The driver tightens his grip around the thin, wood-rim wheel and hunches slightly, shielding from the wind behind the broad, shallow expanse of ’screen. Foot hard down in second, he senses the undulating bonnet rise, the needles flickering on the two Smiths dials in his lower vision, and the accelerating blur of the English countryside. If anyone had been standing in those verdant fields, they would have seen a spectacular sculpture at speed and heard the unmistakable bray and crackle of the straight-six hard at work. ‘This is what it’s all about,’ he thinks. ‘This is why everybody loves the E-type.’
With a hint of bravura, he double-declutches down the gears and peels off the lane to the airfield gatehouse. A nod to security has the boom raised, and he heads for a hangar on the far side of the runway. Cursing the lacklustre British summer, he pulls up outside and switches off, the abrupt silence amplifying the emptiness of grass and asphalt around him.
Behind the large retractable doors sits arguably the most fearsome fighter plane in the history of the Royal Air Force: an interceptor, a nation’s protector in a nuclear era. Nicknamed ‘The Frightening’, it’s capable of more than twice the speed of sound and is as agile as a Jaguar of the four-legged variety. Like the E-type, it represents the best of 1960s British technology but, rather than aiming to seduce and entertain like the sports car, its sole task is to repel any advance from behind the Iron Curtain. At its core, it has been designed to kill.
But this isn’t 1961, and there is no RAF guard on the gate. Nor is there the latent tension of a frontline fighter base on three-minute alert. This is Bruntingthorpe, 2011, and a timewarp meeting of two British icons of the 20th century. On the 50th anniversary of the E-type, the aircraft towering over it today is the English Electric Lightning, and car and plane share far more than you might at first imagine.
Developed through experience gained via the triumphant C- and D-types, and with its roots in the rooftop discussions of Messrs Lyons, Heynes, Hassan and Baily during the Blitz, the E-type is arguably the perfect marriage of art and oily bits. Aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer applied his eye for a line to the body. The gleaming XK engine produced a hearty 265bhp, and racing experience plus a willingness to push technical boundaries in road cars – yet for a ‘value’ price – led to a rigid monocoque tub and independent rear suspension.
Some people love the E simply for how the car looks. Earning a place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art wasn’t due to its ability to drift around a wet roundabout, it was not only because it looks impossibly elegant and exciting, but also that its shape somehow captured the zeitgeist. Others would fall for its speed, or how it drove, or its help with attracting the opposite sex – or maybe all of those reasons together.
Then there’s the Lightning, more brutal than beautiful. Bluff-nosed in profile, an exotic tube of a fuselage containing two ferocious Rolls-Royce Avons, one on top of the other; a single ejector seat, in a cockpit with only just enough room (like the Jag) and mounted right at the front – like sitting on the tip of a rocket. Design work started just two years after the end of WW2. It was a preposterous leap forward at the time.
Both were designed and built in Britain, the E-type launched in the spring of 1961, the Lightning entering service a few months earlier with 74 Squadron at RAF Coltishall. Yet it seems almost unfathomable now, living in a service-led UK plc and an era of globalisation, that these two were exclusively crafted within these shores.
They were just about the fastest things in their fields: the Jag with its much-vaunted but rarely achieved 150mph maximum, the Lightning blazing to Mach 2 (1500mph) and beyond. And they’re still fast today: the E pegging a hot-hatch, the Lightning astounding with its acceleration and rate of climb, even against the latest military jets.
Beyond mere numbers, they’re both resolutely mechanical. These are machines born on a drawing board, painstakingly realised with a pencil and a slide rule, and honed by blokes in brown coats with a shirt and tie underneath. The microprocessor and the shiny white, clinical world it presaged had yet to exert its influence. Instead there are pumps, valves, linkages and multiple gauges. In places they may appear crude, but their more primitive internals allow a deeper bond between man and machine. They are analogue: fallible, old-fashioned technology that we can all relate to.
Also, they both smell similar. There’s a peculiar fragrance, a macho cologne distilled from warm metal, hot oil, hard-worked grease, rubber and their respective fuels. It’s the sort of pong that goes well with a chipped mug of hot tea. It stays on your clothes if you spend a while in their company, a warm fug that envelops you in its cosy embrace like a familiar cardigan.
More than anything, they share a spirit so redolent of their era: a desire to be the fastest – an optimistic futurism. Today we dream of that time – of the freedom – of a virginal M1 with neither traffic nor speed limits and a lone E-type at full chat, or a nine-ship formation of Lightnings splitting open the sky with a colossal din.
For all of the positive parallels, there are the negative similarities, too. Although the clamouring public and fawning media couldn’t see it, these machines marked a watershed. By ’66 Jaguar was merged into the British Motor Corporation, and two years later into the black hole of British Leyland. The dark clouds that had been on the horizon were now overhead.
“The Lightning was victim to an awful lot of political manipulation that was quite disgraceful,” rues ex-Lightning Wing Commander John Ward. The British aero industry, world-leading for over a decade but riddled with poor management and under-funding, was about to be slaughtered. The infamous ’57 Sandys Defence White Paper – which led to key projects being axed because of its author’s perceived need for fewer manned aircraft – did to plane production what Dr Beeching did to the railways. But somehow English Electric managed to sneak the Lightning through.
