The Jaguar E-Type is a work of art, literally. A dark blue 1963 Roadster is among nine cars on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Justifying its choice, MoMA said: ‘The sleek, bullet-like shape of the Jaguar E-Type continues to be one of the most influential and imitated styling forms in sports car design’.
The E-Type, then, is more than just a car. It’s a cultural icon, a thing of beauty, a sacred cow. Trying to modernise one is like adding double glazing to a Grade II Georgian townhouse. Or is it?
Based on a picturesque farm in Kent, E-Type UK has been restoring classic Jaguars since 2008. In 2018, it revealed a unique Series 3 V12 Roadster, known informally as ‘Project Zero’ (not to be confused with the electric E-Type Zero, which Prince Harry drove home from his wedding the same year).
Rebuilt over 3,000 hours, Project Zero bristled with ingenious upgrades: fuel injection, a five-speed gearbox, LED lighting, Bluetooth connectivity and more. This was a restomod before most of us had heard the word. And when the press drove it, the reviews were universally positive.
“They’ve tightened every screw, fixed every bolt and made it the E-Type you want,” said Alex Goy in his video for Carfection. “I adore this thing.”
That car became the genesis for a new project called Unleashed. A limited run of 10 examples will be built, priced at £300,000 plus the cost of a donor E-Type. And I’m here, on a perfect sunny day, to drive the very first one.
Aesthetes can breathe easy; E-Type UK hasn’t gilded the lily with air scoops, spoilers or oversized alloys. The differences here are subtle, designed to enhance the existing form rather than reinvent it. That said, park the Unleashed next to a standard Series 3 and it looks instantly more modern.
The most obvious – and judging by social media comments, most controversial – change are the ‘angel eye’ LED headlights, inspired by American restomods. However, they hugely enhance the car’s usability, says marketing boss Jack Twinam: “It’s no longer like using candles in the dark”.
That famously long bonnet has extra louvres, while the custom-made chrome bumpers are much simpler than the originals, with no overriders and a ‘floating’ front grille. Deeper-dished wire wheels have also grown an inch to 16 inches, filling out the flared arches more fully.
“We encourage customers to stick with heritage colours,” says Jack, as I pore over the shimmering Jaguar Black paintwork. All 10 cars will be based on a Series 3 Roadster, but more projects are planned under the Unleashed banner – potentially an E-Type Lightweight or a turn-key classic racer.
Tilt forward the E-Type’s huge clamshell and the V12 is exposed in all its naked glory. The original engine displaces 5.3 litres and produces “between 200 and 250hp”. Here, expanded to 6.1 litres and running on fuel injection with individual throttle bodies, plus a lightened flywheel and 12-branch ceramic-coated exhaust, that leaps to 380hp.
A five-speed manual replaces the three-speed automatic gearbox that many Series 3s left Coventry with. E-Type UK has also uprated the cooling – via an aluminium radiator, oil cooler and ECU-controlled fans – to improve reliability.
To sharpen up the chassis, there are adjustable dampers and stiffer torsion bars with polycarbonate bushes. And stronger stopping power comes via larger brake discs, braided hoses and four-pot front calipers.
With the factory-fit hard-top in place (the canvas roof is still there, folded behind the seats), climbing inside the E-Type is a tight squeeze. You duck your head, then wriggle across the wide sill onto a low seat. Your legs are outstretched, cocooned by the aluminium centre console, as you look out through the letterbox windscreen. Even after 60 years, it still feels special.
Recognising that people have grown bigger since Twiggy was a pin-up, E-Type UK has fitted a detachable Moto-Lita steering wheel to ease access. For me, its chunky leather rim jars slightly – I’d prefer a spindly wooden wheel – but the rest of the cabin mixes the classic and contemporary to great effect.
The traditional Smiths gauges and rocker switches, for example, are now backlit by cool LEDs. There’s also subtle mood lighting for the footwells, along with puddle lights that illuminate the ground when you open the doors. Very ‘2021’…
The Unleashed also comes with mod-cons that original E-Type owners, among them Frank Sinatra and George Best, could only dream of. These include remote central locking, climate-control air-con, electric windows, a heated windscreen and a retro-look radio with Bluetooth connectivity. This is a car you could drive every day, even if few owners will.
Prod the red start button (another E-Type UK addition) and the V12 harumphs noisily into life. Even at idle, it sounds fantastic, a rich woofly growl that ripples from the four fan-shaped tailpipes. The top notes are multi-layered and mechanical, like a European thoroughbred, while the bassline is deep and resonant, like an American muscle car. I can’t suppress a grin.
I won’t be chasing the redline today – this car is already sold, and due with its new owner soon – but I quickly discover I don’t need to. The big-lunged motor makes light work of a body weighing around 1,500kg, pulling strongly and smoothly through the gears as you gain momentum like a runaway train.
Granted, you won’t scare any supercars, but that hardly matters. This is performance you can genuinely exploit on the road. No figures are quoted, but I’d guess at 0-62mph in around 4.5 seconds. Top speed? Well beyond the original’s claimed 150mph, which was always a bit optimistic anyway. As for fuel economy… best not to think about it.
Like Project Zero, the Unleashed still feels like an E-Type, but with the rough edges smoothed off. Its power steering is effortless – perhaps a little too fingertip-light for my taste – and the brake pedal feels positive and reassuring.
The notchy manual gearbox is also far more satisfying than pulling a dual-clutch paddle. Its ball-topped chrome wand is reminiscent of classic Ferraris and doesn’t like to be rushed. Get your timing just-right, though, and the whole driving experience seems to coalesce.
Despite the suspension mods, this is a car with relatively low limits. Again, that’s a bonus on the road, where you can enjoy the E-Type’s natural and playful balance, feeling its transition from initial understeer to tyre-squealing slide, all without doing silly speeds.
Just be aware that this modern makeover doesn’t stretch to electronic stability control. That job is down to your right foot.
As the world charges headlong towards electrification and cars become ever more like white goods, restomods like the E-Type Unleashed only become more appealing. Beautiful, analogue and utterly immersive to drive, they remind us why we loved cars in the first place.
There’s plenty of choice in this market now, from the Singer 911 to the Alfaholics GTA-R. But if you grew up lusting after an E-Type, I suspect only an E-Type will do. Drinking in the spectacle of this one as it bathes in spring sunshine, exhausts ticking furiously, I can’t argue with that.
Oh, and the other eight cars in the MoMA collection? A Cisitalia 202 GT, Ferrari 641 F1 car, Volkswagen Beetle, Willys Jeep, Fiat 500, Citroen DS, Porsche 911 and Smart City Coupe. Truly, art moves in mysterious ways.
Tim Pitt writes for Motoring Research
PRICE: £300,000 (plus E-Type donor car)
0-62MPH: 4.5 seconds (est.)
TOP SPEED: 170mph (est.)