Lucky number 13 recreated original Jaguar XJ13. A dream made real, from idea to test drive! With a meticulous eye and endless patience, Neville Swales was the perfect man to recreate the racing Jaguar that never competed: the gorgeous XJ13. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography (in build) Antony Fraser. Photography (finished car) Jayson Fong.
As the wind swells and blusters, and malevolent clouds roil overhead, the marquee before us threatens to depart for a different time-zone. The introductions are over and we’re into the preliminary speeches. If there is a common theme, it’s that few thought this day would ever happen; that we would be assembled here at Curborough Sprint Course waiting for Neville Swales’ six-years-in-the-making recreation of the Jaguar XJ13 to venture trackside for the first time.
Marque authority Paul Skilleter has only just begun his homily about how Jaguar could have taken the fight to Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans had fate been kinder, when it’s punctuated by a whir and a clatter. Heads turn in unison towards the source of the commotion, which is unsighted and some distance away.
What follows is the clamour of a racebred, four-cam V12 firing with surround-sound fanfare. It’s the sort of noise that tears the sky, each blip of the throttle prompting grown men to look at each other with mouths agape. In an instant, there is much chattering in tones fully deserving of italics and exclamation marks. Each member of our party is wearing a look of unselfconscious wonder. ‘It starts, then,’ quips one wag, the ensuing laughter being drowned out almost immediately as the shapeliest of sports-prototypes hoves into view. There’s no fighting it; you have to surrender. It’s time to find a vantage point on the pit wall (fence would be more accurate).
For Swales, the tagline for the project - ‘Building the Legend’ - is more than mere PR puff: he wasn’t about to settle for anything less than perfection. So just how did a self-taught engineer end up recreating one of the most beautiful, if stillborn, racing cars ever made? ‘I have always been a Jaguar fan, having owned a couple of very early E-types and a Proteus C-type race car,’ he says. ‘I’m very much “hands-on” and have always built my own engines, for road or race. I have never been a member of the concours brigade; my cars have always been well-used on road and track.
‘I raced my first E-type when I was living in South Africa. I spent my early career brewing beer and was lucky enough to be poached by South African Breweries after the first free elections, to help prepare them for a world free of sanctions. I drove my C-type to and from race meetings, as Jaguar did in the 1950s. Mine was a replica of the Hamilton/Rolt 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours-winning car and I continued campaigning it when I returned to the UK in the 1990s.’
Scroll forward a decade, when the kernel of an idea began to take root. ‘I visited the old Jaguar Heritage museum at Browns Lane and became entranced by the XJ13. At that time, originality - or authenticity - never really entered my head and I approached a few replica manufacturers with a view to building my own, powered by the later twin-cam V12 engine.’ However, while the likes of Invicta, Proteus, Triple C, Predator and so on have all had a stab at cloning the XJ13, none is as exacting as Swales’ recreation; something that he admits happened more by chance than through planning. ‘I have a friend who works with a dedicated team reviving and returning to flight a 1954 Avro Shackleton. He also happens to be a Jaguar enthusiast who spends a lot of time trawling the web for the unobtainable, the weird and the wonderful. He emailed me one day, saying: “Take a look at this. I know you are interested in old Jaguar engines and you might be interested in this one.” There was a link to German eBay and what looked like an original and complete prototype quad-cam engine. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
‘I emailed the seller for more information and pictures. My first port of call after that was Jaguar Heritage. It transpired that they had been offered the engine by the same seller a few years earlier. A few cursory questions were asked such as, “Does it have gear-driven cams?” When they received the answer, "No it doesn’t, they are chain-driven,” they opined that it probably wasn’t what it purported to be “...as drive to the XJ13 s cams is by gears.” If they had only referred to their own archive they would have seen that the XJ13 only had gear-driven ’heads fitted in 1978 - 11 years after the project had ended.’
In the days leading up to the end of the auction, our hero contacted XJ13 authority Peter Wilson, who just happened to be holidaying on a cruise-liner. Fortunately for Swales, the former Jaguar competition department man had access to email.
