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The day Graham Hill thought development of Lightweight E-type '49 FXN' was "mad"
Of the many delights to be found at the XK70 Jaguar Festival this June, one will be the famous low-drag Lightweight E-type known by its registration number, ‘49 FXN’. This car is a star not only because it’s unique and gorgeous, but also because it recalls an era when GTs added glamour to world-class sportscar racing and privateers could still challenge factory teams.
Two of three men behind 49 FXN, driver Peter Sargent and mechanical engineer Sami Klat, will also be at the Festival. Together with the late-Peter Lumsden, these three characters made the E-type go faster with an approach to research and development which often seemed more scientific than Jaguar’s - and despite a lack of assistance from the factory which suggested disapproval, their privately-modified car mixed heroically at Le Mans with works-supported Shelby Daytona Coupes and Ferrari 250GTOs. Anyone inclined to support David rather than Goliath will look at 49 FXN with wholehearted admiration.
On a rare occasion when 49 FXN did benefit from outside help, it came from Graham Hill. The F1 star was a friend of Lumsden’s and, when testing the John Coombs-run Lightweight E-type at Goodwood one day in April 1964, agreed to drive 49 FXN for a few comparison laps. Hill subsequently informed the two Peters, in characteristically colourful terms, that their E-type was so badly behaved it was “a death trap.” The car was disconcertingly prone to wandering at speed, apparently because of movement in the rear suspension. Klat suggested they could assess this problem in more detail if Hill again drove the car flat-out around the circuit while he took a ride in the passenger’s seat and leaned out of the door, wearing gloves, to feel what the suspension was doing. “You’re mad,” said Hill, “but if you’re game, I am.”
This brave experiment ended with Sami’s gloves in tatters and the suspicion that the rear suspension’s rubber joints were too flexible, which was allowing unwanted changes to the suspension geometry and causing rear-end steering. Sami’s solution, adding a plate to the suspension mounting, was just one of many small but significant modifications made to 49 FXN before and during the ’64 season. Among other improvements invisible from outside the car but perceptible behind the wheel, alterations were made to the rear and front suspensions, camber, ride height, fuel injection, camshafts, and exhaust pipes. But the most famous changes of all, clearly defining 49 FXN as unique, were made to the shape of the bonnet and roof.
Those bodywork modifications might not have been made if it hadn’t been for Klat’s experience the previous year helping to develop Lumsden and Sargent’s Lister-Jaguar Coupe. In this task Klat had assisted Frank Costin, the former head of aerodynamic flight testing at De Havilland Aircraft Company whose Vanwalls had won nine World Championship Grands Prix in ’57 and ’58. As a direct result of this collaboration, Sami said, he “got to appreciate the importance of aerodynamics.” And he rightly anticipated that at high speed circuits, particularly Le Mans, streamlining the E-type would be more important than improving its roadholding. This realisation lead to building a new hardtop for the Jaguar, then running the car up and down the M1 motorway with wool-tufts attached to a grid on the bodywork to indicate airflow and turbulence. These experiments, more sophisticated than anything done by almost any other sportscar team at the time, produced an E-type which cut through the air with less drag and exorcised the car’s spooky rear-end lift at high speed.
As a result of all these modifications, said Lumsden, “The car’s roadholding changed out of all recognition. It would do what you asked it to do, around the Nurburgring, Goodwood or Brands Hatch.” And at Le Mans, slipperiness meant speed: whereas Lumsden and Sargent’s previous E-type (898 BYR) had attained 155 mph on the Mulsanne Straight and recorded a best lap time of 4m 24s during the ‘62 Le Mans test weekend, two years later 49 FXN lapped in 4m 7.3s and reached 174 mph. In the race itself the car was halted by gearbox failure, but not before giving Shelby Daytona Coupes and Ferrari 250 GTOs a good run for their money - and showing how three amateur racers with limited resources but plentiful ingenuity could make a wonderful car even better.
By Phillip Bingham