Geneva, March 16 1961... the star of the Auto show is unveiled to the world and the world of sports car will be marked forever... Its name is the Jaguar E-type, or XKE as it will be better known in the United States, and it is not only stunning but it also sets new standards in terms of performance and price.
The early 60s were a time where most cars had drum brakes, live rear axle, styling still drawing heavily on the 50s, body on frame construction and performance that was often not so sporty. In contrast Jaguar brought to Geneva a 150 mph race bred monocoque sports car with independent rear suspension, disc brakes and styling that would become an icon of the 60s. In pure Jaguar tradition the price was as spectacular as the performance, £2,097 for the roadster which was almost half what its nearest competitor the Aston Martin DB4 sold for ( £3968 ). Yes, it is probable that if James Bond had been paying for his cars himself rather than the British government he would have indeed been driving an E-type... Seriously, on the all important US market, the XKE would be significantly cheaper that the Corvette, by almost 30 %.
The way the E-type was launched at Geneva is unique and dramatic in many ways. First, inside the show itself, a fixed head coupe was revealed to the press and VIPs by lifting up a huge crate which was covering the car, officially revealing to the word the most advanced sports car ever built. Then there is the second car, the press demonstrator, which was driven … yes driven… from Coventry to Geneva and arrived just in time to be quickly cleaned and presented to the press at a park. What a leap of faith to send an all new car on a 600 miles journey with only hours to spare…Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons was on hand to personally demonstrate the car; incidentally he was known to prefer the styling of coupe to the convertible which may explain why both Geneva show cars were coupes.
Three red roadsters... three personalities :
Series 1 : covered headlights, smaller bonnet opening, turn signals above the bumpers.
Series 2: open headlights, large bonnet opening, larger turn signals below the bumpers; still narrow track and 5" wire wheels.
Series 3: fender flares to accommodate the wider track and 6" wheels, radiator grille, lower air scoops and longer wheelbase.
Work on the E-type had started in the late fifties as a replacement to the successful XK 120 - 150 series and drew heavily on Jaguar's Le Mans winning D-type monocoque and front sub frame construction. Mechanically, the E-type used the same 3.8 liter XK inline 6 cylinder engine with triple carburetors used on the XK150S developing 265 hp. One of the new features was the development of an all new independent rear suspension, self contained in a sub frame, and featuring 4 shocks and springs with inboard disc brakes, mounted near the differential therefore reducing unsprung weight. This independent rear suspension system gave Jaguar an edge in term of handling, comfort, grip and noise. The basic design remained in use not only during the entire E-type production but would also be found on saloons like the XJ6 all the way until 1988. The front and rear Dunlop disc brakes were activated by twin master cylinders providing ample braking power by 1961 standards and reliability. The rack and pinion steering helped give the E-type its agile reputation with a short turning radius and light efforts. Another innovation was a separate header tank and the electrical cooling fan system, which would need improvement in the following years.
The elegant body shape, designed by aerodynamicist Malcom Sawyer, was a key element in achieving the magic 150 mph top speed. And 150 mph is something the E-type was capable of, as tested by the British motor press even though the car used was slightly optimized to reach the magic number with little details such as the front bumper overriders removed to reduce aerodynamic drag. Acceleration was impressive as well with Autocar magazine report 0 to 60 mph times of just under 7".
13 years before, in 1948, Jaguar had stunned the world by producing a 120 mph car, the XK120, something unheard of at the time. Original reaction to the car was such that Jaguar was not ready to mass produce it and it would take 2 years to finally create the tooling needed to produce the steel body instead of the hand made aluminum panel used on the early car. History would nearly repeat itself with the E-type which was also expected by Sir Lyons and his team to be a limited production car, that is of course until the world discovered it in Geneva.
Originally, the company producing the panels, Abbey Panels, was using concrete tooling rather that steel to produce the panels and deliveries were slow until the proper steel tooling could be made, with only 2160 cars produced in the first year. Things were aggravated early on the production runs as a labor dispute and a strike at one of the plants.
Two weeks after the dramatic unveiling in Geneva, the American public discovered the E-type at the New York Auto Show on April 1st and reception was equally enthusiastic, the Jaguar display being swamped with visitors. Magazines such as Road and Track or Car And Driver tested the E-type and praised the car for its styling and performance even though they pointed out a few shortfalls such as lack of interior space and the original gearbox with non synchro first gear. The US market will become very important for Jaguar with over 3/4 of the 72 000 E-types built during its 13 years production coming to the US.
Between 1961 and 1964, the E-type would remain unchanged until demand for a more powerful engine in the saloons prompted Jaguar to increase the XK engine displacement from 3.8 to 4.2 litre in 1964. Horsepower remained the same but reached at lower RPM and torque was increased by about 10 hp. The 4.2 liter E-Type also received a much needed new all synchromesh 4 speed gear box, new reclining seats and an alternator.1966 would see the launch of the first 2+2 model, featuring a longer wheelbase ( by 9" ) and a revised roofline, which some view as less elegant as the original coupe. The addition of the small rear seats meant the car was more practical and could even pass for a family car... sort of... as long as the children are small and understanding... Also, the longer wheelbase allowed Jaguar to offer an optional 3 speed Borg Warner Automatic gearbox..
In late 1967, the E-type would undergo various changes mostly prompted by increased regulations in the US, the car's largest market. Among these, the most easily noticeable were the replacement of the covered headlights with open headlights to improve their effectiveness. Turn signals would move under the bumpers, the toggle switches and aluminum center panel were replaced with rocker switches and a vinyl panel, the knock offs on the wheels would loose their ears requiring the use of an adapter to change a wheel. However, to make matters confusing for collectors and restorers, all these changes were not implemented at the same time but instead phased in throughout 1968 as inventories of older parts ran out. 1968 cars are often called series 1 1/2 even though this is not officially documented by Jaguar.
Series 1 and 2 : classic in line 6 XK engine, 3.8 or 4.2 litre