The best. Absolute perfection. Everything 100% correct, operational and immaculate. Is it possible for a classic car to be this good? Better than when it was new? Subtly improved to make it a stunningly effective automotive device some 44 years after it was first constructed?
Most of us in the real world of classic cars go through a process of ‘work in progress’. Our cars are an ongoing affair. Even if they are in fine fettle and run extremely well, there is usually a black book in the glove box, a book of mechanical things to be seen to, niggles to be sorted out, details to be attended to. In many ways that’s the attraction of classic cars, like living in ancient houses or taming unruly gardens. The goal is perfection, which is usually a fair way off. That, in a sense, makes it a fantasy, and fantasy can be more seductive than reality.
The Rt Hon Alan Clark noted in his automotive jottings some years ago that a classic car could never be perfect because, in order to achieve that, you would have to replace every component down to the last rubber grommet. And then what would you have? A car that feels hard and sterile. Denis ‘Jenks’ Jenkinson put it more succinctly – he opined that an over-restored car resembles a ‘boiled sweet’.
But all things change. When the classic car scene began in earnest in 1973, not that long ago, a restoration job entailed a roll of chicken wire, plenty of body filler, a can of spray paint and badly stitched leather seats. Obviously, things evolved quickly thereafter as more enthusiasts pursued classic car ownership through the 1970s and ’80s – when modern cars were rubbish and sporting cars virtually extinct – and there was a growing band of specialists eager to support this expanding, discerning demand.
Today, there are more specialists and specialised components available for classic cars than ever before. And the standards of restorations have now reached an astonishingly high level. Again, Alan Clark stated that classics should be proudly patinated. ‘Well, it's much cheaper, old boy.’ That was then…
Take the two protagonists featured here. Both originally constructed in 1965 – the Aston Martin DB5 Vantage and Jaguar E-type 4.2 roadster. The absolute epitome of the best British sporting cars of the period, with dashing good looks and powerful, lusty straight-six engines. The supercars of their era. As an Octane reader these are probably the sorts of classics on your wish list. Always desirable, they evolved from being affordable sports cars for impecunious young chaps in which to cut a dash, to bodged old dogs just about scraping through their MoTs. But now Aston DB5s and E-types have turned into incredibly desirable collector cars. These two are valued today at £250,000. Each.
Yes, if you want this nicely matched set, you will have to find half-a-million pounds. Except these particular cars are not available, as they are cherished by their satisfied owners.
Perfection costs money. And these examples are as close to perfection as it is possible to get. Each has been stripped to the last nut and bolt – and grommet – and carefully rebuilt and re-engineered to a standard beyond what was possible when they were new. Certainly beyond most restoration standards of today. Around 4000 hours of expertise have been lavished on each by the world’s leading marque specialists.
Richard Williams of RS Williams and Henry Pearman of Eagle E-types are responsible for these superb engineering creations. Ordinary mortals might find Williams’ and Pearman’s attention to detail insane but that’s missing the point. This is about pushing the envelope, the pursuit of perfection, and that requires a whole lot of time and investment.
The Devil’s Dyke is an impressive gorge on the south coast of England, where the South Downs tumble towards the sea near Brighton. The country roads in the National Park are undulating, open and quiet in the early morning. Sports car country. Incredibly, considering how overcrowded our British Isles now are, there is no finer place on earth to enjoy a big powerful sports car on a sunny day in springtime.
Swinging off the fast motorway and onto the deserted country road towards the Dyke, the now familiar Aston is tamed, obedient and on side. Slot the long-travel and slightly notchy gearshift forward into third gear and shove the throttle down to the stop. The big, 4.7-liter straight-six, stretched from the original four liters, has sounded subdued but industrially strong until now, as it blitzed the svelte coupé along the motorway to the astonishment of civilians in their turbodiesels. With double overhead camshafts, triple twin-choke Weber carburettors and a fully balanced, lightened and strengthened bottom end, this engine is set up for torque. The dyno sheet shows the Vantage produces an honest 318.4bhp and staggering 354.3lb ft of shove.
