In June 1957, the Scottish team Ecurie Ecosse claimed its second consecutive victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Jaguar D-type, giving the sports racer a third straight victory in the endurance contest for which it was essentially devised. Yet despite the D-Type’s unmitigated success, Jaguar was already at work in 1957 on a succeeding model, one that might serve as a production development mule or the basis of a GT-class racer. Clothed in a svelte aluminum body, the so-called E1A development car eventually blossomed into the production E-Type project, though a more dedicated race car dubbed the E2A followed by 1959.
By early 1961, Jaguar was beginning to deliver production E-Type roadsters to racing customers in advance of the model’s official debut at Geneva in March. This was intended to create a competition aura around the E-Type, even if it was merely a steel-bodied road car. With the idea of the open competition car gaining momentum, a memorandum was sent on March 16, 1961, from Jaguar engineering’s lieutenant director Claude Baily to Coventry’s production department. Under the name project no. ZP 537/24, the factory was instructed to proceed with the build of seven competition cars for which he listed specific modifications to the basic E-Type that were based on E2A.
These cars were to receive special engines with gas-flowed cylinder heads, polished and crack-tested connecting rods, a lightened flywheel, a competition crankshaft damper, modified clutch, a close-ratio competition 4-speed gearbox, and trumpet tips for the S.U. carburetors. Although the engine specifications were substantial, the body remained steel and the suspension was modified only with stiffer springs.
The first of these cars, chassis no. S850006, was delivered to John Coombs’ racing team, and the renowned Graham Hill achieved promising results with a third-place finish at Silverstone in May 1962, second at Mallory Park a month later, and fifth at Brands Hatch in August. Increasingly used as a factory development car, Coombs’ E-Type was further modified with a lighter-gauge steel body, and the engine received a “35/40º” wide-angle cylinder head like the ones used on the D-Types. The new competition car was showing tremendous potential until the Ferrari 250 GTO arrived, which quickly set the racing world on its head.
Formulation of the Lightweight
Receptive nevertheless to the challenge of competing with Maranello’s new thoroughbred, Jaguar moved a step further with the development of S850006, using it as the mold for 17 more competition cars. First entering the build process in October 1962, the racing E-Type also incorporated elements of an earlier works car known as the Low-Drag Coupe, for which Malcolm Sayers had revised his E-Type coachwork to feature a more aerodynamic roof and tail, including trailing exhaust vents.
The new cars were lightened with aluminum alloy bodies and an aluminum hardtop that strengthened the shell’s rigidity. The 3.8-liter competition engines were further upgraded with Lucas fuel injection and dry-sump lubrication, while the chassis was modified with a revised suspension geometry and myriad other competition parts.
Other than the development example, cars began numbering with S850659 and proceeded sequentially to S850669, all within the standard E-Type numbering. The only signifier of a Lightweight within the chassis number was the S prefix. As Jaguar didn’t intend to build enough cars for the Lightweight to be homologated separately, the model was passed off as part of the production E-Type family even though very few parts were shared, and it was never formally marketed or acknowledged in sales materials. The lack of factory marketing has only contributed to the model’s increased cachet over the decades, lending it a shroud of mystery.
The first two purpose-built Lightweights were completed in time for the 12 Hours of Sebring in March 1963, and team owners Briggs Cunningham and Kjell Qvale each acquired a car. While Bruce McLaren and Walt Hansgen finished 8th overall and second in class for Cunningham, Ed Leslie and Frank Morrill placed 7th overall and first in class for Qvale.
At the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, Cunningham entered three Lightweights with official support from the factory. While the two cars respectively driven by Hansgen and Augie Pabst, and Roy Salvadori and Paul Richards each retired early, the car piloted by Bob Grossman and Cunningham, himself, finished 9th overall and second in class. One can only speculate how well the car might have finished were it not for a two-hour delay caused by a brake issue.
Results in non-endurance events during 1963 were even better, with four victories by Hill and a multitude of top-three finishes by Salvadori and Peter Sutcliffe at venues like Goodwood, Silverstone, Mallory Park, and Snetterton. In total, just 12 examples of the E-Type Lightweight were built, with production never actually reaching the original target of 18 cars.
Jaguar provided significant factory support for these cars, as they were sold exclusively to preferred customers and friends of managing director Frank “Lofty” England. Among the most celebrated racing sports cars to emerge from postwar Britain, where they were known as GTO Killers, the rare E-Type Lightweights have evolved into the centerpieces of significant private collections around the globe.