Labour of Love: Restoring Our Jaguar E-Type

This husband and wife team restored an old Jaguar E-Type to its former glory, and got more than just a classic set of wheels out of the deal.

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How we restored a Jaguar E-Type
Photo: Courtesy Helen Harwood

How we restored a Jaguar E-Type

My husband Dave’s pet project, which quickly became our project, began in 1996, when Dave and his brother attended a Jaguar Concours in Oakville, Ontario, and “the wives” were invited to tag along. I had no idea what to expect, as I didn’t even know what a concours was at the time.

Upon arrival, we were met with row upon row of beautiful Jaguars lined up in a lovely parkland setting. Most of the cars looked as if they had just been driven off a new car lot, but that was misleading—many were half a century old.

The term “car show” does not adequately describe the event; as I soon discovered, a concours is a competition of elegance—similar to a beauty pageant—in which the entrants are judged, critically and thoroughly. But weren’t all Jaguars elegant and almost identical? By the end of the day, I had picked up on some of the differences and learned that an E-Type Jaguar was Dave’s dream car, or as he put it: “The one I lust after.”

Little did I know that in a few years, I would be taking part in a concours, facing the same scrutiny from earnest-looking judges carrying clipboards. As you’ve surmised, Dave did indeed purchase a Jaguar E-Type. He bought it on eBay in 2001, sight unseen. The two of us shared the somewhat harrowing experience of driving to the outskirts of New York City to trailer it home.

I have to admit that the first glimpse of our car did not leave me with a feeling of excitement. As we returned with the Jaguar in tow, however, I learned we did indeed have something special on the trailer. Big-rig truck drivers would pull up beside us, then slow down so they could take a better look, giving us a nod of approval or a thumbs-up. One tollbooth attendant enthusiastically inquired, “Where did you get that beauty? She goes up to 150 m.p.h., you know!” And several patrons at an all-night gas station inspected the car as we were filling up, and even asked for a longer viewing time once we were fueled and ready to go.

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The art of auto restoration
Photo: Helen Harwood

The art of restoration

When we finally got the car home, I took a closer look. Honestly, it reminded me of a kid’s pedal car, with no floor, and it had a rather sad and forlorn disposition. Cousin Jim said he was reminded of a rusted tomato juice can.

But sharing and supporting my husband’s interest was always a given. I didn’t know, however, that there would be something to do requiring my help almost every day. I secretly felt honoured to be asked, most of the time, although the incessant cleaning of rusty bits was tedious and time-consuming. I learned it takes a long time to take a car apart and a longer time to put a car back together. There were also times when I’d just sit on a bar stool in the garage, knitting, because Dave liked to have someone to talk to as he worked. Sometimes, he’d talk aloud to himself and I wished I had my ears blocked—his language left a bit to be desired.

And some awful sounds and smells came from our garage. Metal being torn apart with a grinder was ear piercing. When the 40-year-old original gas tank was opened up, the stench was that of rotten eggs or a dead animal. Oddly, the neighbours never complained. They actually took a keen interest in what was happening. When the engine first roared back to life, they came running over and a celebration ensued.

I learned that auto restoration was a lengthy process, requiring lots of patience. All the rusty bits—my description for most of the parts that came off the car—were packed in boxes or tiny plastic bags, labelled and shelved, waiting to be restored. Bigger parts found temporary homes in the garage, including the bonnet, which was stood on its end. Hey, my car vocabulary was expanding! Until then, a bonnet was a hat for a baby, not the hood of a car. Dave wondered aloud how long it would be before the engine could be put back in the car. I wondered when it would have wheels again. The car was even upside down for a few weeks, to gain easier access to its nether regions, I suppose. A home-built rotisserie did the job. I always thought a rotisserie was for barbecuing chickens—an entire cow could have been cooked on the one built for the car!

We spend winters in Florida, and the car came with us a few times, as Dave wanted to continue the project. Again the car attracted attention while in transport. I had fashioned a custom-made cover for it—some homemaking skills such as sewing and design are easily transferred—which emphasized the distinctive shape of the car beneath. Service centres and hotel parking lots became one-man car shows, as the curious gathered around with their usual questions, starting with, “What’s that you’re hauling there?”

All in all, it took ten years to get the car back together. “Fully restored” is the term—and it was indeed a beauty. Dave restored most of the original parts, made a few that could not be restored and reluctantly bought a couple that he couldn’t make. The completion year was 2011.

Were all those years of work worth it? For sure! Gone is the hulk of rusted metal we started with and in its place stands a beautiful, shiny, silver-grey E-Type Jaguar.

We go for drives, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with our local Jaguar Club. It is fun and exciting to be in a long line with other special cars, exploring off-the-beaten-path roadways. Drivers love all the curves and gentle hills. All the people we come across—other drivers and pedestrians alike—wave, smile or give a thumbs up as our engines roar… Or sometimes sputter.

You won’t believe the before-and-after shots of this 1952 Studebaker restoration.

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The social side of auto restoration
Photo: Helen Harwood

The social side of auto restoration

Concours, car shows and cruise nights are different for us now. Restorers love these events. I’m kind of fond of them myself. When we show our car, the day may start at 5 a.m. At the show site, we are shown where to park, ideally in the shade, in a long line of beautiful cars. We quickly set up our directors’ chairs and a cooler full of drinks and snacks for sharing with friends and strangers. A tired or bored look on the face of a passerby warrants an invitation to sit down and rest a while.

New friends have entered our life because of the Jaguar restoration project. I met one of my now very good friends when she and her husband arrived at our place one day. They were starting to work on their project car and had been referred to Dave as a resource person. Dave invited them for lunch and a fast friendship resulted. Dave has often invited people to come to see what was happening in “his” garage. When a couple arrives, I ask the wife if she prefers to sit on the deck and have a cup of tea or a glass of wine with me. Most are delighted with the offer. One time Dave invited the whole Jaguar Club. Now, that was a party!

At shows, Dave is always busy answering all sorts of questions and sharing the impressive story about his restored E-Type Jaguar. People remember the story and they remember him. One man was so impressed with what Dave had done, that even after several months he recognized Dave. Dave and the car he was then driving—his daily driver, a VDP Jaguar—were given the VIP treatment at the man’s restaurant. The car got the VIP parking spot and Dave and I were treated like royalty the whole evening.

Don’t miss these helpful hints for storing a classic car over winter.

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Car shows: It's all in the details
Photo: Helen Harwood

It’s all in the details

At a recent concours, a viewer mentioned how brilliant the wheel spokes were on our car in comparison to the car beside us. I casually informed him that I was up at 5 a.m. that morning with a toothbrush and scouring pads in my hand. I knew Dave had gone to bed the night before disappointed that he had run out of time and energy before he had the desired look on the car. A show car should have every square centimetre, inside and out, underside and upside and downside cleaned to a spit-and-polish standard. So, I’m definitely involved more than I had planned. Heart and soul? Well, not quite that much. I know our car well enough to answer questions about it. Sometimes I give a wrong answer, but it isn’t really noticed: What is noticed is my passion. Memorable moments must be shared. I’m so glad to be enjoying the rewards of this labour of love. I enjoy hearing all the nice comments people make.

Does that mean that my label, “Restorer’s Wife,” is redundant? Not on your life. There are now four boats in various stages of restoration, all sitting at our place waiting for my attention.

Next, check out the best Canadian car show you’ve never heard of.

Originally Published in Our Canada

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