Never miss an issue of Classic & Sports Car and save money when you subscribe! Check out our latest offers
If tampering with anything by Jaguar was a toxic brief for coachbuilders in the 1950s and ’60s, then to meddle with the E-type seemed like a crime of arrogance akin to scrawling a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
Why take ‘the world’s most beautiful car’ and make it something less than beautiful?
Predictably, the E-type did not prove to be a fertile playground for lily-gilders in period, although a handful tried.
Not lacking in ego, stylist Raymond Loewy thought he could do better, but the brutish 1966 XKE he had made for his own use (which is still around and still very original) seems less heretical than his attempts to improve on the BMW 507 a few years previously.
About the origami Guyson E12 roadster of the early 1970s the less said the better, other than to express surprise that the firm actually built two of them.
In some ways, Bertone’s radical, Lamborghini Espada-like Pirana concept car from 1967 manages to get away with it, because its E-type underpinings are almost incidental to the concept of producing a Daily Telegraph colour supplement-sponsored ‘ideal’ car.
Not so the Frua Jag of 1966. Still indisputably an E-type, albeit in a fussier, less harmonious form, it aroused very mixed feelings when shown at the Geneva Salon that year.
Reworked details that appeared acceptable in isolation – mainly the heavy front bumpers and miniaturised MkX grille – looked like a false beard and dark glasses on a familiar face.
Much less obvious was the fact that the altered bonnet was heavy enough to affect the handling at first, due to the patchwork of fabricated and brazed sections used to reshape it by Frua’s coachbuilder, Italsuisse of Geneva.
The car was a useful 6in shorter than the original, although some of that advantage was lost to the boxy rear bumper, which framed the chunky tail-lights and protruded awkwardly from that previously shapely rump.
But it wasn’t all bad news. The shape of the headlight covers was more Ferrari-like (and in Perspex, not glass), which was not necessarily a bad thing, and you could even have made an argument for the slimline bonnet bulge, with its ventilation slot that improved both vision and engine cooling.
This, at least, achieved one of John Coombs’ aims for the car in his initial brief to Pietro Frua. Little else about the project satisfied him.
The famed team-owner, former driver and successful Jaguar distributor of Guildford was no fool, but you need to cast off the referential mindset of today to see what his thinking was when commissioning this one-off.
Firstly, Coombs was a businessman and the Frua was not intended to be a one-off. By the mid-’60s, E-types were no longer a rarity but a routine sight on the road, to the extent that Coombs recognised there was an appetite for a distinctively modified version he could sell through his Jaguar dealership.
A repeat, in fact, of his famous uprated Mk2 saloons, but perhaps offering the Frua styling tweaks as part of a package of modifications that could be carried out on-site in Guildford.
As one of Jaguar’s most successful dealers and privateer team owners, Coombs would have encountered no resistance from Browns Lane, especially because it had sanctioned a Frua one-off on the S-type that was due to make its debut at the same Geneva show.
He would also have been familiar with the process of dealing with Italian carrozzerie, having consulted with Bertone in the late ’50s on the creation of a special XK150S coupé for playboy and Woolworth heir Anthony Strickland-Hubbard.
Pietro Frua and Coombs had crossed paths in 1965 and got on well. By then in his early 50s, the rotund Frua was in the midst of his most creative period.
Since the 1950s, his name had become as synonymous with Maserati as Pininfarina was with Ferrari.
More recently, the Quattroporte and Mistral had given the marque visual cohesion, and behind the scenes Frua was working for BMW, Glas, Monteverdi and many others.
One-off oddities such as his 1964 Lotus Elan – styled to look like a mini-Mistral – and Mercedes-Benz 230SLX shooting brake showed he had no fear of sacred cows.
The AC 428 was poised to raise Frua’s profile in the realm of British exotica, but most people would have been more aware of his pretty Renault Floride, designed while he was under contract to Ghia.
Coombs made regular visits to Frua’s Turin studio, where an agreement on how the car would look was thrashed out to his satisfaction – or so he thought.
Coombs told Philip Porter in his classic 1989 book Jaguar E-type, The Definitive History: “I would go to Turin, see Frua and we’d draw what we were going to do.
“Unfortunately, when you arrived next time, it would be totally different from what you had accepted.”
Frua, like most Italian stylists, was quite comfortable rehashing old designs or selling the same idea to different customers, and this may have been Coombs’ fate.
A 4.2 roadster for a private client seems to have had an almost identical front and rear makeover, but it’s not clear if the work was done before or after the fixed-head was completed.
Coombs found Frua charming, but believed he was simply too busy to give the project his full attention: “I wanted a new front end and a completely new back end to be built, instead of doing what he did.”
