In 1966, the Italian coachbuilder Pietro Frua transformed an S-type chassis into a cool, stylish two-door coupe. Since his hopes of putting the car into production were unrealised, it remained a one-off. We’ve been to see it. Words & photography by Drive-My/Paul Walton.
FRUA S-TYPE: UNIQUE, REBODIED JAGUAR SALOON
Italian Dressing - Not many Jaguars have been rebodied by an outside coachbuilder. We examine a rare example, the one-off Frua S-type, which made its debut at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show to understand its history and significance
For a freshly designed car to receive enough press and public recognition to be considered a success, its debut at a motor show needs to be perfectly timed. If it is revealed at the same moment as one or two similar designs from rivals, then it is in danger of being lost in the crowd, relegated to the back pages.
That’s exactly what happened to Pietro Frua’s stylish S-type-based coupe at the 1966 Geneva show. Not only did a rival design house display its version of a two-door Jaguar (see box), but – and even more damaging – the long-awaited E-type 2+2 was making its debut on Jaguar’s own stand. Due to this unfortunate coincidence, Frua’s little coupe was largely ignored, the order books empty, the car forgotten.
Untimely reveal aside, the little-known car is one of the prettiest two-door coupes ever constructed on a Jaguar chassis, offering all the style and elegance of an Italian sports car, but with the ride and performance of a standard saloon; a desirable combination. So, did it deserve a better fate?
By the mid-Sixties, Jaguar’s range of saloons was as confusing as it was large. Along with the goliath 420G, there was The Mk 2, the S-type (a Mk 2 with a longer boot and independent rear suspension) and the 420 (the S-type with four headlights and upright grille treatment, similar to the 420G). Plenty of choice, then, but nothing to bridge the gap between the four-doors and the E-type – a car that could also rival the large two-door coupes that Italy was producing at the time, such as the Lancia Flaminia or Maserati Sebring.
While the idea of such a model did not occur to Jaguar, it had elsewhere, namely in Italy, the home of exclusive and stylish cars. The Turin-based stylist and coachbuilder Pietro Frua decided to create a two-door Jaguar saloon for his stand at the 1966 Geneva motor show, a car that he hoped would lead to orders from individual customers.
Frua was born in Turin in 1913 and began his career at Stabilimenti Farina in 1930, as a draughtsman. Five years later, he was director of styling, but left the company in 1938 to set up his own design house – a year before the outbreak of WW2 (1939-1945).
He saw out the hostilities by designing children’s cars, electric ovens and kitchens. Frua’s first post-war car was the 1946 Fiat 1100C; the next was the stunning Maserati A6G. Despite the little Frua becoming the Italian manufacturer’s favoured carrozzerie, Pietro sold his company to Ghia in 1957, staying as its head of design. However, an argument with Ghia director Luigi Segre over the paternity of the Renault Floride led to Frua leaving. He became one of the most prominent Italian designers of the era, working with Glas, Maserati and AC, plus Carrosserie Italsuisse in Geneva. He also designed and built more than 200 prototypes based on cars from several major European car manufacturers, including Alfa Romeo, BMW, Citroën and Ford, plus designed a one-off Jaguar-saloon- based coupe.
In December 1965, Jaguar dispatched a left-hand-drive S-type 3.8 rolling chassis (1B78869DN) to Frua’s Turin workshop. The model was the perfect choice to transform into a sporting coupe because its independent rear suspension offered a better ride than the harder, overly sporting, Mk 2 and its compact size allowed for nicer proportions than the enormous 420G.
Unlike some show cars, however, when Frua’s S-type was revealed it wasn’t an unfinished styling exercise. The all-steel body was a self-supporting monocoque with new front and rear subframes, while the interior was trimmed to a higher standard. It was a runner, too, Frua staying with the 3.8-litre engine. It wasn’t simply a lack of doors that made the coupe so different to the donor model: it was the long, angular lines. Wide and square, the nose was the polar opposite from the original oval grille design, giving it a more modern appearance. Incredibly, the car was finished in just three months, in time for its debut at Geneva.
Sadly, because the E-type 2+2 was also appearing at the show, Frua’s hard work was ultimately for nothing. Although the E-type’s raised roof, sharper raked screen and extended chassis lacked the style and elegance of the standard fixed-head coupe (or Frua’s own car, for that matter), it was still the four-seat Jaguar that many families had been waiting for. Consequently, the Frua S-type received little attention and the designer’s hopes of taking orders remained unrealised.
