You might think there would not be much left to say about Jaguar E-type restoration.
And yet, after listening to model expert Paul Bridges, you begin to realise that there is still quite a lot we don’t really know about how these cars were put together.
The saga of Bridges’ epic rebuild of this very early 3.8-litre roadster spans three decades, with surges of activity at either end.
The restored car had its debut at Salon Privé last year, the first time it had been seen in public for 50 years.
Having won the combined Jaguar car clubs’ 60th-anniversary concours in July 2021, 160 RKJ is now widely accepted as the ‘reference quality’ early E-type roadster, so painstaking have been Bridges’ labours in making sure that every detail – quite literally down to the last nut, bolt, screw and washer – is absolutely correct.
To say that all of the numbers match is only the beginning.
It would be fair to suggest that this Jaguar has been rebuilt with an attention to detail normally reserved for precious antiques and works of art.
It is a lovely balance of preservation and painstakingly accurate restoration.
Having spent 30 years squirrelling away new-old-stock parts – he even found a set of original, unused Dunlop RS5 crossply tyres that had not seen the light of day since the early 1970s – Bridges was possibly uniquely placed to hit these heights, not least because he also had a 31-year engineering career at Jaguar, latterly as the programme manager for JLR’s ‘Reborn’ project and setting up the reverse-engineering for E-type body tooling.
Since 2018 he has worked for himself as Heritage Classics, based in Kenilworth, having by then put several award-winning E-type restorations under his belt.
He bought the first of many in Arizona in 1989: a $6000 2+2 automatic.
“It was the least-desirable E-type model, but was entirely rust-free,” says Bridges.
“Having just done all the welding on a UK-market Sunbeam Tiger at the time, rust-free seemed like the way to go!”
Over the following decades, Bridges learned a lot about E-types, doing almost all of the work himself.
“I’m not a trained mechanic,” he confesses, “but I’m the sort of person whose dad had him changing a clutch on a Capri on a Saturday morning.”
The turning point, in terms of restoration ambitions, came in 2000 when he built a show-winning Series 3 roadster, and was bitten by the concours bug.
If you were going to restore an E-type, then 160 RKJ would be pretty near the top of any list of potential candidates.
Manufactured on 4 May 1961, chassis number 850022 was the 22nd right-hand-drive E-type roadster built.
It was also one of the 56 cars lined up for the famous photograph taken outside the Browns Lane offices in spring 1961, and was really a kind of semi-prototype with certain detail features that might have been lost had it been subjected to a normal, ‘commercial’ restoration.
Number 22 was on a priority list – drawn up by assistant managing director ‘Lofty’ England and his sales department – earmarked to be sold to influential people, ideally with competition leanings but who could also be relied upon not to complain about any shortcomings of the not yet truly production-ready new sports car.
It was originally supposed to go to club racer Victor Parness, but – for reasons that to this day still elude the man – he never got the call.
So, after a period as a demonstrator the roadster was allocated (via main agent Henlys) to a Jaguar distributor in Bromley called KJ Motors.
There, in April, a City gentleman by the name of Peter Wright – of Mottingham, SE9 – had already chopped in a Morris Minor and put down a £100 deposit on a new E-type.
With cars only trickling out of Browns Lane at the time, Mr Wright probably didn’t expect to see his car before the New Year.
Nonetheless, 160 RKJ was delivered in October 1961, finished in Opalescent Dark Blue with a black hood, red leather and a competition clutch – the latter testament to the fact that it was originally intended to be used for club racing.
Over the following 11 years, Wright put just 28,500 miles on to E-type number 22.
Then, in 1972, the still all-original Jaguar was put into storage, where it languished – half forgotten, but safe and dry – until the late ’80s, when it was extracted with a view to getting it back on the road after some refurbishment at a local garage.
At a time when sensitivities about the detail originality of important cars was not so well developed or understood, it would have been easy for the charm of this early E-type to have been lost at this stage, under a glossy paintjob and a slew of reproduction parts.
