Can you heal a classic car's Achilles heel?

by Rob Sass
18 September 2023 3 min read

Most of us are familiar with the Greek myth of Achilles. His mother dipped him in the River Styx, rendering him invulnerable (almost).  Presumably, to keep him from drowning before he could become God-like, Achilles’ mom Thetis had to hold him from somewhere, and his heel presented the most convenient handle. Since she neglected to perform a follow-up dip on the back of that foot, the proverbial “Achilles heel” has come to signify a weak spot in a person, or a fatal flaw in machinery. 

Some of my favorite old cars probably have a pair of Achilles heels, and maybe an Agamemnon wrist or two if that were a thing. But unlike the fatal flaws of epic characters gone by, surely a clever wrench with a plan can overcome vehicular weaknesses to make the perfect classic, right?


I’ve owned what many people think of as the Achilles of sports cars. The Series I Jaguar E-type has a reputation for being almost god-like in its beauty, but painful to own, a car as reliable as the average drunk person on New Year’s Eve. I loved mine so much that I was insane enough to explore trying to make it work as a daily driver.

The pain points of the car were well-documented: An inefficient radiator and insufficient airflow caused the car to overheat in traffic on 70 degree days. The Lucas alternator lacked the juice to simultaneously operate the lights, wipers, and blower, and also failed outright with alarming regularity. The SU electric fuel pump had points, much like the also-unreliable ignition system. But there were cures: a modern aluminum radiator, and a huge electric fan allowed the car to idle on 90 degree days. A GM single-wire alternator provided a charging system that did its job, and solid-state ignition system and fuel pump banished the odd roadside breakdown. For over a year, I daily-drove the Jag and enjoyed Camry-like reliability in what is normally one of the most fickle cars of all time. 


An entire epic saga could be written about British electrics, but automotive weaknesses unfortunately aren’t limited to one nation or era. Enter the BMW E46 M3, an astonishingly good driver’s car. The last M3 with a naturally-aspirated straight-six, it had the misfortune of being built when manual transmission take rates had begun to plummet. BMW came up with what it thought was a sufficiently sporty compromise: the Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG). Actually a manual transmission with an electro-hydraulically actuated, pedal-less clutch, you shifted the SMG either with paddles, or by moving the shift lever forwards or backwards. The box could shift on its own as well.

Alas, it hasn’t aged well, and many joke that SMG actually stands for “Serious Money Gone.” The hydraulic pump that operates the clutch is one of the culprits, costing thousands to repair. Even when working properly, the quality and speed of shifts pale in comparison to a modern dual-clutch automatic. But thankfully, the cure for this particular Achilles heel is easier than you might think, given that BMW simply automated their manual transmission. The row-your-own conversion is a matter of removing the pump that automates the clutch engagement, sourcing an OEM clutch master cylinder, pedal cluster, and a shifter, and re-programming the ECM to tell the car that it’s a conventional manual. The whole thing can be completed for $3,000 to $4,000 depending on whether or not you need a new clutch, and according to Hagerty transaction data, manual-converted M3s typically see their value go up in the marketplace. 


Even tough off-roaders aren’t immune to weaknesses, and the original Land Rover Discovery is the perfect example. Boxy and upright with an air of understated upper-crust British luxury, Discoveries are totally capable off-road, but they’re also pitifully unreliable. That’s surprising, given the heart of the car is an American engine—the aluminum ex-Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac V-8. Ancient tooling and a series of displacement increases took their toll, and Discos have become famous for mixing coolant and oil in creative ways. Popped cylinder liners, cracked blocks, warped/cracked heads, the list goes on. While LS swaps are almost a cliché by now, if ever there was a platform tailor-made for one, it’s the classic Discovery.

The Disco has more than one Achilles heel, though. In addition to the engines, power-steering racks leak, ABS systems fail, cooling systems are dreadful, the list goes on. If you happen to test drive a Disco with no dash lights on, feel free to peel off the electrical tape covering them. 

Not a Discovery, but evidence of a high-dollar Land Rover rebuild: this LS3-swapped Land Rover Defender sold for $139,650 on Bring a Trailer. Photo: Bring a Trailer

Numerous shops specialize in everything from simple powertrain swaps to nearly complete remanufacturing of Discos. And while the cost can be staggering—as much as a new Land Rover Defender—you can have a bulletproof classic Land Rover that you can actually trust to go off-roading or camping with. There’s a certain cachet in daily driving a classic, and a sense of accomplishment in the fact that you were able to do what Thetis wasn’t able to do for Achilles. 


  • Optimus Prime says:

    As someone dabbling in the market for an M97-engine Porsche, this article resonates.

    • Thom says:

      I have a 2003 M3 that was originally an SMG (and ironically a 1965 Series 1 XKE as well).
      A couple of years ago, the SMG gear position sensor died, almost leaving me stranded – it magically started working again just long enough to get me home, where it promptly died again. Upon further diagnosis, it was also obvious that the SMG pump was not long for this world – the car had ~145k at the time. I had it converted to manual, and in hindsight I regret it – the SMG was so much more fun and easier to drive.

