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Jaguar XK-E Memories at 50

Vintage Headline: British Cruise Missile Launched

Even if you were paying attention to automotive affairs back in March of 1961, you were probably unprepared for the roadgoing missile launched by Sir William Lyons, co-founder and Managing Director of Jaguar Cars Limited, at a restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland.

I was not, to be sure. The car seemed too sleek to be real, more like a cartoon car for some DC Comics superhero to drive than an actual automobile with an engine and four wheels.

1961 Jaguar Fixed-Head Coupe at Stert of Tour d'Elegance 2011

In March of 1961, Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons introduced this E-Type Fixed-Head Coupe to the press at a Restaurant in Geneva, Switzerland. On the 50th anniversary of that event, the same car sits ready for the start of the 2011 Tour d’Elegance on the foggy Monterey Peninsula.

The Times

To put it into perspective, we in the US were just three years removed from the excesses of the 1958 model year, when 225 inch long behemoths with chromium-plated metal slathered with seeming abandon across their flanks were commonplace.

For sports cars we had mostly MGs and Triumphs – cart-sprung toys with lever shock absorbers and agricultural pushrod four-cylinder engines, none bigger than two liters. Alfas were more sophisticated with five forward speeds in the gearbox, but they cost more ($3,395 P.O.E.) – about a half again as much as an MG, and with only a 1.6 liter overhead cam four they seemed high strung to Americans used to big engines. Even an everyday Ford “Mileage Maker” six displaced 3.7 liters.

The Mercedes-Benz 300 SL with it’s impossibly exotic gullwing doors had a 3-liter fuel-injected six, but it cost an astronomical $11,000. The contemporary Ferrari was the Ferris Bueller 250 GT SWB California Spider, which had a sophisticated 237 hp 3-liter V12 and cost around $12,000.

The Chevrolet Corvette, with a base price of $3,934 was more to American taste with a self-consciously extroverted style and a torquey base 4.6 liter pushrod V8 that had an advertised 230 horsepower. Prices climbed swiftly from there with the each more powerful engine and other options. But its chassis was 1940s-tech. It owed much to the sedans with which it shared its basic architecture – ladder frame, tube shocks all around, leaf springs at the rear and independent coil spring suspension at the front. It had drum brakes, while even MGs had turned to discs by 1961. And that body was plastic.

So along comes this 2,900 pound (coupe) slick porpoise of a car. It had a dedicated chassis that shared nothing with any other Jaguar, with a monocoque central structure like a fighter jet, torsion bar front suspension, disc brakes all around (inboard at the rear to lower unsprung weight), and a 265 horsepower dual-overhead cam engine straight out of the cars that won Le Mans – four times. The doggone thing had three windshield wipers, for Pete’s sake! All at an MSRP of $5,325, $200 more for the coupe.

The look was the icing on that technological cake.  Reviews at the time were uniformly rapturous, while chivalrously avoiding referrences to its blatant phallic shape and a tail raised like a cat to display its chrome-plated gonads. With every contour stretched as though with cartoon “speed lines” it needed no advertising hype to declare itself speed and sex incarnate.

Dad's 1961 Jaguar XK-E OTS Profile

Dad’s guards red 1961 Jaguar XK-E Roadster, or “OTS” (Open Two Seater) in our driveway in Western Springs, Illinois, 1961. Looks as though it’s going 140 standing still, doesn’t it?

At its introduction, Enzo Ferrari himself declared it the most beautiful car ever made, and one notes a famiarity in the front end of his GTO of 1962. Road & Track’s Editor-at-Large Henry N. Manney III called it “The Greatest Crumpet Catcher Known to Man.” I never got the chance to test that claim.

In his celebration of the E-Type’s (that’s what the Brits call it, and what appeared on the hatch of the 4.2 in 1965.) 50th anniversary, R&T’s Peter Egan conjured up Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s comment about a favorite aircraft, and how it “looked like a shape that had always existed in nature and had simply been discovered rather than invented.” Wish I’d said that.

The illustrations for that column included a photo of a body devoid of engine or running gear, on stands waiting to be mated to its other components. It’s similar to the shot that Strother MacMinn once chose to illustrate its inclusion in Road & Track’s selection as one of The World’s Most Beautiful Cars, and perfectly demonstrates its status as the purest shape ever incorporated in a roadworthy car.