As the ’60s became the ’70s, the E-type and the Lightning continued, albeit without the development they deserved: the Jag as a grand tourer; the Lightning proving the inaccuracy of Sandys’ claims, and eventually lasting until 1988 because the MoD struggled to find a way of comprehensively replacing it. Jaguar could well have died, but privatisation saved it, Ford-ownership modernised it and now, under Tata, the firm is in rude health. The British aviation industry, however, has never recovered.
Just for a moment, let’s return to a world of short trousers, endless summer holidays and gluing Airfix kits together on the kitchen table. You longed for a glimpse of an E-type and were beside yourself with excitement at the thought of going to an airshow to experience the speed and thunder of a Lightning. Most of all, though, you dreamed of being that pilot, and of parking your E-type outside the Officers’ Mess before you soared around the skies.
Peter New did just that. He may have once flown you to your holiday destination, too. After a long RAF career he became a captain on Boeing 747s, but between 1970 and ’74, from the unbelievably young age of just 21, he was an RAF Lightning pilot – with an E-type key in his flight suit.
“For your first ‘solo’ you’d draw on the blackboard beforehand exactly what you were going to do: the height, turns, climbs, the landing,” remembers New of his maiden flight in the Lightning, “but I don’t think I caught up with the aeroplane until near the end; the rest of the time I was just hanging on to the tailplane.” As Ward adds: “Compared to the Jet Provost trainer we were used to, this was an enormous beast – quite a terrifying, daunting prospect.”
As for the Jag, “I’d always wanted one,” grins New, recalling where it all began. “I was standing in the RAF Club [in London’s Piccadilly] in ’68 and a certain instructor – who shall remain nameless – offered me a lift back to base at RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire, in his E-type. We left at 10pm and were back in the mess by half past one. ‘That’s the car for me,’ I thought!”
A trusty MGB gave way to a Cortina GT when New’s first Lightning posting turned out to be in Germany, followed by a TVR Vixen. But, once back at Wattisham on 111 Squadron, it wasn’t long before a white S2 fixed-head at a local dealer took his eye.
“To me it was just the business,” he says. “There’s a lot of crossover in the cockpit – two big dials, the rows of switches. I’d park it outside the mess and just look at it. We used to go to the pub because there were five of us living off-base in a house. We all had sports cars and drove there separately.” One night New lost control and spun 360º while crossing a hump-back bridge. When he returned the next day and checked the width of the bridge, it measured just a few inches more than the total length of the Jag.
High jinks, high times. Imagine life with 60,000bhp on a daily basis: flying 40 hours a month then down ‘the local’, the only entertainment near a remote fighter base, trying not to think about the giant Soviet Tu-95 ‘Bear’ nuclear bombers to the East.
Time has been kinder to the car. The E-type is celebrated and relatively accessible: most of the Lightnings were ruthlessly and, as it proved, prematurely scrapped. The authorities, mindful of their ageing complexity and infamous reputation, grounded the few that survive. Thankfully, the pair kept at Bruntingthorpe are lovingly attended to by the Lightning Preservation Group volunteers. They exercise them on the runway from time to time, keeping history alive for future generations.
Although approaching his 70s, Ward still possesses the piercing, level gaze of a leading fighter pilot. In a flying suit and with ‘bone dome’ on, he climbs up into the cockpit and taxis to within 20ft of us, gives us the thumbs up and launches down the runway on full afterburner. The noise is so utterly overwhelming – in quantity and sheer force – that it nearly lifts you off your feet, reverberates around your ribcage and distorts your hearing, even with earplugs. Standing there, I challenge anyone not to will that he leaves the brakes and parachute alone, keeps the throttles open, rotates and points the nose almost vertically under full power. In two minutes he’d be over the coast at 30,000ft, in 10 he’d be somewhere far out over the North Sea, hunting ‘Bears’ on the bleak, lonely front line of the Cold War.
JAGUAR E-TYPE S1 3.8 ROADSTER
Engine 3781cc straight-six Power 265bhp @ 5500rpm Torque 260lb ft @ 4000rpm Fuel tank 14 gallons (64 litres) Length 14ft 75/16in (4453mm) Width 5ft 51/2in (1664mm) Height 4ft (1219mm) Weight 2520lb (1143kg) Top speed 150mph Acceleration 0-60mph 7.1 secs Max climb n/a Armament n/a
ENGLISH ELECTRIC LIGHTNING F6
Engine Twin Rolls-Royce Avon 302s Power 60,000bhp (16,300lbx2) Torque n/a Fuel tank 1325 gallons (6023 litres) Length 53ft 3in (16,231mm) Width 34ft 10in (10,617mm) Height 19ft 7in (5969mm) Weight 40,748lb (18,480kg) Top speed 1520mph (Mach 2.3) Acceleration 0-518mph 45 secs Max climb 50,000ft per minute Armament 2x30mm Aden cannon/2x Firestreak or Red Top missiles
This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.
Words: Adam Towler; pictures: James Lipman
Thanks to the Lightning Preservation Group. For more info, visit www.lightnings.org.uk