The Aston engine has a fine racing provenance and, although totally well behaved on the journey from Surrey down to the coast, it has struggled to keep its desire for action on the leash. And boy, is it searingly fast. At any opportunity a mere crack of the throttle butterflies sees the Aston lunge forward as if fuel injected, belying its ample weight of some 1500kg.
The Silver Birch paintwork is superbly deep and lustrous, and panel gaps impeccable. Richard Williams has explained the various operating functions and subtle detailed improvements. The air-conditioning unit is barely visible and the fabulous modern sound system is hidden behind the original speaker grille. The temperature and oil pressure gauges prove to be of no interest whatsoever the entire day, as the needles do not budge from optimal. Initially you feel nervous about driving such a pristine example. But Williams sends the Aston off with a cheery, ‘Be sure you use the revs. You’ll find it gets interesting over four thou’.’
The Aston’s exterior is flawless and it gets better inside. The beautifully hewn wooden steering wheel feels even nicer than it looks. The deep gloss-painted dashboard harks back to a more decorous age, with its elegant instruments and air vents. All switchgear is heavily constructed but operates with a silky, oiled action. No plastic or faux alloy here.
The big leather chair is sumptuous and comfortable and the seating position is upright, with a commanding view over the bonnet and its evocative induction scoop. The front wings are visible and the car is narrow by modern standards, so it can be placed with accuracy.
The clutch is surprisingly light but the gearshift does feel mechanical and slow. A modern five-speed is not countenanced by Williams. Once moving the Aston is surprisingly quiet and refined. Wind noise is not an issue at motorway speeds, as the car thunders along like a gentleman pugilist.
Having dropped down to third gear, let’s see if it this heavy hitter can conjure up some nifty footwork. The DB5 might sting like a bee but floating like a butterfly seems unlikely.
The uphill run to Devil’s Dyke is open and fast, with clear sightlines. The Aston reacts immediately. No huffing and puffing and drawing a deep breath. The ample Webers stuff fuel down the inlet and the improved Vantage spec cams orchestrate the firepower. The drawing room on wheels morphs into a sporting car and the hedgerows begin to blur.
As Williams insists, you allow the fast-moving needle to swing around the revcounter and rejoice as the magnificent engine swells with energy. The sound is glorious, unfettered by air boxes and restrictive catalytic exhausts. The engine moves from its deep industrial throb to full-throated bellow. So this is why some people get emotional at the opera. This is unbelievably good.
The country road is pitted and interrupted by scars and transverse ridges. But the Aston just pounds over these with not so much as a jolt, let alone a crash of the suspension. The carefully developed dampers quell the well-located but live rear axle and the modern 205x70 R15 Pirellis stick with intent. Coming up to a sharp bend, the brakes bite with precision thanks to the powerful calipers and the car just hauls down with a reassuring squat. Nose dive has been banished thanks to the improved suspension geometry.
The Aston needs to be turned in with conviction because it is set up for safe understeer. But it is obedient and linear. The corner is swept clear and the next one, which is even tighter, allows the rear end to step out as the inside rear wheel scrabbles for grip against the onslaught of all that torque. If you let this big Aston get away from you, you’ll need to whip it back into shape with your shoulder muscles, right foot and the seat of your pants. Driving the DB hard is a wonderful sensation. It can be walloped along at serious speed.
Atop the great gorge we wait. The view down the long hillclimb is bucolic as is only possible in England. A small red dot of a car appears in the distance and is soon moving fast up the road – the driver is clearly in the groove. Soon an angry bark is heard as the sharply pointed projectile steams up to the summit. The sight of the scarlet E-type fanging up the climb has you on your feet and it arrives with a deft blip on the downchange, with successful Group C racer Henry Pearman of Eagle behind the wheel. He has the mien of a happy man.
The cars are pored over and photographer Harmer fusses about, spoilt for choice as these impressive sports cars sit ticking impatiently in the sunshine. Is a bad angle possible? Now Pearman goes through the Jaguar’s attributes. An Eagle E-type is not merely restored, it is a ‘new build’. The donor car is stripped down to every component part and everything is renewed, including the usually fatigued spaceframe ahead of the monocoque tub and all electrics and auxiliary components.
