A torrent of water passed under the bridge between the launch of the Jaguar XK 120 show car at the Earls Court Motor Show in 1946 and the Geneva Auto Show in 1961. For one thing, equipped with the potent XK six-cylinder engine, Jaguar had gone sports car racing in a most successful way. With the aerodynamic D-Type, the marque had prevailed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s most prestigious road race, three years in a row. Jaguar had transitioned from offering the public a reliable sports car for the street based on sedan mechanicals to building very specialized sports racing machinery, and then, finding the cost of world-class competition rising ever-higher, it had pulled back from its racing commitments to concentrate again of cars the market could buy.
Street-legal Jaguar required
With its emphasis moving back toward cars for the road, William Lyons, who would eventually be knighted for his attempts at Jaguar, looked to infuse his production cars with the flavor of his sports racing winners. One of the initial attempts at this was the XK-SS, a thinly disguised D-Type fitted with just enough equipment to make it street legal. Armed with a 3.4-liter version of the XK engine essentially in race tune, it provided 250 horsepower at 5750 rpm, a staggering figure, particularly in a car so light. Maximum speed was just short of 145 miles per hour.
But on the other side of the picture, the XK-SS set one back $7,000 1957 dollars, while a fuel-injected Corvette of the same year cost little more than half as much. Further, the handsome Corvette was far more civilized an automobile. By 1957 , it had a decent convertible top and roll-up windows, while the XK-SS was in most ways rudimentary. And because its engine was essentially ready for the track, it proved to be a handful to drive well on public highways. Just getting it moving from a standing start was often a frustrating experience due to its lack of hair-trigger accelerator, low-end torque, and recalcitrant clutch.
Fire damages Jaguar supplier factory
Fewer than 20 of these little devils had been built in the early part of 1957 when a fire raced through the Browns Lane factory where they were produced. Most of the tooling for the XK-SS was damaged, and Lyons, sensing that this car wasn’t what he really wanted anyway, decided not to resume its production. Those few that remain in existence are odd and wonderfully quirky cars indeed.
Instead of taking the XK-SS path, Lyons set his engineering team abuilding on two untried cars that bore the “E” designation. The E1A was powered by Jaguar’s 2.4-liter six-cylinder engine, primarily a de-stroked 3.4 liter. For its chassis structure, it utilized a monocoque tub with a space frame carrying the engine and front suspension components. Of course, the front suspension was an independent design, but the E1A departed from the D-Type’s model by using an independent rear suspension as well. (For all its racing triumph, the D-Type had used a fairly mundane live rear axle.)
While the E1A was piling up clandestine test miles, Jaguar engineers were hard at work on the E2A, which many in their number hoped would restore Jaquar in the motor racing spotlight. With racing, instead of volume production in mind, the E2A was an exotic machine for its day. Its powerplant was an alloy-block version of the XK engine armed with a racing-type dry sump system and mechanical fuel injection. With a displacement of just a hair under 3-liters, it delivered 293 horsepower at a motorcycle-like 6750 rpm.
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Not as victorious on the race circuit
Its aluminum envelope body enclosing a monocoque tub and space frame, the E2A would have a fairly belated and largely unsuccessful career on the racetrack. Though designed and produced in 1957 and 1958, it didn’t find its way to Le Mans until 1960 and then as part of Briggs Cunningham’s multi-car effort that also involved Corvettes, not with a rejuvenated Jaguar “factory team.” Initially swift, it quit short of the halfway mark in the race, and that was pretty much that as far as international racing was concerned for the car.
While it didn’t enjoy the stunning victory of its D-Type predecessor, the E2A did set the stage for the creation of Jaguar E-Type. Jaguar’s breathtaking new sports car, in fact, would take most of its architecture from the E2A.
With volume production in mind, of course, Lyons wisely chose steel as the primary body material. The basic tub was a monocoque of sheet steel to which were connected steel space frames for front suspension and engine and rear suspension. The front suspension borrowed from Jaguar racing practice with tubular shocks controlling rebound, torsion bars as the springing medium, and forged control arms handling wheel location.
Suspension and other design brilliance
The rear suspension was an all-independent unit so elegantly designed that it became a model for an extensive variety of other suspensions that would follow it and even found its way under some of America’s most beloved hot rods. In the plan (a version similar to which found its way into the 1963 Corvette Stingray) the differential was attached to the chassis sub-frame with in-board disc brakes on each side and then, through universal joints, halfshafts sent power to the rear wheels. Ingeniously, the halfshafts themselves represented the upper control link while another, lower arm and a link that controlled braking and acceleration forces completed the mundane but effective system. Damping and springs was not nearly so simple with dual coil-spring/tubular shock absorber units on each side, but they were at least compact and very effective.
Instead of an exotic alloy racing engine, Lyons decided to stay with the 3.8-liter XK in-line six that was a direct descendent of the original XK engine in the XK 120. With fuel delivered by twin Weber carburetors, the iron block engine offered 265 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 260 pounds/feet of torque at 4000 rpm.
Gorgeous Jaguar wins many fanatics
Despite all this mechanical faldural, the most astonishing part of the production E-Type was its absolutely lascivious body. Try as designers might to top it, the E-Type has the most sensuous lines of any car ever made, and it is many critics’ pick as the most beautiful car ever produced. Further description is no longer necessary because the look of the E-Type has become such an automotive icon that at the mere mention of its name, the luscious picture comes to mind.
The hit of the 1961 Geneva show, the E-Type was offered as both a convertible (with an available hardtop) and a coupe, and auto journalists quickly fell all over themselves praising the lovely car.
And certainly for good reason. The independent rear suspension offered a huge advance in handling, particularly on bad roads, and in street form the car had true 150 mile-per-hour potential. It was also quick enough as a drag racer to find itself included in a Jan and Dean hit tune of the time, “Deadman’s Curve.”
In fact, the E-Type was, possibly, the car of the decade. With looks, performance, style, and handling, the Jaguar E-Type was everything a car should be.
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