Sophisticated, glamorous, gorgeous, and fast, this car is on everybody’s short list of the greatest cars of all time. Its flaws are well documented, but there are few automobiles that still command more loyalty or more all-out lust. This week, we examine the history of that favorite sixties icon: the 1961-1975 Jaguar E-type.
THE GLAMOROUS LIFE OF JAGUAR
We’re going to start off by saying something mildly heretical: If we were going to own a vintage Jaguar, it probably wouldn’t be an E-type. It’s not because it isn’t lovely (because it is), nor because good ones are very expensive (although they are), nor even because it has a well-deserved reputation as a finicky and cantankerous house guest (which it does). No, the problem is much simpler than that: The Jaguar E-type is so pretty that there’s no way we could drive one, let alone own one, without feeling like a prat. Steve McQueen could have pulled it off (although McQueen favored the E-type’s rawer, less-practical ancestor, the XK-SS), as could Catherine Deneuve or Faye Dunaway, but the rest of us … not so much. The E-type is out of our league and, given how it treats its owners, it probably knows it. We know our limitations, so we would take one of the saloons, perhaps a Mk 2 3.8. Less pretty and less nimble it might be, but we suspect it would provoke fewer derisive snickers from passers by.
That is, of course, precisely the reaction Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons hoped the E-type would provoke. The main reason Jaguar offered sports cars at all was to drive interest in the sedans, which were the Coventry firm’s bread and butter. Even the fabulous XK120 was never intended for mass production; Jaguar originally planned only about 200 copies of the car that dazzled the crowds at Earls Court in the fall of 1948. It would hardly be fair to characterize Jaguar’s interest in sports cars as a sideline — after all, the company won Le Mans five times — but the sedans were always Lyons’ primary focus.
A brief sketch of William Lyons will explain a great deal (both good and bad) about Jaguar’s cars. We briefly discussed his background in in our article on the XK120, but we didn’t say much about the man himself. Sir William — Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1956, after Jaguar’s fourth Le Mans victory — was by all accounts a refined and dignified gentleman of the old school. We can summarize his other key attributes as follows:
- He was an exceptionally savvy businessman.
- He had a fine eye for both style and talent.
- He was a world-class cheapskate, rivaling even the notoriously penurious Henry Ford.
A staunch reluctance to never buy for a shilling or a quarter what may be had for sixpence or a dime is by no means rare among the wealthy and successful, perhaps because it supports the (often fictive) notion that their wealth and position were achieved through determined effort rather than fortuitous accident of birth. However, even a casual reading of Sir William’s life reveals him as no mere amateur skinflint. Stories of his determined grip on his pennies — in his personal life as well as his business — have become legendary.
Inevitably, it was this avocation for penny-pinching, as much as Sir William’s impeccable aesthetic sense, that gave Jaguar cars their unique character. Jaguars were, with few exceptions, exceptionally stylish, quite fast, and lavishly appointed, which made them eminently desirable to all but the most reactionary. At least in their home market, they were also very keenly priced, particularly considering their impressive mechanical specifications. Unfortunately, proud new owners soon discovered that consumables (such as wiper blades) and minor parts (such as electrical components and rubber gaskets or seals) were often disconcertingly flimsy and/or distressingly short-lived. Individually, these problems might be no worse than minor annoyances (what matter wiper blades in an expensive sports car?), but over time or upon closer examination, the list grew long indeed.
When now-exasperated Jaguar owners (or, more likely, their long-suffering mechanics) set about trying to rectify these shortcomings, their dismay was compounded by another unhappy realization: that Jaguar’s very talented designers and engineers apparently had not given much thought to the idea that someone might one day need to access these parts for maintenance and repair — or that one might prefer being able to do so without having to disassemble half the bloody car in the process. Such workaday headaches were of course separate from any actual design flaws, of which each Jaguar had its share.
Even in its heyday, Jaguar’s foibles were well known. American buyers, who tended to demand more in the way of appliance-like reliability than their British counterparts, were sometimes put off, but for the most part, those weaknesses did little to dampen buyer enthusiasm. If anything, they became part of the mystique.
