Driving 6162 RW, a Jaguar from the early days of E-type development

Photography by Peter Singhof

The Jaguar E-type represents one of the most iconic designs ever to come out of Browns Lane. Presented at the Geneva Salon in 1961, the E-type appeared to be a street-legal version of the D-type race car and its short-lived production successor, the XKSS

The D-Type had made many successful appearances at international sports car races, not least at Le Mans with wins at the ill-fated 1955 race as well as the 1956 and 1957 contests. With the E-type, Jaguar’s chief stylist, Malcolm Sayer, had created a sensual and timeless form that referenced its sports car ancestors but also took on the established GTs of Maserati and Ferrari. According to rumor, the design was so effective that Enzo Ferrari, upon seeing the E-type for the first time, uttered that it was the most beautiful car of all time.

The E-type was built in three series, and during the entire 1961-’74 production run, some 72,300 units were built, making it quite a success in its day. Like the Porsche 911, the E-type got bigger, wider and heavier with every new model generation.

But photographer Peter Singhof and I want to go all the way back to the beginnings of “E.” Thomas Hamann, a Frankfurt region dealer in high-end classic vehicles, is in charge of preparing one of the earliest and most important E-types for sale at an RM Sotheby’s auction. As we meet him, he hands us the keys to an important milestone car from the early days of E-type development.

This Jaguar E-type Series 1 3.8-liter FHC carries chassis No. 860010, making it the 10th right-hand-drive, fixed-head coupe ever built. Jaguar fans know it by 6162 RW, the iconic license plate it still wears, having been registered in the U.K. all its life. The two-seater left the Browns Lane plant on September 27, 1961, and is one of the earliest cars. It lacks outside bonnet latches, which is indicative of the first batch of E-types.

Photography Credit: Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust

“Most E-types with outside bonnet latches were LHD cars and some very early roadsters,” Hamann explains. RHD examples for the home market had moved to the much more convenient inside latches from No. 860005 on.

Research at the Jaguar archives reveals that 6162 RW remained at Jaguar Cars for two more years before selling to well-known dealer Coombs of Guildford in November 1963. The nice British logbook shows all other changes in ownership. And while Jaguar archives weren’t able to produce a timeline of individual changes to this car, 6162 RW shows a number of improvements that only later made their way into production cars.

Thanks to a lifetime spent in its homeland, 6162 RW still wears its original number plate. The whole car, in fact, is still largely original. 

And while it’s true that in the 1960s people weren’t generally as tall as they are today, it was clear that even the early E-types suffered from a significant lack of space for even your average European or American driver. The early “flat floor” models had, as the name suggests, an entirely flat floor that, in combination with the rather low bucket seats–without adjustable seatbacks!–made for a rather awkward seating position for any driver taller than Jaguar’s well-known test pilot, Norman Dewis, who stood only 5-foot-5. Black-and-white images from the archives show Dewis at the wheel of 6162 RW at Silverstone and the car at speed at Goodwood.

Early on, changes to the interior were deemed necessary, so 6162 RW received a lowered floor on the driver’s side as well as repositioned pedals. Plus, the rear firewall received two sculpted indentations, allowing both seats to be move back by an appreciated half-inch. 

In addition, the airflow to the cabin was improved, the door handles were redesigned and a reversing light was added between the exhaust pipes. On the engine side, the 3.8-liter, which was prone to leaking oil, received new piston rings and a revised oil pan.

A longer rear axle with a ratio of 3.07:1 was installed to reduce noise and fuel consumption while providing that all-important high-speed capability. All these details are present and clearly visible even after a high-end, no-expenses-spared restoration commissioned at JD Classics, an English firm, a few years ago.

After incorporating all these changes, Jaguar proceeded to hand 6162 RW to the motoring press for test drives and reports on the revisions. Articles in the British Motoring News, the Italian Quattroruote and the German Auto Motor und Sport were penned, the latter two by 1960 LeMans winner Paul Frère. 

After his appearances at the wheel of a Jaguar D-type in the mid-1950s, the Belgian race driver returned to Le Mans in 1960 piloting a Ferrari Testa Rossa to overall victory with Olivier Gendebien. In 1962, Frère’s reports on 6162RW featured an attention to detail not seen in modern times.

So here I am, some 60 years later on a warm August weekend, standing next to the low coupe with thoughts racing through my head. I wonder what the general public thought of seeing a car like this on the open road. I’m thinking of Norman Dewis completing lap after lap on the race track and Paul Frère driving the cozy two-seater to an almost unbelievable 265 kph–some 165 mph–on the Italian autostrada between Ostia and Rome–and all this at a time when the regular Fiat driver would have trundled along at a mere 80 kph, so not quite 50 mph.

This Saturday afternoon, Hamann has prepared the car for us to go back in time. He hands me a delicate little key that reminds me more of one used to unlock a motorcycle’s fuel tank. “It’s all self-explanatory,” he says. “You sure you know your way around?” 

Really? That easy?

Both Dewis and Frère weren’t particularly tall men. I, on the other hand, am trying to squeeze my 6-foot-3 frame and size 13 feet into this English drawing room adorned with green suede leather. So, head down, left leg in, bum in seat–but now my right leg is still outside. As the day progresses, I find my rhythm and get better at entering the car, but it will never really look elegant.

The pedals far down in the footwell are placed dangerously close to each other. The large steering wheel can be moved in and out by means of a small fixing wheel. But as there’s no power steering, it pays to have the wheel close to my chest like race drivers did in the day. 

Although we won’t make 265 kph today, I immediately notice the complete absence of seat belts. Those were different times.

Once behind the wheel–not the easiest feat for taller drivers–an E-type immediately delivers. It’s fast, poised and comfortable.

I turn the key, the fuel pump is ticking, the instruments awaken. Pressing the starter button is a move many Jaguar drivers are used to. The 3.8-liter inline-six with its 265 rated horsepower immediately comes to life with a confident burble. No high-pitched hiss here, no “hunting,” just a convincing and steady idle somewhere around 800 rpm.

Paul Frère was unhappy with the four-speed gearbox, even in its day, due to its unsynchronized first gear. I have to press the clutch two, sometimes three times to manage selecting first, and it’s still not entirely silent. In his report, Frère wrote that first gear was loud because of its straight teeth and sometimes difficult to select because of the missing synchromesh (yes on both counts, all these years later). But first wasn’t always necessary, he wrote. 6162 RW would quite happily drive away in second.

After traveling just a few feet on those remarkably skinny radial tires, I understand what Hamann meant when he said this car is a driver, not a diva. It’s clear that the restoration wasn’t just aimed at paint and leather; it had perfect drivability in mind. Quickly, I am up in third gear and cruising along at an easy 70 mph.

The coupe’s perfect stability and relatively quiet engine turn it into a fantastic GT, ideal for those long and windy country roads in the German Taunus. So it’s no problem for me to stop and turn and stop again to get Singhof his desired images. A photo shoot is always a strain on an old car–brakes, steering, coolant and so on–but RW accomplishes all this in its stride just like any modern car would.

Of course, the whole experience is somewhat old-fashioned, but in just minutes that feeling of strength and reliability is taking over, giving me an ever-broader smile with every maneuver. As I try to turn around one more time, first gear proves unruly again. I remember what Frère said, click in second, release the clutch slowly and 6162 RW is off as if it’s saying to me, “So? Anything the matter?”

No, not really. We just need some more fuel–and then we’re off to Italy.

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