The Jaguar E-type would make it into most peoples’ list of top 10 cars for even if they knew nothing of the car’s mechanics or its marvellous handling, it would be because of its stunning good looks.
The car has been around since 1961 and yet it is still a head-turner, the long, sexy bonnet, with the faired in headlights of the earlier models as well as the bonnet louvres, sweeping back to the windscreen in a graceful flourish extending back through the cockpit area to the boot.
In the Fifties, the Jaguar marque was at its height, success at Le Mans in 1951, 1953, 1955, 1956 and 1957 burnishing the company’s already bright image it had acquired through its road-going models, particularly the XK120.
The E followed both the C and D types, although these latter two models were purely sports racing cars while the E-type was designed more as a replacement for the XK150, although there was some overlapping to begin with, for even as Jaguar’s latest sports car was being launched, the E1A, as the prototype was called, was being conceived. It bore a significant resemblance to the D-type but was powered by the smaller XK engine.
The prototype, designated E2A, was contemplated as the racing successor to the D-type but technically it was a forerunner of the E-type complete with the 3.8 litre engine located in the detachable front subframe. It also incorporated all the main D-type features of construction, the design now going full circle as the C-type had grown out of the XK120 and then developed into the D-type. For the first time, though, a Jaguar was fitted with independent rear suspension, one of the features of the E-type when announced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1961. When the cars finally went on sale to the public in July, most of the early examples went to well known personalities such as Adam Faith and Billy Cotton.
The car was a sensation, not only for its looks but for the way it went. The contemporary press reports were extremely impressive. William Boddy in Motor Sport, for example, reported the car as being quite fantastic, praising in particular the low level of noise even when cruising at 155 mph, a speed that was subsequently found to be unattainable on cars other than the especially prepared press test cars. Also praiseworthy were the exceptionally high standard of road holding and the impressive acceleration. One unimpressive feature about the early models, however, was that they were not fitted with footwells, which were uncomfortable for anybody over 5 foot 9. Above all these considerations, however, was the extremely reasonable price of the car in comparison with its rivals. It cost £1550 plus £647 purchase tax for the coupe and £1480 plus £618 for the roadster when £5700 was the price of a Mercedes-Benz 300S, £6000 for any Ferrari and it was less than half the price of an Aston Martin DB4GT.
By the time the last E-type came off the production line in the autumn of 1974, one of a batch of 50 black V12 roadsters celebrating the last of the line, 72,507 examples of all series had been built of which 49,032 were sold in the USA. The 3.8-litre engine had been replaced by the 4.2 in 1964 and in 1971 a new V12 engine complemented the range.
Introduced at the New York Motor Show, the new V12 E-type stole the show. It was the product of some long term planning for W.M. Heyes and C.W. Bailey had evolved a design for a production V12 in the early Sixties and then taken up by Walter Hassan and Harry Mundy. One of the criteria was that it must fit into the basic E-type car.
Today, though, it is the early 3.8 litre models which are the most sought-after of E-types today despite the slow gearbox, uncomfortable seats and a more difficult spares problem.
According to Paul Skilleter’s book on the E-type, there were 15,496 made of which 7827 were the open two-seater and 7669 the fixed-head coupe. The fact that the majority of these early cars went to the States is borne out by the fact there were only 942 right-hand drive roadsters and 1798 fixed-head coupes.
In the Seventies the E-type went through a sorry had patch in the secondhand market, for they needed specialised equipment to repair the monocoque and so most tended to be bodged up in the cheapest way possible. Particularly as they were not worth much money. So it is therefore surprising that 15 of the original 20 are still known about and running. One of the most pristine examples I have recently seen is chassis number 850008, the eighth car off the line, belonging to vintage motor cycle racer Malcolm Clarke.
Malcom bought the car in February, 1977 from a dealer in Lincolnshire without realising just how early the car was. In fact he went to buy an XK 140, was too late and instead came across a rather forlorn E-type sporting a Mark 3 body with American seats and tinted windows.
The owner of four E-types before, he knew it was an early model despite the K registration, but as the car lacked a chassis plate and body number, he was unable to determine its exact age although there were at !east the engine and gearbox numbers which would help identification. The car was “ready for the tip” according to Malcolm, but the dealer would not reduce the price from £2500, but after haggling, he managed to buy the car for £2450 even though it was in a poor state with two holes in the bonnet, the floor peppered with tin worm and the whole car looking rather sad.
The clue to the car’s age and identity came about when Malcolm was working under the bonnet and came across a body plate hidden under a switch. This set in motion his quest in tracking down the car’s history which Jaguar soon confirmed was chassis number 8 and formerly belonged to Sir Gawaine Baillie, the E-type racer of the Sixties.
The car was completely stripped down and everything changed, the panels coming from the factory although each one needed modifying as it appeared his car was a little shorter than later Jaguars even though the appearance of the E-type hardly altered between 1961 and 1967. The outer sills were rotten and needed replacing as were the panels that made up the centre-section under the car, rusting from the inside outwards as the nature of the design meant that the moisture was trapped in the closed in box sections. Another water trap, although only on the fixed-head coupes, was the area of outer rear wing where it met the inner wing resulting in the wheel arch rotting away along with the underside of the leading edge of the rear bumper. Another problem underneath was where the engine subframe and front bulkhead were bolted together. Other areas of rot included the scuttle-section both at the windscreen and at the sill.
The engine was stripped and every internal piece was balanced, lightened and polished. The crank was ground and D-type spec. camshafts and 13/4 inch inlet valves were installed, so that by the time it was tested on a rolling road it was found to be developing 300bhp, 35bhp more standard.
Although the standard differential in the 1961 cars was 3.31, Malcolm found that his car was fitted with 3.04, but fitted the 3.07 differential which was standard on the 4.2s. Fortunately the gearbox was in good condition for reconditioning 3.8 E-type boxes would be both expensive and difficult.
The brakes were updated with a servo, a feature only introduced on the 4.2 and Kenlowe fans were fitted on each side of the radiator, as the earlier cars were prone to overheating, instead of just one side. The wheels were rebuilt and re-chromed. Proper leather trim bucket seats replaced the ones found on the car and the sills were covered in a grained vinyl. The patterned aluminium on the transmission tunnel, console and central dash panel was brought back to life again with a great deal of hard polishing. Being a roadster, the heating and ventilation was not so important, but it was a part of the E-type that Jaguar was never able to get right, the earliest models being the worst examples.
On the face of it these problem areas do seem insurmountable, but since the earliest of these cars are coming up to their 30th birthday, the problem areas are to be expected. They do not detract, however, from the fact that the E-type Jaguar is one of the most desirable cars ever built by a British manufacturer from both an aesthetic and mechanical point of view. If ever there was a car with unadulterated sex appeal it was, and is, the E-type Jaguar.