Ahh, yes, the mystique. Did we mention that during Sir William’s reign, Jaguar won Le Mans — not simply a class victory or other such obfuscation, but first place overall — five times? They did: in 1951, 1953, 1955 (albeit under regrettable circumstances), 1956, and 1957.
That was an era where the gap between racing cars and street cars was not nearly as vast as it later became, when was still possible to buy a moderately civilized sports racer that could be driven to the track with a good chance of winning and then be driven home. This is not to say that a stock XK120 was ready for the Mulsanne Straight, but the gap was narrower than you might expect. In fact, three more-or-less stock XK120s made a fine showing at Le Mans in 1950, suggesting that specialized racing versions would be extremely competitive.
After Le Mans, William Lyons, with considerable prodding from chief engineer Bill Heynes and service manager Frank “Lofty” England, decided to develop a new version of the XK120 specifically to compete in that prestigious endurance race. Jaguar thus embarked on what would prove to be a glorious racing career.
It was clear early on that the traditional means of improving performance — reducing weight and adding power — were not going to be enough to carry the Jaguar to victory at Le Mans. Bill Heynes could and did extract more horsepower from the XK120’s DOHC six, but for endurance racing, durability was as important as outright power. Furthermore, light weight and high power did not necessarily provide high-speed stability. What the XK120 really needed was better aerodynamics.
In 1950, William Lyons hired Malcolm Sayer, formerly an engineer with the Bristol Aeroplane Company, as Jaguar’s Director of Design. Sayer, who always described himself not as a designer, but an aerodynamicist, set about applying the engineering skills he’d learned at Bristol during the war to the task of winning Le Mans.
C, D, and X
The first fruit of Sayer’s labors was the C-type. Officially known as XK120-C, implying a competition version of the XK120, it ended up rather different from the stock car, featuring space-frame construction rather than a platform frame. There was also a new rear suspension, using tubular shock absorbers and transverse torsion bar springs rather than the street car’s leaf springs and lever-action dampers. Clad in lightweight, streamlined aluminum body panels, the C-type had only a single door and the most minimal windscreen. As a result, it had around 20% less drag than its road-going sibling, making it capable of speeds on the order of 145 mph (234 km/h).
The first three C-types were completed in May 1951 and one of them, driven by Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead, won Le Mans that June. Jaguar attempted an encore the following year, but the revamped C-types, with more radically aerodynamic bodywork, proved unstable at speed and were hampered by engine overheating. The result was an embarrassing DNF (Did Not Finish). In 1953, the C-types reverted to their original shape, but traded their over-matched drum brakes for new Dunlop discs, which proved a far more successful combination. On June 14, 1953, Jaguar’s publicity department sent a telegram to the Queen, announcing that Jaguar had scored its second Le Mans victory.
Although the ’52 C-type body had been a failure, Malcolm Sayer had not stopped working on a more aerodynamic shape for the racers, which resulted in the 1954 D-Type. Smaller and sleeker than the C-Type, the D-type was structurally quite different, discarding the space frame for an aluminum monocoque, far more like an aircraft than a car. The engine and front suspension were carried on a separate aluminum space frame, welded to the cowl and clad with stressed aluminum panels. Its most notable feature was a prominent vertical fin behind the driver’s head, for better stability at speed.
With more power and much better aerodynamics, the D-type was scorchingly fast, taking second place at Le Mans in 1954. The D-type made another strong showing in 1955, but that race was marred by tragedy. First, William Lyons’ son, John Lyons, died in a crash on the way to the track. Then, during the race, a collision caused Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh’s car to flip into the air, sending its engine and debris into the crowd; Levegh and more than 80 spectators were killed. The crash prompted Mercedes-Benz to withdraw, so Jaguar won the race almost by default. Nonetheless, the sad circumstances prompted Lyons to dissolve the factory team.
Although Jaguar officially withdrew from competition after that, Malcolm Sayer and Bill Heynes continued to develop aerodynamic and performance improvements to support private racing teams. The Scottish privateers Ecurie Ecosse, who became Jaguar’s unofficial factory team after the 1955 season, took Le Mans in 1956 and 1957, allowing Jaguar to tie Bentley’s five-victory streak of the late 1920s.
