3 May 2013

Driven - Jaguar E-Type V12 Roadster

The Jaguar E-type.  Can you think of another car that evokes such an overwhelmingly positive and misty-eyed response amongst petrolheads old and young, male and female as the E-type?  Enzo Ferrari made a few beautiful cars himself, but admitted the E-type was, "The most beautiful car ever made."

I recently spent 24 hours with a series 3 E-type Roadster, fitted with the 5.3 V12 engine and four speed manual gearbox, courtesy of Great Escape Cars.

The car was painted Old English White and fitted with wire wheels and power steering.  When I first saw it it was parked just inside the Great Escape garage with sunlight draping across it's long bonnet.  I had only previously seen an E-type from a distance - most recently whilst spewing through the chicane at the Goodwood Revival.

Up close and the E-type is even prettier in the metal than it is in photos.  It sits lower than you might imagine.  And whilst the bonnet is long in proportion it's actually quite a compact car.  The V12 writ large under the bonnet, although those lumps and bumps are present on even the 6-cylinder model, and the passenger compartment and boot squidged into the rear half of the car.

We're all familiar with how the E-type looks on the outside so I won't go on apart from to say the timeless design still looks relevant today, although safety and technological advances, emissions regulations, and modern tastes mean that we will never see a car like the E-type again.

Step inside however and, rather than being timeless, the E-type is definitely of its era.  The wooden steering wheel feels thin but smooth between the fingers.  It is mounted on machined aluminium spokes and looks and feels wonderful.

The cockpit is cramped.  The headroom, with the roof up, is limited and a metal bar runs right across the top of your bonce.  The seats, beautifully trimmed in leather, are not very supportive.  The gearbox bell housing intrudes so much that the pedals are crammed close together.  The pedals are deep set and the seat is low so the driving position is legs out, arms just bent.

The switchgear, although 40-odd years old, is sensibly laid-out but comically basic when compared with even a late 80s car.  Big buttons on the dash control the wipers, screenwash, and exterior and interior lights.  Big metal claws are supposed to be the heater controls but control is the wrong word.  The settings are 'furnace' or 'off'.

To the left of the wheel is the manual choke (remember those?)  Pull this out fully, insert the key, turn it, pump the throttle and hopefully catch the engine after a few turns.  If not, try again.  The V12 started first time every time - even when dead cold after an overnight stop.

The engine at idle is wonderfully smooth.  The exhaust, unencumbered with modern trifles such as manufactured sounds from flaps, transmits the pure engine note.  After a minute or two push the choke back in and you're ready to roll.

This is what the exhaust note sounds like at idle.

It's not loud is it?  The V12 is such a smooth, refined lump that it never sounds crackly, never spits flames out the back, never spits and pops, never sounds like a cacophony.  It just emits a simple, deep, raw acknowledgement of power.

On the road and the controls are surprisingly easy, but the cabin size takes some getting used to.  Coming straight from a modern car (I had just spent two days with a Maserati Gran Turismo Sport) and the E-type takes some adjusting to.

With the roof up (it was for most of the time due to the cold) you have to peer under the top of the windscreen, and around the intrusive rear view mirror.  The bonnet might seem long but you do know where it ends.  The E-type is narrow so is easy to place on the road.

After a while you adjust to it's age and era related idiosyncrasies and start to relax and enjoy the E-type.  The gearbox is precise but needs a firm thunk to get it into gear.  You'll never find the wrong gear, never get that horrible graunch of cogs mashing together.  Reverse gear takes some getting used to.  It's a thwack across and down which takes a couple of tries to get right.

The clutch is reasonably light for such an old car with such a big engine.  The bite point is easy to find and you'll very rarely kangaroo away from a standing start - and you will never stall it.  The torque produced by the engine sees to that.

The brakes are strong and firm but do lack the feel and feedback of cars from even a decade after the E-type.  The mantra is press hard to stop - don't under-do it and overestimate the brakes capabilities the first few times you pull up in traffic.

The steering is sensationally fluid.  As good as, or even better than, any car I've driven.  It doesn't have quite the feedback of a Porsche but it is the most wonderfully smooth set-up.  The fixed steering column travels under the engine and out the front where a simple rack and pinion sits ahead of the engine (the front of the engine is slightly ahead of the front axle) and transfers the inputs to the wheels via steering arms mounted to the front of the wheel hubs.  How Jaguar's engineers managed to achieve this fluidity when Audi's are yet to master it I don't know.

The engine produced 276hp and 304 lb ft of torque when it left the factory, and has probably lost a few horsepower and torques in the intervening years.  0-60mph should take 6.4 seconds.  Top speed is 146mph.  The V12 in the car I tested felt wonderfully strong.  It has enough torque to be able to stay in 4th gear from 25mph to top speed.  I once accidentally pulled away in traffic in 3rd gear and it shuddered a little then got on with it and towed us away magnificently.

To drive an E-type is to have fun.  It's as simple as that.  The handling is great.  The car characterful.  The smile on your face says it all.

And strangers wave at you.  Indeed they smile, gawp, turn their heads, stare at you goggle-eyed and, when you are stuck in traffic in the middle of a town with the roof down, they tell you what a great car it is.

Driving an E-type fills you with pride.  You just have to pretend it's yours and everyone loves you.

But as well as having fun it is a noisy experience.  The wind noise is the same with the roof down or up.  It's actually quite easy and quick to put the roof up or down.  It sits in a well behind the seats - not strapped down or contained by anything - and pulls up and over the cockpit.  Then, three clasps have to be guided into place, one at each end and one in the middle.  It can frustrate if you get two in place and the third is trapped underneath the roof but with a little practice it is quite a straightforward procedure.

But, as mentioned, it is just as noisy up or down.  The seals around the windows and roof lining are almost non-existent and above 50mph the wind drowns out quiet conversation.  The car also creaks, rattles and groans.  I loved driving the E-type but would fear its impact on my wallet if I owned it.

I never thrashed the car, as I would a modern one.  I respected it, and that's the point of an E-type, and cars of its ilk.  Sure, rich owners of race-prepared machines cane them round Goodwood and the historic racing circuit but to abuse it is to shorten its life.  And that's not something I, or you, would want to see.

This particular E-type wasn't a fully restored car.  If it was it would be worth upwards of £80,000.  It was an original model (with a new gearbox) that is fettled by men who care about it.  Who want to keep it running not just because that's their business but because they love the old cars in their charge.

Before I met, and drove, the Jaguar E-type I had wanted to do so since I was a little boy.  I was not disappointed by the experience.  It is a lovely, marvellous, magnificent machine that rewards to drive as much as it does just sitting in front of you radiating its beauty.

For a few hundred pounds you too can drive one of Great Escape's E-types.  Mention Speedmonkey and get a 10% discount.

Click here for an account of the weekend my wife and I spent with the E-type and a Maserati GranTurismo Sport.  It was an incredible experience.