LJK Setright on the Jaguar E-type: CAR+ archive, November 1979

Published: 09 September 2015

My elder daughter has just passed her 16th birthday, and she never notches up another year without recalling my original E-type Jaguar. A month before she was born, her mother was taken into hospital for observation; and on that same day the car was sent down from Coventry for me to test. I was on my own, free to go wherever I fancied and at whatever hour. To take me, I had the car that was the sensation of the early ‘60s, the car that, even two years after production had begun in 1961, could still turn more heads than a platoon of poachers in a poultry farm. It fitted like a glove, went like the wind, looked like a million dollars, and sold for a little more than a couple of thousand pounds. Even though it might be doomed in some hands to idle its life away in a top-gear London loiter, it carried about itself everywhere the immense and unquestioned authority of a car that was known to be capable of 150mph.

It was time for me to fulfil a long-cherished ambition, to see the dawn from the top of Worcester Beacon, to watch the sun come upon the 12 counties within the purview of that loftiest of the Malvern Hills. From my home then in Hampton it was a moderately long drive, but it should not feel long, or take long in an E-type; and in any case I was free to set off whenever I liked.

What I did not like was getting up early in the morning. Getting up even before it was morning was far too difficult, so I set off with less time before sun-up than I would have liked. This was going to have to be a faster drive than I had intended. Yet I refused to drive fast forthwith, forcing myself as always to warm the engine and transmission gently to their tasks. The Jaguar had started promptly enough in the misty chill, and oozed away under the nice control of the mixture enrichment for the three big SU carburettors, a control that moved with such oily precision in its quadrant on the fascia that it might have been fitted by a jeweller. Half revs and a quarter throttle were enough as the Jaguar tiptoed out through the suburbs towards the Great West Road, its nylon-bodied tyres gradually hushing their patter and rounding out the ride as they lost their overnight cold set.

With the heat came the speed. That enormously heavy XK six-cylinder engine was always a hot one: you could burn your fingers on the handsomely knurled dipstick. A lot of its heat came through into the cabin of the E-type, radiated from the lozenge-textured sheet aluminium of the transmission tunnel. Driven hard, the E-type was a sweat shop, almost as bad as the Austin Healy 3000, but there was always the consolation that it was endowed with a hot engine in more sense than one. Crowned with the cylinder-head developed for the racing D-type in the mid-‘50s, it was said to produce 265bhp, and even after making the necessary deductions from this gross figure, the reality of 220bhp was enough to show what really high performance could be like. The car was after all a surprisingly small one; the aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer had fashioned it after the style of his long-nosed D-type, the elliptical cross-section of which enforced a fairly narrow track; and with that tall engine magically housed beneath an impossibly low bonnet, the E-type’s frontal area was less than that of many a less-engined sports car. Given the traction of that clever independent rear suspension, so that the power could be effectively transmitted to the road, there was no doubt that whenever one wanted the Jaguar to leap it leapt, with more than 90mph coming up with the end of a quarter of a mile from a standing start 15 seconds earlier. The engagement of top gear in that old and sluggish but quite unbreakable Moss gearbox could be postponed until a three-figure speed was registered on the well-presented instruments, and as the Jaguar and I gathered speed through the night this became the norm rather than the exception.

There is many a fast driver frustrated by a slow navigator, and any ambitions I had in the former direction were invariably countered by my limitations in the latter. I was looking for the M4, such as it was in 1963, a couple of miles or so earnest for the future, a brief but inspiring strip that I believe is now the Maidenhead Spur. I remember that I got lost when approaching it, for I overtook the same car – a chauffeur-driven Rover 3-litre – twice in the course of about 10 minutes, once on the approaches to the motorway, and the second time, feeling a lot less clever, while actually on it. That little bit of the M4 was a disappointment with no dramatic feast of speed to mark itself in my memory; it was almost empty, but not of mist.

Perhaps the best bit of the whole drive came when climbing out of those mists at the far end, diving down to Henley and then climbing up and over the Chilterns, the road winding in my headlamps, the car regularly in third gear and frequently in second, its attitudes varying in each bend and corner as I played with the throttle and that lovely thin-rimmed laminated wood steering wheel. The handling was astonishingly good, for the E-type had not been yet spoiled by radial-ply tyres. In those days radials were not to be trusted on a realty fast sporting car, their characteristics at and beyond breakaway constituting a greater liability than their other assets might justify undertaking. High-speed nylon bias-ply tyres were the best choice, and the best of them were the Avon Turbospeed and the India Autospeed – the latter a developed and much improved version of the Dunlop RS5 with which the E-type was shod. The Dunlop was directionally unstable under heavy braking, but apart from that it was not at all bad for its times, and the only time I needed to employ really heavy braking on this journey was one when the tyre characteristics never came under review…

LJK Setright discusses the Jaguar E-type

That was later. Meanwhile I was reeling in the unwinding road in the E-type’s cowled headlamp beans, but the sun was overtaking me. Dropping to a respectful burble through the still dreaming spires of Oxford, I could see their pinnacles all too clearly; and as I quit the city on the A40, dawn had already broken, and I knew that I was already too late.

