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It's 50 years since Jaguar last launched a sports car. Now it's time to reveal what follows in the wake of the trailblazing SS100, XK120 and E-type.

I want Jags to make people smile. The world is too serious.’ These are the words of Jaguar design director Ian Callum, just a few weeks before the world gazes for the first time upon the C-X16 ‘production concept’.

A new Jaguar sports car, for the first time in 50 years? You bet. Reckon on it being a reality in 2013. For now, this is the show car that, as you read this, will have just made its international debut at the Frankfurt International Motor Show.

‘It’s a lovely balance of modernity and classic looks,’ says Ian. ‘I’m probably more pleased with this car than any other I’ve been involved with.’ This is the man responsible for the current range of XK, XJ and XF – but consider the lineage that led to it and you’d have to be pretty bullish about what you’re going to follow all that heritage with.

Jaguar launched the E-type 50 years ago, at the very least matching the stir that had been caused in 1948 by the XK120, which innovated with its twin-overhead-camshaft XK engine – in production right up to 1992 – and bowled the world over with gorgeous looks that set Jaguar’s flowing style for years to follow. And Jaguar might never have been considered a sports car manufacturer at all, had it not been for the SS100 announced in 1935.

The new C-X16 follows an extremely illustrious past. This is the tale of how we got from there to here.

Jaguar’s sports car story begins with paired innovations: the company’s first bespoke chassis meeting its first bespoke engine – but we need to understand a little history before we go much further. The company’s origins as a coachbuilder (in fact, it only became known as Jaguar after World War Two, and the uncomfortable connotations of Swallow Sidecars’ initials) meant it had always worked with the chassis, engine and running gear of other manufacturers.

The Austin Seven Swallow was launched in 1927; a year later the company moved from Blackpool to a new 40,000sq ft factory in Foleshill, West Midlands, and began building 50 cars per week. Its relationship with the Standard Car Company grew, and the first SS cars emerged on modified Standard chassis in 1931. Billed as ‘The dream cars with the £1000 look’, the 2.0-litre SS1 and 1.0-litre SS2 sold for less than a third of that, establishing the Jaguar tradition of value for money. But they also established a sleek, sexy and sporting style, one company co-founder William Walmsley was uncomfortable with. His partner William Lyons, in effect, bought him out in 1934, shortly after SS Cars Ltd had been floated as a public company.

The shortlived SS90 roadster arrived in 1935, only 23 being made on a shortened chassis (fully 1ft 3in chopped out of the SS1’s Standard underpinnings) and a 70bhp 2663cc twin-carb version of Standard’s sidevalve straight-six. But for September of that year, along came the SS100, using the 90’s chassis and also a completely re-engineered engine, with an overhead-valve crossflow cylinder head and twin SU carburettors to give a 104bhp output – all designed by consultant Harry Weslake. That power output is significant: Weslake had negotiated a contract that earned him extra money for every horsepower he found above the 95bhp stipulated by William Lyons!

The name? Well, the car was said to crack 100mph – but, more importantly, it wore a winged badge at the top of the grille bearing the legend ‘SS Jaguar’. Lyons had been on the look-out for a new brand name, having hoped to take over the Sunbeam marque before being pipped by the Rootes brothers. He selected ‘Jaguar’ from a list of animal-inspired epithets provided by Nelson Advertising. The first Jaguar sports car had arrived.

And with it came much fanfare. Motor magazine road tested the SS100, achieving a genuine 96mph and 0-60mph in 12.8sec. The Autocar tested the same car, and its writer was moved to say: ‘With its rapid acceleration and hill climbing, it is a vivid car not easily equalled from point to point when suitably handled.’ Quite so.

