Racer and road-car compared
When the Jaguar XJS was announced in 1975, there was some disappointment amongst aficionados of the make about the character of the car. It was seen as too much of a Grand Tourer rather than the racy sportscar that the long-lived E-type had seemed, even in its final, and heaviest, form. Yet the XJS is currently enjoying a devastatingly successful season on the racetrack, with every chance of taking the 1984 European Touring Car Championship. The E-type on the other hand, while starting life as the most performance that could be bought for the money, made relatively little impact internationally on the track in ’61 and ’62.
Its rivals in the GT class were the small production specialised products racing models from Ferrari (250 GT) and Aston Martin (DB4 GT), costing considerably more than the Jaguar and benefiting from a great deal of specialist competition development. Jaguar sales were thriving as a result of the extraordinary value that the E offered, and there was therefore not the incentive to implement a full-scale racing programme, even if the company could have afforded the time and the money required.
However, the domination of the Aston Martin DB4GT and Ferrari 250 GT and GTO did nor reflect well on the company, no matter how bravely the E types fared in an unequal struggle. Briggs Cunningham’s car, shared with Roy Salvadori, achieved a fourth place at Le Mans in 1962 and had some success in America, while Salvadori and Dick Protheroe consistently ran near the front in a variety of national races in Britain. So the cars obviously had potential, but were just too heavy to beat the very light Ferraris.
The answer was to experiment with weight reduction, and after some preliminary work on Coombs’ car for Salvadori, it was decided to build some cars with alloy monocoques. These “Competition Spec” cars were all roadsters with aluminium hardtops, stiffened suspension using lighter components, larger brakes, alloy wheels as used on the D-type, and a 300 bhp development of the classic XK engine. This had an alloy 3.8-litre dry-sumped block with fuel injection and a new cylinder head in which the valves were mounted at a much wider angle for improved breathing. Twelve cars were built to this specification, plus a further three which used the standard steel centre section but in other respects were what are now known as “lightweights”.
At last the loyal Jaguar campaigners such as Cunningham and Protheroe had competitive machines, and a class win at Sebring was soon followed by victory for Graham Hill in the International Trophy at Snetterton. In the Nurburgring 1000 kms of the same season, two lightweights which had been delivered only days before the race managed to maintain fourth place during the race, Lumsden’s car taking over from Peter Lindner’s when engine trouble intervened. Although Lumsden later crashed, it showed that the Ferrari GTOs had a new rival for Le Mans.
In the event an accident and gearbox trouble took out two of the three Cunningham-entered lightweights at the Sarthe, but the third touched seventh and eventually finished ninth, in only the first year of the model’s competition career. It was, however, a crucial period in sportscar racing, and the appearance in 1963 of the Ferrari 250LM and its subsequent homologation heralded the arrival of the mid-engined sports-racer which would displace the road-going GT like the E-type from the circuits.
Fourteen of the special Es were built and used exclusively for racing, but there was one which was intended purely as a road car. This was for Sir Hugh Ropner, and was one. of the three cars which used steel centre sections (chassis no S850817, S being the symbol of lightweight). The car is now in the possession of Mr John Foster of Fife, and has as its stablemate another rather special lightweight E type, both of which cars Motor Sport was recently able to drive.
Being intended as a road car, Hugh Ropner naturally wanted more flexibility in his engine, so that the specification of this car differs from the others. It is one of the only two to use wet-sump lubrication (the other going to Pierre Bardinon in France) and is alone in having the standard iron block and narrow-angle head to improve mid-range torque. Three twin-choke Weber carburetters replaced the fuel injection, although it retains the injection pump drive fitting. The advantage of sticking with the iron block casting is simply one of reliability — the alloy block saved weight but because it was cast in exactly the same mould as the steel version was not rigid enough to withstand racing stresses. Almost all of the original blocks have now been damaged beyond repair (fewer than 20 were cast, but Foster has managed to find a perfect alloy block which he is keeping for a rainy day, along with a complete D-type engine and other Jaguar rarities).
The other half of this fascinating pairing has a more complicated, if equally unique, history. It is actually one of the earliest E-types built, chassis No. 16, and was one of the pre-production prototypes of the standard car. It was sold to Jack Lambert who raced it in 1961 and 1962, having it improved bit by bit at the factory, until between the ’62 and ’63 seasons it was completely rebuilt by Jaguars into the competition spec, except for retaining the steel centre. This effectively makes it the sixteenth of the 15 genuine lightweights, but the only one without the “S” prefix to the chassis plate.
Driven by John Harper and Peter Merrick, this car went on to win its class at a Nurburgring event in 1965, and the following weekend the pair, who had driven the car from England, tackled a race at Spa. They were in the lead in the closing stages when they realised that their shoestring budget would not stretch to petrol for the drive home, but that any petrol taken on during the race was free. . . So a last lap pit stop turned a certain win into a safe second with the bonus of a full tank.
