Enzo Ferrari called it the most beautiful car ever made. The New York Museum of Modern Art begged for one to put on permanent display and said it was a timeless shape of exceptional and enduring beauty. A survey among the British public not only rated it as the most beautiful car in the world, but gave it four times as many votes as its nearest rival. So what are we talking about? The Ferrari 250 GTO? The Bugatti Type 57? Or maybe even the Maserati Mistral? No, it's actually the Coventry designed Jaguar E-Type upon which so much praise has been lavished.
So if we are looking to discuss candidates for that most elusive and subjective of concepts – automotive perfection – the E-Type must surely be in with a shout? Well, no, much as I would love it to be, I'm afraid it's not. Stunningly, achingly beautiful, yes, but to drive, it was a bit of a dog. Now I know this is rather like saying that Churchill was a little too partial to a brandy, or that a Spitfire's guns tended to freeze up in cold weather – flaws in our national treasures we know are true, but want to ignore because of their other exceptional qualities. But cars are primarily built to be driven, so it is a little difficult to ignore any shortcomings there, surely?
Drivers of the early E-Types reported weak brakes, a gearbox better suited to a tractor and electrics that were temperamental even on a good day. A wry joke at the time was that the light switch had three positions: dim, flicker, and smoulder. Before we get too despondent about this doubt cast upon a peerless reputation, we have to look at it in context. The E-Type turns 50 next year. To people brought up on VW Golf-like reliability, the idea that no driver would set off on a long journey without a bag of tools and a box of spares would seem ludicrous, yet this was the norm for motoring in the Sixties. Cars were generally a collection of poorly designed components assembled by an ill-trained and poorly motivated workforce. The E-Type was no worse than most and better than many, but it's still a product of its time, albeit a beautiful one.
This is where Eagle E-Types, based in East Sussex, enters the picture. Founded in the early Eighties by Henry Pearman, it began as a highly respected E-Type restoration company, putting right poor initial construction and the ravages of time. As skilled and innovative engineers, and with the depth of experience that comes from specialising in one model, they were able to see how the E-Type should have been built in the first place. This led them to develop the Eagle E-Type – better than the original in virtually every respect, except the look, because Jaguar had already got that absolutely right. In the early Nineties, they decided to concentrate on building the Eagle E-Type in very limited numbers, each one built to order and to an individual specification agreed with the customer.
The starting point is a tired E-Type, normally from Eagle's own extensive stock, but if you already have one in your garage, they will be happy to use it. This will be disassembled to the last nut and washer. Much of the body will be discarded and replaced with brand new panels. The concept of a car restoration is one for which, as many have found to their cost, there is no legal definition. At the bottom end of the scale it involves several tubs of filler paste and a few cans of spray paint. At the top end, it is a thorough job where necessary mechanical and bodily repairs have been carried out to a high standard. And then, on a scale all of its own, there is the utterly obsessive Eagle approach. Every component down to the smallest switch is stripped down, checked and overhauled or replaced. This is carried out in a room that bears more resemblance to an operating theatre than a workshop. Only when every component is functionally and cosmetically perfect will the technicians start the long process of putting it back together, along with the Eagle revisions and improvements, many all but invisible to the eye, that remove all the weaknesses of the original E-Type used as the basis.
There is also a huge range of upgrades that a prospective owner can choose from: increased engine capacity and power output, a five-speed gearbox, power steering, vented brakes, even air conditioning. The air conditioning is a good example of Eagle's approach. Hundreds of in-house development hours went into creating a unit that looks like a standard E-Type heater box, making it virtually invisible under the bonnet. Inside the car the standard heater controls have had an equally invisible micro switch built in, so that nobody will know it has been done, until the cool air hits them as they sit in the traffic queuing to get into St Tropez. The body gets an impeccably applied and deeply lustrous paint finish on the outside, and state of the art corrosion proofing underneath. After 4,000 hours of labour, you will be handed a car that will still be around to leave to your children in your will, which is fortunate because you will possibly have spent their inheritance buying it in the first place. An Eagle will start at £285,000 and, depending on the specification, could rise by up to a further £100,000 with all the options added. We are well into brand new Ferrari territory here, so this Eagle is going to have to drive rather well.
And believe me, it does. A push on the starter button brings a deep bellow from its stainless steel exhausts, which then subsides into a musical burble. As you let in the surprisingly light clutch and begin to move up through the gears you become aware that it is vast amounts of torque rather than pure power that makes it such a satisfying drive. The gearbox with its taller top gear adds to this sense of relaxation. Conscious that it was Pearman's personal car I was driving, I asked him which was going to come first if I pushed on a bit, under or over steer? "Neither" was the response. "Point the nose where you want it to go and it will go there." He knows his car well. Despite damp greasy roads, a coating of wet leaves, and the kind of cracks and potholes that only many years of road neglect can bring, it was totally poised. Amazingly it was also soft and comfortable, despite a road surface that in places resembled a cobbled street. Pearman puts this down to the damping, which he feels is probably the area of automotive technology that has seen the greatest advances in the years since the birth of the E-Type. He points out that most supercars today are tested and developed on the track and handle superbly there, but take them off those smooth surfaces and put them on a British B-road and they can get skittish and unsettled. In contrast, the Eagle has been developed on the B-roads of Sussex, and if it handles there it will handle anywhere. Having seen the way an Eagle is built, and now having driven it, that £285,000 seems, if not a bargain, certainly very good value for money.
And how will it hold its value? Bonhams, the vintage and classic car auctioneers commented: "Originality is everything, and the further you move from the original, the lower the value retained." Eagle agree this is the case for an original collector's item, and can deal with a car like this accordingly, but they point out that each client's precise requirements are different. This is why they offer their range of options, from a 100 per cent original car to a highly modified one that retains that all important E-Type character. And anyway, the waiting list for an Eagle is such that if you want to sell yours, experience has shown that you are not likely to lose money – unlike a modern supercar where you almost certainly will.
You might have expected the E-Type Owners' Club to hate Eagle with a passion, but far from it. Philip Porter, the club chairman and owner of the oldest E-Type in the world, has huge respect for the company and their E-Type, calling it "an E-Type for the modern age, combining all the classic qualities which made the E-Type so superb with sensible upgrades for today's roads".
They say most supercars are sold on how they look first, how they sound second, and how they drive a distant third. But this is not true with the Eagle; it is clearly in a class of its own on all three counts. I think we may have found our automotive perfection.