Building on the legacy of an icon

DECEMBER 2014 – An icon of performance and design, the Jaguar E-Type is a hard act to follow. But with the F-Type, the British marque has created a sports car with the roar and grace to match its predecessor.

ometimes the products of human ingenuity transcend their intended function, surpassing their purpose to become more than just tools or decorative accoutrements. They become legendary – icons of their generation. Such is the tale of the Jaguar E-Type.
Among car enthusiasts, this British sports car is regarded as a very special beast indeed. Introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1961, its graceful aesthetics wowed motoring pundits from the get-go. Now a design legend, the Jaguar E-Type roadster is one of only six vehicles to feature in the permanent design collection at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It’s become a vehicle that is more than just a collection of mechanical parts put together to achieve movement via combustion – the E-Type is considered a work of art in its own right.
Its beauty is in its simplicity, in its lack of drama and in the pure, simple lines that give it such a distinctive feline grace.
The architect of the E-Type’s trademark curves was aircraft and car designer Malcolm Sayer, who joined Jaguar in 1951. He spent 20 years at the company, where he was responsible for other Jaguar legends such as the C-Type, D-Type, XJ13 and XJS – but it’s the E-Type that remains his signature creation.
After Jaguar’s racing successes throughout the 1950s with the C-Type and D-Type, Sayer and his team were tasked with using the winning D-Type’s construction approaches to build a road-going sports car. While the car that fulfilled that brief is celebrated for its lithe features, Sayer didn’t set out with the aim of creating a good-looking car – its beautiful form is merely a by-product of its revolutionary engineering.
For Sayer was a first and foremost a brilliant mathematician. He had designed planes for de Havilland and the Bristol Aeroplane Company during World War II and, when he made the transition to motor cars, he brought with him his expertise in aerodynamics. It was this passion for the mathematics of the perfect aerodynamic curve that informed the purity of his designs.
A former Jaguar worker, Mike Kimberley recalls Sayer’s apoplexy when a colleague destroyed a curve by adding a Jaguar badge. “Someone decided the bonnet would look nice with a Jaguar badge on it and he carefully indented it, all 1.5mm deep, so it was flush. And when Malcolm saw it he literally took off. He insisted it was removed.”
Jaguar’s former chief test engineer, Norman Dewis, remarked that Sayer’s design sketches were so filled with numbers that one could be forgiven for thinking they were just complex mathematical formulae rather than drawings. “He would have a foolscap sheet the full length of his wall,” says Dewis. “All across that sheet were coloured curves and lines. Every six inches were vertical lines with figures. I used to say to him ‘I can’t even see a car’.”
For Sayer, the Jaguar E-Type’s elongated bonnet and rounded haunches were primarily about function – although their form is so perfect one could argue that the mathematical formula he created to draw their curves is the formula for beauty itself.
Certainly everyone who saw the car at the Geneva Motor Show was immediately captivated – and no less a motoring authority than Enzo Ferrari called it “the most beautiful car ever made”.
Petrolheads and celebrities clamoured to get their hands on it, with notable owners including Steve McQueen, Tony Curtis, Britt Ekland, Brigitte Bardot and Peter Sellers. Frank Sinatra is reported to have exclaimed, “I want that car and I want it now.” That sincere and genuine endorsement by those human icons of 1960s style only enhanced its sex appeal.
In keeping with Sayer’s intention, it also had the go to match the show. Under the E-Type’s long, bullet-like bonnet sat Jaguar’s 3.8-litre six-cylinder XK6 engine – the same engine that had powered the D-Type to three consecutive Le Mans wins in 1955, 1956 and 1957. The E-Type could easily crank it up to 250 kilometres per hour.
Moreover, for a sports car it was amazingly affordable. It cost a fraction of the price of an Aston Martin or Ferrari, but offered the same, if not superior performance. It was destined to have a 14-year production run, through various models, and was only discontinued in 1975, four years after Sayer’s death.
But that was not the end of the E-Type’s tale. “Half a century of progress has not diminished the significance of the E-Type,” said Mike O’Driscoll, Managing Director Jaguar Cars on the occasion of the car’s 50th birthday in 2011. “It was a sensation when it was launched, and remains Jaguar’s most enduring and iconic symbol. The E-Type is simply one of the most exciting cars ever created and a legacy to the genius of Jaguar’s founder, Sir William Lyons.”
Given these stirring words it’s perhaps no surprise that Jaguar decided to give the E-Type one more chapter, an epilogue if you will. When the Lightweight E-Type racer was released in 1963, it was meant to have a run of 18 vehicles; but only 12 were built. Half a century later, the company’s Heritage Business announced it would be building the six ‘remaining’ Lightweights. The new cars would use the unused chassis codes and be hand-built to the exact same specification as the originals.
