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Birth of a legend: the Jaguar E-type

22 October 2019

The launch of the Jaguar E-type in 1961 was like a thunderbolt, the effects of which are still in evidence today.

Jaguar XJ6 | Image: Jaguar Press Media


The launch of the Jaguar E-type in 1961 was like a thunderbolt, the effects of which are still in evidence today. The E-type is likely to remain the most famous Jaguar in the marque’s history.

Just after the D-type’s three victories in the Le Mans 24 Hours (from 1955 to 1957), work on

the future E-type began. From a technical point of view, the car could not disappoint: four disc brakes, independent suspension with telescopic dampers at the rear, inboard brakes against the rear differential, monocoque construction with a tubular subframe carrying the engine at the front, 3.8-litre XK engine with twin overhead camshafts…

Its only weakness was its sluggish Moss gearbox but that was, fortunately, replaced later. Its price was on a par with the comfortable saloons of the time – and half that of the Ferraris and Lamborghinis with which it was competing. Finally, its superb lines – the work of Malcolm Sayer and Sir William Lyons – led Enzo Ferrari to say, at the E-type’s unveiling in Geneva in 1961: ˮThat is the most beautiful car in the world!ˮ

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Its immensely long bonnet set it apart from all other sports cars, along with its passenger compartment, whose rounded shape was as elegant as it was original (though to the detriment of comfort).

Everything was in place for the E-type to leave its mark on history. From the time of its launch, it had a place on the starting grid of English racetracks. The famous racing driver Graham Hill won a race in the spring of 1961 driving a completely standard E-type. Race-car preparers quickly got their hands on the Jaguar in order to improve it. The Briggs Cunningham racing team finished fourth in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1962 with an E-type Lightweight.

The following year Jaguar produced 12 lightweight versions of the large coupé. The car’s body, made entirely of aluminium, housed an engine based on the 3.8-litre unit of the production car, but in aluminium, not cast iron. These cars were fast, but unreliable. The factory reverted to the cast iron engine, tuned to produce 300bhp, with which it had more success. The most powerful E-type was probably that of racing driver Peter Lindner. He competed in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1964 in his Lightweight, whose engine, prepared by the engineer Samir Klat, produced 350bhp. Lindner was sadly killed a few months later on the French Montlhéry circuit, at its wheel.

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A muddled approach

Saloon cars were not neglected, and the Mark X arrived at just the right time, in 1961, to replace the overly discreet Mark IX. Like the E-type, it inherited the first 3.8-litre six-cylinder engine. Tests were conducted with a view to fit the car with a V8 and even a V12, but this would have required designing a new chassis, and development of the Mark X had already been very costly.

The less opulent 3.4-litre S and 3.8-litre S, unveiled in 1963 and quickly named the S-type, completed the Jaguar range. Only the latter was exported to the United States, always an important market for Jaguar. The following year, the Mark X was fitted with the 4.2-litre XK engine, an essential for American customers, who were fond of big engines.

During the second half of the 1960s, Jaguar lost its way somewhat, being too eager to introduce novelties. The 420, a sort of slightly facelifted Mark X, arrived in 1966, and was also available in a Daimler Sovereign version. Then came the smaller 240 and 340 in 1967, and the Daimler 250 V8. Although these cars proved to be excellent, they slightly confused the visibility of the Jaguar range, as did the arrival of the imposing DS420, the favourite limousine of royal families from 1968 onward. What was needed was a flagship saloon that embodied the luxury and performance so emblematic of the marque.

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Research and development had begun in 1961, just after the unveiling of the E-type in Geneva. Lyons was demanding a comfortable car based on the chassis of the E-type, and that offered more room. A prototype was quickly built and named the XJ4 – the first in a long series. However, keeping to the dimensions of the E-type made it impossible to fulfil the boss’s wishes regarding space. The engineer William Heynes suggested building two versions: one enlarged for the United States, the other with E-type dimensions for Europe. And so the XJ6 was born, the other star in Jaguar’s history.

Taken from Jaguar: The Art of the Automobile by Zef Enault and Nicolas Heidet, published by Mitchell Beazley, £40 -  and available for a discount on the Saga Bookshop.

Images: Jaguar Press Media

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.