True to type

It’s a staggeringly beautiful supercar – the product of a long collaboration of E-Type enthusiasts. But does the Eagle Lightweight Speedster’s performance match its good looks, asks Simon de Burton.

November 30 2011
Simon de Burton

Once described by Enzo Ferrari as “the most beautiful car ever made”, the Jaguar E-Type turned 50 this year, and somehow seems more stunning now than at any time in its history.

The car was first launched in the States in April 1961 as the XKE, and was introduced to the UK the following month, but before it hit British roads it had already made headlines when Autocar magazine substantiated Jaguar’s claim that it was a genuine 150mph sports car – give or take. The meticulously prepared test car, with its “blueprinted” engine, managed 149.1mph.

It’s an impressive performance even by today’s standards, but 50 years ago it was phenomenal and, when combined with the E-Type’s extraordinary appearance – the iconic elongated bonnet stretching out ahead of a compact, two-seater cockpit and truncated rear end – it established the car as an instant classic.

Purists believe the original 3.8-litre Series I cars to be the best, with their simple, leather-covered bucket seats, aluminium centre console and faired-in headlamps, although the more refined Series II and III versions (respectively made from 1968 to 1971 and 1971 to 1974 with 4.2-litre or 5.3-litre engines) are hardly less desirable, be they in open-topped “roadster” format or with fixed-head coupé bodywork. Later coupés even had practicality on their side following the 1967 introduction of the less good-looking 2+2 version that featured occasional rear seats.

The original price of an E-Type rolling on wire wheels was £2,098 – but, by the mid-1970s, the Opec oil crisis and a parlous British economy had combined to hit sales hard, and stories abound of secondhand models being virtually given away. That seems difficult to believe nowadays, not least because the E-Type is regarded as being one of the most covetable of all classic cars, with the best examples changing hands for up to £150,000. But while that sort of money will get you an excellent E-Type to standard specification, it will serve as a mere downpayment on what some enthusiasts are calling “the E-Type that should have been” – a jawdroppingly beautiful and eye-wateringly expensive 21st-century supercar called the Eagle Lightweight E-Type Speedster.

Built on an original E-Type chassis, the Speedster has a subtly redefined body made entirely from aluminium; its alloy engine, a specially developed version of Jaguar’s legendary six-cylinder XK unit, has a capacity of 4.7 litres and produces around 310 horsepower, delivered to the rear wheels through a bespoke, five-speed lightweight gearbox and aluminium differential. Improvements that owners of original E-Types could only have dreamt of include electronic sequential fuel injection, suspension that uses the latest damper technology – and, best of all, a weight of just 1,008kg, resulting in true supercar performance. To look at, the car is simply stunning, with its low, wraparound windscreen, gently bulging flanks and minimal, bumperless extremities. To drive, it is quite sublime with a “one piece” feel that no standard E-Type ever achieved.

There’s not a rattle or shake to irritate; the engine is smooth and tractable at low speeds, yet rev-happy and thrilling when the power is unleashed; the gearbox is positive yet slick and the handling unfeasibly good. Mind you, most people would expect nothing less for the not inconsiderable sum of £550,000 – or, if you insist on the practicality of a roof (none of any description is supplied with the roadster), a further £45,000 will buy you a “low-drag” coupé version that is designed for high-speed continent crossing in a decent level of comfort.

The Lightweight E-Type Speedster is the product of a small, East Sussex-based company called Eagle, established in 1982 by a father and son who offered an upgrade and restoration service for E-Types. The business was taken over in 1987 by classic-car dealer Henry Pearman, who decided to develop it as a supplier of the world’s best E-Types by sourcing excellent, original or restored cars that would then be dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up.

By concentrating on a single model for almost 25 years, Pearman and his team of 14 craftsmen have not only come to know E-Types literally inside out, but they have evolved a series of improvements and modifications that make the cars far nicer to drive and far more practical to own than they ever were in period.

A typical Eagle restoration takes around 4,300 man hours to complete and, during the rebuild, a car can be modified and upgraded to individual specifications, using the knowledge and experience that Pearman and his team have accrued through the 30 or so vehicles they have completed since 1993. “We are not,” as he puts it, “on a voyage of discovery.”

Such expertise costs, of course, and a turnkey Eagle E-Type will set you back £354,000 – plus the cost of what Pearman calls the “base car” from which it will be constructed. Satisfied clients include architect Sir Norman Foster, dancer Michael Flatley and Formula One driver and commentator Martin Brundle. “Although there are numerous E-Types on offer, which are said to be in ‘excellent’ condition or ‘fully restored’ or even ‘concours’, we would not want to have any involvement with around 90 per cent of those on the market at any one time – only when you know these cars intimately do you appreciate just how bad some of the ones on sale actually are,” says Pearman.

“We keep a stock of around 25 cars, most of which come from California where the climate has enabled them to survive in their best, original condition. Starting with one of these as a base car, we can carry out a ground-up restoration, enhanced by a range of tried-and-tested modifications we have developed over the decades. The result is a usable, bespoke car that is enjoyable to own. People are no longer interested in old cars that break down – they want the classic look and feel, but with modern reliability and comfort. Today, confidence is key.”

The high specification and meticulous attention to detail that are part and parcel of an Eagle do, however, make the build process somewhat lengthy and it was an attempt to appease a slightly impatient customer that brought about the creation of the original Speedster. “The client was a doctor from the US who originally asked for a regular E-Type roadster,” says Eagle’s design technician, Paul Brace. “We explained that there was a two- to three-year waiting list but that, if he wanted, we could do something extra special. He came up with the idea of the pared-down ‘speedster’ look and I produced a few sketches for him – which, surprisingly, proved to be extremely close to the look of the finished car.

“The buyer had a huge amount of input into the detail, even down to redesigning the Jaguar image on the horn push. We had spent from 2002 to 2007 just developing the car, and it was eventually delivered to the US in 2008. The original intention was that it would be a one-off, but it inspired us to create the Lightweight Speedster as a homage to the 12 aluminium race cars, the ‘lightweight’ E-Types, that Jaguar built in 1963.

“We started with a 1965 car and it can still be considered a genuine E-Type – it has the original chassis and registration mark and the majority of the original fittings – but virtually everything is modified. The body is hand-wheeled in aluminium and is quite different from that of a normal car. As a result, a completely new windscreen had to be designed, which alone required more than £20,000 worth of investment to develop.

“It’s difficult to believe, but £550,000 is virtually what the car cost us to build,” adds Brace. “As a result, there will only ever be a very limited number due to the small size of the company and the fact that each and every one will be built to order, making them extremely exclusive.”

The car I drove is not officially for sale (although I get the sense that the right offer might seal its departure), but a third Speedster, currently being painted, has been sold, and two more have been ordered – in addition to the aforementioned lightweight coupé.

Some E-Type purists might say that these cars are not “proper” but, having driven regular versions of the model in both road and race trim, I’ve no hesitation in saying that the Eagle Speedster is faster, safer and more reliable. As for whether or not it’s worth £550,000, you’ll have to decide that for yourself – but a short test drive will probably convince you that it is.