Intended for track racing, the Lightweight E-Type was constructed from aluminium instead of steel, and had souped-up versions of the six-cylinder engine to give them extra grunt. They never achieved the racing success of the D-Type, though given that only a dozen were produced, they soon became highly sought after collector’s items.
Apparently the idea to complete the 18-car Lightweight series first came up over drinks in 2010, although it was then more a wishful fantasy than anything else. However, when Jaguar created its Special Operations Division, with a mandate to deliver halo vehicles, bespoke commissions and heritage products, David Fairbairn, the company’s strategic global business manager, saw a chance for a fanciful idea to become reality. He approached Department Head John Edwards with the idea and the green light was given for work to begin on the production of six new E-Types.
The project was unlike anything any motor manufacturer had done before. Jaguar wasn’t interested in simply producing accurate replicas of the Lightweight E-Type, instead it planned on completing the special edition’s run using the same materials and manufacturing processes used in 1963. The new six would be faithful to the originals right down to the chassis numbers that were originally allocated to them in the 1960s, and would be built at the Browns Lane plant in Coventry, England, where Jaguar has been making cars since 1951.
It would prove to be no easy task. Many of the skills, tools and processes used to hand build a car more than five decades ago had long since fallen by the wayside. Jaguar still had the blueprints and documentation for the cars but tracking down the right tools and, more importantly, the people who knew how to use them, was the highest priority.
On the plus side, as the Lightweight series was built primarily for track racing, Jaguar didn’t need to concern itself too much with 21st-century requirements for making a car roadworthy, or comply with modern standards for fuel economy and carbon emissions. Only one concession was made: the underbody was strengthened to make the car more rigid, and safer in the event of a crash.
The six new cars were quickly sold, for between US$1.65 million and $2.47 million, with varying customer specifications accounting for the difference in price. But none of the cars will be sitting in museums or private garages. Jaguar insisted on selling the cars only to customers who would use them in competition, or lend them back to the auto maker for use at events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a hill climb for vintage motor-racing vehicles held every year on the Goodwood Estate in West Sussex, England.
This faithful reproduction of a car according to its original specs was a remarkable feat, and one unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. But the very fact that it was even considered, much less done, speaks volumes for the esteem in which the iconic E-Type is held.
However, car manufacturers need to look to the future as well as the past. While the E-Type was, and still is, an icon of the Swinging Sixties, when Britain was the world capital of cool, not all car enthusiasts want to drive a vintage model. It was time for Jaguar to move beyond the shadow cast by the E-Type’s phenomenal success – which seemed to suggest it was Jaguar’s last, and best, word on what a two-seater roadster needed to be – and finally deliver a follow-up ‘Type’.
The result is the F-Type, a two-seater sports car that has seen Jaguar re-enter this segment of the motoring market with a mighty roar, delivering first a convertible and then a coupé to evoke the spirit of the legendary E-Type.
Jaguar says the new cars are “engineered for high performance and responsive handling with supercharged engines, lightweight aluminium body construction and advanced driving technologies” – and motoring journalists have been quick to dish out praise to the sexy new feline on the roads.
“It boasts jaw-dropping looks and a driving experience to match,” said UK newspaper The Telegraph of the coupé, going on to praise its automatic gearbox and gutsy engine that makes it “wonderfully easy” to drive. BBC’s Top Gear was no less complimentary about the convertible, calling it “an exceptional sports car, sharp, invigorating and charismatic” and saying it’s “the most exciting (and arguably significant) car to be launched in Britain this year. Maybe even this decade.”
Jaguar has launched various models for contemporary petrolheads to choose between. The entry-level F-Type and middle-range F-Type S (featuring an adaptive Sport suspension) come as either a convertible or a coupé and feature Jaguar’s new 3.0-litre V6 supercharged petrol engine and an eight-speed QuickShift ZF transmission. And for those who demand even more power under the hood, there are the 5.0-litre V8 models – the F-Type V8S convertible and the F-Type R coupé.
Then there’s the range-topping F-Type Project 7 convertible. Jaguar’s most powerful production car ever, it aims to capture the legendary looks and extraordinary profile of the Le Mans-winning D-Type. Only 250 will be made, setting it up to become a highly sought-after contemporary classic.
So will car enthusiasts still be paying tribute to the F-Type in 50 years’ time? Perhaps. The car has certainly been as well received by the buying public, and Jaguar’s profitability has soared as a result. The E-Type’s DNA is clearly evident in its classic long nose and short tail, and it’s drawing plenty of tributes for is chic, classy styling and dynamic performance. Living up to the legacy of “the most beautiful car ever made” was never going to be easy, but Jaguar has certainly come really close.

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