The Development of the E Type
The E Type may have appeared seemingly from nowhere at the Geneva motor show of 1961, but of course it wasn't quite like that. The car that wowed the world with its svelte, futuristic lines was actually 6 years in development and only came about because of calamity. And luck.
In the mid to late 1950s Jaguar was on top of the sports car world with multiple wins at Le Mans in its all-conquering D-Type, a car that was as capable as it was beautiful. Jaguar wanted to translate this on-track success to the road with a halo car that would drive sales of the more humble models. The previous C-Type had done this successfully by looking convincingly similar to the road-going XKs. But there was no comparable D-Type road warrior. They saw a gap in the market for a more focussed sports car alternative to the popular XK grand tourers.
The result, in January 1957, was the XK-SS, essentially a D-Type for the road. Jaguar planned to sell 100 examples and, presumably unsure of its potentially, set the purchase price low. The car was a little compromised for road use - cramped, uncomfortable and the body flexed - but it went like a rocket (o-60 in 5.2 seconds) and looked sensational.
And then, in February, the Jaguar factory burnt down. Only 16 completed XK-SS cars escaped, the rest were lost and suddenly Jaguar was out of the high performance sports car market.
For the rest of 1957 Jaguar concentrated on resurrecting production of its mainstream models. But the sports car idea hadn't disappeared. By this point the XK sports car was 10 years old. Despite regular improvements, by late 1957 it was beginning to look old hat and out of step with the trend towards smaller, compact sports cars.
There doesn't seem to have been much of a plan behind the first steps in the E Type's evolution. In late 1957 Jaguar's engineering team began to pick up the bones of the D-Type's construction and imagine a new, smaller sports car. The result was called the E1A, the nomenclature apparently derived from Experimental Number One Alloy or Aluminium, reflecting the nature of the car and its construction.
E1A was innovative in its use of aluminium body and chassis and independent rear suspension, but it definitely wasn't a clean-sheet design. Its construction owed a lot to the D-Type and its lines were clearly reminiscent of the D-Type and XKSS. But it was smaller and more streamlined and used a 2.4 litre version of the XK engine rather than the 3.4 unit of the XK-SS. This was clearly a car designed to be light and aerodynamic, which enabled less power to deliver XK-SS rivalling performance.
The new car was ready for testing by early 1958, a remarkably short timescale for a car that would later become the long-lived E Type. E1A underwent thousands of miles of testing and William Lyons, Jaguar's mercurial founder, even let a motoring journalist test it. Quite why all this time and effort went into the car is not entirely clear, which is perhaps indicative of Jaguar's very seat-of-the-pants approach to business under Lyons.
It seems very likely that E1A was intended to give Jaguar a way back to motorsport success, particularly at Le Mans. Sporting excellence had clearly been essential to the brand's image during the 1950s and it would make sense not to drop this. A new car to deliver on the track and in the showroom, just like the plans for the XK-SS, clearly made emotional and commercial sense.
At some point Jaguar seems to have decided that E1A wasn't that car. Between 1958 and 1960 the engineering team created E2A, an evolution of the earlier car that was longer and with a 3 litre version of the XK engine. The larger car looked almost exactly like an E Type and was clearly a more practical proposition than the diminutive first car. E2A actually raced at Le Mans in 1960, although not by the official Jaguar team, and performed very well before a broken fuel line forced retirement.
Jaguar didn't pursue its Le Mans dream beyond that turn-of-decade venture. This was the era of mid-engined supercars and presumably the firm couldn't see this format translating to the showroom. Luckily there was no need to worry about the withdrawal from racing. Next year the E Type arrived and nobody cared how it droved. Because it looked sensational.
The road going E-Type was essentially a mildly revamped E2A. The length and track were the same, but the production car was built from steel rather than aluminium. But it retained that innovative independent rear suspension, giving the E-Type a ride and handling mix eons better than the XK. The car got a 3.8 litre version of the proven XK engine, delivering 265 bhp and 0-60 in under 7 seconds.
With the E-Type, Jaguar proved that it could convert a race car for the road without losing its essential brilliance. A sign of just how on top of its game Jaguar was at the time is that the coupe, which was designed after the E2A-based convertible, arguably looks better than the open top car. And where the XK was big and heavy, the E-Type was perfect for the new decade - small, lithe and light.
The E-Type may have hit the market with limited race pedigree, but it hardly mattered. That would come later. The car just looked amazing, even if those looks were born out of practical considerations rather than aesthetics.
But what a triumph for Jaguar. A car born out of disaster came to conquer the world and leave a legacy that continues to deliver for the firm.