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E-type reigns supreme - The greatest Jaguar

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The E-type first appeared in 1961, and yet its popularity remains undiminished. How has it stayed at the top of the tree for so long?

If you clicked on the link, caught sight of George Bamford’s admittedly beautiful pictures of the Series 1 Fixed Head Coupé and immediately thought, ‘Oh God, not another feature about the E-type’, then rest assured, we know exactly where you’re coming from. What can you say that’s new about the most famous Jaguar ever made?

Nothing, is the short answer. More column inches of purple prose have been devoted to the E-type than any other car (although Porsche’s 911 must run it close). So let’s not try. Let’s take it as a given that the E-type is as beloved as the late Queen Mum and just as much a symbol of everything that put the Great into Britain.

Let’s ask, instead – why has this car, which was a long way from perfect even when it was brand new in 1961, achieved a near-mythical status? And why has Jaguar yet to come up with anything more memorable?

The E-type is certainly one of a mere handful of British vehicles that are instantly recognizable to people who have absolutely no interest in motoring. It’s become a mobile cliché of the Swinging Sixties; Mike Myers’ ‘Shaguar’ E-type in the Austin Powers movies was supposedly inspired by ’60s heart-throb Simon Dee driving away with the blonde in the E-type at the end of his TV chat show, Dee Time. Real-life celebrity owners such as footballer George Best (‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered…’) gave the E-type a louche, caddish image that was probably the last thing Sir William Lyons intended and yet was ironically in keeping with Jaguar’s well-established reputation as ‘the Bentley of Wardour Street’ – a thoroughfare in the heart of London’s Soho that in the 1950s was a synonym for sleaze and vulgarity.

This slightly unsalubrious image goes back a long way in Jaguar history; back, in fact, to the very beginnings of the company in the early 1920s, when 21-year-old Billy Lyons joined forces with his neighbour William Walmsley to manufacture Walmsley’s stylish motorcycle accessory. With its polished, aircraft fuselage-like body and matching ‘Moon disc’-style wheel, Walmsley’s sidecar was undoubtedly caddish. He even named his prototype the ‘Ot-as-Ell!’ before switching to the more commercially acceptable Swallow brand name.

Lyons had an even more developed sense of style but matched it with a commercial acumen that sometimes shaded into miserliness. But this penny-pinching was key to Lyons’ success in his early years. His first ‘proper’ cars, the SSI and SSII of the early 1930s, aped the long, low style of the true grand tourers while hiding mundane Standard running gear – and hence appealing to the British middle class’s eternal desire for cheap glamour.

And cars scarcely came more glamorous, regardless of price, than the SS90 and more powerful SS100 roadsters that were introduced from 1935. These really were the ultimate cad’s cars, so impossibly rakish that they were almost caricatures, and the first of the three sports car milestones in the Lyons era – SS100, XK120 and E-type. But while the SS100, in particular, was a genuinely quick car, that didn’t deter the car snobs. The perception of a Jaguar in some circles as ‘the publican’s car’, owned by an extrovert with little taste but a bit of spare cash, has been remarkably persistent down the decades.

Looks and performance mark out the SS100 as the true antecedent of the E-type but there was still one vital ingredient missing – the XK twin-cam, straight-six engine that was to become as crucial to Jaguar’s success as William Lyons himself. Introduced in the XK120, by the time the E-type was launched it had benefited from 13 years of very intensive testing in the real world – not least, of course, in the Le Mans-winning C- and D-types. It provided the power and exhaust note of an exotic, and it also looked exactly right under the long bonnet of an E-type.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter, the E-type’s looks. Men and women are shallow creatures when it comes to judging by appearances, and the E-type has that kind of immediately accessible sex appeal that will never go out of fashion. It is the Brigitte Bardot of sports cars. Even the Italians were impressed: Enzo Ferrari reputedly called it ‘the most beautiful car ever made’ – though one suspects that, like most great quotes, this one may not be entirely reliable.

Great looks, fab engine; shame about the brakes, seats and gearbox. OK, that’s being slightly harsh, but the E-type was flawed even by the standards of 1961. The brakes were discs all round – good – but they weren’t up to keeping a hard-driven 140mph-plus E-type in check – bad. The simple bucket seats were not terribly comfortable and there wasn’t enough room for taller drivers, while the Moss gearbox was as slow and obstructive as it had always been in previous XKs. Rumour has it that it was designed for a pre-war truck.

