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The Jaguar E-Type


Americans tend to call the car the XK-E although it shared little with the XK 120/140/150 that preceded it except the XK engine. The British designation was E-Type, and it was a Grand Touring car derived from the D-Type racing Jaguar that won the 24 Hours Of Le Mans three years in a row in 1955, ’56 and ’57.

No less an automotive luminary than Enzo Ferrari said upon its arrival that it is the most beautiful car ever made, and Enzo built some absolute stunners including the similarly-shaped 250 GTO race cars (plus a handful of street-legal versions) from 1962-1964. This is my personal favorite car of all time. If I had the money and could only buy one classic car, it would be an E-Type.

Series 1 1961-1968

Not only did Jaguar aerodynamicist Malcom Sayer design a stunning body with sensuous curves, the car was revolutionary in a number of ways. It had a front subframe that carried the engine and front suspension that bolted directly to the body tub. There was no typical ladder-frame. It had a unibody (monocoque if you’re British) construction for the rest of the car that is commonplace on modern cars but almost exclusively limited to race cars or the Mini, released 2 years earlier and itself a rally racer in its Cooper and Cooper S guises, prior to the E-Type. This was a radical design for a production car in the early ’60s although it was becoming more commonplace within the racing world. Without the heavy frame typical of the cars of the day, the Series 1 was a featherweight-for-the-time 2,900 lbs despite its 96-inch wheelbase and 175 1/2-inch overall length. Its light weight combined with a powerful 3.8 liter (231 cu. in.) dual overhead cam straight-six engine with three SU carbs that produced 265 HP and 260 ft. lbs. of torque mated to a 4-speed Moss transmission enabled the E-Type to reach a true 150 MPH, an astonishing speed for a road car in 1961. The XK-150 that preceded it could only manage 135 MPH despite a name that implied faster speed.

The technical advances didn’t end there, however…disc brakes were standard equipment at a time when drum brakes were on nearly every other car, rack-and-pinion steering gave more precise handling than the recirculating-ball steering commonplace then and well into the 1970s, and independent front and rear suspension were innovations that eventually made their way into lesser cars. The dash had toggle switches and a button-actuated starter as in a race car.

The E-Type was available in hardtop and convertible versions, or Fixed Head Coupe and Open Two Seater in British parlance. Series 1 is divided into two categories depending upon year and engine displacement: ’61-’64s had the 3.8 liter six and a partial synchromesh transmission, and ’65-’67 models had an upgraded 4.2 liter six that produced he same 265 HP but 283 ft. lbs. of torque, a full synchromesh transmission, reclining seats, a negative earth (ground) electrical system in place of the earlier positive earth system and an alternator that replaced the dynamo of the earlier version. 

Both versions had clear covers for the headlight scoops and chrome half-bumpers front and rear. Styling was unchanged.

A 9 inch longer, 63.5 kg (140 lb.) heavier 2+2 version was offered starting in 1966. These had a taller windshield and longer doors to ease entry into the smallish rear seats that were really only suitable for children. For true adult rear seating one would have to wait until 1968 and purchase the XJ-6 sedan.

Each car was partially hand-built in Jaguar’s factory in Coventry. As such there are small differences in many of the cars. The first 500 Series 1 E-Types had a flat floor and external bonnet (hood) latches. A small number of cars at the end of Series 1 production in 1967 had the headlight covers removed for better illumination. The number of these cars built, sometimes referred to as “Series 1.25” but still Series 1 as far as Jaguar were concerned, is unknown.

Some late 1967 E-Types produced for the US market had twin Zenith-Stromberg carbs in place of the triple SU carbs in order to meet new US emissions regulations. This reduced the horsepower of the 4.2 liter engine from 265 to 246 and torque from 283 to 263. These cars are referred to now as “Series 1.5”, but they were still Series 1 models to Jaguar.

15,498 3.8 liter Series 1s were built, 7,828 of which were convertibles. 16,195 4.2 liters were built, 6,749 were convertibles and 3,616 were 2+2 coupes. 6,726 Series 1.5 4.2 liters were built for the US market, 2,801 were convertibles and 1,983 were 2+2 models.

Series 2 1968-1971

The Series 2 models had several changes designed to meet newer US safety standards, as the US was a large market for E-Types and Jaguar did not want to build different cars for the US market and the rest of the world. The glass headlight covers were gone, there were wrap-around bumpers front and rear, and larger front indicator lights. The taillights and front parking lights were now below the bumpers.

The ignition switch was now located on the steering column and incorporated a steering lock, replacing the dash-mounted ignition switch and starter button. The toggle switches on the dash were replaced with rocker switches and the steering column itself was collapsible and designed to absorb impact in a crash. New seats with head restraints were standard, those being required by US law starting in 1969. Air conditioning and power steering became options for the first time.

The smooth polished cam covers of the Series 1 engines were replaced with covers with a ribbed appearance.

Engine specifications remained the same, but US versions got the twin Zenith-Stromberg carbs as in the Series 1.5 models, reducing HP to 246 from 265 and torque to 243 from 263.

