Enigma Variations

Ambivalence towards Jaguar’s Sixties Supermodel is as old as the E-Type itself. 

1961 E-Type. Image: Sportscar Digest

The problem when approaching time-honoured and much-loved cultural touchstones is that as their mythology develops, layers of symbolism and exaggerated lore build up like barnacles upon the hull of a sunken craft until the object itself becomes obscure, indistinct; the legend eventually overtaking fact.

Certainly, the cult status of the Jaguar E-Type has morphed to that of venerable sainthood – its position as all-time investment-grade classic seemingly inviolate for the rest of time. So much so, that to pass critical comment of almost any stripe nowadays seems an act of subversion – or at the very least, wilful iconoclasm.

But as we mark sixty years since the car’s ecstatic introduction to the press at the Parc des Eaux-Vives in Geneva on March 15th 1961, we owe both car and creators a clear-eyed assessment without hefting the associated baggage of myth and legend which has accumulated in the intervening decades.[1]

What is it about the E-Type that makes it stand above so many others, and can its appeal be boiled down as simply a case of shape and wonder? The curators of New York’s Museum of Modern Art apparently thought so, an early example forming part of their permanent collection for decades now. View a first-series E in the wild today and despite the obvious proportional inconsistencies, it remains (especially in unsullied first-series form) a marvellous looking and surprisingly dainty thing.

But assuming there is more to the E than simply a voluptuous form, where does does that depth reside? Certainly it is not hyperbole to suggest that both it and its Mercedes-Benz 300SL contemporary were amongst the first genuine supercars – this side of more frangible hand-built Modenese confections at least. But unlike Sindelfingen’s masterpiece, the E offered for the first time the kind of performance and active safety, hitherto the sole preserve of the super-rich, at a price the merely affluent could afford.

The E-Type at its 15th March launch in Geneva 1961. Image: catawiki

As such it was at the forefront of the democratisation of speed, and (to an extent) the social levelling which took place across much of the developed world at the time. So in this sense at least it was perhaps yang to the Mini’s Ying. But nonetheless, ambivalence towards the Swinging Sixties icon, while perhaps understandable, is neither new, nor confined to those shut outside of its increasingly rarefied purview.

Because those impervious to the allure of the E-Type are in rather well-placed company. How does Jaguar founder, CEO and éminence grise, Sir William Lyons grab you? Not impressed? Try (then) chief development engineer, Bob Knight for size then – the latter considering it, I’m reliably informed, as being something akin to a four-wheeled motorcycle.

It’s difficult to be certain what lay at root of Lyons’ early disregard, but from what is documented, the car as created was somewhat at odds with his vision of a sporting Jaguar. Certainly, the experimental designs he was working towards during the late fifties were of a considerably more iterative stripe than what emerged in 1961. It is therefore entirely plausible to consider that had an entirely Lyons-inspired Jaguar sports machine emerged to replace the long-running XK series, it would have been a rather different motor car.

Lending further credence to this is the fact that the E-Type began as something of a skunkworks programme, with at least one eye upon the race tracks. Engineering Director, Bill Heynes was an enthusiastic proponent of motorsport, seeing it as an opportunity not only to be at the leading edge of technological development, but to offer the customer something more than simply an arresting shape.[2]

Throughout the development process, Lyons was believed to have been dismissive, deliberately ignoring early prototypes in the workshop. It would only be later, as he undoubtedly realised the economics of working with what he had that he took any real interest, by which time the design had largely gelled. This lack of top-level support meant that the programme, which was initiated around 1957, did not gain impetus until two years later, losing a good deal of early ground in the process.

Once he had accepted the car, Lyons did exert his influence upon aspects of its design, insisting on a number of stylistic alterations and more fundamentally, having viewed competition shop foreman, Bob Blake’s rudimentary fixed-head styling buck, taking a far more intimate interest in its shaping and detail design – most likely to original designer, Malcolm Sayer’s bemusement.[3]

Nevertheless, despite this, Lyons it appears, never wholly believed in the E-Type, convinced they would sell a couple of thousand at best. As a result, he refused to invest in full tooling, meaning for its entire lifespan, the body  would be made up in a highly labour-intensive manner – a factor which placed a significant impediment on production volumes, hobbling the car’s commercial prospects, especially during the early years when worldwide demand was voracious and Jaguar could sell every one they built – twice.

