Conceived in the cauldron of endurance racing and born at the dawn of the swinging sixties, the E-Type was fast, sexy and desirable -- but its prototypes suffered very different fates and its demise was brought about by its maker's own greed.
The mechanical predecessor to the E-Type was the built-for racing D-Type, the Le Mans hero-car with a towering fin behind the driver's head. One of the earliest monocoque cars, the D-Type was designed by aerodynamic mathematician Malcolm Sayer and saw the advent of disc brakes.
The E-Type was conceived not as a racer but as a road-going replacement for the aging XK150 -- but when Jaguar withdrew from motorsport in 1957, it was the racing department that did the prototype work.
The initial result was the Jaguar XKSS, a road car based on the D-Type. In 1957 a batch of unsold D-Types were converted but several were destroyed in a factory fire and only sixteen were made; Actor Steve McQueen owned one.
Visually the two-seater soft-top was halfway between the born-to-race D and the born-to-entice E models
Built in 1958, E1A was prototype 1 for the yet-to-be "E" type. It had an aluminium monocoque, a space-frame front sub-assembly, aluminium bodywork, independent rear suspension and a 2.4 litre short-stroke six-cylinder engine.
Jaguar boss Sir William Lyons once handed the keys of the top-secret prototype to a motoring writer, the editor of Motor, who was sworn to secrecy. He returned with words like "astonishing," "sensational," and "world-beater."
The scribe kept his word and never spoke about the car in public, but sent a confidential memo to his boss in May 1958. Published many years later, the note revealed that the production car to come, would be a 3.0-litre with a top speed "not far short of 150 mph."
After it served its test and development purpose, this historic car was destroyed by the factory.
E2A was the second prototype for the E type. It was conceived with more "race" than "road" DNA, because many in the company still hoped Jaguar would return to competition.
After two years of road and test-track R&D, E2A finally did get to race, going to Le Mans in 1960 as part of the Briggs Cunningham team. PR smoke-screens said the interesting new Jaguar had been "specially commissioned" by the American, but the aging test-bed had already been scheduled for the scrap heap when Cunningham asked to race it. The car ran as high as third at Le Mans, before a series of engine woes sidelined it after 9 hours.
Subsequently the man who looked after customer's racing cars at Jaguar, Roger Woodley bought the car for his wife Penny, on condition that it was never raced.
Honouring that agreement, E2A never saw competition, although it did make several public appearances. After more than forty years of ownership, Penny sold E2A in August 2008 for $4.95 million, setting a record for a Jaguar sold at auction.
Meanwhile the production E-Type was revealed at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show and launched as the XKE in America in April in New York. At first, Jaguar built cars just for export -- UK sales didn't begin until July.
No longer a small, light sports car, it had grown to the wheelbase of the E2A (96 inches) and width of the D-Type (50 inches). The chassis and body were made of steel and though the front-hinged lift-up bonnet was retained, it covered a normal iron-block 3.8 litre straight-six engine with three side-draft carburettors.
A four-speed manual was the only available transmission -- no overdrive and no automatic, although a limited-slip differential was standard.
The body was either a fixed-head coupe with a rear hatch or an open-topped two-seater with a standard folding soft-top or an optional fibreglass hard top.
In an era when production cars often evolved during their life cycle, the first 500 cars were the so-called Flat-floor models and are highly prized by E-Type tragics.
Four years later and fitted with a larger 4.2-litre engine, the Coupe and Convertible were joined by a 2+2 model, nine inches longer to offer vestigial leg-room. The longer wheelbase allowed an automatic gearbox to be offered and both the 3.8 and early 4.2 litre cars later became known as the Series 1 models.
In 1968, US safety and environmental laws forced some detail upgrades such as rocker switches in place of toggles and these are known as the Series11/2 cars. In total about 38,000 were built before a major revamp.
From 1969, The Series 2 cars had more major changes made to its bodywork: a more raked windscreen, the fitment of power steering and optional air-conditioning for the first time. They had better engine cooling thanks to enlarged air-intakes and the 2+2 even had a fold-flat rear seat which gave a larger cargo area with a flat floor. Just under 19,000 were built.
In 1971, Jaguar upped the ante and put the still-sexy but now dated sporting flagship back into the Supercar league by fitting a 5.3 litre V12 engine, better brakes and four distinctive exhausts. The Convertible and 2+2 remained but the 2-seater coupe was dropped
Its timing was impeccably bad, coming as it did at the start of a decade marred by industrial action in Britain and a series of fuel-price shocks.
Just over 15,000 were built, making a total of over 70,000 E-Types during 14 years in production.
Despite the fuel shocks, the E-Type was replaced -- in the showrooms if not in the hearts of enthusiasts -- by the bigger, heavier & thirstier XJS series, which sold over 115,000 examples in its 21-year life.
In 2008 a British classic car enthusiast assembled what is surely the last ever E-Type from parts bought from the end-of-production surplus in 1974 and stored for decades: the parts-owner Mike Wilkinson and Ray Parrott found they had about 95 per cent of the components needed to actually build an original car.
Parrott set to work assembling the car, using his detailed knowledge of the car and his fully assembled Series 3 for reference, along with the original assembly manuals.
Things like the mild-steel exhaust system were still perfect, the dashboard came pre-assembled just as it would have in the factory, even the Dunlop tyres were original and in perfect condition.
So from a pile of parts forgotten and stored Ray Parrot is now the proud owner of the very last E-Type, serial number 72,530.
In 1963, racing legend Bob Jane won the Australian GT Championship at the wheel of an E-Type.
A car as beautiful as the E-Type was sure to become a movie star: in the 1969 ‘The Italian Job' two Jaguar E-Types are attacked by the Mafia; in 1971 an E-Type was converted to a hearse in ‘Harold and Maude' and another was beaten by a Dodge Challenger in ‘Vanishing Point'.
In the Austin Powers films, his "Shaguar" is a Series 1 convertible E-Type.
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