Racing into British GT history – Classic Jaguar E-Type

How Graham Hill’s ECD 400 Jaguar E-Type raced into British GT history

Why leave ourselves here at U Drive Cars to introduce the enduring icon of 1960s motoring that is the Jaguar E-Type, when there is no less an authority than Enzo Ferrari, who famously described the revolutionary design as “the most beautiful car in the world”?

Nor could old Enzo have exactly been blamed for his swooning admiration – with its beautiful bodywork by Malcolm Sayer, incorporating a long, sculpted nose, faired-in headlamps and centred twin exhaust, there really was nothing else on the road quite like Jaguar’s unspeakably pretty sports car when it broke cover in 1961.

What not every person to have ever marvelled at the E-Type realises, however, is that the model also wasted no time in chalking up an impressive sporting record, emerging victorious in the hands of the legendary Graham Hill at a GT race at Oulton Park on 15th April 1961.

Astonishingly, this triumph came just four weeks after the E-Type was announced – so how, exactly, did such an unproven competition vehicle hurtle so quickly into GT racing history?

An unlikely legend of the race track

The Jaguar E-Type was first revealed to the immense excitement of the motoring press in Geneva on 15th March 1961.

From the moment journalists clapped eyes on the model’s sweeping bodywork that clearly owed much to the sleek aerodynamic profiles of the C-Type and D-Type, many thoughts turned to its motorsport potential – not least given the presence as well of a Le Mans-honed monocoque chassis and still-novel disc brakes.

However, with Jaguar’s Browns Lane production plant unable to satisfy the incredible demand for E-Types, there was little requirement or resource for the model to hit the race circuit for publicity purposes. It was therefore left to privateers to explore the car’s potential in the FIA’s then-new GT category for sports production cars for which it seemed perfectly suited.

What those race entrants found was that despite the E-Type resembling a competition car, it was by no means a natural in the motorsport environment. Indeed, it had been conceived as a road car, with its innovative independent rear suspension and 3.8-litre straight-six XK engine being better suited to nippy B-roads than the rigours of the world’s race circuits.

However, such shortcomings did not prevent the car from exhibiting giant-killing qualities at shorter races on tight British tracks, as the traditional ‘big boys’ of the early ’60s GT racing scene were soon to discover.

An improbable success against the odds

By the early 1960s, what was then known as the World Championship for Sports Cars had been dominated by Ferrari since its inception in 1953. In 1961, however, the competition was discontinued and replaced with two separate events, the Prototype and the GT Championship.

While most British-held GT races didn’t count towards such international competitions, they nonetheless attracted formidable entrants piloting the then-all-conquering V12-powered Ferraris. Not only were the latest machines of the “Prancing Horse” quicker than the E-Type, they were also lighter and more reliable, which helps to explain why the Jaguar stood little chance of victory at events on the continent.

On ‘home’ territory, however, the situation was potentially very different, at least when Hill turned up for the British Automobile Racing Club (BARC)’s 25-lap GT race at Oulton Park, aboard an indigo blue E-Type entered by Tommy Sopwith’s Equipe Endeavour team. He was joined in the field by fellow Formula One driver Roy Salvadori, who took the wheel of the silver car of the Guildford, Surrey-based Jaguar distributor John Coombs.

Although Salvadori spent half of the race in the lead, Hill overtook him on the 12th lap and never looked back, ultimately triumphing over the Aston Martin DB4 of Innes Ireland and third-placed Salvadori. The highest-placed Ferrari was in fourth. It was quite the race debut for the new model, but what became of Hill’s winning car, bearing the ECD 400 registration plate?

Our investigative work turned up a November 2001 article in Motorsport magazine that shed much light on the vehicle’s subsequent fate, including that it had been in the ownership of sometime gentleman racer and manager of Pink Floyd, Steve O’Rourke, since 1975. As he was quoted as remembering: “Its owner had no idea of its history, and just thought it was a rusty old E-Type. So I paid £600 for it, and I gave it to Michael Cane, who restored it for me over the course of two years.

“The only non-original item is the bonnet, because it was in such a bad way when we found it, but the engine, the chassis and the rear end are all the original car. We have restored it again recently, but it just needed refettling, really.” The car has made various other appearances in recent years, including at the Chelsea Auto Legends Show in London in 2011.

Reflecting on an unexpectedly effective GT racer

In his autobiography Life at the Limit, Hill recalled: “I won a few races with the E-Type but although Jaguar made a lightweight racing version, they didn’t develop it nearly enough and it was outclassed by the Ferrari GTOs.” In his own recollections, Salvadori agreed that the E-Type “wasn’t the best GT you could drive – that was the Ferrari GTO – and it was a little short of power. But it was the most pleasant and the most comfortable. My E-Type drive at Le Mans in 1963 was almost effortless.”

O’Rourke died suddenly from a stroke in late 2003, aged 63, and ECD 400’s present ownership situation is unclear. Alas, we can’t lay claim to it ourselves here at U Drive Cars! What we can offer, however, is the chance to take the wheel of another example of this design icon for six laps of either our Heyford Park or Bicester Heritage venue, experiencing for yourself its incredible sound and surprising pace that helped to make it one of the less likely GT racing stars of its day.

You will receive a tea or coffee on arrival, a classroom-style safety briefing and a commemorative certificate on completion – all for less than £100. How could you possibly resist the opportunity to momentarily take Hill’s place in the front seat of one of the cars that will always be seen as among the finest to ever come from our Isles?

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