Jabbeke, Belgium, 21 October 1953. Jaguar engineer and racing driver Norman Dewis slips into the cockpit of an XK120, ready to head on to the new Jabbeke highway to set a new production car speed record. Note the word ‘production’.
Dewis sits on a piece of foam on the floor, because with the seat in place, the aircraft canopy his colleagues are about to secure over his head won’t reach the bodywork. The passenger space is covered by a rigid metal tonneau and the underfloor is enclosed. The engine is in a high state of tune and the XK’s right front headlight has been removed to increase air density in the induction system. It’s a misty, cool early morning. Every extra horsepower counts.
Dewis makes his first run and, minutes later, returns down the unopened carriageway to pass through a flying mile in both directions. His average speed of 172.4mph is a new record, verified by the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium.
The following week’s issue of The Autocar reports it in a couple of short paragraphs, and reminds readers that the canopy and undertray are offered as optional equipment on the XK. Which is, I presume, a bit like the spoilers and undertray Ford fitted to roadgoing Mondeos to homologate them for BTCC racing after Alfa Romeo arrived in the 1990s with wings and splitters. No one saw any of those, either. Car makers: bending the rules since time immemorial.
Anyhoo, 172.4mph was fast enough for the local police, who called time on official testing on the Jabbeke highway, reckoning that speeds were getting just a little too high.
Dewis continued to race for Jaguar, including at the awful 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours, and he remained Jaguar’s chief engineer for decades. Dewis still hopes to take the XJ13 (the car from which he emerged unscathed after a high-speed roll at MIRA) to 100mph on his 100th birthday.
The Jabbeke road, meanwhile, returned to public use. According to locals, the Jaguar test took place on a brand-new stretch between Jabbeke and the coastal town of Oostende, but the highway ran in the other direction from Jabbeke, too, past the small town of Aalter and east towards Gent. The Jabbeke-Aalter stretch had been used for previous speed records by closing one carriageway while contra-flowing traffic onto the other. It was no longer a satisfactory solution.
Yet, eight years later, just weeks before the Geneva motor show in March 1961, Jaguar was back. Or, rather, a Jaguar was back. The Autocar had been given a new E-type for road testing, weeks before its Geneva unveiling. It was a coupé, registration 9600HP, and on that same stretch of highway it hit 150mph. The Autocar’s great rival, The Motor (later incorporated into this magazine), was loaned a roadster for the same purpose; it reached 150mph in one direction, but not both, on a stretch of road in Italy.
That top speed was one of many reasons why the E-type shocked the motoring world. Motor racing really did improve the breed back then, and the E-type borrowed much from the Le Mans-winning D-types. It looked sensational, it was exceptional value, and its performance made it something of a forerunner to the supercar, which was truly born later in the 1960s.
During its 13-year production life, the E-type came to epitomise all that was both good and bad about the British motor industry of the time. It was revolutionary at launch and honed to iron away a few of its flaws. But production was sometimes suspended by industrial action, the car grew longer and heavier and stayed on sale for longer than it should have, until it became the faintly ghastly Series III, equipped with a V12 engine with which its chassis was never intended to cope.
Jaguar didn’t develop a true replacement for that 1961 car. Instead, the E was replaced in 1975 by the 2+2 XJ-S, a larger, more luxurious grand tourer. Truth be told, fine car though the current XK is, we’ve been waiting for a true replacement for the E-type since the end of the 1960s.
It has arrived in the shape of the F-type, just when Jaguar needs it least; the XF, XK and XJ ranges are arguably the strongest line-up Jaguar has had in its history. So what better time to revisit the E-type than now? Truth be told, we don’t have an agenda or a specific aim. We just fancied a whizz in the car that lends the F-type its place in the alphabet, both to see what it’s like now and to imagine what it was like then.
The most famous coupé, 9600HP, The Autocar’s road test car, is now in private hands. But Jaguar still owns The Motor’s test car, 77RW, and it’s still in good fettle.