That John Foster now owns two lightweight E-types came about rather by accident. He knew of the Lambert car and approached its then owner to see this was for sale. They could not agree on a price, however, so Foster advertised to see if he could exchange his V12 E-type for any car with an interesting competition history. He was offered the Ropner car, which of course had no competition behind it at all but was all the more interesting for that, a deal was struck and he became the new owner. On the same day, he discovered that his standing offer for the Lambert car had been accepted. He has not been able to bring himself to part with either of them.
When it arrived it had had a few modifications from its original form; vented discs had for instance been fitted, but Foster has had these replaced by original-pattern plain discs. It also had a blown engine, but a thorough restoration has now seen it with the correct pattern wide-angle big-valve head installed. One of the improvements made by the factory when the car was rebuilt for the 1963 season was to replace the standard Moss four-speed gearbox, never very satisfactory even with the standard road-going car’s power output, with a four-speed competition ‘box, as fitted to 11 out of the 15 lightweights and semi-lightweights. The other four, including the Ropner car, were equipped with five-speed ZF ‘boxes.
Tuning and maintenance on both cars is carried out in England by George Hodge, who used to be Jaguar’s senior engine development engineer. Now retired, he builds only a small number of engines a year, more or less for his own satisfaction.
In order to try out the Lambert car, not currently licensed for the road, we were lucky enough to be able to use the small Knockhill circuit in the south of Fife. This 1.3 mile track situated on a moor above Dunfirmline has experienced changing fortunes since its completion some years ago, hosting more motorcycle races than car events, and running short of investment capital so that spectator facilities are of the simplest. Nevertheless it offers a convenient and demanding test venue for competitors north of the border, with its tight bends and dips and brows.
The plan was to trailer the bright gleaming red racer, the Lambert car, to the circuit but to use the Ropner car, newly resprayed in a sober battleship grey, the way it was meant by driving it via a mixed route of country lanes, a main trunk road, some motorway, and then more fast country roads, before taking it onto the Knockhill circuit to see how its competition breeding compared with its road manners.
Slipping into it through those short, high doors and settling down in front of the large, slender, upright steering wheel reminds one instantly how the shape of the sportscar has changed in the two decades since this one was built. The narrow cockpit and near-vertical wheel seem almost vintage, yet the bulging bonnet probing the road ahead has all the soft curves of the aerodynamic ‘eighties.
A long push on the starter button and a sudden snarl as its six cylinders fire up; a firm push through the long but positive gate into first, and the car is rolling. It feels willing to be pushed to high revs, but pulls so well in the lazy higher gears that it is equally pleasureable to allow it to ooze along in one gear like an automatic or to indulge in more gearchanges than strictly necessary merely to enjoy the snappy throttle response, good ratios, and sharp but progressive clutch action. With one eye on the oil pressure gauge, mindful of a warning tale of a loose pipe junction, the tachometer needle begins to creep higher before each gearshift, the relaxed snuffle of three twin-choke Webers changing to a roar as they begin to work hard. Visibility is superb thanks to the rather upright seating position, and the pronounced overhang of the wings compared to the narrow track allows what seem like impossibly tight lines to be taken between kerbs, all smoothly controlled by the delightful, light but informative steering.
Potholes make themselves firmly felt, but in between the car pursues a placid course which is not in any way tiring, despite the firm damping. A degree of roll makes itself felt inevitably in what is by today’s standards a tall and narrow shape, but merely adds to the sensations of this delightful car. George Hodge estimates the power at about 300 bhp, and all of that is usable, the excellent traction of the famous Jaguar independent rear suspension slinging the car out of corners with the extra urge that the lost weight provides. Even on the motorway noise levels are acceptable despite the reduced insulation, and are mainly composed in any case of those elements that the enthusiast wants to hear — the blare of six cylinders and nearly four litres of engine.
On arrival at the circuit, the plugs were changed for a cooler set, a reminder issued that the brakes were only intended for road use, and then it was out onto the circuit. Sure enough, after a few laps the brake pedal began to get heavier as the brakes, otherwise quite adequate if not startling, complained about such unfair usage. It was enough time, though, to see that the chassis is well behaved right up to the limit of adhesion of the tyres.
That limit, which had seemed very high while trying to hold one’s body steady in the Ropner car’s standard seat, paled beside what the lower, fat-tyred Lambert racer is capable of. A complex roll-cage makes it difficult to slide into the competition seat, and the view out is more restricted. The steering, with its small thick wheel, is very heavy indeed, as are the brakes, which have almost no movement in the pedal, and the stripped-out interior amplifies the raucous noise to an almost physical intensity. Yet the electrifying shove in the back when the throttles are opened balances these racing car characteristics and gives an inkling of why those Jaguar drivers such as Cunningham and Protheroe and Jack Lambert himself remained so faithful to their mounts.
Understeer is the characteristic of the racing E-type unless it is grabbed with both hands and hurled into a corner — it may be a lightweight but it needs a heavyweight behind the wheel to make it perform. But if there are easier racing cars to drive, there could hardly be a pleasanter road-car than the grey hard-top. It has all the best features of the E-type, with the bonus of extra performance and grip, a very practical means of rapid transport, as its owner will affirm after several long and enjoyable journeys. It is altogether a very desirable pairing — each car unique in its own way, even amongst its rare brethren. — G.C.
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