In 1969 Road & Track magazine surveyed 100 E-Type owners, with mixed results. Owners by and large liked the car but the survey showed a penchant for unreliability. The main faults were inaccurate instruments, overheating, oil leaks, the somewhat temperamental Lucas electrics, failing clutches, water leaks, and even occasional body parts falling off. To be fair these complaints were typical of most British sports cars of the ’60s and ’70s, especially those produced by the new merger in 1968 called British Leyland under whose auspices the Series 2 and 3 E-Types were built, and were not limited just to Jaguar or the E-Type.

5,326 Series 2 2+2s were produced along with 4,855 coupes and 8,628 convertibles.

My own love affair with the E-Type began in 1969 when my parents’ friend’s wife who lived down the street brought home a brand-new Regency Red Series 2 coupe. The car bug had bitten me the year before and I was beginning to notice all things automotive. She drove over to the house to show it off one Saturday and I thought it was the most fantastic thing I had ever seen on four wheels. With both my Dad and brother being total gear heads they HAD to see the engine. Imagine the surprise on my young face when the entire front half of the body pivoted up to reveal the beautiful six-cylinder engine underneath. I thought I was witnessing a magic trick. I made lots of trips to their house over the next few years to visit the new automotive object of my affection.

The closest I would ever come to owning an E-Type was my own Regatta Red 1983 Datsun 280ZX some twenty years later. The styling was very obviously derived from the E-Type as was the torquey straight six engine which was 1 liter and some 50 or so HP shy of the Jag.

Its curb weight was nearly identical to the Series 1, and although the Datsun lacked the power, prestige, sensuous rounded curves and sheer gravitas of the Jaguar it was an extremely well-built, fast and great-handling Grand Touring car in its own right that hearkened back to the E-Type of old with none of the quirks and foibles of the original. I enjoyed the hell out of that car.

Series 3 1971-1975

This final series heralded a brand-new engine: the 5.3 liter V-12. Equipped with four Zenith-Stromberg carbs the V-12 put out 314 HP and 301 ft. lbs. of torque. Initially Jaguar promised that the 6 cylinder XK engine would continue to be an option for the Series 3, but in reality only 3 such examples were produced.

The V-12 was smoother and offered more flexibility than the 3.8 or 4.2 liter XK six. The wheelbase for the 2+2 was now standard meaning the 2-seat coupe was dropped, leaving only the convertible and 2+2 coupe. The new length gave more interior room than the rather cozy 2-seat Series 1 and 2 models, especially the coupes.  This series can be easily identified by its flared wheel arches, slatted front grille, larger tires, wider track, four exhaust tips and the V-12 badge displayed on the rear. Wire knock-off wheels were now an option, the brakes were more robust and power steering was standard.

Sadly the V-12 was not an altogether good thing for the E-Type. The chassis and suspension designs were 10 years old by the time the Series 3 came about, and even with new improvements the increased power and torque of the new engine exposed roadholding, handling and braking flaws when pushed to the limit that had not been present with the XK six-cylinder. The new 1972 XJ-12 had the same engine but was designed with roadholding and handling characteristics up to the potential of the V-12, and outran the Series 3 E-Type on twisty roads despite being a sedan, not a Grand Tourer, and having a 10 MPH+ deficit in top speed. In 1974 Road & Track magazine tested a Series 3 E-Type and lamented “What is such a magnificent engine doing in such an outdated body?”.

Sales were down for 1971, and in 1972 a two-week strike by engine builders and a 10-week strike over pay by other workers was crippling for Jaguar. October 1973 saw the last 2+2 coupe leave the factory as the US would have forced them to be fitted with an internal rollover bar in 1974, a costly engineering redesign that Jaguar was not prepared to undertake on a 12-year-old design that was no longer selling well. From then on only convertibles would be produced. On New Year’s Day 1974 the energy crisis forced the British government to institute a 3-day workweek to reduce electricity consumption, and production numbers dropped. All cars exported to the US from 1974 had to have ungainly rubber bumper overriders which added weight and further distorted the cars appearance. To make matters worse there were more restrictive US safety regulations on the way for 1976. Sadly for the E-type, its trunk-mounted gas tank could not meet the mandatory 30mph rearward barrier crash test that was on the horizon. Demand in the US had now virtually evaporated. The last of 72,333 E-Types rolled off the assembly line in September of 1974 and was retained by Jaguar. There were so many unsold cars in dealerships that production, scheduled to resume in February of 1975, never started up again. The iconic E-Type was no more.The E-type left an enduring legacy which enabled people to forget its faults. 

In September 1975 the E-Type’s successor the XJ-S was launched. Criticized for its styling, initially unreliable and badly built to the point that by 1980 it faced extinction, the XJ-S suffered in comparison with its predecessor until better-built examples came later in the 1980s. In fact the XJ-S was more aerodynamic than the Series 3 and was designed to meet US safety and emissions legislation, which the E-type could no longer conform to. The E-Type had been magnificent in its 1960s heyday, but in the 1970s world of speed restrictions and higher gas prices motorists wanted more comfort than performance from a Grand Touring car, and sadly the E-Type had to go.

The E-Type will always be an icon and a symbol of swinging ’60s Great Britain. It has a cool factor that few cars of its day could match, despite its flaws. Well-restored models and even unmolested, unrestored examples in excellent condition can command six figures today, a testament to its reputation as one of the fastest, most stylish cars ever to come out of the British Isles. If you’ve never seen one up close, you owe it to yourself to do so. You won’t be disappointed.

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It’s Jeff Despicable Boofer