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Ethel - the Car I Always Wanted
“Never meet your heroes” is what they say. As a young man I had two – the Jaguar E-type (naturally) and the 7-litre, Frua-bodied AC428. Of the latter, only 79 were ever made and, unlike the E-type, the 428 was and remains little-known. Every year I went to the Motor Show at Earl’s Court to worship both of them, and arriving at their respective stands I would almost fall to my knees. I fantasised about speeding along The Hog’s Back in one or the other in a state of euphoria, but never in reality even sat in one.

Years later, when I could seriously consider buying one of these (by then) classic cars and gratifying my youthful dreams and desires, I approached The E-type Centre in Staffordshire. They could then offer me a “very good” Series 3 for £15k, but anxiety about tin worm and the vulnerability of the exhaust silencer gave me pause, and I thought instead about the AC428.

There were none on the market at the time, but the owner of Brooklands Cars gave me a ride in his. Beneath its svelte and elegant exterior, “A tractor engine on a trolley jack” about summed up the AC’s level of comfort and engineering sophistication, and in an instant my long-held delusions were shattered, and that idea was shelved - forever. Unfortunately, perhaps, because prime examples of that primitive but ultra-rare beast nowadays change hands for £250k.

In 2017, feeling that it was “now or never”, I thought again about getting an E-type. I was no longer willing to roll around on the garage floor or even seriously fettle a classic car, but owning one could be practical for me because The Jaguar Workshop, then near me in Ealing, offered a storage service, and should my enthusiasm falter, it could remain there as a long-term investment, out of sight and out of mind.

I Googled “Classic Cars for Sale”. Having been a “petrol head” in the 1970’s, to me the narrow track and wheels of 6-cylinder E-types looked sissy, and wanting something comfortable and easy to drive, the only model I would consider was a V12 FHC automatic, which conveniently was the most affordable version. Primrose Yellow was my first choice of colour.

The first I located was in the showroom a classic-Jaguar specialist in West Sussex. It was prima facie exactly what I wanted, advertised as having 18,000 miles on the clock and “Maintained regardless of cost”. It had, it transpired, actually done 118,000 miles (“We say what’s on the clock, Sir”), had obvious mechanical faults (“If you buy it, Sir, we’ll fix those”) and its gleaming paintwork was a recent re-spray and already bubbling round the wheel arches (“It’s just cosmetic, Sir”).

The next I looked at was affectionately named “Ethel” by its private seller. I disliked the faded Signal Red colour, but it was a far lower-mileage and better example than the other, and the asking price £10k lower. But a professional inspection revealed that its originality and value would be undermined by the remedial work it would soon need.

Which led me to the third, owned by an enthusiast in rural Lincolnshire. This Old English White 1971 FHC was corrosion-free, having been (properly) resprayed and Waxoiled at some stage, and the colour was close enough to yellow. And it had a nice number - RWM 999K - which to a collector of Royal Wedding Mugs would be mnemonic. Another bonus was that it had labour-saving steel wheels. And the owner’s nickname for it? By coincidence, also “Ethel”.

It was the best of the three, and reasonably priced, but like the others, it drove like a car of its time, and during the demonstration I asked myself if I really and truly wanted to burden myself with a classic car at all - and decided that I didn’t. Until, that was, we returned to the owner’s house and got out of the car. And when I once again beheld the E-Type’s uniquely-compelling shape, my heart overruled my head, and a sale was agreed.

I returned a week later to collect it and gingerly drove it back to Ealing and its new home at The Jaguar Workshop. They gave it a good look-over, and found that this Ethel too needed remedial work, notably a new crankcase oil seal - an engine-out job. While out, they took the opportunity to replace the timing gear housing and main bearings.

I’d considered aftermarket enhancements on offer, such as uprated brakes, aircon, fuel injection, and replacement of the engine with a refurbished and uprated 6-litre XJS unit. But the essential work like reupholstering the sagging driver’s seat, rectifying the door hinges, catches and locks, and freeing off a jammed heater box and rear disk brake, was soon to swallow most of the budget. As well, I had its odd, perished tyres replaced with a matching set of new Blockley radials - close copies of the original Dunlops - and added a few basic creature comforts like a wired-in satnav, a new dashboard clock and floor mats and rear parking sensors. To wear with the car, I bought a 1970-era Harris Tweed jacket on eBay, but suede Hush Puppy shoes proved difficult to find.

But, as I feared it might, within weeks my interest and enthusiasm had evaporated (crazes should be left to burn themselves out before being acted upon, I should have remembered) and over the next two years I drove Ethel only five times, while the maintenance (on every outing, some new fault came to light) and storage costs continued to mount.

I was discouraged from using Ethel by the advance notice required each time to retrieve her from storage and by worry about breakdowns, vandalism, damage and theft. But I wanted my friends to see her, and in June 2018 I drove her up to Skegness where we were spending a weekend. They were all duly impressed, but on the way home the engine died and the car and I spent the entire Sunday night by the roadside in a very vulnerable position, until the RAC could source a recovery vehicle - 13 hours later. Insult was added to injury when days later I received a penalty notice for parking on a red route!

The ignition system (a weakness on early S3’s) had failed, and was replaced with one of a later spec. The problem never recurred, but the experience did little to bolster my confidence.