Even now, there’s something in the SS100’s forms – a word that Ian Callum is fond of using – that marks it out as a true Jaguar: those long-nose proportions, the roundedness about the rear haunches, the soulfulness of those huge, expressive headlamps. You’ve seen their like since, but you saw them here (well, in the SS90) first. It’s a surprisingly compact car, one that suddenly feels all the more so as you flip back the rear-hinged door and insinuate yourself behind the wheel. Or, rather, under it: getting your thighs in is a squeeze and would be made much easier with double-jointed knees.

Once in, you sit with legs straight ahead, barely feeling contained by the scant bodywork and fold-flat windscreen, to survey a full set of ivory-faced Smiths instruments. They’re scattered all the way across the dashboard, and your view of the road ahead is focused by the gunsight of the line along the bonnet. Gorgeous.

And it’s a real entertainer. Not fast by today’s standards, but with a generous spread of torque that’s underpinned by the fat burble of the exhaust and the mechanical threshings ahead of you. Plenty of vintage-style gear whine too, and a gearshift that feels precise but stiff. Yet the steering isn’t too vague and the slightly hoppity ride cushions you from the very worst road imperfections yet keeps you perfectly well-informed of exactly what the tarmac is doing – and how well you’re attached to it.

The SS100 enjoyed the same new Burman Douglas steering box, Girling rod brakes and enlarged drums as the Jaguar saloons that were launched alongside it, and in 1937 Jaguar’s own Bill Heynes (founder of its engineering department) enlarged the engine to a 3485cc version that would sell above the 2.5-litre. Its new bore, stroke and multi-branch exhaust manifold not only guaranteed better performance (thanks to its 125bhp power output), they also took the SS100 further along the path from its Standard origins – as did all-steel coachwork and a new, stiffer chassis. A total of 309 SS100s (118 of them with the larger engine) were built before World War Two saw production cease in 1939.

Ah, the war. Jaguar did not intend to remain idle throughout those years but, while company executives were not discouraged from planning for what would happen after, no actual engineering could be seen to be taking place that was not sanctioned by the Government. So, on paper, work began on the next generation of cars during the early 1940s, centring around a new engine – in fact a whole series of engines.

We all think of Jaguar as a luxury car manufacturer today, and it was certainly a cut above the likes of Austin back then. Yet still its most popular cars had four-cylinder engines. And so what was launched as a twin-cam straight-six began as a family of in-line fours and sixes in a report laid out by Jaguar’s Walter Hassan in October 1943. A 1.8-litre four-cylinder twin-overhead-camshaft engine was tested two years later but by 1947 the XK was being developed solely as a six, with a 3.4-litre capacity and a cylinder head inspired by the BMW 328’s.

What is far more audacious is the way this engine was announced to the public. At the 1948 British Motor Show, held at London’s Earls Court, Jaguar stunned the public with its beautiful new XK120. It was developed as a prototype on which work was being carried out for a new flagship saloon. The show car was handmade on shortened MkVII saloon underpinnings, including its independent front suspension. And powering it was the new XK: a 160bhp 3.4-litre tour de force with twin overhead camshafts, aluminium cylinder head, hemispherical combustion chambers, inclined valves and central spark plugs – and a hugely strong seven-bearing crankshaft that could trace its origins back to the Standard engine of SS’s past. The XK was truly the kind of engine you might expect to find powering an Italian thoroughbred.

Initial demand was overwhelming – and caught Jaguar napping. Jaguar’s works could handbuild the car only in limited numbers, each with an alloy body; 200 were finished this way before Pressed Steel tooled up for volume production, which began in 1950. At £995 for the roadster, Jaguar convincingly slammed the value nail squarely on the head again. A fixed-head coupé joined it in 1951, and a luxurious drophead coupé arrived in 1953.

It’s worlds ahead of the SS100, with an unadorned, all-enveloping body, its grille in-unit with the bonnet and with sleek spats covering the rear wheels. That feline-like line that flows over the front wings, down to a waist ahead of the rear wheels and then up and over is more sharply defined on this car than on any other Jaguar – yet you can clearly see its origins in the SS100, and follow it into place on the E-type and C-X16.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Clambering in is a little easier than it was with the SS100, but that wheel is still thigh-squeezingly huge. The seats are generous, the dashboard a simple slab of modernism, almost aircraft-like in its modest efficiency. And the XK engine – its voice, its generosity, its character – dominates every aspect of the drive.

