The idea was born, as good ideas usually are, in the pub. Jaguar design director Ian Callum and his colleague David Fairbairn got talking over a pint about how Jaguar had never truly replaced the E-Type, arguably its greatest car, and that something had to be done.
“We discussed various plans but couldn’t quite find the right one,” says Callum, who famously began his love affair with Jaguar early on when his grandfather took him to see an E-Type at the local dealership. “Then David moved to our new Special Operations division and the idea for a continuation series of six Lightweight E-Types suddenly seemed an absolute natural.”
Back in the early 1960s, when the Lightweight was new, Jaguar’s fortunes were changing rapidly. In the post-war decade, the company had climbed to world prominence on the extraordinary popularity of the XK120 sports car and its six-cylinder, twin-cam XK engine, which was soon used to power some beautiful new saloons and the famous family of C-Type and D-Type Jaguar sports/racing cars that scored dozens of international wins, including five Le Mans victories in seven years.
However, a disastrous fire at the Browns Lane factory in 1957 set the company on a new course that led to the launch of the E-Type at the Geneva motor show in 1961.
This new sports car’s beauty and affordability made it such an enormous hit that the company’s founder, Sir William Lyons, turned most of Jaguar’s resources to building road cars. The competitions department lost its pre-eminence – just as a new crop of lightweight rivals like Ferrari’s 250 GTO started winning races.
Lacking the time and resources to build an all-new GT, Jaguar’s racers hatched a plan to build an ultra-light E-Type using aluminium components pressed on the same tools as the standard steel cars. Given the material differences between steel and aluminium, the plan looks naïve nowadays, but it worked well enough.
The Lightweight never scored the race successes like the D-Type, but it was soon recognised as the rarest, quickest and most beautiful of all E-Types, its provenance enhanced because it was often driven by such luminaries as Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Roy Salvadori. Twelve cars were built of a planned batch of 18 before the company moved on.
All of which is why, about a week ago, I came to be standing in Jaguar’s newly commissioned Heritage workshops at Browns Lane, looking into a glass case at a hand-written ledger from 1963. One of its pages contained six numbers – and six blank spaces for specifications – left there 52 years earlier for the half a dozen Lightweight E-Types never built.
These spaces, the recent launch of Jaguar Heritage inside Special Operations, and the company’s current boast that it builds the world’s most advanced aluminium cars all induced its management to sanction the production of six ‘continuation’ Lightweights as FIA-approved racing cars for sale in 2015.
The cars, all sold, cost about £1 million each – small beer against recent auction prices achieved for members of the original dozen, 11 of which survive.
My own Lightweight E-Type tour started in workshops at Whitley normally reserved for the creation of super-secret prototypes. There, Callum and project manager Chris Burdett explained how several standard E-Types (whose original drawings were long gone) were measured, digitised and corrected for the bumps and bulges that were usual in the 1960s.
The left-hand side of a traditional E-Type was found to be the best, so it was scanned and reversed to form the right-hand side. Resin tools were made and production began, with only a handful of the car’s 340 components being made by outside suppliers. Work began at the start of 2014 and so far a prototype (Car Zero) and the first production car are finished. The second is in trim and final assembly at Browns Lane, the third is being built and all will be complete by Christmas.
The challenge, Burdett explains, has been to recreate the Lightweight E-Types using traditional materials and joining methods so that these can be fairly claimed to be true members of the Lightweight family, fulfilling FIA stipulations so they can be homologated as ‘period’ racing cars. Old-style rivets hold the panels together. The aluminium is as close as possible to the aluminium of 1963.
The engine is a dry-sumped, wide-angle-headed, alloy-blocked 3868cc XK straight six, as used in period by Lightweights but recently built by the East Sussex-based engineering firm Crosthwaite & Gardiner.
Customers can order it either with triple twin-throat Weber carburettors or with period Lucas mechanical fuel injection as an option. Power? Jaguar’s blurb talks about “well over 300bhp” on carbs, but those close to the project talk of 340bhp at 6000rpm (and a 6000rpm redline) with 280lb ft of torque at 4500rpm if, as in Car Zero, the engine has fuel injection.
The gearbox is Jaguar’s ‘new for 1964’ all-synchromesh four-speeder. The wheels are familiar-looking centre-lock 15in alloys in rough-cast magnesium, 7.0in wide up front and 8.0in at the rear, wearing Dunlop CR65 race tyres, whose tread pattern is every bit as iconic as the car’s shape.
On the Navarra circuit, 90 minutes south-east of Bilbao in northern Spain, I was allowed five laps each in two new-generation Lightweights, Car Zero and Car One, both to feel the difference between Weber and Lucas fuelling and to experience a fully finished car as an owner will do.
These are small, beautiful cars, with exposed rivets that remind you of the Spitfire age. The doors are tiny but the cockpit, entirely untrimmed, has a fairly familiar E-Type instrument and dashboard layout, with a turn-key start and a row of toggle switches beneath, one of which activates the electric pumps that push fuel from the superb alloy tank, fed by a huge flip-top filler (and with a secret modern bag tank within, for safety reasons).
Press an old-style button, not one of today’s dinner-plate editions, and the engine erupts, shaking the car because it’s solidly mounted into the E-Type’s oddball structure, a frontal spaceframe that joins a monocoque at the firewall.
The engine blips with zero delay between foot movement and exhaust blast. The seat feels low and comfortable as you plug the gearlever into first, then notice surprising softness in the clutch as you move away. First gear is very tall; give it some revs or you’ll stall. To the modern driver, both engine versions need clearing if allowed to dawdle in the mid-ranges, but the fuel-injected one runs marginally more smoothly.
When given their head, both versions pull lustily. The whole car weighs only 1000kg, so 340bhp really makes it go once it hits its stride. It’s not a quick 0-60mph car, because of the tall first gear, but from about 30mph the ratios, although few, seem closely enough stacked to suit the torque.
The brakes, 12.25in unassisted discs up front and standard E-Type discs behind, feel distinctly vintage in the way you have to jump on the pedal to generate initial bite but quite secure once you get the hang of it. The steering, unassisted rack and pinion, is the soul of directness via a huge, wood-rimmed wheel with a proper Jaguar motif in the middle.
However, beyond the beauty or the power or the steering is this Lightweight E’s wonderful handling balance. This is not a high-grip car in modern terms, although of course it has plenty of roadholding compared with conventional road cars. But the joy of driving it is in the beautiful balance, the feeling of zero roll in such a narrow car, and the grace of its transition into an old-style drift. You corner this Lightweight E on the edge of oversteer, yet never with anything as low-rent as tail-happiness.
On those Dunlops, the car goes from full grip to less grip, dancing around its limits, with a willingness that is simply demeaned by the word ‘breakaway’. Five laps plus a few more as passenger to a more capable demo driver reminded me of the existence of genuinely benign, controllable on-limit handling in cars like this. It was an intoxicating experience that, along with the generous torque and mighty din of that engine, made this car quite different from any modern of my experience.
For an inveterate believer that nearly all motoring progress is good, this was a serious sanity check.
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