The D-type Jaguar could be driven on the street, although it was neither very practical nor particularly comfortable. Production was naturally quite limited. Since they were very expensive — the D-Type listed for £1,895 FOB and ran to nearly £2,700 with purchase tax (around $10,000 U.S. at the time) — Jaguar built only 68 D-types and managed to sell only 43 of those. To use up the unsold stock, Jaguar developed a spin-off called the XK-SS, using the D-type’s monocoque tub, engine, and suspension, shorn of its prominent dorsal fin and fitted with a modicum of interior trim. Ostensibly a street car, the XK-SS’s real purpose was to homologate the type for Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) road racing. Only 16 were built before a fire at the factory destroyed the production tooling. Jaguar decided that resuming production was not worth the cost, making survivors very rare and very valuable today.
Aside from generating favorable press notices, the racing cars served as testbeds for technology later used in production Jaguars. In 1955, the compact Mk 1 sedan became Jaguar’s first unit-body production car, albeit in steel and a good deal stouter than its racing cousins. The C-type’s Dunlop disc brakes became available on the Mk 1 and the XK150 sports car in 1957 and were added to the big Mk IX sedans the following year. Many of the engine improvements developed for competition also found their way into the production cars.
Although 1957 was Jaguar’s last hurrah at Le Mans, the firm was still looking for an eventual replacement for the XK sports cars. The XK150, produced from 1957 through 1961, had addressed many of the weaknesses of the XK120, but had lost much of the original’s glamor and was starting to feel old. Simply re-skinning the existing chassis yet again was not an inspiring idea; the time had come for something new.
The first prototype of the XK’s successor appeared in late 1957. Dubbed E1A, it was structurally similar to the D-Type, with a monocoque shell and forward subframe, although its overall dimensions were somewhat larger. More importantly, the E1A was the testbed for an entirely new rear suspension.
Up to that point, all Jaguars, including the race cars, had used live axles; Jaguar had only switched to independent front suspension in 1949. The live axle was sturdy enough, but as the engines grew more powerful, keeping that axle under control became a problem — particularly on the sedans, which, unlike the race cars, could not resort to rock-hard springs and dampers. The factory had toyed briefly with a De Dion layout (described in our story on the Rover P6), but the results were evidently not encouraging. By 1957, Bill Heynes decided that a true independent rear suspension was the better option.
Independent suspensions offer a number of advantages for both ride and handling. The independent suspensions of that era, however, particularly the simple swing axles used by Volkswagen, Mercedes, and the early Chevrolet Corvair, among others, also had some unpleasant vices. Jaguar wanted none of this; vicious suspension behavior was bad enough on the track, where high cornering speeds were at least matched with greater driver skill, but it was hardly acceptable for the luxury sedans for which the new suspension was eventually bound.
The suspension that Jaguar engineer Robert Knight developed for this purpose used the axle halfshafts as upper control arms (as in a swing-axle car), but added separate lower control arms and used a pair of longitudinal trailing arms to transmit acceleration and braking forces. There was also a rear anti-roll bar. More unusually, there were four coil-over shock absorbers, two ahead of each lower control arm, two behind. We’ve heard several explanations for this unusual set-up, but to our understanding, it was primarily motivated by the desire to provide adequate damping with minimal wheel travel, so as to limit rear camber changes. The entire assembly was carried in a complex subframe, which was bolted to the body through rubber-isolated mounts. The subframe also carried the rear disc brakes, which were mounted inboard to reduce unsprung weight.
Remarkably, Bob Knight developed this complex layout in less than 30 days — not to meet any production deadline, but simply to win a £5 wager with Sir William that it couldn’t be done. This suspension, which Jaguar used (with some modifications) well into the 1990s, had many advantages and a number of drawbacks. On the plus side, it allowed the use of softer springs without compromising wheel control and dramatically reduced unsprung weight, improving both handling and ride quality. There were a variety of downsides, but from a dynamic standpoint, the worst centered on the subframe’s rubber mounts, whose deflection could cause unwanted oversteer and annoying rear-end wander, particularly as the rubber became worn. Still, Knight’s rear suspension was an extremely sophisticated design for its time and on balance worked very well.
