By David Clark
"Jaguar V-12. New Breed of Power" read the magazine ad announcement in the spring of 1971. My Stars ! The ultimate car, the E-type, had just received the ultimate engine. Two years later I bought one, and 48,000 miles after the fact I still have it.
Probably the best original description I've read about the E-type was from a Hemmings journalist who wrote, "It was a jet aircraft in a piston aircraft era". That's a good summary. The first E-types had what were actually the XK 150S 3.8 lire engines fitted, and don't argue with me here, I've had my hands on one of the very first and it still retains its pumpkin orange XK150S paint on the cylinder head. These cars were flyers, easily twice as fast as virtually anything else on the roads in Great Britain and certainly faster than anything in the U.S. in 1961. In Geneva, Switzerland at the time the E-type was publicly unveiled in March of that year, Jaguar had a fixed head coupe and an open two seater there available for public demonstration to all comers. Both these cars would top 150 mph. Virtual Space travel.
Ten years later with the addition of the 5.3 liter V-12, a very fast sports car was about to become a very fast Grand Tourer. This is when I showed up.
Pale moon, silvery light and adventures ahead.
HORSES FOR COURSES
The V-12 E-types were built on the 2+2 platform which made it a much more comfortable but also somewhat less svelte automobile, not that it matters much if performance is the primary objective. So let's get it straight right now, all E-types are great cars, arguably some might be greater than others. An early 3.8 car with three SU HD8 carburetors is gonna have a lot more woof than a 1970 4.2 running on Stromberg emission carbs, but you can raise the top and crank up the A/C in the Stromberg car and be completely comfortable on a hot day. When I ordered my E-V12 I checked the box because with that much engine, air conditioning wasn't going to have much effect on overall performance. I proved this fact to my own satisfaction by rolling up the windows and putting up the top and making the run from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City in about 4 hours flat, back in the days when some stretches of Interstate 15 were still the Two Lane Death Trap.
So what is the V-12 E-type really like ? Well, somewhere out around Chapelle, Nebraska about 40 years ago there was a Nebraska Highway Patrolman who could answer that question for you.
The power of advertising - the ad that hooked David.
In June of 1976 I decided it was California or bust, and about 10:00 on a fine Vermont morning I threw what little I had for luggage into the trunk of my car and left. I collected two tickets the first day, Connecticut & Pennsylvania, and two the second day, the first one bright and early in the morning in Indiana, and the 2nd one in Chapelle.
As you travel West, the highway tends to straighten out and the traffic to thin out, so after midnight on what was really the beginning of the 3rd day I was running with the hammer down, cruising at a pretty steady 125 mph, and easing off the throttle to maybe 110 to pass the trucks. I'm a pretty careful driver, really, and anyway the the trucks are probably going 85.
Strange, but every so often I had a sense of headlights in the rear view mirror pacing me. It was just a small distraction until coming around a sweeping curve I rolled off the throttle because I was fast approaching a set of flashing red lights, which, as it turned out, were attached to the Chevy Nova cruiser of the local P.D. parked perpendicular to the highway astride of the broken white line denoting the two travel lanes. It was a sight to behold, and quite unexpected. I pulled up to the officer and inquired as to what he was after. It seemed odd to see him there, Charlie Starkweather having been apprehended, in Wyoming, I think, many years in the past. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that he had been instructed that the 'Be on The Lookout' was for me !
For only the second time in 40 years the tires taste winter ice.
This was confirmed a minute or two later when a very irate Nebraska Highway Patrolman screeched to a halt behind me, bolted out of his cruiser and announced in strident law enforcement vernacular that he'd been pursuing me for the previous 25 miles. Dang ! He never got close enough that I could see his strobe lights. At his strong urging, I handed over my driver's license and followed closely behind as he jerked the wheel of the cruiser hard left and gunned it across the median and headed back eastbound toward the Chapelle exit. I followed a little more slowly behind, wondering where I was going to find an exhaust system for an E-type out in that country. However, much to my astonishment the point was moot. Sometime after darkness had fallen it had turned to open prairie, and an exhaust system wasn't going to be needed.
INTO CHAPELLE WE WE WENT
We pulled up in front of the Post Office and the Highway Patrolman wrote out the ticket, sold me a stamp and watched as I put the ticket money in cash in the self addressed County Court envelope he provided and watched as I dropped it in the outside collection box. Driver's license in hand again I was off once more, a bit chastened maybe, but most definitely a free man.
In the dark I popped a cassette in the tape player and cranked it up. It was Bob Dylan singing "Meet Me in The Morning" which is a very good background music for making time.
And now you also know what a V12 E-type will do!
