The Accidental E-Type [Part Two]

The E-Type outstays its welcome.

Image: jag-lovers

As is frequently the case, what is given with one hand is taken away by another. By the late Sixties, the motorcar had become ever-more sophisticated, yet while speed and dynamic competence were on the ascendant, the unfettered enjoyment of high performance was already in retreat. Concerns too were growing over the automotive emissions and the affect they were seen to be having on air quality. Traffic congestion had become a grim fact of life, with motorists spending ever-increasing periods at a standstill. A shortlived period of unfettered freedom and self-expression was drawing to a close.

By the Series 3’s 1971 debut, a growing market for indulgent GTs had witnessed two new entrants which would in their respective ways, redefine the genre for the forthcoming decade. Mercedes-Benz’s 350 SLC embodied the latest thinking from that most rigorous of Swabian classicists, while Citroën’s radical SM exemplified a diametrically opposing ethos, courtesy of those Parisian past-masters of the Avant Garde. Both exemplified diametric extremes of contemporary GT art, and spoke of the changing face of motoring in far more a convincing manner to that of Jaguar’s reconstituted entrant.

By 1971, the E, a design with its roots in the mid-1950s let us remember, was already a decade on the market and its age was showing. While a longer wheelbase aided legroom, the interior remained narrower than contemporary norms, and lacked the cabin refinements and requisites which customers now expected. Certainly, viewed against the two newer entrants, the E-Type fell a good way short – particularly when one considers that Citroën could extract similar performance from an engine with half its capacity and cylinder count.

Nevertheless, the novelty of the V12 engine ensured that early interest in the Series 3 was strong, particularly in North America. In addition, because the Jaguar engine’s characteristics confounded most people’s preconceptions (the V12 norm having manifested itself in more highly strung, more strident machinery from the ateliers of Maranello and Sant ‘Agata Bolognese), the whisper silent Coventry unit seemed otherworldly in character, if not entirely in keeping with a car in the E-Type mould.

Image: Jaglovers

But in time-honoured Jaguar fashion, the V12 arrived to market undercooked, a matter of a more critical nature in the United States. Upon introduction, the Series 3 was viewed status-wise as a hot-ticket, and early demand proved strong, but the model quickly developed a justifiable reputation for unreliability[1] and eye-watering running costs. The point of the Series 3 was to gain service experience in the field, this however backfired badly.

Additionally, in federalised form, the V12, which developed a genuine 265 bhp in European specification, was down considerably on that figure once the mandated emissions equipment was fitted. And while everyone, (domestics and imports alike) was affected by the suffocating effects of US regulations upon performance and driveability, it certainly made something of a mockery of the new power unit.

Furthermore, with the E now set up more as an indulgent GT, its softer suspension settings, light, power-assisted steering, and the widely chosen option of automatic transmission made for a very different driving experience. While this change of character may have suited a sizeable subset of Jaguar’s US customers, more enthusiastic drivers were somewhat nonplussed by the E-Type’s dynamic transformation. The combination of the additional weight over the nose, longer wheelbase[2] and the E-Type’s inherent lack of body rigidity also made for a more nervous, less surefooted car.

Veteran journalist and racing driver, Paul Frere however spoke well of the Series 3[3], if not its thirst for fuel. As did Car magazine’s unnamed 1971 correspondent, who also praised the car’s handling and unusually, its power steering, but acknowledged that driven hard, the brakes would “wilt”. Serial E-Type owner and Autosport Grand Prix correspondent, Denis Jenkinson sampled an early 2+2 V12 in 1971, with a potential view to purchase. He later revealed that he could see “no justification for a V12 for my purposes“.[4]

Sales of the Series 3 would prove sluggish on both sides of the Atlantic, the V12 engine placing the car into a higher echelon of ownership costs, even if it did still represent something of a bargain against most contemporary rivals. In the US market, dealers, who could always find customers for six-cylinder E-Types, found the V12 a tougher sell. But with Jaguar facing repeated delay to the forthcoming XJ-S, it was hoped that Series 3 could hold out.

But 1973 changed all that. Notwithstanding the global crisis which unfolded that October, sales of the 2+2 model that year collapsed entirely. This, coupled with the prospect of new, more onerous US safety regulations for 1974 saw the fixed head E-Type quietly discontinued just before the oil embargo took hold.

Image: DVD Talk

Throughout 1974, with fuel prices (and availability) such a pressing concern, the E-Type’s perception as yesterday’s car became embedded. With little appetite for a 12-mpg roadster, demand plummeted.[5]. By mid-74, with dealers now sitting on large inventories of unsold and unwanted E-Types it dawned upon Jaguar management that it was time to call it quits.