The early E1A prototype spawned the bigger E2A, which was powered by a highly tuned 2,997 cc (181 cu. in.) version of the XK engine. In 1960, Jaguar gave the prototype to Briggs Cunningham’s racing team for another stab at Le Mans, but the weary development mule was not up to the task and the result was another DNF. Many had hoped it heralded Jaguar’s return to motorsport, but it was not to be.
The E2A presaged the form of the production car, which was known as the Jaguar E-type to suggest its continuity with the C-type and D-type race cars. (Jaguar marketing literature occasionally used the designation XKE, but the factory did not call it that in shop manuals or other documentation and the term raises the hackles of purists today.) As you would expect, the E-type bore a strong resemblance to the D-type in both appearance and concept.
Unlike the earliest XK120s, the E-type had a steel body, built by Pressed Steel Ltd. The body itself was a monocoque, with fat full-length sills and a prominent driveshaft tunnel for greater rigidity. To this monocoque shell were bolted the rear suspension subframe and the forward space frame, which carried the engine and front suspension. Unlike the D-type, the forward space frame was now steel, using square-section tubes of Reynolds 531 steel (more commonly found in high-end bicycles) that were furnace-brazed together rather than welded.
The E-type’s engine was the same 3,781 cc (231 cu. in.) six introduced on the final XK150s, with three S.U. HS8 carburetors and a rather optimistic 265 hp (198 kW) gross rating. (Various sources suggest net ratings between 180 and 228 hp (134 and 167 kW), a point obfuscated by the fact that many of the cars Jaguar released to the press had noticeably more power than the standard tune.) To this engine was linked, sadly, the XK’s familiar and cumbersome Moss four-speed gearbox, still lacking a synchronized low gear and no more pleasant to use than it had been on earlier Jaguars.
The E-type’s specifications were impressive for its time — dual overhead cams, fully independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes — but they were totally overshadowed by its startling good looks. We will cautiously suggest that it was not quite as jaw-droppingly voluptuous as the XK-SS, but the E-type was a true road car, which the fragile, aluminum-bodied SS really was not. The only production cars of the time that were even in the same league were true exotics like Aston Martin and Ferrari.
The E-type’s performance was in keeping with its exotic looks. In March 1961, The Motor famously clocked an early fixed-head coupé at 150 mph (242 km/h), which a few years earlier would have been a respectable velocity for a pure racing car. Admittedly, their test car was not exactly stock, but any E-type in reasonable tune could do at least 135 mph (217 km/h), still very lofty territory at the time. Acceleration was similarly formidable, with 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 7 seconds. If these figures do not impress today, it must be remembered that at the time, the typical British sedan needed at least twice that time to reach 60 mph and was hard-pressed to exceed 90 mph (145 km/h).
The E-type handled exceptionally well too, with sharp steering, excellent body control, and respectable grip. Thanks to the new rear suspension, its agility was also matched with a relatively supple ride. Brakes were at least adequate, which was definitely not the case with many of its contemporaries. In all, the Jaguar E-type was perhaps the most well-rounded sports car of its generation.