Several years ago, The Washington Post persuaded one of the world’s most acclaimed violinists, Joshua Bell, to perform incognito in a subway station, to see whether the beauty of his performance could penetrate the hurried commuters’ consciousness. The result? He was virtually ignored. A mere seven of the 1,097 people who passed through the L’Enfant Plaza station that Friday morning stayed to listen for at least a minute, and the dollar bills and loose change tossed into the open case of his Stradivarius amounted to just $32.
I’m thinking about this story as I sit at a sidewalk café on a sunny summer afternoon, watching the pedestrians strolling past the 1961 Jaguar E-type Series 1 3.8 parked at the curb. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as an ordinary E-type, but if there were, this car would not be it. Not that these passersby would know, but this is an early E-type, a very early E-type, just the fourteenth left-hand-drive Open Two Seater to leave the Browns Lane assembly line. It’s something extraordinary, just as Joshua Bell is not your average subway busker.
This OTS was constructed in late March 1961, on the leading edge of E-type production, before the factory implemented a single one of the changes that would eventually run into the hundreds. A knowledgeable enthusiast might notice the covered headlamps, which mark it as a Series 1, or possibly the external bonnet latches and the flat floors, which lasted in production until October and June 1961, respectively. A true expert might spot the slender shape of the three latches that hold the top frame to the windshield, or the early chrome finishers on top of the doors, a detail that was changed after just 300 cars had been built.
To see this car–or even better yet, to drive it–is to know it exactly as William Lyons, aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, engine designer Bill Heynes, test driver Norman Dewis and the rest of that remarkable team had approved it for production. And, lucky us, we did get to drive it. Through the generosity of its longtime owner, Jeff Roy, we were able to spend several days with this car, getting to know what it’s really like.
This is how Browns Lane turned them out in 1961. The pulse-quickening view
over the long bonnet is enough to make you forget the uncomfortable bucket seats
and limited leg room. It was unlike anything else on the roads 54 years ago, and still is.
Jeff Roy and daughter Devon.
Jeff, whose 1-of-99 Gordon Keeble appeared in this magazine back in March 2010, has owned the Jaguar since June 1972, when he bought it from its original owner, an executive living in New York’s Westchester County. Considering the length of the waiting list that instantly developed when the E-type was launched at the Geneva Salon on March 16, 1961, it’s a fair assumption that the first owner had to have had some pretty good connections with the Manhattan Jaguar dealer to get his hands on one of the first roadsters shipped to the U.S.
Then a student at the University of Connecticut, Jeff had recently lost his hopped-up Volkswagen in a collision with a Ford station wagon, and found the Jaguar for sale in a weekly shopper. “The gentleman was a great guy, had lots of cars, was selling this one just to thin his fleet out a bit, and I picked it up for $1,500,” he recalls. Before you choke on your bagel, remember that $1,500 was a significant amount of money in 1972. “Especially when you’re some deadbeat college kid!” Jeff laughs. “The gentleman was very gracious, and he had taken really, really good care of the car. It had 28,000 or 29,000 miles on the clock, pretty much original everything, it was only on its second set of tires. It was in nice shape.”
The 3.8-liter, DOHC straight-six in the early E-type was identical to
that of the preceding XK150S. This example has never been apart, and is
still immensely strong. Note the separate header tank at the front of the engine, a feature of the early cars.
He had no idea what a rare car he was buying. “Dumb luck,” he says. He only discovered what he had when, years later, he applied for membership in the Jaguar Drivers Club in the U.K., and supplied the car’s commission number: 875014. “They faxed me back and said, ‘Are you sure that’s the number?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty certain.’ And so they informed me that that’s the 14th left-hand driver, Open Two Seater that had been produced.” At this time, remember, nearly all E-type production was earmarked for the States; just 257 of the 1,625 roadsters delivered in 1961 were for the home market.
Over the years, Jeff’s Jaguar has been maintained and repaired, but never restored. It served as his daily driver, and then became a summer-only car when he bought a 1966 Volkswagen for winter driving. It was repainted once, in 1991, at which time its worn leather seats were recovered in Naugahyde. (“That was a mistake. But who knew?” Jeff points out.) It’s had periods of hibernation, including a 16-year stretch that ended with a recent recommissioning by David Clark and crew at Sports Car Services in Westminster, Vermont. The carpeting and the canvas top have been replaced, as have parts that normally wear out–brakes, tires, clutch disc, hoses and such. Jeff added a Canadian Stebro exhaust early in his ownership, an accessory that’s now coveted in its own right. But the original engine, gearbox and limited-slip differential have never been apart.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but if you’re going to expose a car like this to real-world use, an example like Jeff’s is exactly what you want. It’s not a pristine, never-driven, 100-point trailer queen–in fact, Jeff doesn’t own a trailer. Instead, it’s an honest, solid, unmodified, well cared-for E-type that’s earned its patina, and its value isn’t going to be ruined by one stone chip on its curvaceous nose. All that said, I’m keenly aware of just how irreplaceable it is, and the current craze of tailgating-while-you-text has me in a constant, mild state of alarm. I’m well aware that if anything were to happen to this Jaguar, I’d need a second mortgage on my house to make it right.
