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    THE MOST FAMOUS DASH TO 150MPH / #Jaguar-E-Type / #Jaguar-XK-E / #Jaguar / #1961 /

    Words Philip Porter / In 1961 , the e-type changed the course of automotive history. this is the story of how autocar magazine verified Jaguar’s claim that it was offering a 150mph car for real-world money

    It may be difficult to believe now but, when the Jaguar E-type was launched in 1961, it was such a sensational motor car and such a rare sight initially that the few examples on the roads of Britain were literally mobbed when they stopped.

    Peter Sargent, who would race E-types at Le Mans, worked in the City. When he left his office at the end of the day, he could not get near his newly delivered E-type parked in the street, such was the crowd. He had to go and have a gin and tonic!

    There were two reasons for this extraordinary aura. First, the E-type was, and is, a piece of stunningly beautiful automotive sculpture – quite possibly the most beautiful car ever made. Second, it would do 150mph, a speed virtually unheard of in 1961.

    The car that created that ‘150mph legend’ was 9600 HP, a prototype Fixed Head Coupé that had been built in August 1960 and was used as a development hack before being spruced up and pressed into service as one of two press cars, the other being the Roadster 77 RW, an early production car. To maximise the impact on launch, it was essential to Jaguar that leading journalists should have driven the car before its introduction so that their road tests, or at least driving impressions, could appear at the time of its public unveiling in mid-March.

    ‘There were only two full-scale road tests done,’ says Bob Berry, then head of Jaguar PR. ‘Motor did 77 RW and Autocar did 9600 HP and they were, in our book, the two most important journals by miles. Gregor Grant and John Bolster [of Autosport] would have been third on our list, and then Motor Sport and a series of one-day stands for other people.’

    Of the select band of journalists who sampled 9600 HP prior to launch, the honour of being the very first fell to the late Maurice Smith, then editor of Autocar, and concurrently of Flight. He was actually Wing Commander Maurice A Smith, DFC & Bar, to give him his full title.

    ‘Maurice was not just a pilot,’ states Elizabeth Hussey, his secretary at the time, ‘but he was a master bomber in the war. He was actually the master bomber at the Dresden raids. He used to look down and organise the bombing while it was going on.’

    It seems rather appropriate that a man who was used to flying should conduct the first E-type road test. It took place on 16-17 February, was reported in the 24 March issue of Autocar and was quite an adventure. Sadly, Maurice Smith died in February 1987, but the previous year I had interviewed him for an article for his old magazine.


    ‘Word had been put about and publicity material prepared to the effect that E-types would do 150mph, so the claimed top speed already wagged the car, so to speak. The actual car chosen for our test was the very well loosened-up LHD second prototype coupé, as indicated by the famous chassis number 885002. Chosen may not be the right word, since Jaguar used to develop on a shoestring and it was probably the only coupé. The registration number 9600 HP, painted at an illegal angle on the nose, was worth 2 or 3mph as compared with a separate number plate.’


    Not only that but Jaguar removed the front overriders and familiar motif bar that normally resided in the bonnet mouth. Every single mile-per-hour was going to be crucial. ‘To achieve the 150mph maximum, the 3.8 engine had to be a very good one. The necessary power was conjured up during prolonged work on the test beds, the engine being pulled out and reinstalled more than once. For the specification provided at the time, we dutifully wrote of the engine: “The version used in the test car is basically the same as that fitted in the XK150 S [265bhp at 5500rpm].” As an afterthought in rounding off the report, we pointed out that some 40bhp more could be found in highly developed versions of the 3.8 engine. Perhaps the original test-bed figures still survive. It would be interesting to know what they really were.

    ‘We – that is [colleague] Peter Riviere and me – were told officially not to exceed 6000rpm on pain of death to the engine. Conversely, we were told not to lift under 150mph on pain of death to us as journalists/testers. Harry Mundy, who knows about such things, mentioned that he doubted whether valves and pistons would meet under 6300rpm.’


    Jaguar’s chief tester Norman Dewis was concerned that the normal Dunlop Roadspeed tyres (RS5s) might not cope with the sustained high-speed running and pushed for racing tyres (R5s) to be fitted, which Dunlop recommended should be inflated to 40psi.

    Due to last-minute delays, including the tailgate bursting open at speed, 9600 HP could not be delivered to Smith at theAutocar offices. ‘It seemed best, therefore, to go home and await delivery of the E-type while getting a few hours’ sleep. Bags and test gear were packed, the papers were in order, £7 a day expenses had been collected and we were booked out of Southend Airport intending to report at 10.55am for 11.30am take-off. About 5.00am a cheerful, if red-eyed pair, arrived at my home bringing the E-type. Bob Berry and Norman Dewis joined me for eggs and bacon as a grey and foggy dawn broke outside.’


    Smith was scheduled to meet his co-tester, Riviere, at Antwerp. ‘Antwerp came into the picture because the E-type needed what was then known as super premium fuel [100 octane] for the maximum performance testing. Belgium and Holland could offer only lower octane super or normale, therefore a special fuel supply had been laid on at the docks.

    ‘There was no speed limit on most of the Continental motorways at the time but they were often two-laners and traffic could be patchy. We had previously used the legendary Jabbeke road between Ostend and Brussels, stretches of which, at a price, could be closed for testing. Otherwise you tried to out-guess the farmers who crossed it with their animals and wagons. This was acceptable at the right times of day and up to about 120mph, but it could be fraught at any time. The E-type test was different and was likely to require at least twice as long a clear stretch to gain the extra 30mph to 150.