There is no question that had it been possible to increase production, E-Types could have sold in far greater quantities. It is chronicled that it was only in the latter stages of its lifespan that Sir William truly grasped the E-Type’s appeal. Travelling as a passenger one night with deputy, Lofty England, he is believed to have observed, ‘it’s a little like piloting a small plane, isn’t it’?

Image: Vintageshed

For there is a case to be made that Sir William was completely wrongfooted by the success of the E – a success he simply couldn’t understand. For Lyons, who up to this point had enjoyed enormous confidence in his own market judgement, the reception to the E-Type, wholly contrary to his projections, may well have been instrumental in the crisis of confidence which subsequently gripped the carmaker.[4] Certainly, when one looks at the glacial pace of product development that took place in its wake – a function of Lyons’ vacillation over future direction – one would be minded to conclude those lost years cost both Lyons and Jaguar dear.

In the final analysis of course, there were better-realised Jaguars, and at least one of them (the 1968 XJ) owed much of its visual appeal to the E, but no Jaguar made before or since combined so many virtues, exuded such outright sex appeal, promised so much performance and packaged it all within a relatively compact, relatively lightweight and technically advanced package, at a price few could believe possible.[5]

As a concept, it was thrilling, as a proposition, it was irresistible, but as a life partner, it could prove something of a mixed bag.

But the E-Type was unique, not simply because it came to embody its era, nor that it captured that zeitgeist in such a distinctly resonant fashion – it was unique because it represented a strand of Jaguar-ness that really didn’t have much to do with Lyons at all. It was a product of Jaguar’s racing programme – a lineal descendant of Malcolm Sayer’s Le Mans winning projectiles – and as such the E really was more aircraft than motor car, as befits the work of an former aerospace aerodynamicist.

Perhaps Sir William was right all along?

[1] It’s sixty years to the day since the E-Type was first introduced to the press in Geneva.
[2] The development of disc brakes during the early ’50s alongside Dunlop engineers would not have taken place with such speed had it not been for Jaguar’s racing programme. During the early ’60s, Jaguar’s E2A prototype was used for Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock development, which unfortunately proved somewhat premature.
[3] Aerodynamicist, Malcolm Sayer developed the skin shapes for all of Jaguar’s competition cars, E-Type included. He did not however approve of many of the changes made to the production version, much of which he felt either spoiled the aesthetics, or (more importantly) upset his exacting calculations. (The famous bonnet bulge being a case in point).
[4] The massive success of the E-Type, coupled with the failure of the commercially vital Mark 10, seemed to precipitate a prevarication over future models until around 1964, when the XJ4 programme was actioned.
[5] A matter which has been underlined in Jaguar’s stuttering attempts to create a viable successor over the intervening decades. They still haven’t managed it.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

39 thoughts on “Enigma Variations”

  1. Referring to the E Type LJKS once stated that he couldn’t take serious a manufacturer buying in shock absorbers for six shillings or brake pads for pennies.

    in the early Eighties Lionel Burrell wrote an article in T&CC with the title ‘I did it again’ which meant he had bought another E Type. He said that his ownership would end with the inevitable – a pile of rust and a very large bill.

  2. Good morning Eóin. I hadn’t realised that Sir William Lyons had been at least ambivalent if not antipathetic towards the E-Type, so thank you for your insights. Being less than totally enamoured of the E-Type, I still have to admit that both examples you feature today are rather lovely, delicate looking things.

    I’m curious about the number plate on the grey example which, I assume, you spotted in your rather lovely coastal corner of Ireland. According to Wikipedia, ‘ZV’ is a prefix used in Ireland since 1985 for older cars imported and re-registered, to give them a sympathetic ‘period’ registration plate, rather than one in the current style. The number would indicate that the E-Type is the 26,265th such vehicle. The old-style Irish registration format never had five-digit numbers; it was two letters and up to four digits, or three letters and up to three digits, so that plate is pretty unusual.