THE NEW SENSATION
The E-type made its public debut at the Geneva auto show in March 1961. Its effect was galvanic, particularly for Britons. It was gorgeous, it was fast, and it had an enticing price tag. The E-type was actually cheaper than the XK150, with roadsters starting at £2,098 (with purchase tax), the fixed-head coupé at £2,196. (In the U.S., the roadster started at $5,595, the coupe $300 more.) That is the equivalent of around $40,000 adjusted for inflation, which put the E-Type within the reach of upper-middle-class buyers for whom an Aston Martin DB4 or a Ferrari 250 would only ever be a daydream. For Great Britain, which had just opened its first modern motorway in 1959 and still had no national speed limits, the E-type seemed to herald the dawn of an exciting new era.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the E-type’s flaws to make themselves known. Getting in and out over the intrusive sills was not a graceful operation, particularly in the low-slung coupe. Once you were inside, the early cars were desperately short of legroom, the seats were miserable, and ventilation was hopelessly inadequate. While fuel economy was quite good — up to 22 mpg U.S. (26.4 mpg in Imperial figures, 10.7 L/100 km) — the engine could ping on even super-premium fuel if it was in less-than-perfect tune. Oil consumption could be positively alarming; the factory regarded 500-800 miles per quart (800 to 1,300 km/L) as normal. The aerodynamic headlight covers looked good, but hampered the lights’ range. The brake booster was erratic and the best that could be said of the Moss four-speed transmission was that the engine’s torque obviated the need for frequent shifting. Moreover, like all Jaguars, flawless mechanical reliability was not among the E-type’s strengths.
The factory addressed some of these problems — the seats, the legroom, the transmission — while others dogged the E-type throughout its run, but it never really seemed to matter. Demand wildly outpaced Jaguar’s ability to build the new car. In short order, there were lengthy waiting lists. Jaguar sold more than 12,000 E-types through 1963, but the car’s popularity is best revealed not by the sales figures, but by the fact that the factory turned down several offers to feature the E-type in film and television, because they didn’t need any additional publicity! (Contrary to legend, that was not why Roger Moore’s Simon Templar ended up driving a Volvo P1800 in the ITC version of The Saint; the producers of the series did try to obtain a Jaguar for the show, but they were after the new Mark X sedan, not the E-type.) More important to the factory were the brisk sales of the saloons, stimulated in no small way by the E-type’s popularity.
THE AMERICAN WAY
The Jaguar E-type sold even better in the U.S., where there were far more customers who could afford such a car. This popularity proved a mixed blessing, however, because it brought with it greater pressure to conform to American tastes.
The first reflection of the American influence was the introduction of a bigger engine in 1964. Based on the familiar XK engine, it had re-spaced cylinder bores that allowed it to be bored from 3,781 cc (231 cu. in.) to 4,235 cc (258 cu. in.). The 4.2 had about 10% more torque than before, making it better suited for lugging in American-style traffic, but was less eager to rev than was the 3.8-liter engine. The 4.2’s lower redline also reduced top speed: Maximum speed with the standard 3.31 axle was now about 128 mph (205 km/h) and sustained cruising at engine speeds over 5,000 rpm (116 mph/187 km/h with stock tires) was dicey.
Whether the 4.2 was a worthwhile trade-off in the E-type is still a matter of some debate among fans, particularly since the 3.8 had never lacked for torque. However, even if the E-type didn’t need the extra torque, the bigger S-type and Mark X saloons certainly did, particularly with automatic transmission. By 1967, Jaguar had phased out the 3.8 across the board.
Even if the engine itself was of dubious benefit, the 4.2-equipped cars had a number of more worthwhile improvements. One was the long-awaited replacement of the unloved Moss gearbox with a far more pleasant fully synchronized four-speed and an easier-to-manage clutch. (The Laycock de Normanville overdrive optional on other Jags would have been a welcome addition, but as far as we know, it was never offered.) The 4.2 also substituted an alternator for the generator, added a much better brake servo, and implemented various measures aimed at reducing the engine’s thirst for oil. Still, many buyers would probably have been content to take the new transmission and other improvements with the earlier 3.8-liter engine.
Another controversial step, again influenced by the demands of the U.S. market, was the introduction of a long-wheelbase 2+2 model, announced at the Geneva show in March 1966. If you believed Jaguar’s advertisements, the 2+2 made the E-type into something like a family car, with child-size rear seats. The longer wheelbase also allowed the installation of an automatic transmission, which had definite appeal to U.S. buyers, even though the Borg-Warner Model 8 was inferior to American automatics of newer design. The 2+2’s greater length and more bulbous tail came perilously close to spoiling its proportions and its greater weight sapped its performance. It nonetheless sold quite well and all E-types would eventually adopt its longer wheelbase.
