Guest contributor: Tim Brown on experiencing a 1964 Jaguar E-Type on the moors of South West England
For 48 glorious hours, it was mine. The lovely 1964 E-Type Fixed Head Coupe you see in these pictures was finally mine – well, ours – for the whole weekend. I say finally, because I was actually supposed to drive this car twelve months ago, and I say ours, because the event I had it booked for in March 2012 was our wedding. Unfortunately the clutch had failed – catastrophically – the day before we were to get married. Luckily we managed to find another company with an E-Type – a Series II Drop Head, which worked out great for the big day… but we still really wanted to drive the Series I Coupe, so when the hire company wrote an apology and offered us a generous discount for ‘next time’, we decided our first anniversary should be that ‘next time’!
It’s Saturday morning and as we spot the address we’re looking for, I’m getting a little nervous – seeing the Carmen Red Jaguar materialize as I round the corner does nothing to calm the butterflies in my stomach, but it does make my face contort into an uncontrollable grin – after looking forward to this moment for the best part of a year, the day was finally here!
After a briefing on everything from how to start the engine to how not to slam your head in the side-opening rear hatch (no really, it can happen – a moderate gust of wind can easily blow the the hatch-door off its elegant prop!), we’re ready to go.
Not that I feel ready; my brain is maxed-out, trying to process all the new information. The non-retractable seat-belts are tightened, the side mirrors are ‘bent’ into adjustment, and I double-check that the gearbox is in neutral before twisting the ignition key in the centre of the dashboard. This doesn’t start the car, but primes the fuel pumps, ready for when my finger moves from the ignition, past the cigarette lighter (marked ‘CIGAR’, naturally) and onto the starter button.
The straight six – a 3.8 litre in the early cars – roars into life, and I once again lose control of my facial muscles. I have to quickly shift my brain into a serious focus though, to ensure I make it out of the narrow driveway, through the narrow street and on towards our goal without embarrassing myself, or worse.
As I cautiously picked my way along the roads, the only kind of first impressions I could absorb were of the tangible sensations – the weight of the unassisted steering, the massive pressure the brake pedal needed to slow the car, and the unfamiliar position of the gears… but as I adjusted to the new environment and gained some confidence, I started to relax and the more abstract side of the experience began to make its mark on me – the bulging view down the bonnet (complete with heat haze oozing from the louvres), the throaty exhaust note and transmission whine when I opened the throttle a little… even the toggle switches soon stopped being an unfamiliar distraction and became a source of joy in themselves. Let’s be honest, flicking a toggle switch makes even the most mundane tasks seem cool – even if you are just turning on the wipers to clear some bird-poop off the windscreen, you feel like you could be James Bond!
We were headed to Exmoor, a national park in the South West of England. We had a reason for choosing Exmoor: the A39. This road has been featured in several ‘best driving roads in the UK’-type articles and websites, and is also well-known for ‘Porlock Hill’ – a short but steep (up to 25% gradient) rise from the village of Porlock up onto the moor.
I’ve driven up some steep hills, but this short section of road really is like the beginning of a roller-coaster, cranking up and up towards the top… the anticipation building all the way. But instead of a sudden plummet when we get there, we’re rewarded with an opening landscape, cut through by beautifully flowing roads.
There’s possibly no better place for this car… the ‘big cat’ is very much at home on the moors!
The cold, grey weather that you’d expect to dampen our spirits actually enhanced the atmosphere on the moors (although the sun did make a welcome appearance the following day), and had the added bonus of putting off the few tourists that might have been visiting off-season. And so the very light traffic conditions, combined with the open landscape meant I could really start to enjoy the sports-tourer in the way it was intended.
What surprised me most was not only the power – although it is bloody quick for a 49 year-old – but the linear nature of the delivery and the impressive low-end torque. It will pull cleanly from less than 2000 rpm in fourth. But while it’s possible to drive everywhere in top gear, it is of course more fun to explore the higher end of the rev range through the lower gears.
As I feasted my ears on the engine note, which goes from a throaty, slightly burbly tone on tickover, to a smooth but somewhat fiercer, more raspy howl – always accompanied by a healthy serving of transmission whine – I had to keep reminding myself (also with some reminders from my wife) that the car gains speed far easier than it’s able to lose it, and by the end of the day my right leg is starting to feel the effort of the amount of pressure I was putting into the brake pedal. Not as much as my shoulders, though – the reasonably quick steering that’s so heavy when maneuvering, becomes lighter at ‘normal’ speeds, but when you drive it in a spirited fashion it gets much heavier again.
It also seems quite susceptible to camber and ‘bump steer’, so you have to hold on very tightly – seriously, it’s like working out at the gym. The four-speed gearbox, although fully synchromesh, takes some getting used to, with second being perilously close to reverse, but when managed accurately and matched with a perfectly-timed blip of the throttle, it’s a truly satisfying moment.
All this time, I’m thinking of the men who raced these cars in the Sixties… those guys were real men, and I have a renewed sense of awe for them.
All this time, I’m thinking of the men who raced these cars in the Sixties, and even today, with great admiration. I’m driving it fast (very fast if you listen to my passenger!), but nowhere near the limits – the physical challenge of doing so, pushing the car to the edge of its performance envelope, seems scarcely believable when you consider the need to heel-and-toe the downshifts and set the car up into big drifts with that heavy steering. Not to mention the skill and bravery also required for such a feat! Those guys were real men, and I have a renewed sense of awe for them.
But of course, the E-Type is not just a car for driving… it’s also a car for looking at. As I explore its angles with my camera in hand, I realise that in many ways it still looks like a spaceship. The famous sleek, flowing lines and minimal details give it that timeless, breathtaking presence, and the fact that it rides very high by modern standards only serves to endow it with such poise and elegant, balanced proportions, that it looks like it could almost float up into the sky, before darting off past the horizon.
Being a professional car designer, you’ll have to excuse me if I get a bit carried away talking about this icon – I can only imagine what the young petrolheads of half a century ago thought of it the first time they saw it! I’m clearly not alone in my appreciation of the ‘big cat’ though— reactions from fellow travellers ranged from flashed headlights to a full-on jaw-drops. A teenager hiking on the moor with his family was literally stunned by it; as they approached the edge of the road and stopped to check for traffic – only to see the Carmen Red coupe slinking its way towards them – he just managed to raise his arm into a motionless wave, mouth still wide open, as we passed by.
Being a photography geek at the best of times, I had to make a big effort not to take too many pictures of the E-Type since I didn’t want to spoil the moment for my wife by turning our special weekend into a two-day photoshoot. So it’s really a testament to how photogenic the combination of car and countryside are that I even got any ‘keepers’ from these quick snaps. In fact, there’s possibly no better place for this car… the ‘big cat’ is very much at home on the moors! Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and once our 48 hours was up it was time to return the car to its owners.
So, did it live up to my expectations? Oh yes. But what was more surprising than the rawness, the noise, and the physical demands of driving it that first struck me, was how used to it I’d become by the end of the two days – not just the size, or even the heavy, unrefined controls, but all the foibles and rattles and cold drafts running through it. That made it tough to give back – even after just two days and 350 miles it seemed like I’d had it forever.
It’s a complete cliché to say it felt like it had become a part of me, but as I drove home in my own car – lurching and jerking with even the lightest touch on the brakes – I felt like something was missing. But at the same time, I realised that I’d also kept a part of the ‘big cat’ with me, if only in memories and photographs – and ultimately that is what a classic car should be all about: not an investment opportunity, a museum piece, or the subject of bragging rights… but an experience to delight in.
Images © Tim Brown