There's little contest over what is the greatest classic car, but which E-type iteration is the one to have? James Elliott puts the case for the 4.2 fhc
Knowledge is a competitive sport: rarely more so than in a specialist field and never more than when traversing the pencil-thin lines between different degrees of brilliance. Whatever the subject, sit a handful of enthusiasts in a pub, drip-feed them a couple of pints and their conversation will play out thus: first comes the accepted view, based on a combination of conventional wisdom and limited personal experience; then there is the cognoscenti choice, founded on a mix of slightly more information and pragmatism but, more importantly, demonstrating a greater knowledge than the previous speaker. With the obvious options out of the way, player three will forlornly try to play a credible joker, a slightly more ‘difficult’ or purist choice that challenges the received wisdom and that they will justify at length, but whose real purpose is merely to demonstrate that they are able to mention something that no one else has to date.
A fiver says that if the topic put to our pub sages was the greatest Rolling Stones albums, the names would tumble out thus: Let it Bleed, then Beggars Banquet and finally Exile on Main St. If the subject is the Jaguar E-type, the world’s most recognisable, most iconic classic car, odds-on the order would be: S1 roadster, S1 4.2 fixed-head coupé, ‘flat-floor’ S1 3.8. Three early cars? Well, is anyone outside of ‘Dubya’-land really going to argue for the S3? And, thanks to US federal laws, the less heavily molested S2 – but still with uncowled lamps, new bonnet, higher bumpers and desecrated tail and sidelights (and that’s before you explore the power steering on the options list or pick up a 171bhp twin-Stromberg car) – is a no-go too.
So an S1 it must be and here’s why, in practical terms (but not forgetting that this is merely differentiating between a collection of exquisite gems), two of the available choices are flawed. You can clamour after roadsters all you want, but here’s a newsflash: you bought the wrong car. Not that it’s bad, on the contrary it is a magnificent beast, but as long as the coupé exists, it is the wrong car. I hear you – wind in the hair, less cockpit heat, slick waistline et cetera – but none of that matters: like the 2+2, the E-type roadster will always be an uncomfortable afterthought to me. Who could look at roadster and fixed-head in profile and then pay a premium to lose the world’s most sensual roof and have a fat, VW Beetle-style hood bag behind their backs.
Next up for ritual sacrifice is the S1 3.8: the benchmark, the original, a car that oozes purity from every pore. All true, but by the same rote it is less practical, less usable (and that coming from a genuine fan of the Moss gearbox) and less developed. Worship them in the design museums where they surely belong, and exercise them whenever possible, but don’t try to trickle one up the King’s Road every Saturday that Chelsea are playing at home.
So you are left with the 4.2 coupé. A cliché I know, but be brave, embrace the obvious rather than shying away from it as if being part of the herd is as unacceptable as pitching up at the club concours in a Pinto-powered Wildcat. After all – and here comes more heresy – it’s not as if any E-type is quite as flawless as misty-eyed romance currently has it. The sceptics may have based their anti-E-type argument largely on jealousy or obtuseness, but there are some valid points hidden in the hysteria.
As a former card-carrying sceptic myself – it has been a few years now, no lapses, still attending the meetings – the original list has shrunk and such inane dismissals as “it’s a GT not a proper sports car: too long, too heavy, etc” have been consigned to the bin (though at 2856lb –1295kg – it’s hardly a lightweight). But some qualms remain. The tail-lights and rear bumpers combine awkwardly, a messy arranged marriage of opposites that simply doesn’t gel. The base of the windscreen is about 4in too far back, unsettling an otherwise perfect profile (it always has been and, to these eyes, it always will be). Oh, and when you are following an E-type the shallow rear tray is invisible, so far too many of the mechanicals are exposed. It almost looks as if something has fallen off.
