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The Rearview Mirror: The Birth of an Icon — the Jaguar E-Type

Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons with an E-Type at his home, Wappenbury Hall.

It was March 15, 1961, 62 years ago this week, when Jaguar introduced its replacement for the long-in-the-tooth XK-150 at the Geneva International Motor Show.

Dubbed the E-Type, or XK-E as it was known in North America, it was a success from the start, one that would live on through three generations. 

But it almost didn’t happen.

Last minute hiccups and a mad dash to Geneva

Jaguar’s founder, William Lyons had scheduled the E-Type Coupe to debut for journalists at the Restaurant Hotel du Parc near Lake Geneva. But there was a problem.

The company showed the new coupe to magazine journalists with early deadlines, leading to delays in preparing the E-Type Coupe for the auto show. Too late to be shipped, public relations manager Bob Berry decided to drive the E-Type in a mad dash some 700 miles from Jaguar’s headquarters in Coventry, England to Geneva.

After Berry took the midnight ferry from Dover, he averaged 70 mph, navigating any number of hazards, including thick fog through much of France. But Berry successfully reached Geneva 20 minutes before the Jaguar E-Type’s planned unveiling.

The Jaguar E-Type was the second car added to the Museum of Modern Art’s automobile collection.

The car, still fresh from its run, desperately needed to be wiped down. According to The New York Times, Lyons said, “Good God, Berry, I thought you weren’t going to get here.”

But Berry isn’t the only Jaguar employee to make the mad dash from the British Midlands to Geneva. Lyons wasn’t going to show both the coupe and convertible, but changed his mind. So it was left to Jaguar’s test driver Norman Dewis to attempt the same drive, which he did in half the time it took Berry.

Telephoning Dewis, Lyons said, “Drop everything. Bring the open-top E-Type here immediately.”

But the drives proved worth it; Jaguar received 500 orders for the new sports car. Prices were set at $5,595 for the drophead coupe and $5,895 for the fixed-head coupe.

A car with a long gestation

Jaguar E-Types being built at Jaguar’s factory in the British Midlands.

The heart of the E-Type, its engine, an inline-6-cylinder, was born during World War II, when Lyons and engineers, William Heynes, Walter Hassan and Claude Baily free-associated about the attributes their new engine should possess.

The result was the twin-cam XK engine, which would power Jaguar’s successful race cars throughout the 1950s, and was the heart of the new E-Type. The 3.8-liter 6-cylinder engine and 4-speed manual gearbox delivered 265 horsepower and a claimed top speed of 150 mph.

As good as the powerplant had proven to be, it was the car’s shape that proved so beguiling. The work of aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer, the E-Type was the successor to Jaguar’s C-Type and D-Type race cars, which pioneered the use of disc brakes and monocoque construction. It also led the company to victory at Le Mans, Reims and other races across Europe. In 1956, Jaguar thus became the first manufacturer ever to win Le Mans and the Monte Carlo Rally in the same year.

Jaguar also fielded a road-going version of the D-Type, the XK-SS which was designed to use up D-Type parts, as the vehicle suffered from poor sales. Production ended after 16 were built, when an enormous fire extensively damaged Jaguar’s Browns Lane factory. 

A marketing illustration of the new Jaguar E-Type.

During this time, Jaguar sold a sports car, the XK-120, which was replaced by the XK-140 and then the XK-150. While all three looked similar, by 1960, they were becoming dated. 

The birth of a legend

The need for a new car had been obvious, and work had been underway to replace the XK-150. The new car would bring with it the lessons learned from the C-Type and D-Type employing a monocoque structure, disc brakes, a fully independent suspension, and the latest version of the XK engine capable of running 0-60 mph in 6.9 seconds.

It was draped in a body derived from Jaguar’s race cars. Designed by Sayer, it was one of the earliest examples of aerodynamic styling in a production car. And its shape caused a sensation, much as the XK-120 had in 1948. And it price was half that of an Aston Martin, and one-third of a Ferrari’s.

By the end of its production run in 1974, Jaguar would build 72,520 E-Types, selling 37,694 in North America, and cementing its place as the iconic Jaguar.

Sir William Lyons always favored cars withe designs that had a bit of exageration in them.

And its existence is due to Sir William Lyons, whose impeccable design sense was unerring.

“He’d always do something that made the car more exciting. It might be because he made the bonnet lower or longer or the way the car sat, but it was something he did every time in every one of his cars,” said former Jaguar Design Director Ian Callum of Lyons in a 2017 interview.

“The E-Type has the most humongous bonnet in the world. The bonnet is so long and so low. It’s beautiful, and that’s what he did well. He always exaggerated things.”

But the E-Type’s traits continue to influence the Jaguars that came later, like XJ-S, XK-8, and F-Type, and no doubt are still affecting the Jaguars to come.

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