    I’ll go and hang my anorak up now…

    1. I’ve just added that snippet of trivia to the JTC archives – which tell me that ZV was a Wexford-issue registration (ZP was Donegal CC, ZZ Dublin, and ZR to ZY all Wexford….).
      Thanks Daniel – anoraks unite!!

    2. After they ran out of two-letter combinations they added a third letter and used three digits ( so AIN instead of IN ) and they could then re-use all the digit combinations with BIN and then CIN.
      Most imported ‘classic’ cars carry the ZV registration – perhaps because most come in through Rosslare ?

    3. Daniel: I’m not sure I altogether agree with you there, albeit, having said that, I’m no expert on the subject. I think however, it’s a little bit of an assumption to imagine that the ‘classic plate’ ZV prefix began at zero. It may instead have commenced at whatever number had not been issued in the series at the point it was commissioned. (Classic plates being a fairly recent phenomenon in the Republic). Numbers for this may also be assigned randomly, which might account for the relatively high number shown. Having said that, I have never seen a classic ZV plate with less than four digits.

    4. Hi Eóin. You’re probably right, although other two-letter plates had fewer than four digits; our next-door neighbours when I was a child had a 1968 Fiat 124 with the number ‘474 YI’. Likewise, my now brother-in-law had a 1982 E21 3 Series with the number ’95 NZU’

      Although there was never an official market in ‘personal’ plates in Ireland, a few quid in the right direction seemed to oil the appropriate wheels. Memorably, there was a Datsun 240Z seen around Dublin with the number ‘240 Z’. Z (on its own) was allocated to County Dublin.

  3. The E-Type will always suffer from that narrow track, knock-kneed stance. I wonder if that’s the reason I’m warming up to the Series III with its wider track. I also like its stronger-looking front end.

  4. Hi Cesar, I’m inclined to agree with you about the Series III but one detail I always found jarring was the fitment of large chrome hubcaps (from the XJ?) which just seemed wrong on a roadster or GT coupé:

    1. Oh, those hubcaps are lovely! And they look more expensive than some modern alloys! Actually Daniel, I have a soft spot for vintage hubcaps. Not the depressing plastic modern ones of course, but the old, elaborate ones like those on that Series III, or especially those on 1950s and 60s Mercedes-Benz and Porsches. Going back to the E-Type, because of all this talk about it now want one! Oh well, I guess it’s back to some more day dreaming for me.

    2. Isn’t it nice that we have different tastes. That way we never get in each other’s way and want the same object at all costs.
      I would want the car pictured because of the colour and BECAUSE of the hubcaps (No aluminium rims, no spoked wheels.
      I would rather be bothered by the much too large turn signals. And on top of that, those (US) side position lights, hideous.
      The rest is a dream of a vehicle. (It’s probably also a dream to be able to get in and out of it without making a fool of yourself for the spectators, but that’s another story…).

    3. That’s me told then! Seriously, I love the same wheel and hubcaps combination on the XJ:

  5. I dont understand the obsession everybody seems to have with trying to improve the looks of the E-type – its the sum of its parts that gives it it’s identity!

    Just take a quick glance at Frank Stephenson or chip fooses e-type redesign videos on youtube, and it becomes abundantly clear that if you take away the quirky parts of the design, all you are left with is a characterless and bland car that lacks the charm of the original.

    I mean, even the Eagle E-type looks a lot less memorable and eye catching compared to the original!

    The narrow track might be unfashionable, but it helps giving it that “Disco volante” flying machine look.

    1. I watched Mr. Stephenson’s efforts to improve upon the E-Type some time ago and I considered the result to be laughably poor, both in terms of what was altered and his skills in rendering them.

      What people sometimes forget is that the E-Type as launched arrived from a set of compromises, most of which were cost-related. Lyons simply didn’t believe it would sell, so why pump huge sums into what was going to be a small scale programme – especially when he was spending a comparatively vast sum developing the (far more commercially sensitive) Mark 10 at the same time.