    ‘Therefore a new stretch of motorway had been chosen that, being only part-completed, led nowhere and was virtually deserted, they said. Today it is a 14km stretch of the E39 [now the E34/E313] from the outskirts of Antwerp to Herentals – almost straight, mostly level and frequently flanked by pinewoods. This, it was felt, would give proper two-way runs to cancel out any wind or gradient. The speed was to be read on a carefully calibrated car speedo. Our test fifth wheel with its accurate electric head went with us but was not suitable for towing above 130mph because it was apt to take off from the road and occasionally from the car!’

    However, Smith, having crawled through London traffic to Southend, had a problem. The fog had not lifted and flying was cancelled for the day. ‘We needed those performance figures without delay, so the one chance was the night boat from Dover. I made my first crossing on the Tilbury ferry and motored on, still in fog, to the Channel port. Finally, the ship crept from its moorings in mist to foghorn accompaniment, which, from the noise and vibration, seemed to originate beside my bunk.

    ‘At some ghastly wee hour we were unshipped, still in fog and darkness. Do you remember those first E-type headlights? Nicely faired-in with 45º sloping Perspex enclosures defracting half the beam vertically upwards to produce a wall of bright fog. This, a misted-up car interior [ventilation was poor], and unfamiliar minor roads, made the prospects unpropitious, to say the least. We crawled away from the docks on dipped headlamps, crossed a canal, turned left and aimed for where we thought Belgium should be. ‘Peter was waiting at the Dock Hotel and arrangements were in hand – 100-octane, racing tyres and the rest – for an early-morning test session next day.

    ‘Out on the unfinished autoroute, six o’clock the next morning brought the start of a bright day with some mist patches and a dazzling orange sun ahead for the outward run. We had a good look at the road and checked that it was possible to turn and cross onto the return carriageway. First, we ran off the highspeed acceleration figures with the fifth wheel attached. With the car now hot and eager, we took turns solo at the maximum speed runs. ‘It was relatively easy to wind up to 145mph – in under a minute – but the extra 5mph took a long time to show. At first, we were getting up to 149mph outwards and 147 on the parallel stretch back. Soon an occasional VW Beetle appeared – in fact there seemed to be little else in Belgium at that time. We found that if a Beetle was just going out of sight on the horizon as we set off, the Jaguar would pass it on the two-lane speed stretch that followed, with a speed differential of at least 110mph – not something we would have done by choice.

    ‘To get to 150 we had to approach that chosen straight at not less than 135mph. My rather cramped right leg quivered with the pressure to hold the pedal flat on the floor, and as the Beetle came backwards towards me, as it seemed, my toes instinctively curled up, trying to ease off the pedal, and disobeying my instructions. The car felt stable and safe. In these days of airdams and wings it seems surprising that the long curving nose did not lift and make the front end too light, nor the short tail allow the car to wander.

    ‘After two or three runs each, we had a roadside conference. The car was shimmering with heat, the exhaust pipes were ticking and all around was a smell of hot tyres and oil. We had both just topped 150 on the outward run but were sticking around 148 on the return. Conditions were improving, so we would have one or two more runs.’

    Maurice described what occurred next. ‘Two things happened on the runs which were terrifying, both to me, actually. We were beginning to despair and literally had foot hard down, almost bending the floorboards. ‘Having passed the inevitable Volkswagen with a speed differential of about 120mph, the E-type’s passenger door sprung open onto its safety catch. The body had flexed and there was a tremendous reduction of pressure round the outside of the doors, together with interior pressure – you could actually see the windows pulling outwards if you left them ajar.Anyway, it either flexed or was pulled open and it sounded like a rifle shot, it went with such a bang onto its safety catch. It was fairly terrifying, when you’re concentrating and wondering what’s going to happen next. My fear had been a burst tyre.

    ‘Our scares were not quite over. On the return run, again in the high 140s, came a banshee wail accompanied by a burst of machine-gun fire. Could the natives so resent our activities? This time it was the bright metal trim strip around the windscreen seal, which had torn adrift and was holding only on a screw at one end. Its edges played like a reed in the slipstream and the loose end had been beating on the roof.

    ‘My final and best run showed 151.5 out and 148.5 back. The waiting Peter had, in the meantime, been entertained by a kindly and solicitous Belgian chap who, seeing him sitting by the roadside with a fifth wheel and forks, felt sure he must have had a dreadful accident with his bicycle.

    ‘The car now seemed to be using nearly as much oil as petrol and both were getting low. More vehicles were appearing and we were beginning to feel conspicuous. Peter’s last run was happily his best at almost 152 outwards and about 149 back, so we called it a day. The mean top speed worked out at fractionally over 150mph, and we were satisfied that the figure was fair. We should not have to resign after all.’

    The precise figures, according to their subsequent report, were a best run of 151.7mph and a mean of 150.4mph. It was mighty close! ‘As we toured back to Antwerp the car cooled and settled down again, being the gentle, flexible sports coupé we arrived in. This was,’ Maurice stated, ‘one of the outstanding tests that I had anything to do with. It was also terrifying!’

    Subsequently, I traced Peter Riviere and bluntly asked him if they had fudged it. ‘No, we didn’t fudge it. It was genuine. In terms of a really great car to drive and great fun, the E-type was an outstanding experience.’

    Left Parked in Geneva’s Parc des Eaux Vives, following the furore of the E-type’s international launch.

    ‘If a Beetle was going out of sight as we set off, the jaguar would pass it with a speed differential of 110mph’

    ‘Jaguar removed the front overriders and grille bar. every single mile-per-hour was going to be crucial’

    Left. The 150mph run took place on a stretch of a Belgian motorway, parts of which were still under construction!

    Below. A few weeks after the Autocar road test, 9600 HP enjoys a more relaxed drive back from the #1961-Geneva-Motor-Show – note the reinstated grille bar.
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