The Jaguar E-Type Has A History As Rich As The Car Is Beautiful

Last year marked the 60th anniversary of the Jaguar E-Type, the iconic coupe that Enzo Ferrari himself famously declared was the most beautiful car he’d ever seen. 

As part of the celebration, TeNeues publishers has released  ($125), a 272-page hardback compendium that chronicles Jaguar history from before its founding as SS Cars Co. in 1933 to the Jaguar XK8 release of 2005. With 175 images photographed by René Staud and accompanying words by Jürgen Lewandowski, the book explains how the genesis of Jaguar’s most famous car, the E-Type (also called the Jaguar XKE for the North American market) can be traced to well before its glittering debut in 1961 to the birth of the company itself.

In 1922, William Lyons teamed up with William Walmsley to found the Swallow Sidecar Co., which produced motorcycle sidecars.

Four years later they changed the name to the Swallow Sidecar & Coachbuilding Co. and started building a two-seater car based on a similar version called the Austin Swallow. Then they joined forces with the Standard Motor Co., where Lyons produced more models that quickly became known by the designation SS—short for Standard Swallow. In 1933 he officially founded SS Cars Co., resulting in the elegant SS 1, the sporty SS 90, and the SS 100, which was widely considered the first great Lyons classic.

By 1945, after the Nazi horrors of World War II made the “SS” moniker highly toxic, Lyons had changed the name of his SS Cars Co. to Jaguar Cars Ltd. And he started making the Jaguar XK 120. The swoopy roadster was powered by a straight six-cylinder engine and quickly sold out of its first round of 200 units made. In 1950, Lyons continued making the XK 120 with a new steel body, followed by a closed-top coupe in 1951 and a convertible in 1953. The car was considered a smash success. In the end, more than 12,000 of them were made. 

By 1950, fresh off a respectable 12th-place finish with the XK 120 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Jaguar wanted to quickly develop something else to capitalize on the success. So it made the XK 120 Type “C” (for “Competition”), which won at Le Mans in 1951 and 1953. Even better, the wins enabled Jaguar to sell 43 similar cars to private buyers—the start of a robust business bolstered by a racing pedigree. In 1954, Jaguar began developing a successor to the Type C, which, logically, it called the D-Type.

The D-Type came with what was then considered supremely advanced engineering. Its lightweight metal body had a bolted-on rear section and a front metal tubing subframe that carried the engine and wheel suspensions. Its 3.5-liter six-cylinder engine and four-speed transmission got up to 300 horsepower—and won multiple victories at Le Mans in the 1950s. Private customer D-Type cars also won other notable races during the era the world over.

In the meantime, Jaguar had also been making the Mark VII in 1950 and was considering compact, sportier cars to appeal to a younger clientele. Its successor, the Mark IX, was built until 1961 with around 210 horsepower, large windows, chrome door frames, a widened rear track, and a new interior. Those sportier cars aimed at younger drivers and the race-developed aerodynamics of the D-Type set the tone for the car that would translate it for the masses, the E-Type.

By 1960, car designer Malcolm Sayer had already started designing the E-Type to be the most aerodynamic car possible. Helped by a 3.8-liter engine (and later a 4.2-liter) six-cylinder engine and four-speed transmission, it was fast enough to boast a 0-60 sprint time of around 7 seconds and a 150 mph top speed—at the time, among the fastest cars in the world. 

The glass-covered headlights, long hood, short rear, and dramatic curves of the E-Type also happened to look great. When it was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1961, it caused a critical and public sensation. Americans in particular loved the E-Type, which sold a total of 38,389 units in its Series 1 versions.

Subsequent versions boasted open headlights, rather than glass-covered headlights, and the larger turn signal and tail lights now set under the bumpers. In the three years that the Series 2 was offered, Jaguar sold 8,641 roadsters, 4,878 coupes, and 5,329 2+2 coupes, according to Lewandowski. The majority were shipped to the US. 

The E-Type is still beloved today, with values for enthusiasts rising accordingly. Prices have gone up over the past decade as collectors flock to the model for its beauty, heritage, and the easy and relatively affordable availability of replacement parts and components. Car insurance company Hagerty reports that prices for the 1967 E-Type 2+2 are on average $71,300 for one in good condition and $153,000 for one in pristine concours condition. Prices on the more desirable Series 1 hover around $164,000 for one in good condition. In general, Hagerty reports, E-Type values have risen 25% more than standard cars.

In 2018, Jaguar said it would make an electric version of its fan-favorite model that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle drove after their wedding that year. (That plan has since been postponed.) The unique 1968 E-Type electric conversion they drove is valued at approximately €475,000 ($493,000). 

The best-selling E-Type was followed by another hit, the XJ saloon, which sold more than 413,000 units worldwide. It also marked the end of an era. By 1966, Jaguar Cars Ltd. and the British Motor Corp. (BMC) joined together and then in 1968, after years of infighting, were bought by the British Leyland Motor Corp. Lyons, who had received a knighthood in 1956, remained chairman of the board until his retirement in 1972, when he became honorary president. He died on Feb. 8, 1985.

But his legacy continued. 

The 1980s were the years of the flashy supercars. Porsche had started building the 959, and Ferrari built the F40. Jaguar wanted one of its own.

So chief engineer Jim Randle decided he would build a machine that could reach 220 mph. He paired a 6.3-liter V12 engine with all-wheel drive and reached an impressive 542 horsepower, which was considerable at the time. He called it the XJ 220, though it never did reach the speed goal. 

Once the company showed the car and received hundreds of orders for ones, however, it had to make it with a V6 engine and lose the all-wheel drive so it could meet the demand. The decision killed the hype, because each car cost an astounding £450,000 ($549,000). Ultimately only 275 XJ 220s were made—making them exceedingly rare and special for collectors today as the supercar descendant of Lyons’s original dream.

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