At the other end of the scale, Earls Court was the scene of the Morris Minor’s launch in 1948. This is utterly decadent by comparison and, if its performance feels satisfyingly strong today, imagine the impact its claimed top speed beyond 120mph (yep, hence the name – it had been tested on Belgium’s Jabbeke highway minus windscreen, making it the world’s fastest production car) and its 0-60mph time of 11.7sec would have had on sensible British dads who fancied a Minor in all its 27.5bhp, 919cc sidevalve glory.

It woofles into life, settling to a smooth and steady beat, chuffing through twinned tailpipes. There’s similar gear whine to accompany forward progress as there was in the SS100, though it’s overcome here by greater stridency from that magnificent engine. You need a firm hand on the gearlever, especially to coax it into second gear from first (for which the lever lies almost prone on the transmission tunnel), and getting used to the combination of a long throw with an extremely narrow gate takes a little time. Open roads are its real forte, once you’re rolling and free of the city confines that serve to magnify the heaviness of the steering at low speeds. That torquey strength manifests itself in increasing confidence as speeds rise too, but Jaguar’s success with chassis tuning also plays a huge part. Despite its live rear axle, the XK120 rides with grace and poise, yet it also corners with precision. It feels far more modern than its wartime origins would suggest.

It even informs the new C-X16 in character; you can certainly imagine a warm response for the new car at Frankfurt. And the XK didn’t seek favour among the 1940s equivalent of the lambswool sweater types perceived as today’s Jag drivers. Says Ian Callum: ‘Were the XK120 and E-type targeting golfers? No.’

And the road testers of the time were effusive too. In April 1950 The Autocar said: ‘Nothing like the XK120, and at its price, has been previously achieved – a car of tremendous performance yet displaying the flexibility, and even the silkiness and smoothness of a mild-mannered saloon.’ Oh, it scored its first race victory at Silverstone in 1949, and Ian Appleyard’s road-registered NUB 120 won the Alpine Rally in 1950. Quite a car.

But even the XK120 dated. As it was developed into 1954’s XK140 and 1957’s XK150 its character morphed into that of a more luxurious GT, and the wartime origins of its styling and construction methods weren’t exactly hip come 1961.

Enter the E-type to a rapturous reception. If any car captured the spirit of the Swinging Sixties and then held it to ransom, this was it. And this is the Jag whose character the C-X16 is trying hardest to evoke. As Ian says: ‘We’re going for a more spirited, more youthful market. It’s more about the Kings Road than the golf club. That was the place for E-type owners.’

Regular Octane readers will be well aware that 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the E-type’s historic Geneva launch, so we won’t bang on here about the epic drives by Bob Berry and Norman Dewis to get the demonstration cars there on time. Nor will we spend long recounting the E-type’s motor sport success (Graham Hill scored a victory on its first outing; in Lightweight form it kept the Ferrari 250GTO at bay). But we will dwell a little on the design and engineering aspects that not only made the E-type a success in terms of sales and popularity, but also established key Jaguar ethos for decades.

It’s powered by the XK engine (still so modern in 1961), launched with the XK150S’s 165bhp 3.8-litre version and the same Moss four-speed manual gearbox strapped to it. The torsion bar front suspension is similar in layout too, but gone is the live rear axle, replaced by an ingenious subframe-mounted independent system that employs fixed-length driveshafts as the upper links, with twinned coil springs and telescopic dampers. You saw it here first, but it followed in the 420G saloon, the XJ6, XJ-S, XJ40 and even the XK8 of the 1990s. It’s responsible for the gliding sensation that Jaguars became famous for.