The suspension is uprated with improved torsion bars and a properly located rear end, which can be a bit squirrelly and soft in standard set-up. Carefully dialled-in racing dampers keep the independent suspension in line. This example has ventilated discs with four-pot AP calipers, and the 61/2-inch wires are shod with substantial 225x60 R15 Pirelli P7s.
Eagle E-types can be ordered in Classic GT, Sport or Super Sport spec, or a mixture as you please. This one is a blend of the GT and Sports spec, suitable for fast road use. The engine remains in original 4.2-liter capacity (a 4.7-liter is also available) with roadgoing near-original cam profiles. All balanced and blueprinted with lightweight pistons, rods, crank and a tubular exhaust manifold but retaining the original triple SUs that Pearman reckons work best with this long-stroke road engine. The Jaguar promises 260bhp and 270lb ft of torque. You can spec over 300bhp and 330lb ft but that might be overkill.
When new, the Aston cost almost three times the price of the Jaguar and nearly ten times more E-types were produced than DB5s. But this Eagle E-type bears no resemblance to a normal E-type in terms of fit, finish and quality. It is built to infinitely higher standards, with the benefit of modern technology and materials. ‘If Jaguar still made E-types, this is the E-type it would make. It is an E that has been down to the gym,’ says Pearman. Enzo Ferrari said he wished he’d built the E-type when he first saw it, pre-empting Pearman’s case.
It’s time to drive the E. Finished in assertive red, the Jaguar is a more dramatic proposition than the restrained Aston. The dinky door is light and small as you slide down low into the contoured sports seat. The Jaguar’s dashboard, whilst not as attractive as that of the early 3.8-liter car, is a delight and the wood-rim steering wheel, with its drilled spokes and chequered-flag centre push, is exciting to behold.
Punch the dash-mounted starter button and the engine fires with a metallic clack. The throttle response is light and sharp and the engine spins up with alacrity. Much more reactive than the sweet but measured Aston mill. The clutch is modern-car light and the gearshift, with five forward speeds on offer, is easy, positive and quick. The E moves off like a whippet and within the first 20 yards you can tell it is a much lighter and more responsive car than the DB5. Not surprising, as it weights just 1250kg, as little as an early lightweight Porsche 911. This sense of lightness is enhanced by the electric power steering that is invisibly fitted to the E, probably a necessity with those large tires but a little too modern in feel at low speed. Your choice, of course.
On the move the Eagle is a very different animal from the Aston. It feels 20 years younger, and devastatingly fast on these twisting country roads. Narrow and as sharp as a spear, it attacks the bends and surges through the corners like a Jaguar possessed. The Aston, when pushed, is a pleasure to drive with your arms and backside. The Jaguar is controlled with your fingertips and the balls of your feet. It requires much less driver input and its more advanced chassis and suspension come to the fore as every sonorous horsepower is laid directly down onto the tarmac. Maybe 300bhp would not be overkill after all.
Getting your brain tuned into the E’s lightning reflexes you soon realise that, although as fast as you like, the E is actually soft and pliant. Its suspension is coping with the rough roads without breaking a sweat, thanks to the superb damping and engineering excellence.
The Jaguar’s engine has a lighter, more cracking note than the Aston’s and it revs rapidly. At the top end it is fierce although not as grunty as the larger DB unit. Ultimately, the Aston feels it has a higher top speed and, being a closed coup�, you are more comfortable exploiting its top whack.
Working the E’s engine, its immense brakes and sophisticated suspension hard down the lanes, it proves to be an incredible sports car. For a roadster the tub is Chubb-safe tight, with no scuttle shake at all. It is incredibly modern and capable. When launched in 1961 the E-type was almost shockingly advanced as an evolution of the space-age D-type racer. This example is exactly that but more so.
In direct comparison these classics of 1965 are very different. The Aston is the best of a previous engineering age whilst the E-type is the start point of the modern engineering age. Both beautiful and immaculate in terms of finish and performance, the distinction is startling. The Aston appears more bespoke and better crafted. The Jaguar is better engineered. The DB5 is a superb grand tourer, the E-type a fantastic sports car.
Are they worth a quarter-of-a-million pounds each? Certainly. If you have the money.