On the other hand, the independent rear suspension was a genuine innovation (take that, Ferrari, with your beam rear axles – pah!) that gave the E-type a comfortable ride and superb roadholding. And that was a key reason why E-types could be raced, and win, straight out of the box, as drivers such as Graham Hill, Roy Salvadori and many more immediately proved. Jaguar’s reputation for building cars that really shifted without rattling the occupants’ fillings started with the E-type.

As so often happens, the first iteration of the E-type shape was the purest. In the real world beyond the fantasy one of advertising, buyers – and especially American buyers, who had long been Jaguar’s biggest customers, in every sense – wanted more room, more practicality. That led to the compromised proportions of the 2+2 coupé in 1966, and worse was to come when the beautiful faired-in headlights of the first-series cars lost their clear covers, and the light units were progressively moved forward within the cowls to meet new US regulations. In fact, it was better if you actually wanted to see where you were going at night, but the tipping point had been reached. This was in 1968, the year in which Jaguar would introduce the world-beating Jaguar XJ6 saloon, and it would be all downhill from here.

That’s not just a throwaway remark. Jaguar’s founder and chairman, Sir William Lyons, was ageing, as was much of his senior management, and the company was about to sink in the morass of the British Leyland empire. Lyons had hoped that what he saw as a ‘merger’ with BMC rather than a takeover would lead to financial benefits for Jaguar, but it had exactly the opposite result.

So it was that Jaguar kept the E-type on life support into the 1970s, when it should have been introducing a new model. The Series 3 E-type, with its flared wheelarches and cheesy chromed grille, was the automotive equivalent of a once-handsome young stud donning medallion and leather trousers in middle age. This was Jaguar looking back, not forward.

Ironically, when Jaguar made a genuine attempt to break with tradition, it failed. The XJ-S of 1975 was a radical design that looked like nothing else. Time, and familiarity, has made it more visually acceptable now but for many it was a step too far. Most car enthusiasts still see this substitute for a true ‘F-type’ – Malcolm Sayer had penned some fabulously swoopy designs in the 1960s – as a blind alley.

Trouble was, Jaguar had created a rod for its own back with the E-type. It would be a very hard act to follow, and one that would cast a long shadow over the styling of future Jaguars for decades to come. As the company struggled to weather the vicissitudes of the 1970s and ’80s, it lacked the confidence to forge a new brand identity. It desperately needed to sell cars, especially to Americans, and that meant giving customers what they already knew. The XJ-S had a fantastically long production life and when Jaguar finally replaced it in 1996 they unashamedly went the retro route with the XK8, which was strongly E-type influenced. While handsome, it was not imaginative; design critic Stephen Bayley described its shiny wood’n’leather interior as ‘about as subtle as a stun grenade in Asprey’s’.

For Jaguar, the 1990s were very much a case of Back to the Future, kicking off with the trad-look X300 saloon of 1994 – the new XJ6 – and continuing through the XK8 to the new S-type saloon in 1998. It was the ’60s all over again, except that nothing was swinging apart from the pot-bellies of middle management Jaguar buyers. It may seem obvious now, but why should young car buyers with money to spend want to be seen in something that looked like their granddad drove?

Matters started to improve when Jaguar belatedly rediscovered its mojo with the Ian Callum-styled XF, and this year the even more radical XJ saloon – the current XKR still looks like a facelifted XK8, even though it was all-new under the skin. The XF and XJ do contain visual references to previous Jaguars but you pretty much have to be an RCA-trained designer to spot them, and these cars are not obviously rooted in the 1960s. They talk a new Jaguar design language.

Question is, is that language one that the public will be able to interpret? What’s for sure is that whatever appeal these new Jaguars may have, it’s more subtle than the ‘hello, boys’ charisma of the E-type. In theory, at least, they may become well loved in time, but the E-type was universally admired from the start. You can’t say that of any other Jaguar made since the end of the William Lyons era.

That’s why the E-type is still the greatest-ever Jaguar, and – given the way that politicians are steadily falling out of love with the motor car – why it’s likely to remain so.


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