“It made it a different-looking E-type and we took one or two orders for them, but it wasn’t worthwhile doing them in quantity because we had to have new rears and fronts made,” said Coombs.
“The idea was to produce a quicker car by doing all the usual mechanical modifications… with a new front, which would have come over to us as a complete nose, and a new tail, which was virtually going to slide on to the back of the old one.
“There was no major surgery involved. The idea was to do it in a matter of a couple of days… and you were back on the road again.”
Coombs was feeling despondent about the project on the eve of its Geneva debut. Having supplied Italsuisse with a standard, right-hand-drive 4.2 coupé, work on the modifications hadn’t begun until the last minute.
Sold new by Henley’s in early November 1965, KPH 4C had started life in Carmen Red with black leather.
Repainted silver, it didn’t turn up at the show until a couple of hours before the doors were due to open to the public.
Feedback from the Geneva punters – who were probably more interested in seeing the new BMW 1600-2, Ferrari 330GTC and the prototype Lamborghini Miura – was not hugely positive.
Despite taking a couple of orders, Coombs, conscious of the coordination and costs involved, canned the idea on the spot.
Some accounts suggest he sold the car off the stand to its first owner, London haberdashery owner Ray MacCulloch; others claim Guy Salmon did the deal back in the UK for £1750 – about £300 less than Jaguar was asking for a new 4.2 E-type fhc – after the car’s Earls Court appearance.
Either way, MacCulloch had put 42,000 miles on the clock by 1972, and owned the car until his death in the early ’80s.
Like so many one-of-a-kind cars, the Frua E-type has changed hands many times.
But unlike most of its ilk – oddities that can struggle to find a home when most people want the standard item – KPH 4C has never dropped off the radar or fallen into disrepair, having enjoyed a succession of caring custodians.
It went to a collection in Belgium in the mid-’90s but returned to the UK, via The Netherlands and Justin Banks, in 2008, after which E-type enthusiast Anthony Brazzo gave it a sympathetic restoration – the original paint was cracking – and a mechanical overhaul.
If the E-type has a problem, it is that Jaguar made too many, which was the reasoning behind the Frua car: a ‘different’ E-type.
The idea probably had legs, but trying to get the job done by a slightly flaky Italian maestro operated via remote control in those long-ago, pre-internet days was not the way to tackle it.
Pininfarina and Bertone would have been more organised and professional colleagues, but almost certainly more expensive; perhaps Coombs would have had better luck with somebody more local, such as the then up-and-coming Ogle.
But that still left the problem of tooling up for the modified sheet metal.
Over and above the fascination of the Coombs/Frua connection, KPH 4C is just a really nice, original, matching-numbers E-type.
Most of the interior – standard Series 1 4.2 in all respects – is factory, and I am told you can still see evidence of its original Carmen Red paint in places.
From new, the engine was polished and ported and a high-ratio differential was fitted to give 110mph cruising at 4000rpm.
Coombs also specified Koni shock absorbers and stove-enamelled wire wheels.
It certainly feels extremely fit and strong on the road, with torque everywhere and the ability to lunge up to three-figure speeds on a short straight without breaking a sweat.
Compact, comfortable and relatively refined, it is a cogent reminder of how good E-types were – and still are. You could pay three times the money and still not get something as fast and capable in the mid-’60s.
In many ways, it is a rule of thumb that still applies to the car’s classic identity. As vendor James Mitchell of Pendine says, there is nothing better for under £250,000, perhaps even half a million.
The Coombs E-type is still a pretty car, although Frua’s doodling on the front end reminds me of a much more effective quad-headlight treatment Jaguar was toying with that would have required far less effort.
And if he went too far on the outside, on the inside maybe Coombs didn’t go far enough.
Combine that snazzy prototype front end with electric windows, air conditioning, plusher carpets and a posher headliner, and he would have had an all-British, Harold Radford-style Coombs E-type, repeating the success of the various luxury Mini Coopers that are as synonymous with the period as the E-type itself.
Images: Max Edleston
Thanks to: Pendine
Jaguar E-type 4.2 Frua Coupé
- Sold/number built 1966/1
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 4235cc straight-six, triple SU carburettors
- Max power 265bhp @ 5400rpm
- Max torque 283Ib ft @ 4000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by torsion bars, wishbones, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear lower wishbones, radius arms, twin coil/damper units
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 14ft 7in (4445mm)
- Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
- Height 4ft (1220mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft (2438mm)
- Weight 2627Ib (1192kg)
- 0-60mph 7 secs
- Top speed 150mph
- Mpg 18-22
- Price new £1992
- Price now £90,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication
Enjoy more of the world’s best classic car content every month when you subscribe to C&SC – get our latest deals here
Diamonds are for ever: the Jaguar E-type at 60
Which is the greatest Jaguar E-type of them all?