With the decision to end production taken, the final 50 cars were finished in black[6], each bearing a numbered, dashboard-mounted plaque bearing the embossed signature of Jaguar’s founder. Nevertheless, few found customers, with a large quantity ending up in storage until they could be sold off. The final E-Type was built at Browns Lane in September 1974[7], but deliveries continued into the following year as stocks were eventually cleared.

In February 1975, Jaguar finally announced the cessation of E-Type production. For a car that caused such a sensation at its debut, this was a poignant moment, especially given the ignominious manner of its passing. Paradoxically, Jaguar’s senior managers at the time would later fall over one another to take credit for the car’s axing, with both Lofty England and Geoffrey Robinson claiming credit for the decision[8].

It is worth emphasising once more that the Series 3 E-Type was intended as a stop-gap, rather than a full-blooded attempt to rival Porsche or Ferrari. How well it served its purpose is debatable, but it did succeed as a placeholder until XJ-S was ready. Fundamentally however, it defined the outer envelope of the E-Type concept and the futility of basing a new car upon such an outdated platform. “The engine’s only fault is that it makes the car look old,” Car & Driver opined at its introduction, a comment which got right to the nub of the issue. The V12 changed the E-Type irrevocably, and it was a change the car simply couldn’t carry off with sufficient aplomb.

Image: bionicdisco

Repeated changes to the bodywork and fittings also sullied what had been a clean and supremely elegant shape. For all of its residual allure, the Series 3 looked bloated, particularly in fixed-head form. Despite prices creeping up throughout its lifespan, the V12 E remained considerably cheaper than its opposition – half the UK price of Mercedes’ 450 SL in 1974’s price lists for instance. Jaguar’s BLMC masters came to realise that serious money could be made with a more competitive offering, and this was the direction taken with XJ-S.

Jaguar’s PR made much of the V12’s pointless ignition system at launch, but perhaps it was the Series 3 itself that missed the point. As an E-Type, it diverged too far from its nimbler, friendlier forebears. As a testbed for the V12 it came to market half-cocked. In the end, it fell between stools and its appeal proved short-lived. The E-Type era was over, and with a new concept of sporting Jaguar making its debut, there could be no more accidents.

 

[1] The Opus Ignition modules had failed repeatedly in European testing, but Jaguar’s proving engineers believed the problem to have been solved prior to launch. However, in the intense heat of many US states, failures were legion, leaving many owners stranded. Additionally, early V12s suffered from overheating issues which took some time to cure.

[2] Denis Jenkinson tested an early 2+2 E-Type shortly after it debuted, writing, “Personally I did not like the feel of the longer wheelbase, and there was a tendency for the front to run-out on corners”. 

[3] Another unlikely fan of the Series 3 E was veteran Jaguar proving engineer, Norman Dewis, stating that it was his favourite sporting Jaguar model. 

[4] Jenks went on to report that “the V12 engine was such a big stride forward that the concept of the E-Type could not keep pace with it, and it would be all too easy to run out of roadholding, steering and braking ability if you gave the 5.3 litres their freedom”. He would also sample an XJ12 the following year, describing it as “a giant of a car”. Dynamically, he said, the saloon wiped the floor with the aged E.

[5] The 1974 US market roadsters were fitted with massive protruding hydrocarbon rubber buffers, front and rear, which did nothing for aesthetics – or weight.

[6] In fact only the last 49 were black. One was finished in BRG.

[7] The very last E-Type was retained by Jaguar and forms part of its heritage collection.

[8] Given that Lofty England had retired from Jaguar in February 1974, it’s likely to have been Robinson who actually swung the axe.

Sources: See Part One

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “The Accidental E-Type [Part Two]”

  1. These fine articles on the last of the E-Types are most timely from my perspective: Having not thought about this car for many years, I was reminded of it recently upon discovering the new ‘Dalgleish’ TV series (available to stream on NPO Plus for the DTW Dutch contingent), which places P.D. James’ poet detective back in the 1970s… and behind the wheel of a V12 E-Type coupé.

    Despite the many faults described, I can’t help but like the thing now. The comparison with its contemporary competitors from Mercedes and Citroën is illuminating: Now that they are all old cars, it’s far from impossible to imagine choosing the Jaguar as one’s preferred classic. Though, that might just be my weakness for doomed cars from formerly great British marques speaking…

    1. Dreaming out loud: the design of the Citroen SM, charged with Jaguar’s V12 (and of course rear-wheel drive), and that with the structural integrity of the Mercedes… that’s asking to much, probably.
      Anyway, thanks for a wonderful series on this icon of Jaguar, Eóin, a real pleasure to read.