      Regarding the steel wheel and hubcap combination , this made its E-Type debut on the Series II, which I always felt lent it a more contemporary mien. I would agree however that the stylistic changes to both S2 and S3 were somewhat heavy-handed, but for the most part, legislatively-driven, at least in the Series 2’s case.

      I’ll return to the Series III later in the year.

    2. If you ever wondered what madness looks like, this is it.
      The ultimate reimagined e-type for the true connoisseur.
      1/b8d23412ce6bad87-55/s540x810/8f5db0f04ffd9d2778b8bcb884b28f2e2621878c.png

    3. Very hard, Eoin, to find an online image for a Series 11 without centre-lock wire wheels…..

    4. I’m driving around in a Stephenson penned Mini Cooper S, and it’s the best car I’ve ever had, but the guy has seemingly lost it in his older age. I watched the video where he’s re-imagining the Ferrari F40, and he absolutely ruined it. First he talks about preserving heritage and brand DNA, then he erases the only thing that goes back to the original 250 GTO, the shark like gills for air intake on the sides?

  6. Having been a bit sniffy about the E-Type, I now find myself obsessing somewhat about this:

    https://www.carandclassic.co.uk/car/C1318259

    Yes, I know, it’s a V12, a coupé and it’s automatic, but that’s why it’s relatively good value (for an E-Type, at least) assuming it’s straight. Just think, in exchange for my Boxster and some change, I could be driving around in an E-Type. Somebody please talk me out of it!

    1. No.
      If you think you have to do it, do it.
      There is a beautiful sentence in a book I recently read: “There are three things you can’t retrieve wildly: the arrow that flew from the bow, the careless word and the missed opportunity.”

    2. I would definitely go take it for a test drive!
      Its probably quite a bit more of a lazy cruiser then your Boxter, but you will look like the most interesting man while driving it, and its the kind of car that would be great for some relaxed weekend detailing and tinkering 😉

    3. I once saw a V12 with the cam covers off. Not sure that “relaxed” would be best word for tinkering with it! On the other hand, your household does have another vehicle available to it, doesn’t it? So as a weekend car, there would definitely be an appeal…

  7. All old cars (except the earliest ones, which are huge), look small and delicate. An Aston DB5 is similarly disappointing in the metal – tall and thin.

    When it was launched, of course, the E-Type was astonishing; now it perhaps reminds us of discarded past enthusiasms, like an old toy that we once wanted so badly for Christmas. That said, its performance is still pretty good, even by today’s standards. Its style was never copied, as far as I can remember, which is quite unusual. Even the DB5 got its MGB tribute act.

    I wonder which car was the last to offer wire wheels. MG, probably. I always loved the fact that the Rover P6 was available with them. By the way, Daniel, those look like series 2 wheels on a series 1 XJ, to me.

    1. Oh no, this is not what I was hoping for, which was a metaphorical slap in the face and being told to pull myself together and have some sense!

      Charles, small and delicate is a positive attribute, in my book, especially after my experience with the F-Type, which was bl**dy enormous! I think you’re right about those wheels on the XJ. The originals were plain, not slotted, but the point about hub-caps looking more appropriate on a saloon, to my eyes at least, remains.

      Now, just how brave am I, to broach the subject of an E-Type after the F-Type misstep?

    2. Aston Martin DBS to V8? Apparently, the V8 hade too much torque for wire wheels, so all V8 models had steelies.

    3. Charles/Daniel: The photo appended above is a factory shot of the 1972 XJ12 saloon, which was launched with the ventilated steel wheels; they were fitted as standard to aid brake cooling, I believe. Apparently one could either have them painted or chromed. The following year, they were made standard equipment across the entire range when the Series II XJ was introduced.

      Daniel, as regards the classified ad, I would simply say, fuel consumption, fuel consumption and furthermore, fuel consumption…

    4. Hello Eóin, yes, of course, you’re right – I remember now (apologies, Daniel). I must say that I preferred the flatter hubcaps.

      Regarding buying an E-Type, I’d contact the owners’ club and see what I was getting in to.