Later that year The Jaguar Workshop relocated to Park Royal and a new home had to be found for Ethel. A private garage in Ealing was to suffice - over a mile from my home, but secure, dry and with mains power, but accessed via an unmade road on which the exhaust grounded every few yards, as it did on speed humps in the locality. So the car returned to The Workshop to have its ride height increased by adjusting the front torsion bars and modifying the rear spring mountings. From then on I could take the car out at the spur of the moment, but the task of giving it a round-the-block warm-up run every month thereafter fell on me.

In 2020 came the Lockdown. Unexpectedly, for poor neglected Ethel, it would be her emancipation. The quiet roads and fine weather of that Spring and Summer were an ideal opportunity for me to explore Southern England by car. When a day-trip in the BMW had to be aborted due to a flat tyre which couldn’t be fixed until the following week, it dawned on me then that there was no point whatever in my keeping the Jaguar (which was costing me dear and not appreciating in value) if I didn’t use it, and this was a perfect opportunity to.

So the following day I screwed my courage, retrieved Ethel from her garage and did the planned tour of rural Essex in her instead. She was quite safe left parked in the small towns and villages, and thoroughly enjoyed being used.

With its low top gear, and even lower ride height, in any E-type one gets the impression and thrill of speed without having to drive fast. Sailing along on a dual carriageway, I suddenly saw a police car behind me. My heart sank, thinking I was far exceeding the speed limit, and I glanced at the speedometer. My actual speed? - 65 mph. It’s ironic that, traffic speeds having increased so much in 52 years, the E-type, which once spent its time overtaking other vehicles, is now the one overtaken.

My confidence in Ethel steadily grew, and she went on other day-trips to Suffolk, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, the Cotswolds and Surrey – via the Hog’s Back. On all these outings she broke down only once, due to a loose connector on the alternator, and mercifully, in reach of a hard shoulder. This time the RAC were able to fix the problem at the roadside and I was soon on my way again. But the engine had never idled as smoothly as a V12 should. This was blamed on the difficulty in balancing the carburettors.

On one of the hottest days of 2021, returning from the British Motor Museum in Gaydon (whose wonderful collection includes the very last E-type to come off the production line), despite the coolant level having been checked, the radiator fans working and my driving at a good cruising speed on the free-flowing M40, the needle of the temperature gauge was nudging the red, and when I pulled over went into it, alarmingly. Mercifully the V12 does not blow its head gaskets readily, and after the occasional stop to let things cool down, it eventually reached home.

I had the original radiator (which was furred up) replaced with a modern aluminium unit with uprated 4-bladed electric fans. It was a good move; on the same journey home from Gaydon a year later, on an even hotter day, the needle stayed in the centre of the gauge. But on the way there I’d stopped for petrol, and had filled to the brim the plastic petrol carried in the back of the FHC. An hour after I arrived at the museum, a frantic security man, who’d somehow managed to find me, said that they were about to break into the car, which was parked in the sun outside the Jaguar Wing, to remove the petrol can which had swollen up and was about to explode.

The next fault to reveal itself was in the transmission, a band brake in the ancient 3-speed unit having begun to slip. This required a complete rebuild, but I’d first considered a conversion - replacing it with a newer, 4-speed automatic box, fourth being an overdrive. On fast roads this would reduce engine revs significantly, and suit the 5.3 litre V12, which can easily pull a higher gear, and reduce petrol consumption by as much as 5 MPG . But I calculated how long, with my driving under 1,000 miles a year, it would take to recoup the £18k cost in fuel savings. It worked out at over 60 years!

One thing I’d always disliked was the steering - under-geared, over-assisted, lacking in feel and with inadequate self-centring. A very worthwhile upgrade was to replace standard steering wheel with a smaller, flat, wood-rimmed one and having the castor angle of the front wheels adjusted. Together they quite transformed the steering response and feel and with it the whole driving experience. Another was to replace the flat glass in the door mirrors (with that, the NS mirror is useless) with convex glass.

On a round trip to the Midlands, a serious misfire developed, which I correctly guessed was a fuel supply problem, but managed to keep going - just - with the manual choke pulled out. The proximate cause was a seized throttle linkage, but further investigation discovered that two contacts in the distributor cap were arcing (and that for an unknown length of time I had in effect been driving a V10) and that the rubber balance pipe T-hoses were perished and split. With a new distributor cap and new hoses, for the first time ever the engine idled smoothly, and for its monthly runs thereafter started on the 2nd, rather than the 22nd, turn of the starter.

I joined the E-type Club in 2018, and in 2022 the JEC, the North West and West London branch of which organises events in which I’m able to participate and which I’ve enjoyed. Both last and this year, Ethel took pride of place in the classic car display area at local street parties for both the Jubilee and the Coronation.

There have been times during the almost 6 years I’ve owned Ethel when I would have been happy for us to go own ways, but persistence and loyalty have had their rewards, so perhaps - “Till death do us part”?


2 comments

HaarFager said:

As a "petrol head" myself, I really liked your story. Quite touching and insightful, really. I hope you both have many more miles together!
9 months ago

The Limbo Connection said:

A well written and engaging account.
7 months ago ( translate )