On an autumnal morning, we arrive at Jaguar’s heritage centre, Browns Lane, Coventry. That’s the last time anyone will write that. We’re shown upstairs, where a move is in full swing. The site was sold years ago, and Taylor Wimpey is now ready to do what house builders do, so Jaguar is going and this is the last job that will leave the facility. It’s easy to get sad and nostalgic at times like this. I generally try not to; things were not intrinsically ‘better’ back in the day, but it’s a shame that Jaguar does not now have a permanent heritage site open to the public.
We’re shown 77RW. The roadster is one of the prototypes and survives with all that was brilliant and flawed about early E-types. It feels pleasingly narrow as you slip into the low-backed bucket seat, the small door clacks shut and you’re faced with an appealing, simple dash. The steering wheel is overtly raked and the driving position a touch cramped, with the pedals offset. But it’s a place to do business. The engine fires easily, I gingerly slot first, nose out into a suburban residential street which is about to get a lot more ordinary, and leave the Browns Lane site behind, destination Belgium.
You can tell a lot about a car in the first few hundred metres. Pedals are well spaced and evenly weighted. The steering is precise, weighty, with little discernible slack. Most impressively, the E-type rides supremely. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that it smothers surface imperfections as well as a modern Mercedes S-class. Throttle response is wonderful, too, as it generally is on big, carburettor-fed engines. There’s a touch of cough and tickle on large throttle inputs from lower revs, but beyond that it’s a linear delight.
However, the four-speed gearbox, is hopeless. You’d think there was something wrong with it, but heritage engineers say it was always thus. There’s no synchro on first. Second wants double declutching or a three-second pause to engage. And although third and fourth are fine, there’s no overdrive. It’s far and away the biggest dynamic weak point, but I’m getting the hang of it by the time we arrive at the Eurotunnel terminal, by which time I’ve decided that, as ways to head to the Continent in agreeable weather conditions go, an E-type takes some beating.
Jabbeke is an hour from Calais and an E-type is a pleasing way to arrive. There’s a plaque commemorating Dewis and Jaguar’s achievements, and many locals get the significance of an old Jaguar tooling around for photos.
These days, it’s easy not to notice Jabbeke or the road’s significance in production-car record breaking during the middle of last century. Today, the A10 is a busy stretch of road and there is the odd sweep which would take on more significance at a ton and a half.
Not that standard E-types would have reached 150. At launch the E-type had a triple-carburettor 3.8-litre motor from the XK120S. The engines fitted to the road test cars were... well, ‘optimised’. When 9600HP’s current owner stripped the engine, he realised it had a gas-flowed head. Theoretically, any good engine tuner could have made such tweaks in a way a garage couldn’t to a modern engine, but the demonstrators made closer to their claimed 265bhp than any production motor did.
Even today, 77RW’s engine feels strong. There’s a broad spread of torque and ample power even without going towards the engine’s 5500rpm peak. Jaguar has supplied us with a chaperone, who will notice if I am an eejit. So I content myself with cruising at good speed, up and down the Jabbeke road. We go to the west of town to Oostende, where large LED arrows signify the end of the road at a roundabout decorated with snails. Then we head to the east of town, where it’s busier and three-lane. Testers would have once used the full length of road; today, more sedately, Price takes photos from overhead while I cruise back and forth. The E-type tracks straight and true, but I’m not really fancying the idea of doing 150mph on the public highway in a car with no seatbelts.
Then Price radios that he’s finished shooting.
It’s a few miles to the next exit, the chaperones are on the bridge with Stuart and I’m on my own. Just me and a priceless 51-year-old car with no seatbelts, no roof and no rollover protection. So I do the sensible thing. The thing we’d all do: I double-declutch down to third and give it the lot.
A cough, a hesitation, and then the straight six is away, singing, with a smoothness to die for. It feels as quick as a wrung-out Clio Cup. Extraordinary in its day. Through third and into fourth, the steering remains steady and the body untroubled by shake or vibration. This, despite the lack of overdrive, is why the E-type gained a reputation for being a supreme high-speed machine. It’s so easy, so effortless, so capable of bounding to 100mph and more in a few breaths. I back off only out of respect for the speed limit rather than fears about the car. It’s still some machine, assuming you’re prepared to look at it in context. A modern car would blow it away in most respects, of course. But it’s telling that only now, when it’s brimming with confidence, has Jaguar had the nerve to create a true successor.