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The ultimate E-type - Feature: The Eagle Speedster

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Eagle takes the E-type as its basis then makes it faster, makes it handle better and - shock - look even sexier.

As you can imagine, the classic car world has gone E-type mad this year. Every event has been celebrating its 50th anniversary, and values have been strengthening after decades of languishing behind those of Italian, German and other British marques. Yet Henry Pearman and Paul Brace have already spent years developing the now famous Eagle E-types into some of the most beautiful and dynamically capable sports cars you can buy.

In issue 74, back in 2009, we drove an Eagle E-type and compared it with a beautiful Aston Martin DB4. While both were absolutely the best examples of their respective marques, the Eagle impressed with its engineering, dynamics and serious speed. Pearman’s ethos is to improve an E-type, not by stuffing a modern V8 into it, but by taking the original and upping the level of engineering of its componentry in a manner that Jaguar might have done had it developed the car itself.

The E-type has tremendous raw ingredients. Engineering hours cost, though, so a full-house Eagle E-type will set you back some £250,000 depending on final specification. But in effect you have a brand-new sports car with 2011 standards of performance.

Having got used to the quarter-of-a-million-pound Eagle E-type, you’d better brace yourself for the rarefied Jaguar Lightweight Eagle Speedster you see here. Only the second constructed, with a very limited number of further Speedsters planned, this example costs around £600,000. The first, Speedster No 1, was specially commissioned for an American enthusiast who wanted something even more special than a bespoke Eagle. So Eagle development engineer Paul Brace set about designing the Speedster as a one-off. But the car generated such interest, Eagle built this second example in Lightweight form.

Eagle is interested in maintaining Jaguar history and heritage and as such stresses that Eagle cars are proper Jaguar E-types, even if the transformation is dramatic. In 1963 Jaguar produced 12 Lightweight E-types, all constructed in aluminium and featuring an engine with lightweight aluminium block, fuel injection and a five-speed gearbox. Those great old racing machines inspired the new Lightweight Speedster, which also has an aluminium body and differential casing as well as an ally 4.7-litre block. The result is an impressively low kerbweight of just 1008kg. With the big-bore E-type straight-six pumping out an easy 310bhp at a lowly 4800rpm and a torque figure of 340lb ft at just 3600rpm, the Lightweight promises shattering performance of at least the level of one of the original 12 Lightweights.

Altering one of the most beautiful automotive designs – one that is on permanent display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art – is a tough call, but Paul Brace’s Lightweight looks extremely striking. Any criticism of the original E-type’s design usually centres on its narrow track, especially when it’s shod with narrow wire wheels and skinny original tyres. This can also make the car look like it is teetering on its toes. And ‘delicate’ is a word often used to describe the beautiful E-type.

Brace’s Speedster has addressed these qualms and the Eagle has a much more aggressive, almost dangerous countenance. It’s more bad boy than pretty boy and this has been achieved by employing the old hot-rod trick of chopping and raking the small windscreen with shaped, wind-blown side glass and hidden A-posts. This gives the Speedster sleekness and lowers the stance of the car.

The more pumped-up appearance is further enhanced by cleverly deepening the sills, which necessitates a lower floorpan. Muscle is added by increasing the track, and fitting specially made wire wheels that fill the curvaceously flared wheelarches. The exaggerated rear haunches give the impression of coiled urge, and the upswept tail shouts power, with the twin tailpipes ‘frenched’ tightly under the narrowed rear numberplate recess.

The result is a stunning-looking beast that is low and muscular, promising serious speed. But what really elevates the Lightweight Speedster is all the thoughtful detailing. The Jaguar is seamless, smooth and pure and this is set off by the luscious paintwork, which at first appears to be black but, as the sunshine strikes its haunches, turns out to be metalflake claret. The sparkling aluminium wire wheels have three-eared spinners with the word Speedster etched into them, as does the hand-turned steering wheel boss.