It’s all too easy to get these thoughts in your head and to convince yourself that they outweigh everything else, so let’s quickly remind ourselves of the everything else. The Jaguar E-type is the most commonly desired car in the world. Period. Even car-haters swoon in its presence and, if you want to be taken seriously as a classic car dealer, you must have one on your forecourt. From C&SC’s terms of reference it is the Lady Di of classics: the vast majority of enthusiasts have an insatiable appetite for it. Some of you may not like that – we’ll receive a handful of ‘not another E-type’ letters after this piece, just as for every other – but a vocal minority is a minority nonetheless. Then there is the fact that the E-type is the barometer of the entire classic car market, and has been since day one.
In fact, the E-type casts such a vast shadow over our hobby that people tend to take its towering presence for granted. And, criminally, to forget how it got there. Launched at the Geneva show in March 1961, Sir William Lyons’ and Malcolm Sayer’s masterpiece was rightfully a show-stopper: the sort of natural shape that today would be described as ‘organic’, the sort of power that even today would be described as ‘mega’, and a pricetag that today would be described as ‘Kia’. The shape was governed by common sense, art appreciation and aesthetics rather than wind tunnels and target markets – this was the era, after all, when fag-packet sketches were handed over to craftsmen to create rather than fed into computers to constantly revise towards a lowest common denominator of acceptable normality.
The power may never have quite matched the PR frenzy, but focusing on that merely shrouds the fact that it was still awesome, giving 0-60mph in 7 secs and topping out at, well, just under 150mph (though The Autocar claimed to have hit the magic mark for the first time in a tweaked 9600 HP). Then there’s price. The £2098 that the 3.8 went on sale for in 1961 would have bought you any of the following: half an Aston Martin DB4 , Jensen CV-8 or Lancia Flaminia; two-thirds of an Alfa Giulietta Sprint, Mercedes-Benz 190SL or AC Greyhound; two-fifths of a Bristol 407; a third of a Maserati 3500GT; or the back end of a Ferrari 250GT. For that you got a race-derived speed machine with all the latest technology. Nothing so crafted – and without the spectre of kit-car associations hanging over it – came close to offering such performance or such engineering without talking in multiples of the Jaguar’s on-the-road cost. An all-steel monocoque with front subframe, all-synchro four-speed ’box (from 1964), all-round independent suspension (double wishbones at the front, wishbones and twin coil/damper units at the rear), sharp rack-and-pinion steering, dual-circuit servoed disc brakes on all wheels (inboard at the rear): it really was a cordon bleu feast for pub-grub money.
And price-wise, despite the current, wild market fluctuations, it remains amazing. While the very best examples rightly command six-figure sums, there are enough out there (72,500 of all types were built) that the man in the street with a good day on the scratchcards behind him could still pick up a usable runner (probably re-imported and all sorts of other irrelevant nasties). Obviously there are the perennial favourites, reflected as much in their production numbers as their values, and obviously everyone should buy any E-type they can afford – however curtly so many models have been dismissed here.
So why if you have the choice today, as in period, should you pick the supposedly fractionally slower S1 4.2 over its stablemates, beyond the superficial conceit of having the all-important faired-in lights? After all, the chromed dash on the earliest 3.8s has more style, and the whole car – sitting on thinner rubber while you perch on skimpy sports seats – has a daintier precision to it, while the engine has a tauter, more revvy nature that screams purpose. That, precisely, is the problem. All of the impur-ities that came with the mid-season 4.2 make it a far more friendly car today. The less frenetic engine can be coaxed along or, with an instant response from the throttle, it will calmly hoover up the horizon, its sonorous bellow more muted in intent but more implicit of power. It is more tractable too, the fatter modern tyres helping to drag it off the line and, while deadening the racing-driver thrills of high-speed cornering on tiptoe, adding a level of grip and solidity that pushes the limit of adhesion way beyond earlier cars. For the record, they all lighten in corners if you’re not going slowly (or quickly) enough and they all want to wander slightly unless you really take command, especially this lustrous Golden Sand example with its smaller wood-rimmed wheel. Similarly, the more cushioned seats may not make you quite as integral with the machine, but they do allow you to see further down the bonnet and offer a comfort and cruisability that catapults the E-type into the modern era. As does the gearbox. Again, pushing through the ratios at high speed on a deserted B-road in 1962, I’d have taken the Moss, the much-maligned unit an untrammelled joy to drive hard. But in this modern, overpopulated and lazy era, give me full synchro and ease over all applications.
