In 1961 an E Type was the height of sophistication. And George Best had one, who was less sophisticated. For Joe Bloggs in his Cortina it was even exotic. It was the everyday Ferrari for the sporting high flyer, a role similar to the one fulfilled by the F-Type today.
Assuming that an E Type was ideal, not to say perhaps luxurious, transport for top execs on their way to their oak panelled corner offices, surely you could do exactly the same in one today?
We thought we’d find out. The main hurdles to anyone using an E Type every day today are worries about reliability. Sure, put a little used classic into daily use and it will waive the white flag. We find it takes about a year to make each new car reliable because classics are used so rarely by their owners. For our experiment we took one of our E Types that has been on the fleet for a while and drove it from Harrogate to London in a day. 300 miles imagining we were racing between high powered meetings to discuss whether to buy, buy or sell, sell.
Of course today’s high flyer would skype that sort of thing. Ask E Type man if he had Skype and he’d probably reply ‘yes, series 1 4.2, a beaut.’
We wanted to test, through a combination of motorway and city driving, whether you could commute in an E Type, what it would be like and how it compares to modern commuter wheels. I decided to use our red E Type coupe series 2 4.2, a car I have owned for several years after inheriting it in a sorry state from a hire company in Suffolk. We have spent a lot of money improving the car including engine rebuild, new clutch, rebuilt rear axle and suspension and bodywork improvements. It is one of our busiest and most reliable cars and this winter will be treated to a new interior.
The E Type is a big but small car. In its most beautiful short wheelbase coupe form it is exotically styled but not entirely practical. The doors are small – imagine slipping inside a letter box and you’ll have some idea. 60s man must have been thinner and more lithe than most modern drivers.
You sit a long way back in an E Type, virtually over the back wheels. The dashboard is a thin sliver of padding and scattered dials fronted by a huge wooden wheel. The seat is small – no headrest – and the pedals off down a narrow tunnel. The windscreen is immediately in front with a view down acres and acres of swooping bonnet. Behind is a huge boot with a tiny board to stop everything in the back hitting the driver in the back.
Whatever else it may it may or may not be, the E Type is purposeful. The bonnet may provide quite possibly the best view in motoring but it serves a purpose – it covers a massive engine and channels air efficiently. The dashboard has come to be iconic, a masterpiece of design but it is first and foremost functional – main dials where you want them, auxiliaries and switches within easy reach. The rest of the car is designed to be aerodynamic, that it is also practical with a big boot is a secondary issue. You sit far back in the car to improve weight balance, not because it looks cool.
This is all a very, very long way from modern cars. So many considerations about showroom sparkle, safety, fuel economy and electronic gadgetry muscle into modern car design that our cars rarely combine form and function in a way that the E Type does. It is beautiful because it just is, not because someone tried to make it so.
The E Type is considerably smaller than modern equivalents – long but narrow. But the interior is probably similar size because there are no airbags or side impact bars. In fact the only concession to safety is a bit of padding on the dash top and disc brakes all round – believe it or not, these were considered safety features in 1961.
Whether or not the lack of safety features makes the E Type any less safe than a modern car is an interesting conundrum. Of course, if you do have an accident in an E Type you’ll come off worse than you will in a F-Type. As I zipped down the m1 at 70 though, the big straight six rumbling away, I wondered whether the issue wasn’t what happens in an accident but the likelihood of an accident. In an E Type you feel more vulnerable. You are closer to nature thanks to wind and road noise and you have to concentrate on driving. Original E Type man would never phone and drive or text and drive because he would die immediately. The E Type isn’t hard to drive but it has to be driven. In comparison a modern car turns the driver into an autopilot – it’s silent, cocooning and with endless safety devices and driver aids that reduce the need to actually do anything.
