In October last year, I celebrated my 60th birthday. Among many much-appreciated gifts was a voucher to hire a classic car for a weekend from Vintage Classics in Melksham, Wilshire, bought for me by a group of old friends who clearly knew what I appreciate most in life.
There was a choice of a dozen cars, none of which I had driven before, including a Big Healey 3000, an Alfa Romeo Spider, Audi Quattro, Alfa Romeo 2000 GTV and others, nearly all of which happen to be red. One of the others was a Series 1 3.8 Jaguar E-Type Coupé. While I’d been a passenger in a couple of E-Types, I had never driven one, and although some feel that the car has become a bit of a cliché in classic car terms, this was my chance to drive what for me is still one of the most beautiful shapes in motoring history. Yes, I know the wheels and tyres are too skinny and the track too narrow, but in profile… my god it’s gorgeous, and as a coupé, even more so than the roadster, to my eyes at least.
It may be that many of our readers have driven – even owned E-Types – but this was going to be an entirely new experience for me and I confess to some trepidation ahead of the weekend; after all, a pristine Series 1 E-Type Coupé can fetch well into six figures. Although it’s only 14ft 4 inches – or 4.375m – long (less than a foot longer than my ’02, yet it looks much longer), half of it is bonnet, and many of the roads around Wiltshire and Somerset are narrow and winding. What would it be like to drive? Would it be heavy, cumbersome, uncomfortable, and hard to manoeuvre that long bonnet around the country lanes? Would I embarrass myself trying to get in and out of parking spaces, or even just getting in and out of the car?
In any case, come Saturday morning, all would be revealed….
I’d arranged to collect the car at 11:00 that morning, and to make sure my partner Carolyn and I weren’t late, drove down to the village of Lacock the previous evening. Lacock, amazingly, is virtually unchanged in 200 years. If you took the cars off the streets, you could be in Victorian England. Indeed, so preserved is it, that Lacock is frequently used for filming period dramas, including Downton Abbey, Pride and Prejudice and perhaps most famously, Harry Potter. After a superb breakfast at The Red Lion, we set off to pick up the keys to the Jaguar.
We were greeted by husband-and-wife team Phil and Nikki Rowe, who run Vintage Classics, and as we drove through their open gates, the E-Type was waiting for us, the morning light glinting off one of the most famous shapes in motoring history.
Phil and Nikki gave us the full lowdown on the car’s quirks – starting procedure, what to expect the row of dials to read as the Jaguar warmed up, how to open the rear hatch to the long, if shallow, luggage compartment – plenty of room for a weekend’s bags – and even the best way to get in and out of the car. There is most certainly a knack to this, and the E-Type’s wide sill was both help and hindrance, providing a useful place to sit before lifting yourself out, or indeed to take a breather.
Getting into a FHC E-type:
Now breath, relax, and enjoy the drive…
They couldn’t have been more helpful, having also provided us with plentiful information on places of interest to visit in the area. Cheerily they waved us off as the Jag rumbled out of their driveway.
As to the car itself, it is a 1964 Series 1 3.8 litre coupé; in my view, the best-looking E-Type there is, and this example resplendent in bright red. It’s not pristine – after all, it’s a rental, a 54-year-old one with almost 98,000 miles on the clock at that, so it’s a little frayed around some of the edges, but a perfectly sound driver. Phil said they are planning to refurbish the interior over the winter, but it was certainly more than ok for our purposes.
Having never previously driven an E-Type, I had no frame of reference for what to expect. What was immediately apparent was the full-throated growl from the 3.8 litre straight-6 that was emitted every time I started the car up. Oh, and not to dismiss the view of that bonnet stretching out in front of me, the wheel arches flaring up and curving out and beyond my line of sight, with the power bulge in the middle seeming to lift slightly before the final couple of feet disappeared from view. It’s such an iconic view, and extraordinary to be experiencing it for the first time out on the open road.
Now fully briefed, we settled into the comfortable seats – again, surprisingly so, considering that they are little more than padded buckets – and set off to acclimatise ourselves with the car. Our first, short, journey was to return to Lacock to visit Lacock Abbey, a stunning building with parts that date back to the 1230’s! Readers might recognise the cloisters from the Harry Potter films.
All-round visibility was absolutely fine, if a little limited out of the steeply-raked rear window. And once on the move, the steering – especially for a 54-year-old car – was wonderfully direct and precise, better than I had expected, with only small movements of the steering wheel required to change direction.
The steering wheel – a lovely polished golden wood circle with three spokes, five holes in each spoke – felt so smooth and comfortable in my hands. Combined with the immediate effect of even the slightest flick of the wrist, made driving this red beauty much more straightforward than I had anticipated.