THE AGING ICON
As beautiful as it was, the Jaguar E-type did not age gracefully. It lost its sleek headlamp covers in July 1967 (not entirely a bad thing, given their effect on headlight range) and the following year’s Series II models had a host of minor modifications to meet U.S. safety regulations, including new bumpers and a larger air intake to provide for the newly optional air conditioning. Many fans wince at these changes, although we think saying that they spoiled the E-type’s appearance is like calling a beautiful woman ugly because you don’t like her shoes.
Where the rot really was really setting in was under the hood. America’s first federal emissions standards went into effect in 1968. By that time, the Jaguar’s XK engine was 20 years old, and smog control had never been part of its design brief. Federalizing it made for a rather lazy cat; U.S.-bound Series II E-Types were optimistically rated at 246 gross horsepower (184 kW), but the net rating was a less-impressive 171 hp (128 kW). The Series II was heavier than before, too, which took its toll on performance. The bulkier 2+2, saddled with automatic transmission, power steering, and air conditioning, was no longer in the Supercar class.
In the late sixties, Jaguar had ambitious plans to replace the E-type with not one but two new models: a smaller 2+2, known internally as the XJ17, and a direct successor, known internally as XJ21. Both would replace the venerable XK six with a new family of V-8 and V-12 engines.
Jaguar had been toying with the idea of a V-12 since at least 1954. While six-cylinder engines were fine for the British and European markets, they left Jaguar at a disadvantage in the U.S., where cars with fewer than eight cylinders were considered economy models. The early V-12 concepts were basically two XK sixes sharing a common crankcase, but this proved impractical. The eventual production V-12, designed by Walter Hassan, abandoned the XK’s long-stroke design, DOHC head, and hemispherical combustion chambers for a short-stroke, SOHC layout, with dished pistons and flat, Heron-type heads. The V-12 had a displacement of 5,343 cc (326 cu. in.). It was about 3 inches (76 mm) longer than the XK six and about 75 lb (34 kg) heavier.
The planned V-8 engine was to be a straightforward derivative of the V-12, displacing about 3.6 L (217 cu. in.). Although Jaguar had high hopes that it would eventually replace the 4.2 L six, the V-8 never worked satisfactorily, in part because it shared the V12’s 60-degree cylinder angle rather than the 90-degree angle customary for V-8s. The resultant vibration problems were mitigated with twin balance shafts, but Jaguar remained unsatisfied with its sound and feel and finally canceled the project in 1971; Bill Heynes refused to even release photographs of the test engines.
The V-12 was originally slated for the XJ sedan, but the engine’s development proved protracted and troublesome. Although the first development engines ran on test stands in August 1964, the V-12 was still not ready by the time of the XJ’s debut in September 1968. The XJ bowed instead with the familiar XK six and the planned V-12 version was put on hold.
At Heynes’ suggestion, Jaguar decided to offer the V-12 first in the E-type, allowing Jaguar to gain useful production experience with the new engine before installing it in the flagship saloon. The V-12 E-type, known as Series III, was supposed to debut in 1970, bridging the gap between the Series II and the E-type’s intended successors.
Unfortunately, these plans badly strained Jaguar’s resources, particularly in the wake of the 1968 merger with British Leyland. The Series III was delayed by almost a year and the XJ21 was canceled entirely. In its place, Jaguar developed the XJ27, a coupe based on the XJ4 sedan platform, although even that was stymied by the unexpected death of Malcolm Sayer in 1970. It did not emerge (as the Jaguar XJ-S) until 1975. The XJ12 sedan, meanwhile, didn’t appear until July 1972, nearly four years behind schedule, and the aging E-type was left to soldier on.
The Series III was still clearly an E-type, but there were many obvious differences, including a wider track and a much bigger air intake, now covered by a chrome grille. All Series III models now rode the longer wheelbase of the previous 2+2, allowing Jaguar to offer automatic transmission across the line. To cope with the extra weight and power of the big engine, there were various improvements to the E-type’s suspension, tires, brakes, and steering; power assistance for the latter was now standard.
