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As part of our search for the most iconic British cars of the last 60 years (head over there to vote for your own favourite) we’re looking at some of Britain’s best-loved cars in a little more detail. Today, we’re looking at a car that’s been on everyone’s lips since we launched our competition: the stunning Jaguar E-Type.
The E-Type was borne of a classic lineage of racing Jaguars. Throughout the 50s, Jaguar’s engineers had prove on the race tracks of the world that they could compete with the very best. The legendary D-Type triumphed at Le Mans in 1955, 1956 and 1957 alike and so hopes were already high that this racing pedigree could be transferred to the D-Type’s successor.
Few expected the visual beauty that was unveiled in 1961. No less than Enzo Ferrari himself called the E-Type “the most beautiful car ever built” and if time is any judge he has been proven right – with numerous polls rating the E-Type among the world’s best looking cars. Posters of its long, sinuous lines and bulging haunches adorned bedroom walls until well after the car was retired in the mid 70s and as anyone who has seen one on the road can attest still has achingly beautiful road presence
But history is littered with beautiful cars that couldn’t deliver where it mattered: on the road. Here too, the E-Type lived up to the promise of its exterior. At launch, it could propel itself from 0-60 in 7.1 seconds and then on to a top speed of over 150 mph. While that kind of performance is the province of the merest hot hatch today, in 1961 it was nothing short of sensational in the context of an era where the best selling Ford Cortina could barely struggle to 70mph. With Britain’s motorway network booming and before the introduction of national speed limits, the E-Type was the ultimate expression of freedom of the roads.
In fact, my own friend’s father – who bought an E-Type in the mid 60s – swears blind to this day that the nose of the car could be made to lift from the road if pushed sufficiently on a motorway. Whether true or not, this indicates the effect that the combination of speed and physical beauty made on the British mind during that noon bright era of motoring optimism.
By 1966, the car was available with 4 seats and a range of V8 and V12 engines ranging up to 4.2 litres in size. But it was the latter factors that proved to signal the beginning of the end for the wildly popular Jag. US regulations, sparked by the first oil crisis, meant that the cars were produced with smaller power outputs towards the end of the 1960s and top speeds for the E-Type fell below the psychologically important 150mph. More critically still, US car ownership surveys found that the car wasn’t too hot in the reliability stakes and with a pragmatic atmosphere increasingly in the air the car’s dramatic looks and performance were starting to play second fiddle to these issues.
Meanwhile, Jaguar’s own XJ6 was offering a stunning compromise of performance, style and comfort that car buyers were increasingly looking for as a package. The body of the E-type, uncompromisingly designed for style, was unable to house a reasonable air conditioning system and along with the car’s other shortcomings in the more realistic world of the 1970s started to eat away at its appeal.
While perhaps history judges the car harshly for its practical failings, it also shows what British car designers were capable of when unencumbered by day-to-day concerns. Today, the E-Type remains standing as a true icon not just of its age but of British motoring in general – and no perhaps no car is more redolent of the age when London swung than the long-bonneted, still stunning Jag.