One vehicle that tops opinion polls as the most beautiful car in the world is undoubtedly the Jaguar E-type. Designed by aerodynamics expert Malcolm Sayer and Sir William Lyons, the car caused an immediate sensation when it was unveiled in 1961.
The Jaguar car company’s history dates back to 1922 when William Lyons and William Walmsley founded the Swallow Sidecar Company in Blackpool, Lancashire, Northwest England. In the mid- ’30s Lyons began to design motor carriages and roadsters. The line of automobiles were titled SS Jaguars (the SS acronym was dropped after it became associated with the Nazi military).
After the Second World War Lyons began development of new cars for the UK market, and his XK120 set a global standard in sports car development. The car debuted in 1948 to rave reviews. Under its hood was the XK engine, a 3.4 L L-6 that had an official output of 160 hp. The XK120 astonished the motor press with its sheer speed. The car could achieve 126 mph, but a test run without the windscreen had the car hitting 133 mph. The XK120’s price tag came to just £1,000 (minus taxes, of course).
The heart of the E-type was the same XK engine originally launched in the Jaguar XK120 back in 1948. The original XK engine developed 160bhp, and at the time made the XK120 the world’s fastest series production car. It went on to lead long life, and with each successive Jaguar launch it became more powerful: as the XK120 progressed to the XK150 by 1957, the engine had been stretched to keep each new variation as fast as its predecessor.
By 1960 the XK sports car line boasted the arrival of the new bored-out 3.8 liter, which pumped out 220bhp (SAE) and 265bhp (SAE) depending on which version you went for. The XK140 and XK150 had been criticized for their tendency to being fatter and heavier, so when the XK150′s production ceased in October 1960 the world waited to see what Jaguar could come up with as a replacement.
The team that would create the E-type was headed by William Heynes and the body was designed by Malcolm Sayer, a team whose C-type had won the Le Mans 24 hour race in both 1951 and 1953. Work commenced on the E-type in December 1956, and the first prototype was completed in May 1957 with the official title of “E-type 1 Aluminum”, or E1A. The E1A was smaller than the production E-type at 14ft 2in in length, but still larger than the D-type. Its construction was largely derived from the D and featured a central monocoque tub. However, it differed in its use of a new independent rear suspension system.
The E1A was powered by the short-block 2.4-litre XK engine originally developed for the 1955 Jaguar Mk1. It was extensively tested by Jaguar’s team of drivers and in May 1958 Heynes lent it to Christopher Jennings (editor of The Motor magazine) for an independent appraisal. Jennings was impressed by the car’s ability to cover distances rapidly, even with just 120bhp. By then Jaguar had built a second E-type prototype which more closely resembled the production model; the car gradually evolved during 1958, and it was planned to unveil the E-type at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show.
Around 7pm on Tuesday 14 March 1961, Bob Berry of Jaguar’s PR department left Browns Lane, Coventry in a fixed head E-type and drove virtually flat out through the night. Arriving in Geneva, he drove to the local Jaguar distributor for a 20-minute wash and polish before heading to the Parc des Eaux Vives for the public unveiling. Surrounded by up to 200 members of the press, the 9600HP caused a sensation and so did the price. At £2097 for the roadster and £2196 for the FHC it was cheaper than similar machines from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Chevrolet. In fact the E-types initially sold at a cheaper price than the outgoing XK150.
The main criticisms of the E-type were the seating, the high oil consumption, lack of space, poor braking and the aging Moss gearbox which lacked synchromesh on first gear; a sign that the E-type was not perfect was exposed by the Ford Cortina launched in September 1962- unlike the Coventry car, the Cortina had synchromesh on the bottom gear.
The E-type was also launched at a time when the UK motor industry was coming out recession and bedeviled by unofficial strikes, with BMC particularly afflicted. The new Jaguar was an instant hit, and the company hoped to ramp up production to 150 per week by the Autumn of 1961. However disputes at Smiths industries and SU Carburetors, suppliers to the Coventry company, restricted production to 2,160 E-types in 1961: in early 1962 a series of internal industrial disputes again paralyzed production for a large American order, but they still produced 6,266 E-types in 1962.
In Britain a large scale highway building program was already underway and similar programs were being undertaken across the western world. In an era when Britain’s best selling cars, the BMC 1100 and Ford Cortina, struggled to exceed 70mph a 150mph E-type chewed up the miles on Britain’s new motorway system.
All cars exported to the USA after 1974 had to have rubber bumper overriders which added weight and distorted the cars appearance, and there were more restrictive American safety regulations on the way for 1976. The E-type’s boot mounted petrol tank could not meet the mandatory 30mph rearward barrier crash test and demand in the USA virtually evaporated: only 2759 E-types were manufactured in 1974, the last emerging in the week ending 14 September 1974.
The E-type was ultimately doomed by American regulations and customer expectations that the car simply could not deliver. In 1974 the American Road & Track magazine tested a Series 3 V12 and commented: ‘What was such a magnificent engine doing in such an outdated body?’
The final E-type and last of 72,233 cars, registered HDU 555N was retained by Jaguar. Since there were so many unsold cars at dealers, the company delayed announcing the end of E-type production until February 1975.
The Jaguar E-type left an enduring legacy which enabled people to forget its faults; it had been magnificent in its 1960s heyday, but in the 1970s world of speed restrictions motorists wanted comfort and sadly the E-type had to go.
Jaguar E-type development history
Riding Eternity: The Jaguar E-Type and Its Place in Auto History
Eagle E-Types – the world’s finest E-Type Jaguars for sale