Unlike my friends, when I was a child I used to enjoy being sent to Coventry. Those of you who have been there will know it is not a typical sightseer’s destination. But I had two reasons for enjoying the trip.
Firstly, staying with Uncle Ray and Auntie Aud was always fun as their daughter Cheryl and I were great friends. We would be allowed to go off on adventures my watchful Mum would have disapproved of back at home in Luton. Everyone needs a bad influence friend and she was mine.
But the second reason was that amongst the grim industrial estates of Coventry, was Browns Lane, the home of Jaguar cars. I was growing up in the mid ‘60s and it would not be unusual to see Mark II and Mark 10 Jaguars out on test runs in the area. Sometimes they would even be prototypes of new models.
And the car I most liked to catch a glimpse of was the legendary E Type.
From the glass fairings over the headlights to the huge louvred bonnet to the twin central exhausts, this feline machine purred pure speed. The first production cars were timed at 150mph on speed runs along the M1 – making it the fast road car in the world at the time. The Jaguar test drivers would, of course, be clapped in irons if they tried it today.
Sadly, over the years the E Type got fatter, uglier, more powerful with a V12 engine and yet, amazingly, slower. In 1975 the ageing cat was put out of her misery and replaced by the XJS. This large and awkward fat cat coupe was based on the XJ6 saloon, ironically a very handsome car. An opportunity thoroughly missed and never put right – until now.
The E Type remained the last of its alphabetical line until the 2013 launch of the F Type, a full 38 years after the demise of the E Type. The new car is generally regarded as very good, but it hasn’t created the stir of its ancestor.
When I joined the Classic Car Club, a weekend with an E Type was at the top of my ‘to do’ list. But I wanted to save it until I had tried some contemporaries. So far these have included an Aston Martin, Jensen Interceptor, Ford Mustang and an original Mini Cooper. They all have their virtues and looked fabulous – but were disappointing in many ways. These included such unimportant issues as reliability, handling, safety, quality and even performance.
The day had finally arrived to try the E Type. Previously, I have picked up the club’s cars in daylight from their quiet location in Pitfield Street in London’s N1. But, on this occasion, I was coming back from a work trip and the car was waiting for me in the dark of the London City airport car park. Oh dear.
A metallic gunmetal grey with red leather interior, this early 3.8 litre wore its 50 years very lightly. When Enzo Ferrari first saw the E Type at the 1961 Motor Show he said it was ‘The most beautiful car ever made’. You can’t ask for more sincere praise.
So is this E Type as good as it looks? First impressions were slightly distracted by the need to manoeuvre out into the evening traffic and find my way to the M11. But it is a testament to the excellence of the E Type that if felt comfortable straight away. Yes, it is as good as it looks.
A twist of the key, a press of the starter button and the engine fires up with what felt like real enthusiasm. It sounds like a straight six with none of the deep beat of a V6 or V8. The noise of a classic British sports car.
The short gear lever snicks (yes that is the noise it makes) into place very precisely, although the early gearbox had no synchromesh on 1st gear. In that gear it sounds like a tractor. Once I was into second the car really began to fly. The wooden steering wheel feels pure Le Mans and the instruments have that old Smiths ‘white on black’ aircraft look.
As with all the other classics I’ve tried, the dials are barely visible at night – and the rev counter gives up early. Warning lights go on and off with no apparent connection to what’s actually happening. Electrics are the really important source of improvement in cars in the last 50 years. Yes, I know safety is better too, but you don’t notice that until you hit something.
There is a wonderful 360 view through the beautifully shaped windows and around the slim pillars. Visibility was definitely better back then – poor safety again, ironically. But the bulging bonnet goes on way beyond what you can see from the driver’s seat. The bumpers are slivers of chrome that would do little to protect the cat’s nose from a world nearer than the driver expects. Meanwhile there are no less than three tiny wipers making a vain attempt to clean the windscreen.
Compared with all the other classics I’ve tried, the biggest dynamic differences concerned the really important things: handling, roadholding and ride. The high profile tyres help with comfort and it felt very comfortable and secure. While the steering is not power assisted, it was accurate and easy going beyond parking speeds. One of the first cars built with four-wheel disc brakes, they are excellent. Unlike the drums on the Mustang I borrowed, which constantly reminded you of your own mortality.
I took the E Type to meet Mum. My dear old Dad would have loved it, so Mum bravely fell into the bucket seat for a run. Getting her back out was not so easy, but she gave the car her seal of approval.
Luisa has no love of cars, but even she was impressed as we rolled along with the sunroof wound back on the way to Sainsbury’s. And the unusual side-opening hatchback even coped with our groceries.
Every other car weekend has included some sort of drama or disaster. But, almost disappointingly, the E Type never missed a beat. Nothing fell off. Nevertheless I was relieved to hand the keys back at 6.30am on Monday morning and get back on my bike.
The E Type is a truly wonderful car: fabulous to look at, to sit in and to drive. It is a milestone in motoring history, which is as exciting to me today as it was when I saw it fly by on the streets of Coventry 50 years ago.
I can’t imagine the next car I borrow leaving such a strong impression.