I suspect the roadster fans are still fuming from the earlier tirade, busily cutting out type from newspapers, Pritt Stick at the ready, to compose their responses. Maybe I was a little brutal, but there are two fundamental reasons why a coupé is an essential choice over a roadster every time, and one of them is frustratingly personal and nebulous. So let’s get the other one out of the way: your boot is supermodel-shallow. Someone had to invent triangular luggage so you can go away for the weekend, for heaven’s sake. Compared to the capacious rear deck in the fixed-head, its runners giving it the look of a run-of-the-mill Brit exec estate of the era, there’s no contest. The other is the look from the outside and the feel from within. The former needs no further explanation, the latter maybe does. Perhaps it is the combined lengths of the bonnet and the rear deck that make you assume that, like a Spitfire pilot, you are going to find the cockpit claustrophobic, but it isn’t. That svelte monocoque encloses you without cramping you, spacious on all sides, but notably above, while also giving you that innate sense of being protected within your own little fiefdom.
And everything else, you know. Its legendary length (14ft 8in), counterbalanced by its waif-like width (5ft 5in, just 2½in wider than a BMW 2002), the way it goes – and boy does it go, those greedy triple SUs feeding its voracious appetite – and stops, suspension that schizophrenically alternates between boulevard comfort and track tenacity, and the way it makes you feel, however unrealistically and temporarily, that every car that came before and every one that has happened since is irrelevant.
One of the beauties of the E-type is that its longevity and range cover all needs and demands in terms of price and application. On another day and for a different purpose you could argue strenuously and convincingly for any of the other models – yes, even the V12 2+2 has its virtues. But if you are one of the legion for whom the E-type is their once-in-a-lifetime classic, and if you want to actually use it – a lot – you need an S1 4.2 synchro-’box stereotype-on-wheels.
And for me? Well, with advancing years and governed as much by common sense as compromise, when it comes to la crème de la crème I find myself increasingly content to level a couple of peaks in return for ironing out all of the troughs. Each of these cars can be justified on its day, so it is a question of which one ranks highest on the greatest number of days... just like the pecking order of the greatest Rolling Stones albums. The public-pleasing Let it Bleed was the one when I was a teenager, but its star has dimmed as much through overfamiliarity as anything else. And I still adore Exile on Main St, but you have to try just a little too hard to love it throughout its sprawling soundscape. Hence, I keep coming back to Beggars Banquet. It may not have Gimme Shelter or Tumbling Dice, but it doesn’t have Country Honk or Turd on the Run either.
Believe me, life doesn’t get any more trough-free than booting a 4.2 E-type while Street Fighting Man washes through the cabin.
Jaguar E-type 4.2 fhc
Sold/number built 1964-’68/7770 Construction steel monocoque with square-tube front subframe Engine water-cooled iron-block, alloy-head dohc 4235cc in-line six, with three 2in SU carbs Bore x stroke 92x106mm Max power 265bhp @ 5400rpm Max torque 283lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission Jaguar four-speed all-synchro manual, with limited-slip differential Suspension independent all round, at front by double wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear lower wishbone, upper driveshaft link, radius arms, twin coil/damper units, a/r bar Steering rack and pinion Brakes discs all round, with servo Length 14ft 8in (4470mm) Wheelbase 8ft (2438mm) Width 5ft 5in (1651mm) Height 3ft 11in (1194mm) Weight 2856lb (1295kg) Wheels & tyres wires, 6.40X15in tyres (now radials) 0-60mph 7 secs Top speed 150mph Price new £1896
This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see our terms and conditions.