Vintage Headline: British Cruise Missile Launched
Even if you were paying attention to automotive affairs back in March of 1961, you were probably unprepared for the roadgoing missile launched by Sir William Lyons, co-founder and Managing Director of Jaguar Cars Limited, at a restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland.
I was not, to be sure. The car seemed too sleek to be real, more like a cartoon car for some DC Comics superhero to drive than an actual automobile with an engine and four wheels.
In March of 1961, Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons introduced this E-Type Fixed-Head Coupe to the press at a Restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland. On the 50th anniversary of that event, the same car sits ready for the start of the 2011 Tour d’Elegance on the foggy Monterey Peninsula.
To put it into perspective, we in the US were just three years removed from the excesses of the 1958 model year, when 225 inch long behemoths with chromium-plated metal slathered with seeming abandon across their flanks were commonplace.
For sports cars we had mostly MGs and Triumphs – cart-sprung toys with lever shock absorbers and agricultural pushrod four-cylinder engines, none bigger than two liters. Alfas were more sophisticated with five forward speeds in the gearbox, but they cost more ($3,395 P.O.E.) – about a half again as much as an MG, and with only a 1.6 liter overhead cam four they seemed high strung to Americans used to big engines. Even an everyday Ford “Mileage Maker” six displaced 3.7 liters.
The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL with it’s impossibly exotic gullwing doors had a 3-liter fuel-injected six, but it cost an astronomical $11,000. The contemporary Ferrari was the Ferris Bueller 250 GT SWB California Spider, which had a sophisticated 237 hp 3-liter V12 and cost around $12,000.
The Chevrolet Corvette, with a base price of $3,934 was more to American taste with a self-consciously extroverted style and a torquey base 4.6 liter pushrod V8 that had an advertised 230 horsepower. Prices climbed swiftly from there with each more powerful engine and other options. But its chassis was 1940s-tech. It owed much to the sedans with which it shared its basic architecture – ladder frame, tube shocks all around, leaf springs at the rear and independent coil spring suspension at the front. It had drum brakes, while even MGs had turned to discs by 1961. And that body was plastic.
So along comes this 2,900 pound (for the coupe – the roadster was lighter) slick porpoise of a car. It had a dedicated, fully independently sprung chassis that shared nothing with any other Jaguar, with a monocoque central structure like a fighter jet, torsion bar front suspension, disc brakes all around (inboard at the rear to lower unsprung weight), and a 265 horsepower dual-overhead cam engine straight out of the cars that won Le Mans – four times. The doggone thing had three windshield wipers, for Pete’s sake! All at an MSRP of $5,325, $200 more for the coupe.
The look was the icing on that technological cake. Reviews at the time were uniformly rapturous, while chivalrously avoiding references to its blatant phallic shape and a tail raised like a cat to display its chrome-plated gonads. With every contour stretched as though with cartoon “speed lines” it needed no advertising hype to declare itself speed and sex incarnate.
Dad’s guards red 1961 Jaguar XK-E Roadster, or “OTS” (Open Two Seater) in our driveway in Western Springs, Illinois, 1961. Looks as though it’s going 140 standing still, doesn’t it?
At its introduction, Enzo Ferrari himself declared it the most beautiful car ever made, and one notes a famiarity in the front end of his GTO of 1962. Road & Track’s Editor-at-Large Henry N. Manney III called it “The Greatest Crumpet Collector Known to Man.” (I originally wrote “catcher.” Thanks to R&T’s Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis for correcting it to “collector.”)
In his celebration of the E-Type’s (that’s what the Brits call it, and what appeared on the hatch of the 4.2 in 1965.) 50th anniversary, R&T’s Peter Egan conjured up Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s comment about a favorite aircraft, and how it “looked like a shape that had always existed in nature and had simply been discovered rather than invented.” Wish I’d said that.
The illustrations for that column included a photo of a body devoid of engine or running gear, on stands waiting to be mated to its other components. It’s similar to the shot that Strother MacMinn once chose to illustrate its inclusion in Road & Track’s selection as one of The World’s Most Beautiful Cars, and perfectly demonstrates its status as the purest shape ever incorporated in a roadworthy car.
No one seems to know the real Cd of that form. I’ve corresponded with R&T’s Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis about it and he seemed unconvinced, as I am, that the car was ever subjected to wind-tunnel testing. For all we know that slippery shape could be just eyewash (my words, not his). But with a 149.1 mph tested top speed with only 265 gross hp it’s certainly no aerodynamic brick. I’ll go to my grave believing it’s as slick as a bottle-nose dolphin.
And elegant, too. Dad’s second E-Type, a silver blue FHC purchased new from John Weinberger at Continental Imports in La Grange, Illinois, had a sophistication and grace that no car in its day could surpass at any price, with the possible exception of the rare Aston Martin DB4 GTZ.