No one seems to know the real Cd of that form. I’ve corresponded with R&T’s Engineering Editor Dennis Simanaitis about it and he seemed unconvinced, as I am, that the car was ever subjected to wind-tunnel testing. For all we know that slippery shape could be just eyewash (my words, not his). But with a 149.1 mph tested top speed with only 265 gross hp it’s certainly no aerodynamic brick. I’ll go to my grave believing it’s as slick as a bottle-nose dolphin.

And elegant, too. Dad’s second E-Type, a silver blue FHC purchased new from John Weinberger at Continental Imports in La Grange, Illinois, had a sophistication and grace that no car in its day could surpass at any price, with the possible exception of the rare Aston Martin DB4 GTZ.

1965 E-Type 4.2 with Mom in Fox Fur & Sis Lib in Model Pose

 Grace as well as pace – Dad’s 1965 E-Type 4.2 with Mom in Fox Fur & my sister Lib in Model Pose.

Of course anyone will tell you that Jaguars are notoriously unreliable. One of the reasons an E-Type cost about half what you’d have paid for a Ferrari was that Sir William was notorious for squeezing suppliers on cost. Conventional wisdom is that this penny-pinching showed up as unreliability in some of the important bits. Dad’s experience did not support that reputation.

Peter Egan had an OTS and an FHC and explained the problem was related to that deceptively low purchase price. Just because the cars were about half the price of a Ferrari, many people mistakenly thought maintenance would be similarly discounted.

Not so. The cars are every bit as sophisticated as that Ferrari, and thus just as complicated to repair. At the shop where Peter worked back in the day, he recalled the saying was “all E-Types have bald tires,” the implication being that their owners never had enough left from say, repairing clutches, to replace them.

True to that aphorism, I recalled that Dad and I were at John Wienberger’s shop one day with the 4.2 and found the remains of our old red OTS ignominiously stuffed in a corner of the lot. John explained it had blown a bald tire at speed on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

1961 Jaguar E-Type in Driveway at 801 Oak St., Western Springs, IL, 1961

Beautiful, fast, and sophisticated beyond their price, E-Types tempted many into extending themselves beyond their ability to maintain them.

It may just be that Dad never kept his two E-Types long enough for the repair cost to mount up. If memory serves, he bought the used OTS in late 1961 (It was after the hood latches went inside and before they dropped the footwell floor) and bought the blue FHC in late 1965, keeping it only a couple years. Illinois counted your cars in your property taxes then, so he took it to back to John and traded it for a new red MGB roadster.

His own reason for his lack of problems with the cars was the daily “Italian Tune-up” (accelerating hard in all 4 gears) he gave them on his commute from the Chicago suburb of Western Springs to Batavia on the Fox River. I’m quite sure it was his little joke when he answered my question “How’s the Jag running,” with “There’s a wind whistle from the hatch at 140,” on a visit to me at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

One of my vivid memories of the red car was watching him change the oil. In my foggy recall it took about 12 quarts. He’d line the empty Castrol cans up on the driveway, and use a funnel to drain the last drops from each into the first, ending up with almost a half-quart just from the leftovers.

My memories of driving the cars don’t make as much of a story as they should. I was 17 when he got the roadster, and Dad was no fool. So neither I nor my brother (to my knowledge. Duncan was a sneaky bugger, so who knows?) ever drove either car alone. Once as I was sitting waiting for a traffic light to change in Champaign I began to let out the clutch, and fortunately discovered just in time that I had the car in reverse. I’m always amazed that Dad didn’t have me pull over, and switch places right there.

1961 Jaguar OTS Cockpit

The ergonomics were not so bad that I could blame the car for selecting reverse at an inopportune time. Seats did not recline but we didn’t care. The E-Type’s ride and handling compromise was exemplary, and even today owners enjoy them on vintage tours. 

Another recollection is so overwritten with the retelling that it’s now a memory of a memory. In the Spring of 1966 Dad and I drove the 4.2 to a cabin on the Manistee River to meet his fishing buddies on the opening weekend of trout season. That road trip in that car should stand out as a Hemingway moment in my life, but the fact is it couldn’t live up to the anticipation.

How could it? With Dad next to me, I never dared to downshift and get on the throttle, or take a curve at speed. In the end, the best memory of that trip is of feeling accepted by the guys when they came back from a day on the river and praised me for cleaning up the mess from the previous night’s steak dinner, without being asked. As for me, I never got a nibble in the stream.

The BEST holidays

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