Getting behind the wheel is a matter of dropping back into the bucket seat, and then bringing first one leg, and then the other over the broad sill. Having the top down makes this easier, of course, though necessity later proves that I can manage to squeeze in with the top up, too. Once in place, I find myself gripping the skinny wooden rim of an outsized steering wheel–no power steering here–and surveying the multitude of gauges and toggle switches. Though this two-seater rides on a 96-inch wheelbase, there’s barely enough legroom for this 5-foot-11 driver; it’s easy to see why recessed floors were introduced so early on. It’s hard to imagine anyone being immune to the view over the bonnet, louvers and a dramatically prominent bulge to clear the straight-six. Repeated experiences do not diminish the thrill.
That 3.8-liter XK, the same triple-SU-equipped power plant used in the XK150S, is a massive and beautiful piece of machinery, and sings two songs at once: a combination of whirs and clacks from under the bonnet, and the muffled boom from the exhaust. I’m not surprised to find out that the ancient AM-FM-shortwave radio that came with the car doesn’t work, and in fact has been disconnected for years–who would want it, with a soundtrack like this?
For all the criticism the Moss gearbox has attracted for its unsynchronized first and slow gear changes, I have no problems with it. It feels precise and direct, with no possibility of putting a gear wrong, and the ratios are well spaced to make use of the engine’s plentiful torque. In fact, if you’re feeling lazy, you can crawl around in fourth gear as low as 20 MPH. The clutch, on the other hand, is a private gym for the left leg, so strong are the springs in the pressure plate.
The car feels nimble, thanks to its all-independent suspension, and displays Jaguar’s typical brilliance for combining a compliant ride with roll-free handling. The steering is direct, with no detectable play, and the car tracks straight and true at speed, with no wander to correct. It feels compact, narrow, tight, and controllable at all times, never waiting to unleash a nasty surprise on its unwitting driver. It’s completely competent for a blast up the interstate, but our winding, hilly, 50-MPH back roads feel like the car’s natural habitat. There can be no better place to be on a mild summer’s afternoon.
Thanks to Lyons’s magic, the E-type was an unbelievable performance bargain when it was introduced, and it’s still quicker than nearly everything else on the road, more than 50 years later. Nothing this old, and this British, should feel so capable, and yet somehow it does. I don’t get anywhere near the claimed top speed of 150 MPH, but Jeff has visited that neighborhood on more than one occasion in his long ownership.
“There are different stories about [the factory’s 150 MPH claim] that the car that was released to the press had been blueprinted and so on–William Lyons knew that that was the magic figure. I’m going to say that the car will realistically do 142-145 MPH, something around there,” Jeff says. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to get 150 out of most of them. After about 130-135 indicated, you’ve got to very lightly grip the wheel. It’s strictly thumb-and-forefinger kind of stuff. It gets pretty twitchy. But up until that point, it sits very nicely.”
Jeff has never had the car on a race track, but he’s done his share of informal racing. “The problem, if you’re going to be racing someone from a dead stop, is that the first-second shift is a pretty deliberate, slow kind of thing. Once you’re there, then you’re good to go. It pulls pretty hard,” he reports. “I had some great dices with a guy who had a 911E, the 2.2-liter one. We used to go out on the back roads and scare ourselves to death. But no official racing per se, just the seat-of-the-pants extemporaneous stuff.”
What eventually becomes clear is how closely related this car is to the competition D-type that it so much resembles. In many ways, it really is a race car with license plates. The complex construction–a monocoque body tub with subframes front and rear–the independent suspension, the rivets used here and there in construction, the minimally trimmed interior, the four-wheel disc brakes at a time when most cars still wore four drums–these are all reminders of its close relation to the cars that humbled the competition at Le Mans.
There are compromises, to be sure, but fewer than you might expect. There’s that clutch pedal, for one. The trunk is too shallow to carry grocery bags, or much in the way of luggage (the cure for that was to pick the fixed-head coupe), and the wide sills are a challenge to egress. The bucket seats are hard, and don’t provide much lower back support, though the factory took care of that with the launch of the improved 4.2-liter car in 1964. (On the other hand, vinyl trim replaced the dotted aluminum of the 3.8-liter car’s interior, so not all of the changes were for the better.)
