England has always been considered the ancestral birthplace of the sports car, and the Jaguar E-Type’s arrival on our shores four decades ago merely accentuates that point.
Even though two-seat, low-slung runabouts were being produced in North America, there exists the romantic notion that only those venerable marques from across the pond are the real deal.
The reason for this attitude is simple. Beginning around the mid-1930s, cars built here began growing larger and heavier, as buyers began equating size with prestige and value.
But in Great Britain, the combination of (very) narrow roads and expensive petrol made smaller, lighter cars (including sports cars), a more viable proposition.
Sports cars were all but forgotten until the end of the Second World War when returning servicemen brought back a trickle of these odd little righthand drive roadsters. The sports-car trend began gathering steam with post-war MG TCs and TDs, followed in the 1950s by MG TFs and MGAs, plus assorted Triumphs and Austin Healeys. Most weren’t overly powerful, especially comfortable or particularly reliable.
But they provided more wind-in-your-face pleasure than any other car around.
The modern era in sports-car design and development began in March, 1961 when Jaguar’s chairman, Sir William Lyons, unveiled the new E-Type (or XKE, as it was called in North America) at the Geneva Auto show. Loosely based on the mid-1950s competition D-Type, and penned by the same designer, the launch caused a sensation with the press. Here was a car with a claimed top-speed of 150 mph — about as fast as a Ferrari or Aston Martin — for less than half the price.
Underneath the E-Type’s beautiful, wind tunnel-shaped body was a tubular monocoque chassis that was not only light, but exceedingly stiff.
Although the chassis, as well as the four-wheel independent suspension was up-to-the-minute modern, the 265-horsepower 3.8-liter DOHC inline six-cylinder engine was based on a design that was first used in 1948. Only the original prototypes were capable of the 150 mph top speed claimed by Jaguar. Real-world examples would run out of breath at around 140. This was still impressive, however, as was the 0-60 mph time of seven seconds and average fuel economy that nudged 20 miles per gallon.
The E-Type was available in both roadster and coupe versions. The latter featured a ground-breaking rear hatch that opened from the side instead of from the bottom, revealing a large, flat storage area.
With long waiting lists, it became obvious that the E-Type would be a huge hit.
However, the early Series I ETypes from 1961-’64 suffered a number of teething pains.
These included the antiquated 1930s-designed Moss four-speed manual transmission that lacked a first-gear synchro, unreliable disc brakes, poorly-constructed bucket seats, tendency to overheat in hot weather as well as numerous electrical maladies. Many owners also learned the hard way that it was a bad idea to drive their rust-prone E-Types on heavily salted winter roads.
By the end of 1964, an improved 4.2-liter six-cylinder was installed in the E-Type. Although its power rating was the same as the 3.8, torque was significantly increased.
As well, many of the problems in the earlier car had now been rectified.
Two years later, Jaguar launched a stretched-wheelbase 2+2 version of the E-Type coupe. There was more space inside, but the tiny rear seats could only accommodate small children or pets. What’s more, with two inches added to the roof height, the car appeared top-heavy and out of proportion. Mechanically, the by-then all-synchro four-speed manual was joined by an optional Borg-Warner three-speed automatic transmission.
In 1968, The seven year-old E- Type received additional changes that altered both the car’s design and power. Owing to new safety and emission regulations in the United States, the car’s front and rear bumpers were enlarged, headlight lens covers removed and grotesque side marker lights were attached. In addition, these Series 2 E-Types, as they were called, were forced to adopt pollution controls that reduced engine output to just 171 horsepower, a loss of 94 compared to the European-spec version.
To compensate for the loss, Jaguar introduced the Series 3 model in 1971. Available as a roadster and 2+2 coupe, this E-Type used the 2+2’s longer wheelbase chassis to fit a 5.3-liter SOHC V12. With more power and torque on tap, the much heavier, thirstier and pricier Jag was almost able to match the original Series I in straight-line performance.
But the end of the E-Type was clearly in sight. Increasingly-tougher government regulations were making the car less viable by the year. Final versions of the car were sold with hideous impact-absorbing rubber appendages attached to both ends of the car.
Sadly, but perhaps mercifully, the last of the nearly 70,000 E-Types rolled off the Coventry, England assembly line in 1975. Since that time, the car’s timeless lines, particularly the earlier examples, helped make it an increasingly popular and enduring choice for car collectors.
The E-Type’s traffic-stopping good looks and plentiful power are a testament to the days when British sports cars were the benchmark by which all others would be compared.
Malcolm Gunn is a writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.