The Birth of a Legend

24th June 2021

Dubbed “the most beautiful car in the world”, the E-type was a hit from the moment the world clapped eyes on its sinuous lines. But, as Andrew Frankel explains, achieving the performance to match its looks presented Jaguar with a thorny problem.

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There is no more iconic British sports car than the Jaguar E-type, launched 60 years ago at the Geneva Motor Show to global awe, acclaim and something quite close to lust. But behind the photographs of its gorgeous Malcolm Sayer-penned shape and the lurid headlines attesting to its 150mph top speed lies another story – the story of how it got those headlines and even how it got to Geneva in the first place.

The E-type must have seemed something of a nightmare to its principal rivals. It was as beautiful as any Ferrari; in fact it was Enzo Ferrari himself who handed Jaguar their powerful marketing line when he described the E-type as “the most beautiful car in the world”. It was as fast and probably faster than any Aston Martin – and it was half the price of either. Worse, from its semi-monocoque construction to its fully independent rear suspension, it was technologically streets ahead of the opposition. Indeed, it is perhaps a shame that so many commentators have focused on its near unimprovable shape, because they tended to ignore the beauty beneath its skin.

Norman Dewis, Jaguar’s chief test driver in 1961

Norman Dewis, Jaguar’s chief test driver in 1961

Yet despite all it had going for it, Jaguar’s top brass felt it needed something else, a rabbit out of a hat to accompany its launch in Geneva on March 15, 1961 that the world would never forget. And a 150mph top speed was it. Which presented Jaguar with a rather thorny problem because if you got into an E-type and put your foot down, it wouldn’t do much more than 135mph. What made the issue far more critical was that for the sake of credibility its top speed had to be achieved and verified by independent assessors, in this case the journalists from The Autocar and The Motor magazines. So they couldn’t just drop the idea or simply claim that it could do it in the hope no one would ever find out it could not. The E-type had to do 150mph.

Jaguar’s top brass felt it needed something else, a rabbit out of a hat to accompany its launch in Geneva… and a 150mph top speed was it

As speed is a function of drag and power, it gave Jaguar the opportunity to attack the problem from both ends. In aerodynamic terms, removing the front bumper helped considerably, and the bar across its “mouth” too (it’s pertinent that Sayer, a master of aerodynamic design, had worked as a wartime aircraft engineer). Then racing Dunlop R5 tyres were fitted, ostensibly as a result of safety concerns about the road tyres withstanding prolonged speed of or around 150mph, but they also reduced “rolling resistance” between the tyre and road, which undoubtedly found some additional speed too.

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And now we turn to an issue still shrouded in secrecy, which has been debated ever since: just how standard were the engines used for these tests? There were two cars, both prototypes: a coupe dispatched to The Autocar and a roadster sent to The Motor. At one end of the spectrum lie those who say that the engines were standard, but nicely run in. Certainly there are references to the need for engines “of known performance”, but that could simply mean engines with known power because back then tolerances varied and outputs differed from one engine to the next. At the other are those who say the engines were thinly veiled racing motors, more related to those fitted to the D-type Le Mans winners than a standard road car powerplant.

I expect the truth lies somewhere between the poles. When the Jaguar historian Philip Porter was restoring the coupe in the late 1990s, he determined to get it as close as possible to how it was when The Autocar conducted its test. He did a huge amount of research and consequently fitted its engine with various modifications, including polished conrods and crankshaft, carefully gas-flowed cylinder head and manifolds and, probably most significantly, a big valve cylinder head. Compared to what you can do to one of these engines, that’s not much of a list, but could quite conceivably have added another 20-30 horsepower.

Malcolm Sayer, designer of the Jaguar E-type

Malcolm Sayer, designer of the Jaguar E-type

Whatever they did, and whether you think the result a legitimate representation of a standard road-going E-type, it did the trick. After an enormous amount of effort and not a small number of scares, The Autocar’s terrified reporter returned a two-way average of 150.4mph on a motorway outside Antwerp. Jaguar had its headline.

And now we turn to an issue still shrouded in secrecy, which has been debated ever since: just how standard were the engines used for these tests?

It worked better than anyone could have expected. The exhibited car quite naturally stole the show at its Geneva launch, but Jaguar had also sent the coupe along to provide journalists and favoured VIPs with passenger rides up into the hills. With near-infinite demand to travel in the E-type and a supply of just one car, queues began to develop. They needed the roadster, fast. The problem was that it was not in Geneva at the time but pounding around the MIRA test track near Nuneaton.

And now we turn to an issue still shrouded in secrecy, which has been debated ever since: just how standard were the engines used for these tests? There were two cars, both prototypes: a coupe dispatched to The Autocar and a roadster sent to The Motor. At one end of the spectrum lie those who say that the engines were standard, but nicely run in. Certainly there are references to the need for engines “of known performance”, but that could simply mean engines with known power because back then tolerances varied and outputs differed from one engine to the next. At the other are those who say the engines were thinly veiled racing motors, more related to those fitted to the D-type Le Mans winners than a standard road car powerplant.

I expect the truth lies somewhere between the poles. When the Jaguar historian Philip Porter was restoring the coupe in the late 1990s, he determined to get it as close as possible to how it was when The Autocar conducted its test. He did a huge amount of research and consequently fitted its engine with various modifications, including polished conrods and crankshaft, carefully gas-flowed cylinder head and manifolds and, probably most significantly, a big valve cylinder head. Compared to what you can do to one of these engines, that’s not much of a list, but could quite conceivably have added another 20-30 horsepower.

It was in the care of Jaguar’s chief test driver, Norman Dewis, who died in 2019, aged 98, 84 years after leaving school and spending a lifetime in the motor industry. He’d already done a full working day when the call came. Could he get it to Geneva the following morning? The car had to be checked over before departure, so he drove it to Jaguar’s base in Coventry while someone else rushed to his house and waited while Norman’s wife packed an overnight bag for him. He left the factory at 7.45pm and just managed to catch the 10pm ferry from Dover. When he got to France he had to crawl through 200 miles of fog before he could get his foot down and race, flat out, to Switzerland. He’d been told he had to be there for 10am; he arrived with 20 minutes to spare.

Having now been up for a day and a night, he asked if someone could direct him to his hotel so he could finally get some sleep. But the only directions he received were to get back behind the wheel of the E-type and help out with the passenger rides, which he did for the rest of the day. And the one after that.

John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas pose with an E-type

John and Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas pose with an E-type

The E-type would go on to enjoy a hugely varied career over the 14 years it was in production. It was a successful club racing car, starring at Goodwood throughout the early 1960s and, thanks to its extraordinary good looks, quickly became a film star and a fashion icon, with celebrities of the day often photographed at the wheel. Even decades after it went out of production it was still capable of making headlines: in 1996 it became only the third car to be exhibited at New York’s famed Museum of Modern Art. But when I think of it, it’s always to those intrepid early days that my mind turns. They are what made the reputation of what remains Britain’s single most important contribution to the sports car oeuvre.

 

This article was taken from the Spring 2021 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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