    • wdb says:

      Optimus Prime, I urge you to persevere. While not cheap, the M96/7 foibles can be overcome. At which point one is left with a sublime 911.

  • Racer417 says:

    I’ve owned my E-Type for 52 years. It has let me down to the point of needing a tow once. I do have to agree with the mods, especially the aluminum radiator. My 1973 911E has needed an alternator and a fuel pump in the 6 years I’ve owned it. The difference is that the Porsche parts cost nearly three times what the E-Type parts cost. And Lord help me if I ever need the Porsche’s MFI pump rebuilt.
    The big downside on the Jag is the cost of labor to overhaul rear brakes and replace clutches.
    Maintain, maintain, maintain! Flush the hydraulics every two years on any old car.
    That said, I love them both.

    • Peter Pentz says:

      Funny that the article refers to only some of the poor problems with the E-type.
      Having owned, restored and driven an E-type series 2 Coupe I would point to a number of even more irritating problems.
      As briefely touched on by Racer417, the biggest piece of poor design on the E-type is the rear suspension and brake design. Basically if you want to replace the rotors, or pads, or service a leaking calliper, you have to remove the entire rear suspension subframe. I fitted my rear calipers with the popular extended bleed screw mod so that I could at least blead the rear brakes without doing a gymnastic act …..
      The other big floor on the Series 2 is related to Jaguar apeasing the US emission requirements.
      Apart from a very odd distributor that retards the ignition as the the revs rise ….. very odd; it also has those atrotious Stronberg carbs. There is nothing wrong with the carbs themselves, the design floor is the very peculiar dual throttle set up. Driven only periodically the front throttle gets gummed up with modern fuels and has to be relieve to avoid it freezing in place. I replaced them with a rebuilt set of 3 SU carbs.
      Apart from that it is a wonderful car to drive, but 2 anoyances really get to me.
      If you are taller than 5’10” it is a gymnastic exercise to get in and out of, and the strangest thing I came across after giving myself a serious burn one day, is that the handbrake lever get blistering hot and will give you a nasty burn akin to scorching any part of your body on a hot motorcycle exhaust !

  • paul s murray says:

    The nice thing about mechanical systems is there is always a way, always an option. So if you have to get off of ‘Gilligans Island’ with the parts from a crashed Zero and some coconut shells, why not? Replacing the ..Why do the British drink warm beer? .. because they have Lucas refrigerators… wiring is a no harm no foul upgrade. Likewise the Discovery where you’re lugging it around and not missing that sweet spot redline. The Jag on the other hand? A lot of the V-12’s got replaced with plain jane chevy 350’s back in that day. While more practical they’re less than Jaguar and have lost their soul. You might as well back it into the garage, strip and sell the parts you don’t need and take it to Bonneville with a, take your pick, engine transplant. Try to get into the ‘200 m.p.h. club’ . If you insist on being a purist fine. But why not buy a series II? It may not command the same $ as the I but it is an upgrade and that sex on wheels shape remains the same. I doubt the federal-ise will notice you snuck on those headlight covers.

  • Cory David says:

    While not an “E” type, my first car was a 1962 Jaguar 3.8 MKII that was seven years old when my Dad bought it for my Mom from his VP. The underpinnings were pretty much the same as an XKE. This car was so unreliable that it terrified her and guess who ended up with it? This thing ate Lucas Supercoils every other month, required a twenty inch screwdriver to set the points and stopped without warning if you failed to tune it every 6,000 miles. It also helped make me a decent mechanic. While it was a bit of a nightmare, driving it to high school and parking it next to the gym had all my coaches scratching their heads. Some of my classmates had nicer, more relatable muscle cars but I had wood, leather and chrome wire wheels. It was fun until I sold it to get a new 1973 El Camino SS. Still, I kinda’ miss it headaches and all.

  • TG says:

    I’ve had many British cars over the years, Jags, MGs, Triumphs and they take a person with mechanical knowledge to work on them. If properly cared for they can be very reliable. I had driven most of them daily in the summer. Then I had two Corvettes and those from my experience were the worst cars I ever owned: cam failures, brakes failed and so on. The electrical system is a nightmare on those cars. I lost count the amount of times I was stranded with the Vettes.

    • Edward C. Greenberg says:

      The garage I worked at in the 70’s would not fix British Cars or Fiats. Took so much time and aggravation to fix almost anything it wasn’t worth the effort. The owner has a 12 cylinder Jag now. He tells me now that he is retired he has the time to keep the car running. His driver is a Dodge Magnum 278k miles. One single notable repair.