So it was lucky – both for the car and for Bridges – that RKJ became embroiled in a financial settlement. Work was halted, and the Jaguar was sold to David Ager of The E Type Centre.
By that time, the young Bridges had already restored the aforementioned Sunbeam Tiger (his first car), but was coming rapidly to the conclusion that what he really wanted was an ‘outside bonnet lock’ E-type roadster.
“I’d had a couple of E-types by 1990, and had figured out pretty quickly that a side-lock car was the one to have,” he recalls.
“So I began searching internationally for one, and the best I was offered was in San Diego, and supposedly rust-free… In fact, because it lived on a road alongside the beach, it was completely rusty – which was particularly evident because it was white.
“So I took to calling around the dealers. I spoke with David Ager at The E Type Centre and he said he had an early roadster, but that it wasn’t for sale: he was planning to restore it,” recalls Bridges.
“I pestered him several times, to the point where he threw a figure at it – to get rid of me I think!”
Then, as now, there were no price guides for anything that special: “I really didn’t know what to think. It was quite a lump of money, but I didn’t attempt to negotiate and probably paid well over the odds.”
The good news was that the car was still only partially dismantled and totally complete, right down to its Shelley jack, Thor hammer and factory toolkit.
In an initial flurry of enthusiasm, the lion’s share of the work on the body tub was done by specialist Martin Robey in 1993.
“It wasn’t too bad,” says Bridges, “but it still needed floors and sills like any UK E-type, because they all leak.”
As work at Jaguar became busier, however, Bridges got involved in other E-type projects and number 22, having been returned from Martin Robey, was put on hold.
Months became years, then years became decades. So, by the time COVID-19 struck Bridges was already viewing the 1961 roadster as a retirement project.
“I realised that, if I didn’t get on with it now, it might never happen,” he recalls, “so I cracked on. Eighteen months later the car was finished.”
Certain things were difficult through the pandemic in terms of suppliers – the lack of a wiring harness almost scuppered things – but Bridges was motivated by the idea of getting ‘22’ finished for the E-type’s 60th in 2021.
Sometimes all you need is a deadline.
But even during that near-30-year interlude, when other projects had come and gone, Number 22 had never been far from Bridges’ mind.
From the beginning, he was on a mission both to research its history – working at Jaguar meant that he had access to the factory build records – and, more importantly, to acquire as many new-old-stock E-type parts as he could lay his hands on.
As ever, when you look at the car today, the devil is in the detail.
Apart from the Lucas PL700 headlights, Trico wiper blades and the grille-bar badge (given to Bridges by a colleague at Jaguar, who’d had it in his desk drawer for 40 years), most of these are hidden gems such as the Metalastik suspension and steering bushes, the Girling ‘herringbone’ brake hoses and the proper, Lucas-badged electrical components, all ‘new’ straight from their original boxes.
Tracking down those original-specification suspension parts was key to reproducing the factory E-type ‘feel’.
“You have to ask yourself sometimes,” muses Bridges, “if the people who make many reproduction parts have measured the stiffness of the rubber – or did they simply do their own thing, even with safety-critical parts?
“You can certainly tell the difference.”
For the cabin, Bridges was particularly pleased to unearth a small supply of the original-spec coarse-grain vinyl trim and the correct – but rarely seen – A-post seals.
However, his main focus was on retaining as much of the original, 28,500-mile interior trim as possible, conscious that far too many rare, salvable items are often lost during restoration, when the easy alternative is throwing a bundle of money at a rip-it-out-and-start-again retrim.
Fortunately, thanks to the low mileage, much of the interior had survived well.
The beautifully patinated seat covers and steering wheel are the originals, carefully refurbished.
The dash – including the top panel and fascia – are from 1961.
Likewise, the door-top rolls – and a certain amount of the Hardura finishes beloved by Jaguar in the ’60s – are all those the car was born with.
Ditto the A-post and rear cabin finishers.
The interior chrome is all original other than the rear hood brightwork – which is unique to these very first cars, and for which new tooling had to be made.
That wasn’t cheap, but it at least means that anyone else with Bridges’ passion for originality can get their early E-type spot-on.