The wheel is much closer to the fascia and windscreen than in a modern car – even than in a car just ten years newer, such as my BMW 2002. There’s barely a steering column at all, let alone a fully adjustable one. Oh, and the wheel is slightly offset, and the pedals very close together, so you need to be careful not to press two at once. Yet none of this matters – the E-Type is remarkably easy to drive, particularly once on the move.
The ride too, was subtle and mostly very smooth, though the suspension did get caught out a little on one occasion by a sudden and unexpected dip in the A39 towards the cathedral city of Wells.
After our visit to the Abbey and a light lunch at the delightfully-named Sign of the Angel restaurant, we set off on another short trip to the village of Castle Combe. Castle Combe is of course well known among motorsport fans as the location of one of the UK’s best-established race tracks, and there was indeed a race meeting on that day. However, we were there to visit the historic village, and spent a pleasant hour wandering about the handful of centuries-old streets, themselves also used for filming, most notably for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. We took afternoon tea – as one does – at the very grand Manor House Hotel, and then took our longest drive of the day down to our hotel in West Camel, the Walnut Tree.
By this time, I was getting more used to the car, and we hustled along mostly country roads as a few raindrops began to fall. While there is an impressive looking row of three wipers across the width of the windscreen, they’re not particularly effective – thankfully, the rain was no more than a light shower. I definitely wouldn’t want to drive the E-Type through heavy rain!
A superlative dinner on the Saturday evening, followed by an excellent breakfast on Sunday morning, and we set off in the direction of Cheddar Gorge. The E-Type made every other car in the car park look boring, and we were blessed with much better weather than on Saturday, with the sun reflecting off the Jaguar’s many curves.
We chose a route that would take us along a combination of A and B roads via Glastonbury, known the world over for its festival, but a regular small town the rest of the year. We managed to get close enough in the car to get a cool photo with the Glastonbury Tor and it’s 14th century church tower in the background, before continuing along unexpectedly smooth (by UK standards) roads and country lanes into the Mendip Hills to our next destination.
The descent into Cheddar Gorge is hugely spectacular. All the more as the fabulous growl of the E-Type bounced off the sides of the cliffs as we made our twisting way down to Cheddar – home of the famous cheese – to visit the equally famous caves and of course buy some local product!
We got there just before it began to get busy, slotting the E-Type easily into a parking space – by this time I was starting to get used to considering the disappearing front end.
Unsurprisingly, the deep-throated growl of the flat-six made many heads turn and generated a good number of thumbs-up and smiles. The E-Type, especially a red one, is a fantasy car for many, and although they are relatively common at classic car shows, they’re not often seen in isolation just being driven around. Combine that with a bright sunny Sunday, and smiles and waves are guaranteed!
We spent a couple of hours exploring the subterranean eerie alien landscapes of the caves. Some looked as though they had started life on the drawing boards of H.R. Giger or Roger Dean, while they in actuality were created over hundreds of thousands of years inside the caves. After a walk up (and back down!) the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder, we took a much-needed lunch break besides the Cheddar Yeo river, before deciding to begin the journey back to return the Jaguar.
We again chose minor roads for our route and climbed steadily, but easily, up out of the Gorge and along lovely country roads that would occasionally open out to reveal wonderful views across the landscape. This is the way to enjoy classic car motoring – great roads, super weather, driving with the window down and elbow out in the officially approved “classic” manner, listening to that magnificent engine burble and growl away.
When we got back to Vintage Classics just over an hour later, we’d come to the end of a memorable two days of being surrounded by wonderful scenery while driving along mostly excellent roads, visiting some significant and historic sites, sampled some superb food and all in the company of one of motoring’s most significant and iconic cars. We handed the keys back to Phil and Nikki with smiles on our faces, and I can only recommend using Vintage Classics to have a ‘taster’ before a possible classic car purchase, or merely as a special gift.
As an experience, it was one to cherish – it was a genuine thrill to be driving this impossibly glamorous car around the English countryside. Would it spur me on to consider buying an E-Type one day, if the opportunity arose? Here I’m not so sure. Certainly while I truly enjoyed driving the car, it was for only two-to-three hours a day, and for no longer than an hour at any one time. I think I would have found the slow gear-change and constant engine soundtrack wearing for the kind of day when I drove 923km in one day in die Zitrone. Also, it would have to be the Series III V12, not least because it just looks better to my eyes, especially with the bigger wheels filling out the arches. However, it would then have to be a convertible, as the original FHC was not made in Series III form, just the 2+2, which I’ve never really liked, as the glasshouse has always looked awkward to me. So in the end I’d probably find myself holding the keys to an early1970’s Porsche 911 or a Pagoda Mercedes-Benz over the E-Type. Still, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Jaguar’s sheer beauty is always going to make it a joy to behold.
And you, dear reader – which would you choose?