The road was faster now as I fled before the speeding sun. Flogging the E-type hard to maintain station as well as I could, the heat billowed up in the cockpit, and that glorious wail of the 3.8 engine, which was so smooth and safe right up to 6000rpm, whirled out behind in a great vortex of acoustic spume, as the E-type engraved its course on the map of a new day. Through each sleeping village on the route, the song was hushed. Then, when the hedges were unbroken again, the car drew breath, its trumpets spouted their cataracts, and the jaguar swallowed some more of its shortening shadow.

After 105 miles in 90 minutes I stopped in the centre of Cheltenham to read the map. Elgar’s hills were not far distant now, but the urgency had gone with the dawn, and it was at a comfortable amble, merely twice as fast as everything else on the road, that I guided the Jaguar up to the Malvern’s feet. There, I left it: the proper way to way to climb the Worcester Beacon was on foot.

Standing on its summit I knew that this was a lovely day, and I had not missed much of it. Looking around all the encircling counties, from all the Cotswolds fitful under the sun to much of mystic Wales still under a spell, I was pleased that the departing shades did not mist much of it. I came down the hill singing buttoned the E-type back into life (do you recall the joy, the deep-rooted satisfaction, of a proper starter button in the days before the Swiss conned us all into key starts?), and drove off to a hotel in Great Malvern for breakfast.

After that it was time to go to work, something that – mirabile dictum – I did in those days, before I was even independent, yet alone unemployable. Somehow I found my way to the M1 and spurred the E-type, hightailing it for London. Maybe this was what the car was really meant for, flying fast on smooth roads just as those ancestral D-types flew at the starched and ironed circuit of Le Mans, though they were at a loss in any more rigorous road race. It all seemed so easy, being myself as much at ease as the cramped driving position allowed. It was a lovely little cabin, beautifully compact, and supportive in most of its constrictions. I remember some years later I stepped out of an E-type and into a Lamborghini and felt lost in its vast expanses of wasted elbow room. The early E-type, though, was short of legroom and did not take kindly to drivers who carried their heads high – but it was so good at cutting everybody else down to size that one could forgive it. On the M1 that morning, I exceeded 140mph for the first time in my driving career…and I was only doing 130 when some mindless Morris Minor stepped out of the middle lane directly into my path.

That was when I discovered that the brakes of the early E-type, one each of the pads of which Sir William Lyons h ad somehow saved his customary three-halfpence, had not much appetite for work after several miles of high-speed wind in the willows. I cannot remember now exactly what I did to save myself, but I remember judging at the time it was rather clever; and I remembered every few miles thereafter to tickle the brake pedal with my left toes to restore some warmth to the brakes and keep them ready for work. When they were hot, they were very good.

I was got too, but by the time I arrived at my London office I was by no means bothered. I do not know if the staff were, for that was the era of Setright in natty suiting, and to see me arrive in plus fours and in need of a shave may have undermined their faith in the permanence of things.

In my mind I occasionally still am in that E-type, always that 3.8. It would have been absurd not to be obsessed with it; the very idea that it was possible to buy in the 1960s a mass-produced two-seater of modest size, dramatic appearance and quite fantastic performance for less than £2100 (apart from tax) smote the entire motoring world with a sense of awe that it had not felt since the unveiling of the original XK120 – at which I was also present as a 1949 Silverstone spectator. Almost everything that Jaguar did to the car afterwards spoiled it. Their revisions to the braking system (including a change of servo), and the substitution of their own all-synchromesh gearbox for that curmudgeonly old Moss, were the only significant improvements. The replacement of the phenomenal 3.8-litre engine by the more flexible but rough-running 4.2, so severely limited by structural considerations that it could not be safely run at anything like the speed of the 38, was a dreadful shame, and the car’s adoption of radial ply tyres did not do it much good either.
By the time that it had been through the two-plus-two phase and eventually acquired a V12 engine in its third phase, it was no longer the same kind of car; indeed there has never since been the same kind of car. The Italians never quite produced an equivalent, their products being more costly and pernickety; the Germans certainly never did, theirs being fatter and less sensual. Only the Americans, of all people, came anywhere near with the Chevrolet Corvette but that was a bruiser; it never had the aristocratic demeanour of the E-type.

It was extraordinary, because although the Jaguar was never by absolute standards a cheap car, it was never by comparative standards anything but a cheap car, so although every customer expected all things from it, he did not actually demand them. Of course, the one he bought from his local dealers could not match the 150mph reached by the carefully prepared cars road tested by the motoring journals. Of course it was cheaply made and finished, and the dampers needed replacing as often as the tax disc, and the drag coefficient was a lot higher than the shape suggested, and it frightened a lot of people who had not realised that what it demanded was not skill but judgement if its performance were to be used to the full. Today, 18 years after its introduction, the opportunity would be a fine thing.

By LJK Setright

Thinker, aesthete, engineering evangelist, our most celebrated contributor over three decades