Following the show, Frua’s car languished in his workshop for several months before Jaguar’s Turin dealer, Fattori & Montani, sold it to an Italian gentleman named Francesco Respino. He then sold it to Hans Haldemann, a former Swiss motorcycle racer, who changed the colour from its original metallic blue to British Racing Green. During the late Seventies, the coupe was imported into the UK and registered HYS 40T. In 1995, Sherwood Restorations, in Nottinghamshire, was tasked with recommissioning the car, when it was resprayed back to its original colour and re-registered FNN 714C. The same family owned it for more than 20 years, before selling it onto classic car specialist, Julien Sumner.
By the time Julien took possession of the Frua coupe, it was in need of some slight recommissioning to put it back on the road. Although he is in the car business, Julien has no plans to sell the car. He simply likes it too much.
I can understand why. Even though Julien’s showroom is full of delectable machinery, the little Frua stands out like a long-limbed catwalk model. Its crisp and elegant lines are the epitome of Sixties cool, the sort of car an Italian gentleman would drive from his holiday villa in the Tuscan hills to his office in Milan. Julien also likes the fact that this is a one-off, being both a part of the Jaguar family and unique.
Sadly, there is not much of its original Jaguar character left. If you take away the Growler on the nose, it could be any of Frua’s other designs of the time. Plus, the plain, oblong rear-light clusters look as though they were no doubt sourced from a Sixties saloon and do not reflect the car’s sophisticated personality. Other than that, from the entwining Jaguar and Frua script on its flanks to the mesh grille at the nose the details are beautiful, while its boxy design is more contemporary than Jaguar’s own designs of the time.
The dashboard is pure S-type – although the deep shine suggests it was covered in a thicker grade of veneer – and the row of white-on-black Smiths dials and line of flicker switches complement the car’s stylish sports coupe image perfectly. A wood-rimmed, aluminium-spoked steering wheel further strengthens the ambience and, as I gaze down the car’s long, flat bonnet, it is hard to believe this is a Jaguar that I’m about to drive, and not an Alfa Romeo or, even, a Maserati.
The Frua also scores over the base car because of the extra interior room it appears to have. It’s an illusion, of course, because the seat locations and, therefore, legroom remain the same as the base car. The deception comes from the windows – huge expenses of glass that are longer, wider and deeper than the S-type’s – that create an airiness that Jaguars from the Sixties, with their slithers of light, could only dream of. The tall rear screen even features a subtle curve, a remarkable aspect for a show car, which further illustrates Frua’s attention to detail. And, with its wider and deeper front seats upholstered in a thicker-than-standard leather, these are levels of luxury that could rival a Rolls- Royce Shadow.
The 3.8 engine starts with a raspy exhaust note, the heady mix of six cylinders and snarling carbs sounding aristocratic and authoritative. It’s never loud enough to offend, but is perfectly indulgent for a sports coupe such as this.
After flicking the four-speed ’box into first, I move off easily and gently. The engine retains the flexibility for which it’s famous, offering a rich seam of torque that holds interest until the next gear change. Yet it’s no sports car; the car’s weight blunts its performance sufficiently to be noticeable over the usually spritely 3.8 S-type. Think of the car as a boulevard cruiser, more Como than Cadwell.
This is further demonstrated by the suspension, which retains the suppleness that Jaguars of the era are renowned for. It irons out bumps in the road, yet still corners relatively flatly with nicely controlled body roll.
At 4,770mm long and 1,690mm wide, it has the same dimensions as the base car, although because Frua’s boxy design makes it feel larger I’m less inclined to dart around corners with zesty tomfoolery. Instead, I take it steady and enjoy its fingertip-light steering, perfect balance and comfortable ride. A car this good does beg the question of why more weren’t built. Cost was no doubt a factor. While it’s not known how much this prototype was to build, a bespoke, all-steel-bodied car would not have been cheap for a small coachbuilder such as Frua to put into production. Also, perhaps its design was too subtle, losing too much of its base car’s character for it to appeal to potential customers.
Still, the idea of a two-door saloon was right, as Jaguar found out less than a decade later when it revealed the XJ Coupe, a car that was identical in image and concept to the Frua S-type. The Italian’s timing was wrong, but his judgement wasn’t.
Thanks to: Julien Sumner (tel: 07788 865700; www.juliensumner.com)