Ambivalence towards Jaguar’s Sixties Supermodel is as old as the E-Type itself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’?
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. 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.
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?
 It’s sixty years to the day since the E-Type was first introduced to the press in Geneva.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 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.