‘Peter helped prepare the “Lightweight” E-types. He also worked on the original XJ13. Many myths about the car had built up over the years, but the full facts hadn’t been accurately documented until he wrote Jaguar XJ13 - The definitive story of the Le Mans Car and the V12 engine that powered it. I fired some photos over to Peter and he was able to give me chapter and verse on the engine as well as confirming its authenticity from numbers on the various castings. It transpired that the engine was the most highly developed of the three engines that were ever installed in cars. It covered close on 50,000 miles in two Mk10 saloon test mules before ending its active days on the Browns Lane test-bed in December 1969.’
At the end of that year the engine was placed in store. Fortunately, it survived as a complete unit and was first displayed in Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery (later to become the Coventry Transport Museum). ‘It then went to Germany to help promote the establishment of Jaguar Germany. Those were the days when Jaguar had become a small cog in the British Leyland empire; when its heritage wasn’t valued as highly as it is now. If it hadn’t been for the visionary efforts of Peter Mitchell, we would probably not have the Jaguar Heritage Trust and the cars in the collection today. The engine escaped his net, though, and was sold by a Jaguar employee to a private German individual who sat on it for almost 40 years, perhaps not fully understanding its significance.’ Having won the auction, and transported the valuable cargo back to Blighty from Pforzheim, near Stuttgart, there was no buyer’s remorse. Instead, the project changed tack. And how. ‘Having acquired such an important engine, I made the decision to install it in a recreation of the XJ13 as it first emerged from Jaguars Competition Department in 1966.
‘I would build one exactly as designer Malcolm Sayer envisaged it. I had to do the engine justice. Jaguar kindly granted me unfettered access to its archive, and I supplemented what little I found there - which was certainly not enough to recreate the original car - with documents, photos and data from other sources. These included surviving project team members and the estates of people such as engine designer Claude Baily and engineering director William Heynes.
‘Some of this information included Sayers original 3D data, which had been painstakingly worked out longhand using sliderules and log tables. Fellow XJ13 enthusiasts will know that the rebuilt car differs in a number of respects from the original, which was altered following Norman Dewiss accident at MIRA in 1971.’
Jumping forward, responsibility for recreating the original 1966-correct outline passed to North Devon Metalcraft. ‘The process of building the car started with CAD design for the monocoque,’ the firms co-principal Paul Evans recalls. ‘Making the front and rear body panels alone represented about three months’ work. The most difficult part of the build? That would be the monocoque, given the amount of detail work for the front and rear subframes, petrol tanks, doorframes, the boot floor, the bonnet - 98 louvres, with not one being out of line - the front windscreen surround, which was made in steel, the dash panel, and so on. Then there was the painstaking riveting. There are more than 1000, each one having been individually put in by hand.'
Swales explains the physical differences between his car and the one in the Jaguar Heritage collection: ‘The original car was rebuilt by Ted Loades’ company, Abbey Panels, in the early ’70s for the sum total of £1000. Many changes were made during the build, both above and below the skin.
‘Some were minor and others rather more obvious. For example, when the front section was remade and reattached, a few extra rows of rivets were added, which run right across the nose of the car. These rivets stand proud and are now a very obvious feature of the XJ13. My recreation uses solid flush rivets, as specified by Sayer. Physically, the biggest changes to the rebuilt car were the addition of flared wheelarches front and rear. The original partially enclosed wheel openings were also extended to suit the cars new shape. The rear deck area was then raised and shortened
to blend in with these new, larger rear arches. Changes beneath the skin included the complete removal of an inner bulkhead. However, even writh these modifications, Sayers sublimely beautiful lines still peek out. In my opinion, the man was a genius.’