For safety reasons Bridges didn’t go as far as to retain the factory wiring loom, but he did re-use the terminal boots, which are no longer available.
He had to admit defeat when it came to the Marston radiator, which had 27 leaks and was beyond repair so was replaced with an accurate reproduction item.
The brake and clutch cylinders, boot mat and shock absorbers were all straightforward off-the-shelf items – new, but indistinguishable from the originals – as were consumable service items such as the exhaust system and oil/air filters.
Bridges even made sure that all the nuts and bolts used were of the correct UNF type, marked ‘PPP’ or ‘0000’ and with GKN, BEES, LINREAD or NEWTON manufacturers’ identification.
He researched all the finishes, too, be they black for the nuts, bolts and front suspension components or ‘bright’ for clips.
As work progressed, Bridges was surprised at how many parts were date-coded, including the Lucas C45 dynamo, the wiper and washer motors, and even the dashboard toggle switches.
The odd locking cage-nuts for the accelerator bracket fixings were eventually matched, thanks to a helpful Spitfire restorer, to a part used on the Bristol Beaufighter.
New ones were sourced at huge expense, but they do add to the ‘pre-production’ feel of so much of this car.
The bonnet, for instance, still shows the planished joint on its underside between the front and rear sections, dating from the time when Jaguar had yet to invest in the tooling to build the E-type in bigger volumes because it didn’t really know for sure if it was going to sell.
Luckily the bonnet needed very little work, which was testament to the fact that 160 RKJ had avoided the 1960s and ’70s accident damage that usually resulted in new panels.
The main body had a proliferation of pop-rivets not found on later cars: these were recorded and reproduced where appropriate, with the help of master panel-beaters Andy Hall and Sam Grudgings at Vintage Machines in Rugby.
It would have been easy enough to simply replace the worn rear hubs but, because they were of a design unique to these very early cars, Bridges elected to have them 3D-scanned and new ones machined, at considerable expense.
The bulk of the build took place at Bridges’ home in warm, dry, but not surgical conditions, yet working to standards more akin to aircraft than motor-car restoration.
He is keen to point out that his E-type was assembled absolutely “by the book”, with every safety-critical joint correctly torqued and chart-recorded.
Some major mechanical components had to be farmed out because of the limited timeframe.
The engine, gearbox and rear axle were rebuilt by William Heynes – grandson of former Jaguar chief engineer Bill Heynes, no less – who specialises in conserving originality in a way that chimed perfectly with what Bridges was trying to achieve.
These low-mileage assemblies were sympathetically rebuilt to bring everything back into tolerance, while avoiding swapping parts that didn’t need changing: “The gearbox and rear end just needed cleaning and reassembling.”
Meanwhile, Bridges got in touch with the Jaguar’s first owner, Peter Wright.
Although he sadly didn’t live to see his old car finished, in past conversation with its current owner Wright recalled the day he topped an indicated 150mph in 160 RKJ on a pre-speed-limited M1.
The final piece of the puzzle dropped into place when Bridges met Wright’s son and daughter at the 60th-anniversary meeting.
They remembered being driven in the car by their father, and couldn’t hold back the tears when 160 RKJ won first prize.
Just when it seemed as if the day couldn’t get any better, they presented Bridges with the original buff logbook, warranty card, service book, owners’ handbook and brochure, plus all the KJ Motors documentation that Wright had hung on to for 50 years.
In a world where delayed gratification is becoming a thing of the past, it is refreshing to encounter somebody who has taken the time to get something just right and ended up with exactly what he wants.
Well, I say exactly: I doubt Paul Bridges will ever be completely satisfied.
It takes a certain mindset to be the custodian of a car such as this: the real pleasure and satisfaction is in the rebuild process – and the research and preparation leading up to it – rather than the ownership.
Given that he only enters the car in stockinged feet to preserve the rare vinyl trim on the sills, and that any use on the public road leads to hours (or days) of cleaning afterwards, he has long since cured himself of that thrill.
Like I said, it takes a certain mindset.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: Warwick Castle