It can’t be real. Yet here in Spain sits a Jaguar Lightweight E-type, spectral and unsettlingly perfect, like a film noir Lana Turner back from the dead to tempt us all over again.
Even more unreal, Jaguar is about to let us drive it, one of just six handcrafted, genetically precise continuations of its racing E-types: the so-called “missing” Lightweights whose chassis serial numbers were hand recorded in a ledger in 1963. The first dozen “Special GT E-types” were constructed for privateer racers—including American Briggs Cunningham—and 11 survive. But the final six aluminum-bodied beauties, numbers 850670 through 850675, were never birthed, as Jaguar turned its back on racing.
Such continuation cars can carry a petrol whiff of cynicism, of cashing in on nostalgia or credulous collectors. And with Jaguar’s Browns Lane Heritage Workshop seeking to make a name as part of the new Jaguar Land Rover Special Operations, the Lightweights do emit a corporate-halo glow—not least for their owner-negotiated price of $1.2 million and up, making these by far the most expensive purebred kitties Jaguar has ever produced.
But then our eyes lock on the first completed customer Lightweight. Jaguar calls it No. 1, not No. 13 as it would be in the original sequence. You don’t want to look away from the famously carnal shape, as the car’s white-lipped mouth forms a demure “O,” perhaps surprised at its own heightened, lightened, 190-mph ability.
Resistance melts and puddles in the Circuito de Navarra’s pit lane. We revel in the Lightweight’s romantic details: a clamshell bonnet worthy of a Botticelli painting, held by quaint leather straps, Avdel rivets just like the ones on Spitfire fighter planes, and wheel spinners adopted from the 1950s D-type racer. The long, visible exhaust pipes, updated to stainless steel to resist corrosion, cocked skyward like the horns of Jericho.
Riches’ view is that a replica is a copy of someone else’s design and that “we have copied nothing from anyone else. Hence, not a replica.”
Kev Riches, the tall, bespectacled Brit who leads Heritage engineering and manufacturing, looks on with bemusement like the proud uncle he is. When he started as an intern in 1974, the Jaguar veteran worked on some of the last E-types produced.
Riches helped assemble a Jaguar dream team, including employees with aerospace aluminum experience, to translate and clone the original Lightweight: everything from English craftsman techniques to period-correct alloy sheets that slice 250 pounds from a standard steel-bodied E-type.
“If there had been a No. 13 car, what would it be?” Riches says of the philosophy behind the car, noting the first dozen Lightweights evolved subtly.
Like most philosophical questions, the issue of whether this car is “real” or a replica tends toward abstraction, can spark tireless debate, and may be insoluble. As time-capsule-perfect as they may be, the cars are being built in 2015, not 1963. England’s Goodwood Revival vintage-racing festival apparently sides with the replica camp, barring what it sees as masquerading Lightweights at the manor door.
Yet Jaguar’s six new cars flaunt those original chassis codes to mount a claim for numbers-matching authenticity. They are homologated for FIA historic racing, and all six owners, bless them, plan to campaign their Lightweights rather than stick them on a pedestal.
Riches’ view is that a replica is a copy of someone else’s design and that “we have copied nothing from anyone else. Hence, not a replica.” Since Jaguar built Lightweights in the ’60s and restarted production 52 years later, “In my book, that’s no different from building XJs, then having a two-week shutdown and starting [again] after the break!”
Whatever your view, anyone who watches the cars take shape in Whitley, Gaydon, and at Browns Lane, should be moved by the insane commitment and artistry on display: This act of historic alchemy seems unprecedented from a large-scale corporate automaker.
At Jag’s Whitley headquarters, we watch the team reanimate one of the most beloved sports cars of any age. On the small shop floor, car Nos. 4, 5, and 6 are held fast in jigs, their aluminum skins in various stages of welding, riveting, sanding, and polishing. Silvery unibodies are mated to a tubular subframe, and then doors are mounted.
Chris Burdett, lead project engineer and third-generation Jaguar employee—his grandfather fitted windscreens to original E-types—at first wanted to construct the new cars with modern aluminum methods.
“But I was very quickly nipped in the bud,” he says. “To get into competitions, we had to stick to original engineering but with a bit of modern cheating for safety.”
The “cheating” includes steel nut plates where original aluminum mounting points tended to fatigue, and for racing, braided steel fuel lines and fabric bags inside fuel tanks to prevent rupture.
But how to begin? Jaguar had no detailed technical drawings of E-types—“only physical properties,” meaning actual cars—to scan into digital CAD models over three weeks in January 2014.
Contrary to most media reports, a pair of conventional steel-bodied E-types, not an original Lightweight, served as CAD templates, for one reason: All 11 surviving originals have been reworked or rebuilt since leaving the factory and embarking on racing careers. Jaguar did find original tooling for surfaces ahead of the windscreen—fender wings and upper and lower center bonnet—because drivers tended to crash front first and created a need for parts.
One of those steel E-types rolled off the ’63 production line just 10 cars before the first Lightweight, allowing Jaguar to pick up small production changes right before the Lightweights’ run. Using scans of outer and inner surfaces, Jaguar created some 350 tools for body panels and other pressed parts, then flipped them along the car’s centerline to create a mirror image, which was beyond the state of design and manufacturing technology in 1963.
