It’s easy to understand why people spend vast amounts of money on recreation E-Type Lightweights when you first encounter one. True to form, this one won’t start until the twin Webers have fed its XK straight-six with just the right amount of petrol. But even stationary and on the brink of catching, it looks, sounds and - when it finally bursts into life - smells like a racing car worth a million pounds. Or maybe even £1.2m, which is the price Jaguar asked for each of the six continuation Lightweights that recently picked up from the original 18-car run left unfinished in 1964.
This E-Type is not one of those machines. They followed on from the sixties featherweight GT racers that succeeded the C- and D-Type in the hands of privateers. This car is one-fourteenth the price - although at £168k it’s still proper supercar money. This Lightweight is a detailed recreation finished by Zealia Engineering in 2012, the now defunct Kiwi firm started by late Safety Devices founder Brian Wilkinson. Zealia made its name years before Jaguar announced its Lightweight continuation run, so while this E-Type can’t claim to be a true Jaguar racer from that sports car heyday, there’s no doubting the craftsmanship that went into making it. This side of Jaguar Heritage’s own workshop, it’s second to none – evidence of which comes with its present home, E-Type UK, where only the best-kept examples of Malcolm Sayer’s creation pass through.
“This is a proper homage to the original Lightweight that’s genuinely fit for the race track,” says E-Type UK marketing executive, Jack Twinam, as the 4.2-litre motor settles into a smoother idle now the oil and water temperatures are up. “It has exposed fuses, a welded in roll cage and an upgraded stainless-steel radiator complete with a fan, while keeping to the character of the original. That’s why we had to turn it over five times before it fired this morning - that’s authentic!”
Technically, this E-Type is more of a Semi-Lightweight, due to the use of a regular Series 1 chassis rather than the aluminium version Jaguar made for the originals. But that’s true of all recreations and in the case of this 6,500-mile-old Zealia, there’s enough aluminium body panels draped over it for most (Lightweight anoraks aside) to feel content that they’re stood beside a proper alloy-bodied machine. Anyway, not being a genuine car has its benefits, namely that you might actually drive this one – as we’re about to do – even when the heavens threaten to open and turn the tarmac that surrounds E-Type UK’s Harlow home into a patchwork of puddles, mud and wet leaves.
The same could not be said for the other E-Types in the workshop, some of which have undergone complete restorations taking more than two years. Jack explains that E-Type UK, which is run alongside - but independent from - DM Historics, has customers from all over the world, some of whom will place orders with the Kent company without ever visiting it. “That’s the reputation we have,” he says “and it’s why our work is so extensive. With everything from full body restorations and chassis welds to painting all done in house.” Our earlier wander through the workshop was inspiring to say the least, with experts of each craft painstakingly applying a mixture of traditional and cutting-edge techniques. E-Type UK can, it turns out, source, comprehensively strip and then fully restore any E-Type, with the option for mild enhancements that are in keeping with the original formula should a customer so wish. Each car is then subjected to an extensive test programme to ensure it’s ready for all conditions. “No good someone arriving in London to have their just-finished car overheat straight away,” explains Jack.
Still, even as one of the least original E-Types on site due to its recreation status, the Zealia is more than capable of keeping one's gazes fixed. Stepping down and sliding your feet into its carpet-free footwell, it offers all the excitement and charm you’d hope for in a vintage racer. The large (by modern standards), thin-rimmed wood steering wheel and Smiths gauges sit ahead, while extended switch control arms protrude out of the dash’s centre so they can be reached when the harnesses are tight and you’re pressed into the soft, leather racing seats. With your body now vibrating in tune with the crankshaft ahead, you peer through the clear bonnet shield (a GT racing feature to keep oil and muck off the screen) and down the elongated nose. It certainly doesn’t feel far from the real deal.
At the same time, you’re aware of the improvements on offer, the Zealia slipping into gear with little effort. This car has a five-speed synchromesh gearbox that, unlike the straight-cut originals, does not need a blip of revs to work. Handy when the thin throttle and brake pedals are spaced just a little too far apart for easy heel-and-toeing. This is a car that requires exaggerated movements from a driver, with heavy, unassisted steering, an engine that begs for a couple-thousand revs before it allows for a smooth pull-away and those spaced pedals subjecting you to a legs and arms out dance. Before we’ve even left E-Type UK’s property, the respect for period racing drivers who competed with Lightweight Jags of this character is high.
But get it out on the open road and it really does purr along. It feels so light on its toes, that front axle seemingly unaware of the big lump held longitudinally above it, accentuating the immediacy of that steering rack. It isn’t massively quick in ratio (and the turning circle is predictably diabolical) but it has nothing in the way of rubberisation and your hands are almost overwhelmed by the information channeling up from those period-style Dunlops. It’s damp and slippery out here, but such is the quality of the two-way communication that you’re encouraged to explore further. Would you feel so confident in a £1.2m continuation car? Probably not. And certainly not in one of the £7m originals…
Open the taps on the XK engine and the initial mechanical chunter is drowned out, with all following sounds seemingly unaffected by the bulkhead’s presence. The gravelly note of inhaling Webers pours into the cabin, while the underlying roar of a straight-six singing towards its upper realms dominates the remaining soundwaves. The orchestra builds in intensity until the XK motor is practically roaring towards 6,000rpm. It. Is. Heavenly. Although in truth the engine is actually not a screamer, producing most of its muscle through the mid-range, where such are the reserves of torque that you can almost awaken it in any gear and from any revs.
And while there's no question of testing its limits in the conditions, the E-Type handles brilliantly, with no noticeable body roll thanks to a centre of gravity at bum level and footing so light that the chassis glides over bumps. The car pulls, turns and - with a heavy foot thanks to unservoed brakes - stops like a proper vintage racing car all right, while the racy crackles and pops from the twin-pipes out back summon up a bygone era. It would take a heart of stone not to follow it down the rabbit hole; the E-Type is as easy to slip on as period costume, as is the Lightweight character which feels completely unique to this wonderful machine.
Jack knows the verdict before a word is uttered; not even drizzle on the windscreen can block out the Cheshire cat grin beaming from within. This is a man who knows E-Types inside out but even he clearly still draws some excitement from this one; “we love having it around,” he says. “There’s no rush to sell it.” Not surprising. The history of the E-Type Lightweight is the stuff of legend, meaning that even a more affordable and less rarefied version feels utterly magical. If only we had the semi-large pile of money needed to take it home...