    5. Charles, that would be a sensible move if I were to consider it further.

      Eóin, yes, of course you’re right about the horrendous fuel consumption, although given my very limited mileage, it wouldn’t be a deal breaker. Interestingly, the E-Type is only a couple of inches longer than the Boxster, the same height and a lot narrower.

      In any event, in the interests of maintaining domestic harmony, I think I’ll pass…

  8. Interesting on both counts – thank you, Dave & Ingvar.

    Daniel, I think ‘frail and pompous’ are the adjectives closer to what I meant, although I’m perhaps now going too far. I think you still secretly have a thing for your Jaguar, a bit, and I wouldn’t blame you.

    I keep talking out the E-Type ‘in context’, so here’s one at 6:03 in this 60’s film about traffic problems in the UK.

    The E-Type in question is in a bit of a state – it can’t be more than 3 years old. I don’t think the colour suits it, either.

    1. The film mentions the Buchanan report also known as Traffic In Towns. While it is a more nuanced document than it is commonly understood, it was misinterpreted by a generation of city planner and city engineers. They were very good at the knocking down buildings and constructing wide roads. They were terrible at constructing new streets and buildings. A typical formula was to drive motorways to city centres; in Dublin half of one side of the main arterial roads were expropriated so that two lane Victorian roads could become four lane roads with a central reservation; another classic was to knock down corner buildings to make a wider turning radius: you see the results as blank gable walls and a view in to the backyard never meant to be seen; Ring roads were constructed around towns, ruining the relation of the road to the street facades and the town to the surrounding country. And so on and so. The road widening thing stopped in the 1980s but other policy of building new areas for cars carried on which is why post-1940 Europe is mostly a desert of link roads, grassy verges, car parking and free-standing boxes.

    1. Charles: I would reply to that by pointing out firstly, the E was very much an evolution of the D-Type, which employed a very similar undulating wing line, which in the latter’s case was very much an airflow-driven solution. For competition purposes, there is no likelihood that Malcolm Sayer would have sacrificed his calculations for matters of aesthetics – not when you were competing with more powerful Ferraris, Mercedes and the like. The D was short of top end power – a factor of its engine layout and lack of swept volume, but the D’s carefully optimised shape more than made up for this deficiency. It is worth recalling as well that the XJ13 prototype employed a similarly shaped silhouette.

      However, it is documented that Sir William did request a change to the wing line of the prototype E, but it is not exactly clear to what end. What is likely however is that once the decision was taken to proceed with the E as primarily a road car, purely aesthetic considerations were given greater weight.

  9. Showing an E-Type on old-fashioned wide-band white sidewall tyres, so mid ’50s, is heresy to my point-of-view! 1961 was the year very narrow band whitewalls became the thing after five years of medium width spats. But here we get full-on 1955. Oh dear.

    I wonder how many readers here were car enthusiasts when the E-Type came out in 1961? Or were even born for that matter. I was almost 14 and thought it wonderful. Its arrival hit the market like a bombshell — everyone wanted one. Compared to the dumpy, short and stubby D-Type and XK-SS racers, it was long, lean and lissome, and very handsome. The car was featured in far more than enthusiast rags, it made the big time of general readership magazines even in the USA. In fact, I’d posit that sports cars were what brought Jaguar as a brand into general awareness in North America, because it certainly wasn’t any of the saloons. Until the XJ, big Jags were barges and only the Mk II was known among a few cognoscenti outside the UK. The XK 120/140/150 “were” Jaguar, not some blunderbus Mk8. The XK 120 in the late ’40s was the car for film stars, for goodness sake! It’s therefore surprising to me that apparently Sir William Lyons didn’t “get” that, and that he was lukewarm on the E-Type. The idea of a brand ambassador as we might term it nowadays is not a new concept at all, but the logic seems to have escaped him. Perhaps the upcoming MK 10 was uppermost in his mind for whatever unknown reason — it had about zero chance of success going up against Cadillac and Lincoln in the early 1960s, being big, puffy, curvy and bulgy, under-engined and frankly stodgy — about 1954 stylewise with an added flair of jutting prow, to be sure, but so yesterday and nowhere near enough; walnut dashboards and Connolly leather were not enough to sway many people’s thoughts otherwise.

