As the wind swells and blusters, and malevolent clouds roll overhead, the marquee before us threatens to depart for a different time-zone. The introductions are over and we’re into the preliminary speeches, some of which are more easily audible than others. If there is a common theme, it’s that few thought this day would ever happen; that we would be assembled here at Curborough Sprint Circuit waiting for Neville Swales’ six-years-in-the-making inspiration of the XJ13 to venture trackside for the first time.
Marque authority Paul Skilleter has only just begun his homily about how the company could have taken the fight to Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans had fate been kinder when it’s punctuated by a whir and a clatter. Heads turn in unison towards the source of the commotion which is unsighted some distance away. What follows is the clamour of a race-bred, four-cam V12 firing with surround-sound fanfare. It’s the sort of noise that tears the sky, each blip of the throttle prompting grown men to look at each other with mouths agape. In an instant, there is much chattering in tones fully deserving of italics and exclamation marks. Each member of our party is wearing a look of unselfconscious wonder. “It starts, then,” quips one wag, the ensuing laughter being drowned out almost immediately as the shapeliest of sports-prototypes hoves into view. There’s no fighting it; you have to surrender. It’s time to find a vantage point on the pit wall (fence would be closer).
For Swales, the tagline for the project – Building the Legend – is more than mere PR puff: he wasn’t about to settle for anything less than perfection. So just how did a self-taught engineer end
up recreating one of the most beautiful, if stillborn, racing cars ever made? “I have always been a fan, having owned a couple of very early E-types and a Proteus C-type race car,” he says. “I am very much a ‘hands-on’ bloke, and have always built my own engines, whether for road or race. I have never been a member of the concours brigade. My cars have always been well-used on road and track.
“I raced my first E-type when I was living in South Africa. I spent my early career brewing beer and was lucky enough to be poached by South African Breweries after the first free elections to help prepare them for a world free of sanctions. I used to drive my C-type to and from race meetings, as Jaguar did in the 1950s. Mine was a replica of the Hamilton/Rolt 1953 Le Mans 24 Hours-winning car and I continued campaigning it when I returned to the UK in the 1990s.”
Scroll forward a decade and the kernel of an idea began to take root. “I visited the old Heritage museum at Browns Lane and became entranced by the car. At that time, originality – or authenticity; whatever you want to call it – never really entered my head and I approached a few replica manufacturers with a view to building my own powered by the later twin-cam V12 engine.”
However, while the likes of Invicta, Proteus, Triple C, Predator and so on have all had stabs at cloning the car, none are as exacting as Swales’ car; something that he admits happened more by happenstance than planning. “I have a friend who works with a dedicated team reviving and returning to flight a 1954 Avro Shackleton. He also happens to be a fellow enthusiast who spends a lot of time trawling the web for the unobtainable, the weird and the wonderful. He emailed me one day, saying: ‘Take a look at this. I know you are interested in old engines and you might be interested in this one.’ There was a link to German eBay and what looked like an original and complete prototype quad-cam engine. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“I emailed the seller for more information and pictures. My first port of call after that was the JDHT. It transpired that they had been offered the engine by the same seller a few years earlier. A few cursory questions were asked such as, ‘Does it have gear-driven cams?’. When t
hey received the answer, ‘No it doesn’t, they are chain-driven’, they opined that it probably wasn’t what it purported to be ‘…as drive to the original car’s cams is by gears’. If they had only referred to their own archive they would have seen that the car only had gear-driven ’heads fitted in 1978 – 11 years after the project ended.”
In the days leading up to the end of auction, our hero contacted authority Peter Wilson who just happened to be holidaying on a cruise-liner. Fortunately for Swales, the former Competition Department man had access to email. “Peter helped prepare the ‘Lightweight’ E-types. He also worked on the original car. Many myths about the car had built up over the years, but the full facts hadn’t been accurately documented until he wrote “XJ13 – The definitive story of the Jaguar Le Mans Car “. I fired some photos over to Peter and he was able to give me chapter and verse on the engine as well as confirming its authenticity from numbers on the various castings. It transpired that the engine was the most highly-developed of the three engines that were ever installed in cars. It covered close on 50,000 miles in two Mk10 saloon test mules before ending its active days on the Browns Lane test-bed in December 1969.”