The sculpted cockpit, with its authentic dotted aluminium facia and ‘waterfall’ rear decking that drops in from the rear, mirrors the smooth exterior lines and enhances the flow of the Speedster. The interior is finished with beautifully shaped seats covered in soft red leather.

Opening the aluminium bonnet reveals the heart of the E-type, that magnificent six-cylinder engine, with its polished cam covers, rows of head bolts, individual throttle-body fuel injection, and airbox shaped out of carbonfibre. And it is the mechanical engineering that makes an Eagle special. Since 1982, Pearman and his dedicated team have concentrated on perfecting these Jaguars, with impressive results.

The shaped bucket seat is cosseting and, although unique to the Speedster, the interior is still that of an E-type. The Nardi steering wheel is a matter of taste and feels good, though I would prefer the original E-type steering wheel. It’s one of the best.

Turn the ignition key, then dab the starter button, and the big 4.7-litre six fires. Its note is deep and more industrial than the normally quiet E’s, alluding to the extra capacity and grunt. The clutch is hydraulically light and the Eagle-engineered five-speed gearbox slips into first with ease. Almost all of the prodigious torque is available from as little as 1800rpm so the Speedster moves off the mark effortlessly, and is quiet and demure down the country lanes. The free-flowing exhaust maintains a deep but restrained note, a bit like an opera singer chatting quietly. Mellifluous but constrained.

The Speedster feels tight and taut but the suspension soaks up the rutted country lanes with well-damped responses. Yes, it is firmer than a stock E-type but that’s what you expect – and would surely hope for – with 310bhp under your right foot. A feeling of unstressed lightness pervades and the steering is similarly easy, even though the front tyres are 225/50 x16s (with larger 245/55 x 16s at the rear). The large tyres are modern Pirelli P6000s and they impart a degree of wide-rubber softness to the otherwise crisp steering response, while the vented disc brakes with four-pot calipers shed speed with disdain and inspire great confidence. Soon you’re loafing along the lanes at an easy 80mph, with just 2500rpm showing on the tachometer.

By today’s standards an E-type is a small and narrow car and even this muscular Speedster feels diminutive enough to punt along narrow roads. Naturally the adjustable Eagle suspension, set here for comfortable road use, keeps the car razor sharp.

The roads open up and so does the chance to unleash some power. It isn’t strictly necessary to change down a gear, but do so just to enjoy the gearshift action and suddenly the bad boy arrives. The revcounter needle has been lazily dawdling below 3000rpm until now, but get it above that and it heads for the redline in a blur. At the same instant the quiet exhaust note changes to a full-bore roar and the Speedster becomes not so much a Jaguar but a charging lion. The way it gathers speed is shocking and is in no way in keeping with a classic car of the 1960s. You have to grab an up-change and the relentless shove continues, the rev needle goes straight back to the redline and you go for the next cog almost immediately. Unbelievable.

Once you’ve savoured the savagery of the Speedster’s raw power, it’s time to settle down and enjoy its flowing handling. Incredibly, it combines the E-type’s deftness and lightness of touch with huge grip and precision. Those fat tyres bite and really work as the supple suspension allows insane rates of undramatic cornering speeds.

This Speedster is one of those rare sports cars: you don’t have to work it along, it simply flows as the dynamics are so capable of turning undulating tarmac into a perfect palette for all that power. The Eagle Lightweight Speedster is a pure E-type Jaguar. Only more so.

JAGUAR LIGHTWEIGHT E-TYPE SPEEDSTER BY EAGLE

Engine 4.7-litre straight-six, DOHC, fuel injection 

Power 310bhp @ 4800rpm 

Torque 340lb ft @ 3600rpm 

Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive 

Steering Rack and pinion 

Suspension Front: double wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: trailing arms, lower transverse links, fixed-length driveshafts, twinned coil springs and telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar 

Brakes Vented discs with four-piston AP calipers 

Weight 1008kg Performance Top speed 160mph (est). 0-60mph 4.8sec (est)

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