is familiar too. But its agility was something I had never expected of a 40-year-old car, and of course ECD 400 offers the charisma of having a unique place in Jaguar E-type history.

But an earnest warning: don't hanker after it too much, because Mr O'Rourke intends never to sell it. Well, would you?

Winning with Es: the first chapter

Steve O'Rourke was in the crowd at Oulton Park to witness Hill and Salvadori give the E-type its resounding debut in the Spring Meeting, and still remembers his disbelief when these brand new cars conquered the established GT yardsticks from Aston Martin and Ferrari.

Salvadori himself was similarly shocked. 'They were absolutely standard from what I recall; they were production cars before these were generally available, so Jaguar and [team owner John] Coombs hadn't had time to think in terms of modifications."

And therein lay the root of Salvadori's problems at OuIton Park's Spring Meeting. Since the cars had not made it to the Easter Goodwood event, this baptism was very much an exploratory affair. All credit then, that Hill in ECD 400 lined up third, with Salvadori in BUY 1 alongside. Ahead of them sat Innes Ireland's Aston Martin DB4 GT and the Ferrari 250GT SWB of Jack Sears.

"Lofty [England] had obviously rushed the two E-types to Oulton," says Salvadori, "and in fact we had very little warning we were going to drive them. And there were a couple of matters that prevented us getting onto the front row. For one thing, there was a fuel pump problem, which meant the engines were cutting out on corners. And then there were the brakes. They were probably fine for touring, but not track action, not even on a qualifying lap.

"The problem with the cutting out was soon sorted, but a decision was made to rush the Jags back to Coombs to sort the brakes. For some reason, Graham's Equipe Endeavour car was given new brake pads and discs, and I was just given pads."

That decision would cost Salvadori a chance of glory, though initially he looked a likely winner. When the green flag dropped, both he and Hill shot past the front-row starters and Roy led an E-type 1-2 into the first corner. As BUY 1 eked out a small advantage, ECD 400 looked to be quite settled in second, though Hill was keeping a wary eye on Ireland's Aston.

But Salvadori was finding it harder and harder to stop. "Eventually the ridges on my discs from the day before had just chewed up the new pads, and Graham got past me at about half distance."

That left Salvadori embroiled in a battle with Ireland, but with two laps to go, Innes got his Aston into second place. ECD 400 was, however, too far up the road for the Scotsman to catch, and so Hill went on to a famous victory.

Salvadori was left impressed with the E-type. 'We were lucky to finish the race — the Jag was in a dangerous condition. But when I drove E-iypes subseqently, the brakes had been improved enormously. Really, the car was a revelation. It wasn't the best GT you could drive — that was the Ferrari GTO — and it was a little short of power. But it was the most pleasant and the most comfortable. My E-type drive at Le Mans in 1963 was almost effortless."