Today we may be able to take our cars under the Channel, but there used to be a high-speed aerial alternative
I have pleasant but distant recollections of days when in 1961 I was able to enjoy driving an early example of an E-type Jaguar with its then modern, sleek styling. I only had two hours (155 miles) to summarise the performance of this remarkable car. I drove it from the Jaguar factory in Coventry to St Albans within the hour, and back along the M1 and A5 to return it, accelerating to 6100rpm, this showing as 155mph. It was a fully equipped, properly appointed sports car, but strictly only a two-seater, with racing-type bucket seats that were adequate for a normal-height driver. There was no sense of being in a low car, until I drove another model later to the South of France. Visibility was not impaired by the big central ‘power bulge’ on the bonnet and it had a more vertical windscreen than on other Continental GT cars. The spare wheel lived under the floor of the luggage compartment which in the soft-top car was somewhat cramped (the coupé having slightly more space), but unfortunately petrol fumes penetrated into the boot so that any food left there had to be thrown away and clothes, even in a case, came out smelling of petrol. The steering was very light and high-geared, while extremely good brakes retarded the car from high speeds to a crawl effectively without deviation. The synchromesh could be beaten if the gear lever was used too quickly. Its road holding was of an exceptionally high standard, and with fast cornering there was no tendency for the tail to break away. The engine was notably quiet and gave over 20mpg of fuel but the car only had a 14-gallon fuel tank. The car was priced at only £1480 for a basic version. Purchase tax, however, raised this to £2036.
Then in 1962 I undertook a tough Continental road test of the then latest model, a 3.8-litre, in order to sample the new Channel Air Bridge Service from Southend to Basle and also to watch the 20th Monaco Grand Prix. The car was elevated into the hold of a four-engined Carvair aeroplane which had been a Douglas DC-4, modified by Freddie Laker’s Channel Air Bridge Company to carry five to six cars in the forward hold and 23 passengers in the spacious fuselage. In the 2hr 20min that it took, sandwiches and drinks were served by smart stewardesses, who informed us that Lord Montagu’s 1907 120hp Itala had used the same method of transport for its outing at Monza.
By teatime the car had been unloaded at Basle and we were on our way down to Monaco, stopping overnight in Bescançon, in a car that had such good performance (doing 0-100mph in 16sec) that not much overtook us. Next day we continued to Corpse, Gap and Sisteron. On the road to Col de Restefond with alarming unguarded drops, appalling road surfaces and innumerable hairpins we came to a snowdrift which forced us to retreat. The bad road conditions had caused a small crack in the unprotected sump and had flattened the exhaust pipes. This showed that it was not a rally or GT car. The gearbox again proved not to be suitable for that type of terrain as one had to depress the heavy clutch pedal to effect quiet changes; also long spells in second gear caused the transmission tunnel and handbrake lever to get somewhat hot. The enjoyment of its impeccable road holding and all-round independent suspension was marred by a persistent tapping noise that suggested something was amiss in the valve gear.
After spending a night in Monte Carlo we took the E-type for repairs into the British Motors Ltd premises, who were busy repairing other exhaust systems and body dents in Jaguars that had taken part in a Jaguar DC Rally. They had also fitted a new universal joint to Bruce McLaren’s personal E-type prior to his winning the Monaco GP in a V8 Cooper-Climax.
While there we encountered Edward Eves, who had travelled in his pre-war Miles Whitney Straight from Bagington in Coventry to Cannes, then by train to Monte Carlo. We also met Jenks, who took the Jaguar for a brief run up La Turbie hill and over the Turini and Col de Braus and was also impressed but declared it large, noisy and heavy as to steering and gear-change compared to that of his Porsche.
After watching two practice days and the GP itself we departed at 4am on the Monday, heading for Calais via Lyon and Chalon with three stops for fuel because of that small 14-gallon tank! The total distance of 777.7 miles took 12hr 20min running time; the car showed no sign of distress, the brakes as powerful as ever, oil pressure steady and the engine as responsive as at the start.
Two days later we took the car to Coventry to reset the ignition for English fuel as it had started to ‘pink’. There we were told that 150 E-types emerged each week and they were all bench-tested, then the sumps were dropped for inspection of the bearings. The hoods were individually tailored, a slave hard-top was fitted to every car, and each completed E-type was road-tested before a final inspection, some 35 drivers being employed on these tests.
One matter completely baffled me – why there should be such a high insurance premium on a car that could not be safer, more docile or instil greater confidence than this stupendously clever 150mph Jaguar.