March 15th, 2021, represented 60 years since the majestic Jaguar E-Type debuted at the Geneva Motor Show; and transformed the British marque’s trajectory forever.
We all know what it looks like, and a lucky few know what it’s like to drive such a machine. But there’s a lot more to the story of the E-Type. And we’re going to tell it.
If you didn’t already know, Jaguar were a force to be reckoned with in the ’50s on almost any racetrack in the world; but especially Le Mans. Where it mattered.
Having entered in 1954 and run Ferrari incredibly close (but for an issue with fuel filters, they would likely have won the race), they returned in ’55, finished first and third, then came back in 1956 and 1957 to win again. In 1957, Jaguar D-Types finished first, second, third, fourth and sixth, Duncan Hamilton’s private entry only one lap away from completing a top five lockout and embarrassing Scuderia Ferrari.
The rules for the 24 hours of Le Mans changed in 1958, forcing the D-Type to retire from racing, but it had finished with the most glorious of highs. And just like the Ferrari GTOs that dominate classic car auctions globally, when a Jaguar D-Type goes up for auction, the world holds its collective breath; and watches on in anticipation.
But why am I telling you this?
Because the Jaguar D-Type didn’t just provide the majority of components for the exquisite Jaguar XKSS. It also lay the foundations for one of the most beautiful cars ever created. The Jaguar E-Type.
We’ve already covered the importance of 1957 in terms of the Jaguar D-Type’s stunning performance in Le Mans, but it was also the year that the British marque launched the XK150, successor to the XK140 which, in turn, had advanced the template laid down by the XK120.
Jaguar had a reputation for “Space, Grace and Pace”, an ethos laid down by Sir WIlliam Lyons and a phrase that was embodied in every Jaguar under his guidance; Jaguars were elegant, dynamic cars.
But the XK range had also grown bulkier with each new iteration of the name, embodying the “Space” attribute more than they’d have liked. And visually, the XK150 was barely evolutionary in comparison to its predecessors, never mind revolutionary.
When combined with Jaguar’s racing performances and it’s track-based reputation for speed and design boundary-pushing, something had to change.
And this was the answer. It doesn’t look much like an E-Type, does it? Or at least it looks more like a D-Type than anything else. Mind you, we’ve all got mates who look an awful lot more like their dad than their mum, the poor things; or the milkman, come to think of it… And the E2A is precisely the same.
Jaguar set about utilising the innovative D-Type design in a number of concepts, amongst which was a monocoque cockpit “tub”, aluminium body, disc brakes and the legendary, straight-six XK engine. A large number of design elements were also taken from lessons learned in the aviation industry by Malcolm Sayer, who joined Jaguar in 1950 after an extensive stint working for the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
First up was the E1A, a model that remained in-house for testing and was eventually scrapped. In 1958, the E2A was produced, but used an aluminium body mounted to a steel chassis. It was eventually converted, in 1960, to a racecar, which provided the opportunity to test the prototype on the track. Whilst it didn’t dominate like the D-Types, it gave the Jaguar team everything they needed to move forwards.
And move forwards they most certainly did. With so many constituents taken from Jaguar’s track cars, and perhaps seeking to distance the car from it’s XK siblings, Jaguar chose the name “E-Type”, despite its positioning as a road car.
But it also shared far more visually with both the track-focussed C & D-Types than any of its road-going predecessors. Malcolm Sayer had produced something deemed almost impossible previously; something practical, sleek, aerodynamic; and absolutely stunning.
Jaguar bosses knew instantly that they were onto a winner, allowing various British journalists an early test of the car so that, upon its debut in Geneva, the (inevitably) rave reviews could be published, building quickly on any momentum gained.
There was just one problem; they didn’t have enough cars.
Or rather, they’d loaned the cars they had to the press and didn’t have the time to transport them to Geneva.
So in true Jaguar fashion, PR executive Bob Perry drove one all the way from Coventry to Geneva, arriving twenty minutes before the cars unveiling. And such was the buzz upon its reveal, that Sir William Lyons then ordered test-driver Norman Dewis to drive another one through the night for the press & VIP launch, where he would go on to provide test-drives for the gathered media.
Despite the chaos in the build-up, however, when it debuted on the 15th March, 1961, the reception was nothing short of spectacular. And its easy to see why.
Jaguar had produced a car that could reach 150mph, accelerate from 0-60mph in 6.4 seconds and looked like the finest piece of renaissance, metallic sculpture, yet cost half of what you’d have paid for an Aston Martin DB4. It was a third of the price of a Ferrari 250GT.
On top of that, it came with fully independent rear suspension, four-wheel disc brakes and a body and chassis design that was only available on race-cars and exclusive, ultra-low volume sports cars.
It’s hard to think of a modern day comparison. Or exaggerate its impact.
The Series 1 E-Type debuted in both fastback coupé and roadster bodystyles, before a 2+2 fastback coupé was added to the lineup in 1966 and came with an optional automatic transmission. There were two engine variants of the same straight-six XK engine, either 3.8l or 4.2l, and whilst both gave similar power outputs and acceleration figures, the throttle responses were substantially different.
Between 1961 & 1968, 38,419 Jaguar E-Types were sold.
The Series 2 debuted in 1968 and most of its updates were for the American market, more specifically legislation requirements. The glass headlamp covers were removed, a wrap-around rear bumper added, the front indicators were enlarged and the tail lights re-positioned below the bumpers. The front grille was also enlarged and twin electric fans added to aid cooling.
18,809 were sold in total during a three year period.
In 1971, Jaguar debuted the third and final series of the Jaguar E-Type. Visually, it was distinguished by a longer wheelbase (the 2 seat fastback coupé was discontinued), large cross-hatched front grille, flared wheel arches, wider tyres and four exhaust tips; because it came exclusively with a V12 under the hood.
Once again, production only lasted three years, the last E-Types rolling off the line in June 1974, 15,287 in total having been built and sold.
It seems a slightly anti-climatic finish to the story of a wonderful car – two short generations of hurried updates – but in many ways, the unconventional ending was perfectly fitting for a car that never followed any rules; it set them.
The E-Type was, in an odd way, a car of the people; or at least a performance car almost within grasp for a surprising amount of “normal” people. And yet it was also the chosen mode of driving for all manner of celebrities ranging from Steve McQueen and Frank Sinatra to Brigitte Bardot and George Harrison.
It was a car that featured on the big and small screens, inspired all manner of replicas and, more importantly, challenged the established design of modern cars. It looked Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche in the eye and demanded that they raise their game or risk losing out; and raise their game they did.
The Jaguar E-Type was Jaguar at its peak, and though it went on to have further successes on and off the track, when the E-Type said goodbye to the world in 1974, Jaguar, and British car manufacturing, were heading slowly into decline.
Whilst some cars are over-praised, and though the Jaguar E-Type certainly has its faults, it rightfully deserves its title as one of the most important, and certainly most beautiful, cars ever made. If anything, the fault lies with Jaguar; evolve or die.
Irrespective, there’s no denying the outright appeal of a car that was just the third vehicle ever welcomed into MoMA’s hallowed halls, a car that, even to this day, inspires retro-mods and remakes. And a car that, in Enzo Ferrari’s words was the “most beautiful car in the world” when he first glimpsed it at Geneva in 1961.
Well I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as we enjoyed writing it. And if you did, be sure to subscribe below to avoid missing out on all the great stuff we have coming up in the next few months.