Staring at the finished recreation, its hard to argue to the contrary. Even more so as Sayers’ daughter Kate is standing nearby. There are incongruous feelings of foreignness and familiarity at work here. While the one and only XJ13 is utterly gorgeous despite being reconfigured, the original outline as regenerated here is somehow cleaner. More elegant, even. Precisely how many hours have been invested in creating this machine remains unrecorded. ‘I daren’t even think about it,’ Swales mock- groans. The same is probably true of the amount of money that has been sunk into the project thus far. ‘Let’s just say it’s eye-watering… Judging from the wide smile that Swales is wearing as he heads onto the twisty Staffordshire sprint track for the first time, it has been worth every penny. The car looks much smaller than you might imagine, curve begetting curve. It’s lovely. And that V12 is epically loud.
Swales’ creation takes to the track fronting a flotilla of D-types, E-types and XKs. Those and GT40s and Daytona Cobra clones. After a few exploratory laps, he tries that bit harder. Is it impolite to cheer? The sight of an ‘XJ13’ and assorted faux GT40s sharing a circuit provides an indelible image, adding a certain ‘What if?’ angle to proceedings. Could Coventry have trumped Slough (sorry, Detroit) in Les Vingt-quatres Heures du Mans in period had circumstances been different?
And then disaster strikes, as flames momentarily flicker out of the back of Swales’ car. Game over. Before we know it, the car is loaded onto a trailer and whisked away. It’s the end of the demonstration, but not the end of the day. Swales refuses to be downbeat. ‘There’s no real damage,’ he says, perma-smile never slackening. Whereas most of us would be a bundle of frayed nerves, nothing can dampen his sunshine mood. ‘The fueling did feel rather limiting and I know that more work on improving the fuel cam profile is needed. The lick of flame in my rear-view mirror told me the overly-rich mixture needs to be optimised. A puff of smoke and a few singed fuel lines ended play. That’s all.
‘What surprised me more than anything was how well the car turned-in and handled out-of- the-box. We set the car up to be as close as possible to the settings recorded during the XJ13 s final tests in 1967, culminating in David Hobbs and Richard Attwood performing high-speed runs at Silverstone. I was able to appreciate the way the car stopped squarely and securely as well as going exactly where I pointed it. On my penultimate lap, I exerted my right foot a little further on the straight and realised I could comfortably keep station with a hard-driven GT40.
‘This is one of the happiest days of my life. It s the realisation of a dream and to share it with so many enthusiasts and people who worked on the original car all those years ago is something pretty special. I won’t forget today in a hurry.’ Neither will those who helped build the original car. Roger Shelbourne, who was one of the youngest members of the team in period, enthused: ‘It’s an astounding project. I am very impressed. It’s almost as though the car we made has been resurrected. As far as I am concerned, this is the second XJ13 build, although third might be closer given the changes that were later made to the original.’
So is there any chance of Swales’ car ever venturing trackside in actual competition? He mulls over the question for a moment before replying: ‘The plan is to continue developing the car to the point where it could race should I choose to do so. That said, because the original XJ13 never raced in period, it doesn’t automatically qualify for an FLA passport, which might make it difficult to obtain entries at Historic race meetings. Also, the cars it was meant to compete against in period have had the benefit of 50 years’ development. The XJ13 hasn’t. I suspect the Ford GT40s in particular are performing better now than they ever did in period. Perhaps the ‘What if?’ question should remain unanswered...’
Swales isn’t above making further replicas, though. ‘A couple of years ago, I was asked by a fellow-enthusiast to build him a car. After all, I have the bucks, tooling, jigs, casting patterns and expertise, to make more,’ he says. ‘This first car will be delivered to the US early next year. To help contribute towards the cost of building and developing my prototype-engined car, I am now offering a limited run of customer cars powered by Jaguar’s last-of-the-line 6.0-litre V12s, which will be modified to suit this application. A project to recreate a quad-cam version, along the lines of the XJ13 engine, is also on the drawing board. These cars will be handmade with the same attention to detail as my prototype-engined car and, because they share identical suspension geometry with the original, they should handle and feel the same.’ Even if you are biologically inclined to dislike recreations - or toolroom replicas in trade speak - its hard not to be awestruck by the grandiosity of Swales’ vision. His Ahab-like obsession in creating his dream car has resulted in something truly breathtaking to behold.