The structure – a monocoque body with a front subframe to carry the engine – was revolutionary, and the highly curved, windcheating body panels owed more to aircraft manufacture than car production. It’s at its best in fixed-head coupé form, something Ian Callum wholeheartedly agrees with, yet the roadster was always marginally more popular as a new car; it eclipses the coupé on the classic market.

Just over two grand got you a 150mph sports car back in 1961 – about half the price of an Aston Martin DB4 (the C-X16 aims to perform a similar trick). And the E-type is still utterly beguiling today. The cockpit’s snug, like the other two, but you feel more in tune with the road and, frankly, closer to it. The XK still snarls and it’s quick to rev in 3.8-litre form; the Moss gearbox feels as recalcitrant as ever, though it offers satisfaction if you persevere. What’s really special is the way the E-type rides, with a gracefulness denied many a luxury saloon. There’s motion over the road surface but bumps are beautifully rounded off rather than pummelled into submission, and it comes at no cost of slackness in the handling. Yes, if Jaguar is going to look anywhere in its back catalogue for inspiration, it’s just got to be here.

We walk into the studio to see C-X16 for the first time. It reminds me of how I felt when I first laid eyes on the Aston Martin DB9: it’s exactly how a Jaguar sports car for 2011 (okay, 2013) should look. Beautiful.

There’s a whole load of tech blurb from Jaguar that describes the potential of the production car: just like the trio of sports cars that precede it, it’s heavy on innovation, promising a petrol/electric hybrid drivetrain that combines electrical assistance with a twin-scroll supercharged 3.0-litre V6 that will pump out 375bhp for performance of 0-62mph in 4.4sec and a top speed limited to 186mph. Quick, but also green: 41mpg and 165g/km of carbon dioxide emissions are projected. The structure will be aluminium and we’d be disappointed if it were to be anything less: the XJ saloon has employed alloys for two generations now. Here it promises to keep weight down to 1600kg.

All that’s in the future though, because this show car is based on cut-down XK8 underpinnings and runs with that car’s V8. Its bodywork, all put together in carbonfibre over four months, is an exquisite blend of curves and edginess; this is Jaguar’s first sports car since the E-type, and its first two-seater since then too (if you forget a few Jaguar XJS convertibles).

No coincidence we’re looking at the C-X16 in the E-type’s 50th anniversary year, nor that there are clear E-type visual cues. Check out those tail lamps: bigger and better integrated, certainly, but they’re the same shape as an early E-type’s. ‘If people get the reference then that’s great. If not, it doesn’t matter,’ says Ian Callum. ‘No aspect of the design can be a style reference for the sake of it, they all have to stand up on their own. But if people recognise something, then that makes me smile.’

Those same people might recognise the side-mounted tailgate too, though it rises electrically on a giant motorised hinge. The idea is that, on production versions, you’ll simply touch the Jaguar ‘leaper’ badge on the back to be rewarded with the theatricals.

‘The tailgate is a little tongue-in-cheek. Feasible? Not sure. The mechanics certainly work but the access is limited. It’s a good bit of fun though, and we like that,’ says Ian. ‘We’re not trying to replace the E-type. This car is more grounded in reality. I wanted to do something people would like but within the realms of modern car packaging. We couldn’t possibly pass current regulations with a car the size of the E-type and with those proportions. That was a straightforward act of perfection.’

Praise indeed, but there is absolutely no need to make excuses for this car. Take a look at it face-on. It couldn’t be anything other than a Jaguar even from here, yet the grille is a new shape, and so are the headlamps. How does it work, then? ‘It was inspired by the XF but elongated and reproportioned. The lamps are modern, they follow the graphic of the car very carefully. There’s a lot of lovely lead-in to the apertures, and a very obvious power bulge – all our cars have that, it’s a subconscious and deliberate symbol of Jaguar. The face registers quite naturally.

