March 15, 1961, is the gearhead’s equivalent of The Beatles’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. People of a certain age still remember exactly where they were, even if it was nearly a lifetime ago. Like the Fab Four’s arrival in the U.S. nearly three years later, that day was a defining cultural moment, a singular point where car culture could forever be divided into before and after. On March 15, 1961, Jaguar publicly introduced a car called the E-Type at the Geneva Motor Show, and over half a century later, we’re still dealing with the aftershocks.
No other car in history received the instant levels of adulation and near-universal respect as the E-Type. Upon seeing it on the display stand at Geneva, the notoriously competitive Enzo Ferrari declared that it was the most beautiful car ever made. When it made its next public appearance at the New York Motor Show on April 1, more than 300,000 people stormed the Jaguar stand to get a closer look.
For many, it’s still the ultimate example of automotive perfection. It’s so perfect, in fact, that the Museum of Modern Art has one in its permanent collection. The car has transcended its status as just an automotive classic, and has become a representation of an entire era. It was the clearest signal yet that the British austerity that carried over from World War II was a thing of the past.
After the car’s debut, the Swinging Sixties were ready to begin in earnest, and the unabashedly sexy E-Type would be the universal ride of choice. By the end of the decade, Steve McQueen, Peter Sellers, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, and Brigette Bardot were all proud owners. After seeing the car for the first time at the New York Auto Show, Sinatra famously said what millions of people would echo for decades to come: “I want that car, and I want it now.”
Part of what made the E-Type so appealing was its combination of dream car performance, knockout looks, and real-world attainability. At $5,595 for the roadster model (about $43,700 today), it cost about $1,600 more than a Corvette, but was half the price of contemporary Ferraris and Aston Martins. And unlike the ‘Vette, it was a true Ferrari beater, with its smooth 3.8 liter inline-six putting out 265 horsepower, and taking the car to a then-astonishing top speed of around 150 miles per hour. With its innovative four-wheel disc brakes (one of the first production cars to have them), world-beating aerodynamics, and racing-derived suspension, Car and Driver said on first impression:
“The E Jaguar is exciting to look at, but its looks are in no way a mask for unexciting performance. It’s very fast, very stable, and, all in all, probably the car we’d most like to own of any we’ve tested in many a month.”
But as the ’60s progressed, things got complicated for the E-Type. As American safety regulations got stricter, Jaguar began altering the cars to comply with the standards of its largest market. The removal of headlight covers, and larger turn signals, and a revised interior became hallmarks of the Series II models, which began to complicate the car’s simple lines. By the time the final Series III model was introduced in 1971, the car was a shadow of its former self.
The Series III soldiered on until 1975, but by then the car had become a dinosaur. To counteract the performance-stifling U.S. emissions equipment, Jaguar shoehorned a massive V12 under the car’s hood, but its weight threw off the car’s once famous handling, and its complicated engineering did little to dispel Jaguar’s reputation for unreliability. Outside, the car had lost much of its timeless appeal, now being weighed down with thick rubber bumpers, clumsy-looking taillights, and bulbous fender flares.
But in the 40 years since the last E-Type rolled off the Coventry assembly line, the E-Type has only grown in stature. Today, early Series I cars sell for well over $200,000, and even the once unloved Series III cars can fetch around $50,000. The car’s entire history, not just its achingly gorgeous early years is celebrated, and its inherent Britishness has turned the car into something of a mascot for that country’s entire automotive industry.
While fans clamored for decades for a spiritual successor to the E-Type, Jaguar finally obliged in 2013 with the F-Type, a fantastic grand tourer that lives up to the original’s performance and charm without being a retro-themed copy. But while the F-Type is one of the best GTs on the market today, it could never have the impact that its spiritual predecessor did in 1961. The F-Type is very good, but it’s a product of its era. The E-Type is unlike anything that has come before or since.