The symmetrical structure makes for easier suspension tuning, including upgraded Koni adjustable dampers, “because everything on the new car actually points in a straight line,” Burdett says, laughing.
We ride to the Browns Lane workshop, on the historic site where Jaguars, including the original Lightweights, were built from 1950 to 2005. Customer treasures inside include a XJ220 supercar and a 1958 XK150, found after moldering 30 years in a Sicilian barn. Today’s Lightweights meander from Whitley to JLR Gaydon for paint, then here for installation of powertrain, brakes, suspension, steering, instrument panel, lamps, and soft trim.
Car No. 3’s 3.8-liter, dry-sump, all-aluminum inline-six sits on a dolly. It produces “easily 340 horsepower,” one technician says. The engine, with hemi combustion chambers and chain-driven dual overhead camshafts, dates to 1948 and the XK120 but is now supplied by restoration parts specialist Crosthwaite & Gardiner. Owners select between Lucas mechanical fuel injection or a trio of Weber carburetors, along with colors and modest options.
Under a glass case, a leather-bound build ledger, like some magical Harry Potter tome, lies open to the pages containing the Lightweights’ stillborn chassis codes. It’s one of 86 ledgers in the company archives that detail Jaguars built from 1931 to 1983.
On a nearby worktable, we see the modernized build plates destined for the underside of bonnets, their durable, acid-etched script replacing the original’s screen printing that tended to fade over the years.
Ian Callum, the designer who dragged Jaguar and its loyalists, at times kicking and screaming, into the modern age, is well aware of the ravages of time. Callum, a former Ford and Aston Martin designer, suggests that the oft-troubled Jaguar had to make a clean break with its past to find itself again.
“Back when we were struggling, we were perhaps embarrassed by our heritage,” Callum says, with cars that paled before their classic ancestors. “Now, we’ve joined the 21st century, and we’ve done it well. Now we can look back and say, ‘You know, we were pretty damned good.’”
While only six owners and a few hired-gun drivers will enjoy the new cars, Callum says the project helped reignite respect for that heritage, while passing a torch from the past to light their way, remembering “that we are, at heart, a sports car and racing company.”
Now, at this Spanish racetrack, that truth shines as brilliantly as the pair of Lightweights (including Car Zero, the engineering prototype) in Navarra’s pits, flanked by its 575-hp descendant, the F-Type Project 7.
Finally, it’s time to drive Jaguar’s cigar-shaped time traveler, with the ghost of E-type designer Malcolm Sayer hopefully standing guard. First you have to climb inside. Especially with a helmet on, this is like squeezing into the world’s prettiest sarcophagus, its footwells as constricting as skinny jeans, its pedals virtually atop one another. Largely naked cabin metals contrast with Connolly leather racing buckets and a hide-wrapped center console.
Between its irreplaceability—unless there’s one more overlooked chassis number—right-hand drive, and vintage technology, the Lightweight sparks real performance anxiety. The hopped-up, chrome-intaked inline-six gurgles as water and oil temperatures rise to proper levels. My passenger, Brazilian driver Adriano Medeiros, offers advice and encouragement after first demonstrating what Jaguar’s test-tube baby can do in the hands of a vintage-racing pro.
Guiding the slender aluminum lever into first, I ease onto the track, noting the easy clutch engagement. For durability, the original ZF five-speed manual transmission, notoriously unreliable, is retired for a vintage four-speed Jaguar box. Double wishbones and torsion bars are up front, with a single wishbone and standard E-type coil-overs out back, and a Powr-Lok limited-slip differential.
It’s a vintage car all right, with all the heightened sensations and analog inputs they entail. The rack-and-pinion steering, with its pretzel-rimmed wooden wheel, is surprisingly eager and slop-free. Non-assisted disc brakes are forceful, but with a pressure curve nearly the opposite of modern ABS units, are like jumping aboard a Schwinn for the first time in years. At just 2,205 pounds, the Lightweight responds instantly to throttle and surges ahead, with torque peaking around 280 lb-ft at 4,500 rpm. Dunlop 15-inch, bias-ply racing tires on magnesium rims deliver trusty grip, and the Jag feels fast, lusty, and balanced, even if your heel-and-toe technique has gone balky from disuse.
Shifting steadily upward, I hammer the Lightweight to 110 mph down the straightaway. The six-cylinder’s saucy, unfiltered roar fills the cabin, along with the smell of machine oil. If I’m not driving the Jaguar at anything like warp speed, the E-type—an aluminum beer can-cum-coffin—transports me to a time when men were men in racing, a time when race cars were pretty first and tech-stuffed advertising billboards second. And that’s the idea. There’s no going back, but we can still honor our roots and learn from our elders.
As Callum says, that’s true of Jaguar as well. The prodigal E-type has returned home, fully embraced by the parent company. Or is that the son welcoming the father?
Either way, as Jaguar readies high-volume, make-or-break models—the XE sedan and the F-Pace SUV—it’s this Fabergé-rare E-type that brings the company full circle. Sexy, sporty, and proud of it, Jaguar has made peace with its past and is ready to claim its future.