Unlike its predecessor a decade earlier, the Series III inspired no great hosannas when it debuted at the Geneva show in March 1971. The big V-12 endowed the E-type with effortless acceleration, even with automatic, but it was no faster than its Series I predecessors and was substantially thirstier. Despite its power, the Series III was saddled with at least 600 lb (272 kg) more weight than the Series I and was nose-heavy to boot.
The price was up, too, to £3,369 for the 2+2 coupe, around $7,400 in the U.S. That was still much cheaper than exotic rivals like the Lamborghini Miura or Ferrari 365GT, but the E-type’s performance was not in their league. The new E-type sold well, all things considered, but there were no more waiting lists. Critical response was generally harsh.
The E-type’s final years were painful in other ways as well. British Leyland had seemingly endless confrontations with its workforce throughout the seventies, resulting in repeated strikes. Sir William Lyons retired in 1972 and his successor, Lofty England, was forced into retirement barely two years later. Without the formidable Sir William to protect it, Jaguar was left at the mercy of the struggling and not always sympathetic British Leyland bureaucracy. Technical director (and subsequently managing director) Bob Knight later alleged that British Leyland management siphoned off Jaguar’s profits to feed other, weaker parts of the BLMC empire. Then the 1973 OPEC oil embargo nearly destroyed the market for big, thirsty cars, leaving dealers struggling to move their stocks of unsold E-types.
Even without the OPEC embargo and the ensuing energy crisis, the E-type was well past its prime. The world had moved on; Great Britain had speed limits by the seventies, as did every U.S. state. Roads where you could give a 140 mph (225 km/h) sports car its head were few and far between by then, and day-to-day comfort was becoming considerably more important than raw performance.
Shortly before his retirement, England ordered the E-type’s cancellation. Production actually ended in September 1974, but Jaguar didn’t announce the termination until February 1975, fearing it would make it that much harder for dealers to clear unsold stock. The XJ-S was nearly ready by then — it debuted that September — and in any case, the E-type could not meet the next round of American safety standards. When the line finally ended, it was more merciful than tragic.
Jaguar never really offered a direct replacement for the E-type. The eccentric-looking XJ-S was (and was intended to be) a quite different animal, a posh luxury cruiser aimed at a wealthier (and likely older and more sedate) customer. Plans for an F-type have popped up periodically for more than three decades, but subsequent Jaguar coupes have all been luxury tourers in the mold of the XJS. Jaguar’s most serious stab at a genuine sports car was the toweringly expensive, short-lived XJ220 of the early nineties, which was not a success. [Author’s note: The F-type finally debuted in 2013, almost four years after this story was originally written.]
There’s much to mourn about the demise of the Jaguar E-type. There have been many sports cars and GTs since then, many of them faster, more reliable (admittedly not difficult to be), and more practical, but none more desirable. None has ever really aroused the same covetousness that the E-type still provokes.
Part of the problem is that the racing world has moved on, too. The E-type owed much of its glamor to the fact that it was a modernized street version of the car that won Le Mans. Today, sport racers like the D-type are long obsolete in most forms of motorsport; most serious racers today bear only the broadest cosmetic resemblance to their civilian counterparts. Without that genuine racing connection, sports cars inevitably suffer what the aviation industry calls “mission creep”: They get bigger, they sprout more convenience features; weight climbs, and the only way to maintain performance is bigger engines, which require bigger fuel tanks and yet more weight. Before long, you have a numb and bloated two-door luxury sedan whose only claims to sportiness are an illustrious badge and styling cues cribbed from the icons of the past.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. There’s a school of thought that says the only performance that’s important is the bottom line; if it sells, it must be good. However, we still cling to the unfashionable notion that there are meaningful values beyond profit margins and market share — values like beauty, character, pride, and elegance of design. Measured in those terms, the E-type still ranks among the best.