In spite of its great complexity, there’s a typically British feeling of toughness about the car, an ability to absorb abuse; fragile it’s not. In my time with the car, only one problem arises: While sitting in traffic, I notice the coolant temperature rising a bit past normal. The early E-type was equipped with an electric fan, rather than a conventional engine-driven fan, and this one has ceased to turn. Once we’re moving again, the needle goes back to non-head-gasket-threatening territory, and, back home again, the multitester reveals that the thermostatic switch in the radiator has thrown in the towel. I jury-rig a jumper wire to keep the fan going all the time, until a new switch can be obtained.
Jeff reports that, in 42 years, the car has never once stranded him–and then, on further reflection, corrects himself. “It actually broke down in Jackman, Maine, in 1977, on my trip up to Quebec. It was the charging system–one of a series of generator failures. And of course, trying to find one in Jackman, Maine, was an exercise in [futility]–it’s a positive-ground system. But I found a guy who had a truck repair place, and we were able to get an old International Harvester generator from the late Fifties, jury-rig it into a fabricated bracket, for a field-expedient fix.
“I’ve done more hoofing in my daily drivers than I have in that one,” he continues. “The drivetrain components in that car are pretty robust–you’d have to work pretty hard to actually damage something.” Jeff has always carried out his own maintenance work. “I wouldn’t say that I’m a first-line Formula 1 mechanic, but if I can’t fix it, I can at least diagnose it properly. I haven’t done anything major to it because it hasn’t needed it.”
You don’t need more than a moment with the car to appreciate how gorgeous it is, and the thrill of opening the garage door and seeing it parked there never gets old. The anecdote of Enzo Ferrari describing it as the most beautiful car in the world is a little shopworn, but still rings true. Norman Dewis, who drove an OTS flat-out to the 1961 Geneva show on Lyons’s orders, once told me, “I always remember Enzo Ferrari coming up to me. He walked around the car. He said, ‘Norman, it’s the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen. But there is one mistake on the car. It hasn’t got a Ferrari badge.'”
The car’s visual appeal is connected to one other bit of legend, and that’s Henry Manney III’s often-repeated description of the E-type as “the greatest crumpet-catcher known to man.” I conducted no research of my own on the topic, and was too polite to broach the question with Jeff, but he launched into the subject voluntarily.
“As one person said, for attracting women, it was better than a Saint Bernard with a tragic limp,” Jeff laughs. “If you were substandard-looking, as I was then and still am, it was definitely a great help in picking up dates. As they say, it was the unfair advantage.” Is that how he met his wife, Janet? “No, my car was being repaired, and I had the Volkswagen at the time. So I said, gee, she must have actually liked me for me,” he recalls. “If she could survive a few days with me and the ’66 Volkswagen with the Flintstone floors, maybe there was hope for this relationship.”
Jeff is well aware of the spike in market prices for early E-types, though it doesn’t interest him much, other than for insurance purposes. “The values are getting a little crazy now, and a lot of them are going out of the reach of car enthusiasts. My guess is that some of the early ones might have been undervalued for a while, and have shot up, maybe past where they should be.
“People over in the U.K., I think they treasure the early ones, more than we do here in the States. A car in the U.K., a barn find, a total basket case, went for the equivalent of $170,000.” He shakes his head. “Your hope is that it’s enthusiasts who want to enjoy a car of that ilk. Of course, I’m afraid that a lot of times, it’s people who want to buy them as investments, people who aren’t enthusiasts and probably wouldn’t be able to drive one properly.”
He’s been advised by Jaguar experts not to change a thing on the car, and he’s following that advice. He also has no intention of ever offering the car for sale. “I’ve had it this long, for crying out loud, I’ll hold onto it,” he says. The next owner will be one of his two daughters. “Both of the girls are car enthusiasts, Avery more so than Devon. Avery’s quite the car enthusiast, and is quite knowledgeable about cars, and Devon’s picking up her stride a little bit.”
The E-type, I think, has become a victim of its success, its name and shape so familiar to us that we think we know it. My time with this one made me think otherwise. I suspect that even after a number of years, or a few decades, it would still be impossible to take this car for granted. Is that the measure of greatness?