  • jjd1010 says:

    Speaking of cars that have a bad rep for reliability, consider the Pantera. Fortunately, the owners clubs and vendors have useful and not terribly expensive upgrades for almost any issue, ever for some you didn’t know were an issue. First of all I should say that I was an original owner of a ’74 and it was my daily commuter for several years. That car was pretty good and it never let me down. But, if you are too tall, no problem, drop the floor plans. If you are getting older and find the steering getting harder, power steering is the answer. Overheating just needs a modern aluminum radiator and better fans. More power, hey, it’s a Ford V8. Car starts to get light at 135 mph, front air dams to the rescue. Brakes not as good as you want, most often a simple swap to better pads is all you need. Better handling, what’s your budget. There are electrical upgrades for things that already work well. Flares, wings and bling – I prefer not to go there but it’s available. And the best part is that most of these don’t really change the look of the car. The point is, these are good cars made better by the owners and vendors. I’ve driven mine cross-country any number of times to Fun Rallies, tracked it, and then drove it home.

  • Thom says:

    I have a 1965 Series 1 E-type. It has an aftermarket aluminum radiator and both a pusher and a puller fan. In NorCal traffic when it’s 108° outside the water temp stays around 90°C. The car has a replacement alternator and I’ve never had problems with insufficient electrical power.

  • Thom says:

    I have a 2003 M3 that was originally an SMG (and ironically a 1965 Series 1 XKE as well).
    A couple of years ago, the SMG gear position sensor died, almost leaving me stranded – it magically started working again just long enough to get me home, where it promptly died again. Upon further diagnosis, it was also obvious that the SMG pump was not long for this world – the car had ~145k at the time. I had it converted to manual, and in hindsight I regret it – the SMG was so much more fun and easier to drive.

    • Nicholas MacDonald says:


      I used to own a e46 M3 convertible with the SMG transmission. I actually really enjoyed it as well and never had any interest in converting it. What I do regret is selling the car a few years back.

  • Russell Jensen says:

    I get it with the SMT I have an ‘05 Toyota MR2 with an SMT and bought used, the transmission went out within 200 miles, got it replaced but thinking of doing the manual conversion

  • Bob Martin says:

    I found a cure for the demand of maintaining an XKE. I owned a 65 XKE series 1 for two years and it was a constant maintenance headache. Then I owned 77 Lotus Esprit for 14 years. It made me appreciate the rock-solid Jag

  • Johnathan Sievers says:

    My son had an M3 with the SMG. Thousands in pump repair costs and it still shifted like crap. It’s had to believe that BMW engineers found the performance of the system acceptable.

  • Woodrow says:

    To this day I feel declining the opportunity to purchase a ‘65 E-Type for use as my daily driver while in college is the single best decision I ever made…followed closely by the decision to marry my current wife. 😂

  • Orrin Cross says:

    I purchased my 64 E-type roadster at the factory in Sept. of 1963, so it is somewhat of a cross-breed (old gear box but everything else upgraded). I drove it for two years in Europe (no speed limits on the autobahns then), with no garage and makeshift snow tires. I drove all over Europe, chasing the races, competing in hill climbs, and then shipped it back to California in 1965, when I again drove it as my “daily driver.” The car is now 60 years old and still my only car. I am retired; but it is not. Yes, there were repairs along the way (fuel pump!) and at 185,000 miles I blew the engine (my fault) but had it rebuilt. After having the inside materials replaced and repainted with Golden Sand factory color, it looks like a car ready to show. It still gets the thumbs-up where ever I go from people of all ages. What a great investment for under $5,000 new, with factory hardtop, chrome wire wheels and am/fm radio. should have purchased two of them.

  • David Frank says:

    After 30 years of putting up with the Zenith carburetors on my Mercedes 230S I give up. I’m converting them to, uh, gasp) Webers. (With adapter plates for the original air cleaner so they don’t show)

  • paul s murray says:

    jjd1010 – My experience with the Pantera is limited to doing a simple carb rebuild on a 71. From what I understand the early models did have some poor build quality problems. While as you say there are numerous updates the problem is people do go to far in my opinion. I saw one about a year ago and when I pulled up next to it. Well, it looked like someone at some point had tried to GT-5 ish it out and had done so badly. It looked , in a word, shoddy. The 71 I mentioned had a Holley instead of the original Motorcraft but was cosmetically unmolested . I hope it stayed that way. The Pantera seems to be a car that way too many people feel they need to put there own spin on and often do, poorly. A small chin spoiler to prevent lift is one thing but staying away from the wings and things and buttons and bows as you have is the right way to go. Less is frequently more.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    Some issues can be overcome and some are part of the “charm” and you are stuck with it or you will modify the whole character of the car.

  • Charles Taverniti says:

    That’s exactly what I’m having trouble with,the cooling system,I need help, I’m not the best mechanic,but I love my 1973 Jaguar XKE ,it’s already been restored, mostly, beautiful car, right now setting in my garage , don’t want to cause damage to the engine,a V12 runs great just a few issues.

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