At the end of that year, the engine was placed in store. Fortunately, it survived as a complete unit and was first displayed in Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery (later to become the Coventry Transport Museum). “It then went to Germany to help promote the establishment of the company’s operation in Germany. Those were the days when the company had become a small cog in the British Leyland empire; when its heritage wasn’t valued as highly as it is now. If
it hadn’t been for the visionary efforts of Peter Mitchell, we would probably not have the Heritage Trust and the cars in the collection today. The engine escaped his net, though, and was sold by a company employee to a private German individual who sat on it for almost 40 years, perhaps not fully understanding its significance.”
Having won the auction, and transported the valuable cargo back to Blighty from Pforzheim, near Stuttgart, there was no buyer’s remorse. Instead, the project changed tack. And how. “Having acquired such an important engine, I made the decision to install it in a car inspired by the XJ13 as It first emerged from the Competition Department in 1966. I would build one exactly as designer Malcolm Sayer envisaged it. I had to do the engine justice. I was granted unfettered access to the archive, and I supplemented what little I found there – which was certainly not enough to recreate the original car, with documents, photos and data from other sources. These included surviving project team members and the estates of people such as engine designer Claude Baily and engineering director, William Heynes. Some of this information included Sayer’s original 3D data which had been painstakingly worked out longhand using slide-rules and log tables. Fellow enthusiasts will know that the rebuilt car differs in a number of respects to the original which was altered following Norman Dewis’ accident at Mira in 1971.”
Jumping forward in the narrative, responsibility for recreating the original 1966-correct outline passed to North Devon Metalcraft in Barnstable. “The process of building the car started with CAD design for the monocoque,” the firm’s co-principal Paul Evans recalls. “Making the front and rear body panels alone represented about three months’ work. The most difficult part of the build? That would be the monocoque, given the amount of detail work for the front and rear subframes, petrol tanks, door frames, the boot floor, the bonnet – 98 louvres with not one being out of line, the front windscreen surround which was made in steel, the dash panel and so on. Then there was the painstaking riveting. There are more than 1000, each one having been individually put in by hand.”
“The original car was rebuilt by Ted Loades’ company, Abbey Panels, in the early ’70s for the sum total of £1000,” Swales adds, explaining the physical differences between his car and the one in the JDHT collection. “Many changes were made during the build, both above and below the skin. Some were minor and others rather more obvious.For example, when the front section was remade and reattached, a few extra rows of rivets were added which run right across the nose of the car. These rivets stand proud and are now a very obvious feature of the CAR. My “inspiration” uses solid flush rivets as specified by Sayer. Physically, the biggest changes to the rebuilt car were the addition of flared wheelarches front and rear. The original partially-enclosed wheel openings were also extended to suit the car’s new shape. The rear deck area was then raised and shortened to blend in with these new, larger rear arches. Changes beneath the skin included the complete removal of an inner bulkhead. However, even with these modifications, Sayer’s sublimely beautiful lines still peek out. In my opinion, the man was a genius.”
Staring at the finished car, it’s hard to argue to the contrary. Even more so as Sayers’ daughter Kate is standing nearby. There are incongruous feelings of foreignness and familiarity at work here. While the one and only car is utterly gorgeous despite being reconfigured, the original outline as regenerated here is somehow cleaner. More elegant, even. Precisely how many hours have been invested in creating this machine remain unrecorded. “I daren’t even think about it,” Swales mock groans. The same is probably true of the amount of money that has been sunk into the project thus far. “Let’s just say it’s eye-watering,” is all he will say on the matter.