As we said at the beginning, we don’t aspire to E-type ownership, but we don’t question why so many others still do. If you’re an E-type owner, you seldom have any illusions about the car’s faults, but you indulge its idiosyncrasies for the simplest of reasons: they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included Ken Adams’ voluminous history of BLMC, “Formation of an Empire: BMC is created,” AROnline, 18 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 13 October 2009; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “Jaguar C-Type,” HowStuffWorks.com, 4 September 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ jaguar-c-type.htm, accessed 5 October 2009, “Jaguar D-Type,” HowStuffWorks.com, 4 September 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ jaguar-d-type.htm, accessed 6 October 2009, and “Jaguar XKE History,” HowStuffWorks.com, 5 September 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ jaguar-xke-history.htm, accessed 5 October 2009; “Auto Test: Jaguar E-Type Series III 2+2 vee-12: New Wine in Old Bottle,” Autocar 15 Nov. 1971, reprinted in Jaguar E-Type 1971-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1976), pp. 38-42; “Auto Test: Jaguar E-Type V12 Roadster: More new wine wine in old bottle,” Autocar 5 July 1973, reprinted in Jaguar E-Type 1971-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1976), pp. 76-77; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1961-75 Jaguar E-Type,” Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998), pp. 286-291; Martin Buckley, Jaguar: Fifty Years of Speed and Style (Haynes Classic Makes) (Sparkford, Somerset: Haynes Publishing, 1998); former Jaguar engineer Roger Bywater’s “The technical history of the Jaguar V12 engine,” Jaguar World, 1997 www.jagweb. com, accessed 5 October 2009); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Jim Donnelly, “Visionaries: Malcolm Sayer,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #67 (March 2011), p. 64; “Jaguar E-Type V-12,” Car and Driver Oct 1972, reprinted in Jaguar E-Type 1971-1975, ed. R.M. Clarke (Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1976), pp. 65-67, 85; “Jaguar XK-E 4.2,” Car and Driver Vol. 10, No. 8 (February 1965), pp. 25-29); “Jaguar XKE – Most Overrated? Corvette Sting Ray – Just a Plastic Chevy?” Road Test May 1965, reprinted in Corvette Stingray, 1963-1967 (Gold Portfolio), ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990); David Lachance, “No Regrets,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #67 (March 2011), pp. 24–27; Pete Lyons, “Jaguar’s Glorious E-Type,” Car and Driver Vol. 35, No. 12 (June 1990), pp. 131–137; Mark J. McCourt, “Living Up to the Legend,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #67 (March 2011), pp. 18–23; Ian Nicholls’ splendid articles “Quantum Leap: Jaguar E-Type,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 13 October 2009, “Jaguar XJ-S: A brave new direction,” AROnline, 19 September 2008, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 13 October 2009, and “Jaguar XJ21: The missing link,” AROnline, 15 November 2009, www.aronline. co.uk, accessed 3 April 2011; Philip Porter, The Jaguar Scrapbook (Sparkford, Somerset: Haynes Publishing, 1989); Cyril Posthumus, “New Jaguar E-Type V-12,” Road & Track, May 1971 (Vol. 22, No. 9), pp. 26-31; “Road Research Report: Jaguar XK-E,” Car and Driver Vol. 7, No. 6 (December 1961), pp. 30-35, 84-88; LJK Setright, “A Cat may look at a King,” Car and Driver Vol. 24, No. 4 (February 1979), p. 110; the WebCars! guide to the E-Type, www.web-cars. com/ e-type/, 2007, accessed 5 October 2009); and “William Lyons biography,” Jag-Lovers, n.d., www.jag-lovers. org, accessed 5 October 2009.
We clarified the oft-repeated story about Jaguar not providing an E-type for ITC based on emails dated 18 April 2011 from a Saint fan (who asked not to be named) who has discussed the matter with both actor Roger Moore and Saint producers Bob Baker and John Goodman.
Historical exchange rates for the dollar to the pound came from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 British Pound, 1948-2007” (2007, University of British Columbia, fx.sauder.ubc. ca), and Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies,” MeasuringWorth, 2009, https://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission. Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of British and U.S. currency at the time, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are listed separately. Inflation estimates were calculated using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator, data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl. All such figures are approximate and are provided for informational purposes only; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on the historical value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!