The small green metal door folds slowly back, the lights blink as if waking from a decade long slumber and my eyes come face to face with a million quid’s worth of scrap. Around 20 E-types, all badly faded, some dented, others with windows smashed or missing, lie quietly, their rusty wire wheels only just saved from getting cosy with the concrete floor by the last gasps of ancient fetid air contained in their brittle cracked tyres.
If I were writing this in 1976 the whole haul would likely be bound for the crusher. Instead each stands by patiently, ready for its call-up to be transformed into a version of itself far better than the one that left the Brown’s Lane factory back in the sixties. These are Eagle E-types in waiting.
Unless you want a beaten-up late ‘60s Quasimodo 2+2 you have to be rich to afford an E-type these days – an early roadster is £100k minimum in the UK, and often £200k. But if you’re really rich, so wealthy that you come back from a bathroom break having earned enough to buy a new supermini while you hosed the urinal, and you want the very best E-type, you come to Eagle.
And that doesn’t mean coming to some dismal industrial unit in London’s seedy suburbs. It means picking your way through leafy Sussex roads to the south of the capital, the sort of roads your dad probably dreamt of firing an E-type down, Raquel Welch lookalike riding shotgun.
Eagle began in the 1980s as a classic car dealership punting on all sorts of marques and models, including boss Henry Pearman’s pet favourite, the E-type. The big change, and the step that marked Eagle out from other companies restoring E-types came in the early 1990s, when the first Eagle branded E-type was built. This was a car that looked to all the world like a stunning ‘60s sports car, but drove rather more like a modern one.
Such is the attention to detail and care that goes into these cars that Eagle has built fewer than 45 so far. Starting with a sun bleached but preferably intact donor from somewhere climatically kind like the US or South Africa, each is systematically stripped, repaired and updated. Ultimately, the spec is your choice, but a smart list of goodies might include power steering, Ohlins dampers (made exclusively to Eagle’s spec), air conditioning (cleverly hidden beneath an original looking under bonnet shroud) and the 350+bhp 4.7-litre all-aluminium twin cam six.
Building an Eagle is a slow process and time costs money. So hot is the E-type market that donor cars alone can cost Eagle as much as £70,000 these days, so you’ll pay just shy of £300,000 for a ground-up rebuilt car finished to your specification. But you’ll need double that for one of Eagle’s truly special creations. You might have seen Jeremy Clarkson eulogising about the Eagle Speedster or Low Drag GT on old episodes of Top Gear. These aren’t simply perfectly restored E-types, or even perfect recreations of legendary low volume E-types like the recent £1m lightweight E-types built by Jaguar. These are ‘what if?’ cars, fusions of old and new, pushing the boundaries of tasteful E-type modification and crafted from aluminium and built in tiny numbers.
The latest is the Spyder GT, essentially a Speedster with a hood, and it’s being loaded onto a truck for delivery while we’re there. Imagine if a series one E-type Roadster and an original Shelby Cobra had got all amorous behind the bleachers at Spa in the mid '60s. That’s the Spyder GT. At first glance it might look like an old E-type, just smoothed and simplified in the best hot rodding style. But this is a radically re-engineered car, its steeply raked screen requiring Eagle’s body men to cut deep into the scuttle to get the right look. And while original factory E-types have such a pathetically narrow track they look like some aero-obsessed train buff’s attempt to set a narrow gauge railway world speed record, the Spyder fills its voluptuous arches better than Kim Kardashian fills out a pair of whatever jeans zillionaire celebs wear.
There are just a handful of men involved in the creation of an Eagle, including directors Paul Brace, the design and engineering maestro, and Matt Dewhurst, who now mans the trim shop. Both have been with the company for almost 30 years, and when you see Eagle’s idyllic premises, you can understand why they’ve been in no rush to move on.
Rather than being thrown together in one giant hangar, each man, or at least each department, from design, to metalwork, to trim to paint, has his own workshop. Moving from building to building is like going from room to room in some 1990s super club, but without the ecstasy-fuelled gurning and gyrating, each workshop buzzing to a different radio station and different sounds and smells.
Beautiful as Eagle’s car might look from the outside, it’s not until you see how they’re created that you can really appreciate how special they are. The craftsmanship is so exquisite it’s no wonder the waiting list is long. Not everyone wants to wait of course. Ross Brawn, one time GP team boss, and the man rumoured to be the new head of F1, recently acquired Martin Brundle’s stunning black Eagle coupe. Which is probably not the first time something achingly sexy has been passed around the F1 circuit.
The Eagle team’s personal interests go way beyond simply E-types. Paul Brace has a rare 500E Benz and is obsessed by 1970s motorbikes, Matt Hudson recently used his trimming skills to reupholster his air-cooled 911’s cabin. And as for boss Pearman, his on-site man cave is obscene, full of Daytonas, F40s and Group C cars. So with all that collective interest in the wider world of cars, does the Eagle team have any plans to diversify? Paul Brace says not, at least in the foreseeable future: ‘the E-type is timeless really, such a style icon, that we get customers from all age groups and backgrounds.’
You can see where he’s coming from. I love old cars, and have had plenty, but I grew up in the 1980s. Among classics, Alfas, BMWs, Porsches always seemed cooler. The E-type, though beautiful, always seemed a bit fusty, more my old man’s (or just an old man’s) kind of car. It just wasn’t on my radar. But these cars change all that. Subconscious, the Eagle has landed.
Photography by Dean Smith