‘Otherwise it’s a form language; there are creases and edges but the forms leading into them are deliberately delicate. For instance, the front three-quarter, where the wing flows into the lower bumper, that’s very rounded, very Jaguar.’

If I have a favourite aspect of the C-X16, it’s the view along the flanks from the front three-quarter, watching the crease that begins aft of the headlamp rise, then drops and melts in the door as another one takes over above it and kicks up over the rear wheelarch. Very Jaguar. Ian’s best bit is further back, somewhere that’s even more recognisably E-type. ‘My favourite element is the rear three-quarter, the way the roof sweeps back in profile,’ he says. ‘The character of the glass leading into the rear is something I’ve always wanted to do.’

And, just as with Jaguars past, stance is key. ‘I believe in absorbing a car when you look at it – you need to get the proportions and stance right, or you’ve lost people’s attention straight away. This has a totality about it.’

Inside, like its forebears, the C-X16 is intimate: the windscreen header and cant rails feel shrink-wrapped around you. The facia is clearly driver-oriented; there’s no wood anywhere (again, like the old cars) and the shapes are new for a Jaguar, though the dashtop looks a bit Aston Martin, and the binnacle flows into the centre console in a manner redolent of the Audi R8’s. You’ll recognise some XF switchgear, naturally enough, but its cylindrical gear selector is absent, replaced by a jet fighter-style joystick. Tellingly, the air vents are bespoke even in this prototype. Manufacturers don’t go to those lengths if production isn’t a certainty.

As this show car does the rounds, it’s accompanied by a minder with a very important toolkit: it has all the bits necessary to keep C-X16 alive. In it is a growler – you know, the badge that bears the Jaguar face in full snarl – except this one has been customised so it wears a pair of shades. The car isn’t carrying it today; there’s a decision to be made about whether or not it will at Frankfurt.

‘The growler badge may go on the show car,’ smiles Ian. ‘Cool cat. That’s what this car is all about.’ He may be laughing, but Jaguar will be taking this new car very seriously indeed. Everybody else better had, too.

1938 SS Jaguar 100

Engine: 2663cc straight-six, OHV, twin SU carburettors 
Power: 104bhp @ 4600rpm 
Torque: N/A 
Transmission: Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive 
Steering: Worm and nut 
Suspension: Front: beam axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, friction dampers. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, hydraulic dampers 
Brakes: Drums 
Weight: 1143kg 
Performance: Top speed 96mph. 0-60mph 12.8sec

1953 Jaguar XK120

Engine: 3442cc straight-six, DOHC, twin SU carburettors 
Power: 160bhp @ 5000rpm 
Torque: 195lb ft @ 2500rpm 
Transmission: Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive 
Steering: Recirculating ball 
Suspension: Front: wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, hydraulic dampers 
Brakes: Drums 
Weight: 1295kg 
Performance: Top speed 122mph. 0-60mph 11.7sec

1963 Jaguar E-type 3.8 FHC

Engine: 3781cc straight-six, DOHC, triple SU carburettors  
Power: 265bhp @ 5500rpm 
Torque: 260lb ft @ 4000rpm 
Transmission: Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive 
Steering: Rack and pinion
Suspension: Front: wishbones, torsion bars, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: lower wishbones, fixed-length driveshafts, twinned coil springs and telescopic dampers 
Brakes: Discs 
Weight: 1219kg 
Performance: Top speed 150mph. 0-60mph 7.4sec

2011 Jaguar C-X16 Concept

Engine: 2995cc supercharged V6 plus 70kW electric ‘Hy-Performance Boost System’  
Power: 375bhp (plus 94bhp) 
Torque: 332lb ft (plus 173lb ft) 
Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive 
Steering: Rack and pinion, electrically assisted
Suspension: Front and rear: wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar  
Brakes: Discs 
Weight: 1600kg 
Performance: Top speed 186mph (limited).0-62mph 4.4sec

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