Engine: DOHC inline-six, cast-iron block and aluminum cylinder head
Displacement: 3,781 cc
Bore x stroke: 87 mm x 106 mm
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Horsepower @ RPM: 265 @ 5,500
Torque @ RPM: 260-lb.ft. @ 4,000
Fuel system: Three SU HD8 carburetors
Transmission: Moss four-speed manual, synchromesh on 2nd, 3rd and 4th
Suspension: Front: independent, upper and lower A-arms, torsion bars, tubular shock absorbers. Rear: independent, crossbeam assembly, double-jointed driveshafts serving as upper links, lower links, two coil spring/shock absorber units per side
Steering: Rack and pinion
Brakes: Servo-assisted four-wheel disc
Wheelbase: 96 inches
Overall length: 175.3 inches
Overall width: 65.3 inches
Overall height: 46.5 inches
Shipping weight: 2,421 pounds
0-60 MPH: 7.4 seconds*
Top speed: 150 MPH*
*Road & Track, May 1961
By David Clark
October 22, 2019
The Glory Days of the 1930s were long in the past. It had been 20 years since MG was a dominant force, owning records for absolute speed in the classes between 500 and 2,000cc. The engine in their 750cc overhead cam record breaker, EX127, ultimately made 145bhp, supercharged with 39 lbs of boost—more power a per liter than the uber-dominant Mercedes Silver Arrow Grand Prix cars so generously subsidized by the Nazi regime.
MG founder Cecil Kimber had been sacked at the outset of World War II, allegedly for securing a contract to build the control sections for the Albermarle Bomber, an undertaking that, unbeknownst to Kimber, had been passed on by most of the British aircraft industry who simply couldn’t even begin to fathom how to build it. By the war’s end, the tiny workforce in Abingdon built nearly a thousand units before selling off the test rig they devised to prove its myriad hydraulic and electrical systems.
Peace brought a measure of prosperity back to the “World’s Sports Car Factory” and an entirely new market opened up before them, this time in the United States, where eventually more than two thirds of total production would end up.
It’s easier to spot leaks, particularly of the coolant variety, with the hood off. Twin Cams are the reason MGA 1600s got engine covers with more radius at the front.
Of course MG went racing again, although this time it was mostly in the hands of privateers with some discrete support from Abingdon. Syd Enever built a LeMans body for a TD campaigned by Autosport photographer George Phillips. After being sidelined for a few years so as not to take sales away from their British Motor Corporation stablemate, Austin-Healey, the Enever project became the basis of the MGA, a completely modern MG that featured the new Austin “B” series engine in place of the Morris XPAG engine of the “T” series cars. It wasn’t a particularly elegant design, but at least you could tune it some.
By the late 50s Porsche was beginning to make their presence felt in the same events where MG was contesting less and less successfully. With its intake and exhaust ports siamezed to camouflage its blatant Chevrolet “Stove Bolt” six cylinder engine architecture, the “B” series was never going to breath well enough to go head-to-head with the four-cam Porsche Carrera engines. Something else was needed.
On the quiet, in 1955 Abingdon installed two different Twin Cam engines in the Tourist Trophy MGAs, one of which was completely new, and one designed to be machined on the existing “B” series transfer lines.
By early 1958, BMC management had caved to the persistent demands from Abingdon for the Twin Cam and the new model was announced. It featured a dual overhead cam alloy cylinder head with a 40 degree valve angle in hemispherical combustion chambers, operated by 3/8″ lift cams with a fairly conservative 250 degree split overlap duration—the “B” series prototype.
Domed 9.9:1 compression ratio full-float pistons were initially fitted, later reduced to 8.3:1 in an effort to combat piston failures, which actually were most likely the result of a periodic weak fuel mixture caused by carburetor vibration.
Early engines, like the one pictured here, were notorious oil burners. In a classic example of poor component matchup, the cylinder bores were chrome flashed to improve durability, and equally durable chrome plated piston rings were also fitted, but the chrome rings in chrome bores never seated, with disastrous results for oil control.
More than 50 years on, the cylinders in the Twin Cam engine shown here had no measurable wear at all, and after ball honing them and fitting a Hastings moly ring set, oil consumption is a thing of the past.
Visually striking, and a small marvel of British slide-rule engineering, MGA Twin Cams are rapidly appreciating investments, highly sought after today.
A Chevy dealer from Wakefield, Mass, bought this car at the Arizona RM Auction about ten years ago, knocked it down for $25K. Every time the engine was turning, oil was coming out. When we pulled the engine we found the perp’s fingerprints in the RTC sealer he stuffed all along the bottom of the cam covers in a futile attempt to staunch the flow.
David Clark took a stab at higher learning before he realized it was a waste of his parents’ money, and bought more tools instead. For 30 years he operated a British-only shop with as many as five employees, and became a hunter/gatherer, roaming all six New England States as well as Eastern New York and New Jersey in search of work. Nowadays he’s mostly working on his own cars, but there are exceptions…