All of which means you drive an E Type with considerably more care and attention than you might do in a modern. You can’t stop quickly so you leave room. You don’t have panoramic mirrors so you plan your lane changes rather than just pulling out. When it rains the wipers do a sterling job of slapping across the screen in perfect unison, but rather less effectively remove water. So you slow down. On b-road corners you can feel the weight of the car shift and the tyres and steering tell you where the limit is, so you work within it. On A-roads you could do 90 but it feels like 200mph so you do 50, which feels like 90. So when a tractor pulls out you can stop.
I scooted down the M1 easily keeping up with traffic and not feeling particularly in need of stopping. In the 60s E Type man didn’t have many service stations to stop at so he probably did what I did and kept powering on, enjoying the delectable view down the bonnet. This view is particularly good in the dark when the E Type’s low and feeble lights cast a shimmery pall over the immediate 3 foot of road. With the green dash lights dimly glowing it is an eery sensation. Eventually I stopped, parking in a distant spot at the service station to avoid door dings. Inevitably a small crowd appeared with camera phones, something anyone driving an E Type will get used to. Rarely when driving my company Audi A4 did anyone take my picture (except you Northants constabulary).
There’s no question that driving the E Type with brain switched unavoidably to ‘alert’ is more tiring than piloting a modern car. Add in the narrow wafer thin seat, arms-aloft driving position, uniquely uncomfortable donut door armrest and the wind and road noise, not to mention keeping a beady eye on fuel, battery, oil and water gauges, and I have some sympathy with 1960s E Type man. But all of that sort of misses the point. The E Type rides brilliantly, as every Jag should, and handles well. The steering and road holding are not in the 911 category but you know where the limits are and it is fun to hustle along. Which you can do very quickly – this is still a very rapid car that flies from low revs in any gear. By 1961 the XK motor was already antiquated yet it is a thing of brilliance – hugely torquey, smooth and with instant power on tap. 1960s E Type man may well have had to wrestle with heavy steering and wind noise but when the reward was a car that looked this good and went this well, who cares?
Despite the shortcomings that only a cosseted modern driver would notice, the E Type proved to be a rapid, smooth and well behaved sports car on the motorway and it would be easy to imagine keeping on going to Geneva or Milan, stopping only to stock up on fuel and Marlboros. Reaching London set another challenge as I piloted the E Type through the rush hour commuters. On the motorway the main peril was rubber nckers slowing to admire the E – which made lane changing awkward at times. In London the car barely lifted a single eyebrow. Odd, as it is more London, arguably, than a London bus. Crawling through traffic the E Type proved relatively easy to use although the heavy brake and clutch pedals might irritate after a while. The engine is not keen on ultra low revs, combined with a long clutch travel this can make stop start motoring a jerky affair. Despite the lack of power steering the car isn’t heavy to steer, thanks in part to a massive wheel. The only real issue with an E Type is that you sit so low down – modern cars are so big and high that you feel as if you’re a Lilliputian.
In a way I was glad to reach my destination. After 300 miles I was pretty tired. But also disappointed. Not in the car but that the journey was over. An E Type engages you, makes you listen to it and respond. It demands your attention because to drop it for an instant risks death. All of which makes a journey in an E Type truly memorable and one you want to, have to repeat. The E Type may not cosset and flatter with an array of safety and driver aids but as a result it worms its way into your psyche in a way that a modern car never will.
The car performed faultlessly. Just as well as I was delivering it for a 10 day customer hire. I came away, as usual, aware of its limitations but not wanting to change a thing. Later cars have power steering, better seats and more space but good as these things are I don’t feel I missed them during my drive. A 911 handles better and is much better built, but an E Type that matched it in either area somehow would be less of an E Type. It’s the car’s commitment to doing what it does in the way that it does that I admire.
So can you commute in an E Type? You can and you should. An E Type, or for that matter any classic car, turns a day’s drive into a lifetime’s memory and that can never be a bad thing.
We have 5 E Type Jaguars on our classic car hire fleet, ranging from Series 1 coupe to Series 3 convertible. You can hire them from our sites in Devon, Yorkshire and Cotswolds. For more details call 01527 893733 or visit http://www.greatescapecars.co.uk.