    2. It’s deceptive how perspective changes over the years: as you say, now that the Jag, the Citroën and the Merc are all old, the Jag might win out for its charm (presumably until you drive an older “purer” model) while at the time the three were barely on the same level. I run across this often on DTW, thinking things like “it’s such a lovely car, why didn’t it sell back then?” (given DTW’s usual choice of subject 😁). Usually the excellent articles on here give a taste of things as they were perceived back then, and thus the answer to the question, but it’s remarkable how things blend together..

      Anyhow, lovely article, Eóin.

  2. Comparing prices on closed markets from those days are futile, as there were punitive import taxes in all countries favouring their own domestic markets.

    I can assure you, a V12 E-type were never half the price of a Mercedes SL anywhere but in the UK. At the same time that Alfa and Lancia was E-Type money in the UK as well. That pricing made the E-Type a no-brainer choice in the UK for a very long time, but not much anywhere else. Why would you buy anything else if you couldn’t even get bargain money propositions from Italy but matching his and hers Jaguars instead of a single Mercedes?

    1. Ingvar: The price comparison between the E-Type and Mercedes dates from 1974, by which time the UK had joined the EEC. It could hardly have been described as a closed market by then, I might suggest, although I will concede that not all import duties had been removed at that stage. But even notwithstanding this factor, and the various currency differentials at the time, the mark-up on certain makes points more to a determined pricing policy by the manufacturer rather than UK government intervention.

      Jaguars sold at proportionally higher prices in the US market, because the perception there was different from that at home, and largely because they could get away with asking more – certainly when it came to in-demand models like the E-Type. Nevertheless, Sir William watched the US market like a hawk and resisted upping prices needlessly for fear of losing sales. Jaguar’s utter reliance on American custom was a factor that he never took for granted, even if he sometimes misjudged the product offer.

      Another point to be made is that when XJ-S launched, its list price was almost double that of the last E-Types, far closer to Mercedes et al.

    2. All I’m saying is, price comparisons from the UK time period are meaningless for anyone outside the UK, because it doesn’t tell a justified full picture. In Sweden the Jaguar was never the bargain opportunity it was seen in its home country, it was always Mercedes money in a market where both were imports. Same in Italy, how many E-types was ever sold in Italy with its punitive taxes? It must’ve been Ferrari money. Italian imports to the UK seems to have been through the roof, making them a non competitor for anyone but a die hard aficionado, while the Alfa and Fiat sports car range was comparable to the MGB and Triumph in Sweden. All I’m saying is: saying that this or that model cost so and so much in a specific market doesn’t tell anything at all unless one have a full view of the European market at the time.

    3. Ingvar,

      in (West) Germany, Jaguars were never cheap cars, but always more affordable than the domestic competition – though do keep in mind that Mercedes models commanded a premium of no less than 30% above BMWs prices until the late ’80s.

      In Italy, an XJ6 was the saloon of choice for managing directors. An XJ12 was the domain of factory owners and nobility. German cars were even more expensive and equally rare.

      In Switzerland, Jaguars were the least affordably, owing to the stance of the local importer, Emil Frey. During the ‘British Elend’ years, Swiss Jaguars were basically dis- and reassembled after import and received anti-corrosion protection, ensuring a far better manufacturing quality than anywhere else. Moreover, Frey believed that Jaguars were true luxury cars and hence didn’t offer basement engine and trim specifications in the first place.

      All of which illustrates, I’d suggest, that for all the differences in taxation et al, Jaguars were historically cheaper cars than the German competitors – albeit to varying degrees, depending on each market.

    1. I’m glad Charles mentioned the XJ-C as it’s my all-time favourite Jaguar, even over the E-Type and Series III XJ:

      Yes, I know it wasn’t perfect, but just look at it!

    2. The XJ-C is a lovely thing indeed. I remember being wowed the first time I saw one in the metal, many years ago. Such a shame there was never a series 3 version.

    3. The XJ-C is a very likable car indeed. Didn’t these come with vinyl roofs?

    4. If I remember correctly XJ-Cs had vinyl roofs because the roof flexed so much that the paint would have been damaged.
      Modern paint materials are more robust and therefore no vinyl roof is needed.

    5. The S3 ‘conversion’ is very attractive, with the simpler grille.

  3. Good morning, Eóin. I like the E-type, but I think it aged rather quickly especially when compared to the SM and SLC. Maybe even more so when you realize you could drive the last new E-type of the lot in ’75 and only two years later the 928 was introduced.

Leave a Reply to Chris Elvin Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: