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.