Judging from the wide smile that Swales is wearing as he heads onto the twisty, Staffordshire sprint track for the first time, it has been worth every penny. The car looks much smaller than you might imagine, curve begetting curve. It’s achingly lovely, and Biblically loud, too. It emits the sort of noise that interrupts normal synoptic firing. The bunch of ‘Old Boys’ standing next to us have fallen silent, having been decidedly animated barely a moment earlier.
Swales’ creation takes to the track fronting a flotilla of D-types, E-types and XKs. Those and GT40s and Daytona Cobra clones. After a few exploratory laps, he tries that bit harder. Is it impolite to cheer? The sight of the car and assorted faux GT40s sharing a circuit provides an indelible image, adding a certain ‘what if?’ angle to proceedings. Could Coventry have trumped Slough, sorry, Detroit in (itals) Les Vingt-quatres Heures du Mans (end itals) in period had circumstances been different?
“The thing which surprised me more than anything was how well the car turned-in and handled out-of-the-box. We set the car up to as close as possible to the settings recorded during the car’s final tests in 1967, culminating in David Hobbs and Richard Attwood performing high-speed runs at Silverstone. I was able to appreciate the way the car stopped squarely and securely as well as going exactly where I pointed it. On my penultimate lap, I exerted my right foot a little further on the straight and realised I could comfortably keep station with a hard-driven GT40. I knew I had plenty more in store. This is one of the happiest days of my life. It’s the realisation of a dream and to share it with so many enthusiasts and people who worked on the original car all those years ago is something pretty special. I won’t forget today in a hurry.”
Neither will those who helped build the original car. Roger Shelbourne, who was one of the youngest members of the team in period, enthused: “It’s an astounding project. I am very impressed. It’s almost as though the cars we made has been resurrected. As far as I am concerned, this is second car build, although third might be closer given the changes that were later made to the original.”
So is there any chance of Swales’ car ever venturing trackside in actual competition? He mulls over the question for a moment before replying: “The plan is to continue developing the car to the point where it could race should I choose to do so. That said, because the original car never raced in period, it doesn’t automatically qualify for an FIA passport which may make it difficult to obtain entries at historic race meetings. Also, the cars it was meant to compete against in period have had the benefit of 50 years’ continuous development. The car hasn’t. I suspect the Ford GT40s in particular are performing better now than they ever did in period. Perhaps the ‘what if?’ question should remain unanswered…”
Even if you are biologically inclined to dislike recreations – or tool-room replicas in trade speak, it’s hard not to awestruck by the grandiosity of Swales’ vision. His Ahab-like obsession in creating his dream car has resulted in something that is truly – really – breathtaking to behold. It’s hard not to be seduced so why resist?
One man conspicuously absent from Building the Legend big reveal was former project leader and Lotus chief, Mike Kimberley. Nevertheless, he has lent his full backing to the project. “It was a tragedy in some ways that Sir William Lyons was so nervous about the car ever being seen in period,” he says. “We always tested it under a cloak of secrecy. He insisted that the car should not be seen publicly and we could only test at MIRA’s facility in Warwickshire if we had absolute exclusivity. That meant we had to test it on Sundays which was somewhat restrictive. Norman Dewis did some of the early runs, but really it was David Hobbs who did the bulk of the test work. He was a former apprentice and could really push the car to its limits, often with me sitting alongside him taking notes. There was no seatbelt, just a piece of padded foam for me to sit on.
“Time doesn’t stand still in motor racing, and the stop-start nature of the project didn’t do us any favours. The merger between the company and BLMC could conceivably have given us greater strength, but ultimately the car was axed before it ever raced which was immensely disappointing. I got involved with Neville’s project via my old friend and colleague, Peter Wilson. I tried to help as much as I could; with details, mostly. For example, Neville was going to paint the interior, but I told him that the original car wasn’t painted in period. The exterior had to look perfect, but inside it was purely functional. There was no titivation. I also had the honour of starting the unfinished car at the London Classic Car Show in February 2016. I have to say that he has done a very good job indeed in creating the car as it was intended to race.”