    In fact, as Eoin presents more and more of his insights into Lyons, the less I hold the man in awe. He wasn’t tech savvy, that’s for certain. When he took over Daimler, he was presented with a completely serviceable 4.5 litre up-to-date V8. Instead of using that, he belaboured the point on the DOHC six, a long stroke overweight chuffer that boiled over constantly in a North American summer in traffic. The 4.2l version didn’t even have the combustion chambers centred over the cylinder bores! No amount of longer cylinder head bolts to the block ever made it really come good. And it drank oil as well as petrol. On the other hand, putting that big Daimler V8 into the E-Type would have had the Americans really clucking with glee. It was a powerhouse that wafted two-and-a-quarter tonne Daimler Majestic Major Limousines around with contemptuous ease using the awful Borg Warner automatic, no less. But no, Jag instead spent a decade coming up with a pussy-cat V12 of no particular technical merit. It was a classical case of Not Invented Here Syndrome not using that Daimler V8, in my opinion. A missed opportunity that hundreds of E-types re-engined by high-winding Chevy V8s showed. Crass was no doubt what Sir William would have thought of that Yankee hot-rodding, if he ever heard about it at all.

    The inward-looking UK market prior to the mid 1960s, living off past glories and British is Best fluff, was most certainly not the world by any means. Nobody anywhere else cared that UK police pursuit cars were Jags, or that the MkII also had a bad boy aura as a robbery getaway car. A big case of So What prevailed if anyone (like me) brought that topic up. At first and second glance the E-Type took the Jaguar sports car from an almost prewar look of old Delahayes and what have you with obvious wings/fenders, graceful as they were, and presented a modern clean look that was just right for the times. For the technical, the IRS was the icing on the cake — Ferraris had cart springs, and Enzo had to pull his socks up to get some modern underpinnings on his GTB by 1964. Maserati 3500s in the 1960s looked decidedly ’50s-ish as well. Lamborghini sensed Ferrari’s old-fashionedness and funded the Miura. My styling favourite of the time and after decades of reflection remains the original Lotus Elite, and I had an unnerving passion for the Lotus XI as well, but only at the time it was current. That the front of the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO had similar styling to the Elite and E-Type seemed no coincidence to me at the time.

    I must say I regard all this carping about the E-Type as rank revisionism. Yes, we know it was too narrow, it was no Wide Track Pontiac in stance, and if it didn’t have a great coefficient of drag, it at least did possess a small frontal area that allowed high top speeds. DTW often eulogizes over some frankly useless blobs of automotive tin from the past, and yet here the commentariat seems to want to apply today’s supposed aesthetic standards to a 60 year-old machine that was an icon of its day. Van Hooydonk, the guy shown lost on the BMW HQ staircase the other day, thinks he has to design/style his ugly cars to attract attention by polarizing opinion. I wonder what he’d have to say if he knocked it for six, or as the Americans say, hit one out of the ballpark, with something that wowed the world as the E-Type did in 1961. Why, he’d have to revise his gobbledeegook design philosophy, that’s what!

    1. Bill, I couldn’t agree more with your final paragraph – spot on!

      As it happens, I was 14 when the E-type came out and I, too, thought it was wonderful. However, my opinions at the time were very much influenced by what I read in ‘Motor Sport’ in general, and Bill Boddy in particular; I therefore thought that so far as British cars were concerned Vintage was best and it had all been downhill since 1931….. the only exceptions being from manufacturers who were hanging on for dear life (Alvis, Armstrong Siddeley), had already gone (Jowett, Lea Francis) or, before they’d fallen prey to the grey porridge makers, Riley. From what I was reading, it seemed that the foreigners were making all the running – funny how opinionated teenagers can be!

    2. On the other hand, we’re demonstrating our equal-opportunities credentials by criticising one of our own! 😁

    3. Bill, for some inexplicable reason, I feel compelled to apologise to you that it took me 36 years longer than you to turn 14. I promise to tell my grandchildren all about you, and how you considered old Sir Billy overrated, to try and make up for it.

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