As the clock ticked towards mid-day on Wednesday, 15 March 1961, Jaguar boss William Lyons (below, with E-Type) became increasingly concerned. Like the press photographers and journalists assembling around him in Geneva’s Parc des Eaux Vives he was waiting for the arrival of his company’s still-secret new sports car, the E-Type. What Lyons knew, but the press didn’t, was that the car had only been completed the previous evening and that it was on the road somewhere between Coventry and Geneva in the hands of Jaguar PR man Bob Berry.
As Philip Porter, today owner of that very car, details in his book The Most Famous Car in the World, Berry had driven the E-Type flat out through the night. Delayed first by fog and then by long lines of trucks on the main route into Geneva, the E-Type finally made it with just 20 minutes to spare – enough time, just, to wash the car down before it met the world’s press.
Berry’s efforts were well-rewarded, because the E-Type made the kind of impression most car makers can only dream of. The press raved about the new Jaguar’s sensational good looks, its claimed top speed of 150mph, and not least its price – just over £2000, half the price of the Astons and Ferraris which were just about all that could keep up with it.
Those curvaceous good looks were clearly related to the Le Mans-winning D-types of the 1950s, sculpted by aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer. The E-Type’s structure had similarities to the racer, too, with a monocoque central tub and a tubular front section carrying the engine and front wheels – though the exotic aluminium and magnesium alloys of the D-type (right) were replaced by steel.
Where the E-Type did score over its elder brother was in the suspension department. D-types had been built for ultimate top speed on the Mulsanne Straight rather than the last word in handling finesse, so they made do with a rudimentary live rear axle carried on trailing arms and sprung by torsion bars, but the E-Types had a much more sophisticated layout developed on a prototype called E1A (right). Lower wishbones and twin coil spring/damper units suspended each wheel independently, with the fixed-length driveshafts acting as an upper locating link. Disc rear brakes were mounted at the inboard end.
The result was a car with more forgiving road manners than the tricky D-type, together with a ride quality more in keeping with a big saloon than a rapid sports car (the same suspension also went into the big MkX saloon). And the E-Type was seriously quick: Jaguar claimed that its 3.8-litre XK engine developed 265bhp and that was enough to propel the new car to 150mph. Road tests subsequently proved the E-Type would hit 150, but those test cars were very specially prepared. It didn’t cost much to tune the E-Type into something even quicker, and they soon started to appear in sports car racing.
Good though the early cars were, they weren’t perfect. Tall drivers struggled to find enough space in the cockpit, and Jaguar soon added footwells into the floor panels to liberate extra space. There were also plenty of complaints about the Moss gearbox, which had no synchromesh on first gear and precious little on the other three. The gearbox problem was addressed at the end of 1964, when a new Jaguar-designed gearbox was fitted along with a revised, torquier 4.2-litre engine.
A two-plus-two coupé (right, in production, and below) followed in 1966, nine inches longer than the two-seater and an inch and a half taller – giving it an ungainly appearance. The following year numerous small changes were implemented in what became known as the ‘Series One and a Half’, including a change to open, sealed beam headlamps.
The headlamps were moved forward slightly on the Series II cars introduced the following year. A bigger air intake and bigger indicators were also incorporated, and there was now the option of air conditioning to please the important American market (where the car was known as the XK-E). Other US-led changes included a redesigned interior with rocker switches instead of protruding toggles. Increasingly stringent emissions rules now meant that a ‘Federal’ E-Type produced just 177bhp.
More power was a priority, especially in America. It came from a brand new V12 engine, designed by Walter Hassan and Harry Mundy. With an alloy block, single camshaft per cylinder bank and flat-faced heads (with the combustion chambers sunk into the piston crowns) the V12 was a light and compact engine for its capacity, little heavier than the venerable XK straight-six.
Power comparisons between the six and the V12 were complicated due to changes in test standards, but the 276bhp claimed for the European spec V12 probably represented an increase of around 60bhp on the old 4.2. In America the improvement was even more dramatic, with the V12 offering a genuine 250bhp, despite lacking the fuel injection system originally planned – instead it was fuelled by a quartet of Zenith Stromberg carbs, and sparked by Lucas Opus electronic ignition.
The V12 went into a revised E-Type, the Series III of 1971. All the cars were now built on the longer wheelbase of the old two-plus-two, and the E-Type looked bigger and heavier thanks to flared wheel arches, wider wheels (now steel discs rather than wire-spoke items) and a new flush grille. It was an effective update, restoring the performance which had been lost and freshening up the appearance. In the US the Series III formed the basis of capable racing machines built by Huffaker Engineering and Group 44’s Bob Tullius (below). But there was no escaping the fact that the E-Type was being overtaken by more modern designs.
The end came in 1975, when the final few Series III E-Types were sold. By then oil prices had risen and big V12s were hard to sell, and in any case Jaguar were concentrating on the XJ12C and the XJ-S and on surviving the mess of British Leyland.
Despite that, the E-Type quickly became a sought-after classic and remains one of the most recognisable shapes on the road.