Evolution of the E-Type

Jaguar E-Type in Carmen Red paint with black interior.

Though it was launched in 1961 at the Geneva Motor Show, sixty years later, the E-Type still defines the Jaguar brand.

How is it that a car can still dominate the motoring scene some sixty years after its first appearance?  This may seem strange but the E-Type is revered by young and old alike.  It never seems to fade or go away.  The design of the car was and is what makes it stand out.  Before 1961 most sports models were staid and rather predictable, even those from Italian designers like Pininfarina.

Ferrari, Maserati and Alfa Romeo all had new models in 1961 but who now remembers them?  Mention the Geneva Motor Show to anyone with an interest in motoring and they immediately reply “E-Type”.  One only has to look at the after market parts that are available for keeping the E-Type on the road, these range from complete bodyshells and lighting to smaller parts that in most other models have become scarce and hard-to-find.  Even the XK engine is available as a new-build.  Further, Jaguar Classic went as far as to manufacture eight, brand-new, Lightweight E-Types in 2015.  All were pre-sold before the first example had been completed.  We can see then that this particular Jaguar model really does have a strong and dedicated following across the globe. 

As an aside, I [François Prins] recall visiting Ian Callum, when he was Director of Design at Jaguar, some years ago and he seemed slightly annoyed.  I asked him why and he said: “I asked my design team about a new model and one of them suggested we build an E-Type!  I was not pleased and told him he earned enough to buy one and we were not going to remake any new E-Types!”  The culprit was a young man who had not been around when the E-Type was in production, let alone being unveiled in 1961. 

That example is just one of several that I have witnessed on how this remarkable design has captured more than one generation.  My own first sight of an E-Type was at the Henlys showrooms on Piccadilly in London.  We lived not far away and one Sunday afternoon, soon after the car had been shown in Geneva, I saw a silver-grey Fixed Head Coupé (possibly 860011) under the spotlights.  Like any small boy (or grown-up) I stood and looked at the car and wondered how long it would take for me to save up my pocket money to amass the two thousand pounds required to own such a magnificent creation.  I gave up when I realised that it was a hopeless dream and when Matchbox released a small model (No.32) of a Fixed Head Coupé (FHC) in Maroon, I splashed out 1 shilling (5 p) and had my own E-Type; that model has survived and, though scarred, sits alongside other Jaguar models in front of me.  However, in later years, when (scruffy) secondhand E-Types were on sale at not much more than £350, I could indulge and change them regularly, as at that price the cars were well past their first bloom and were prone to rust almost everywhere.  Though the annual MOT guaranteed a failure, E-Types were cheap to replace, then.

First Thoughts

Initially, the Jaguar E-Type was not intended to be a replacement for the XK range.  However, with the XK140 it was realised that the design, which dated from 1948, was looking a bit tired and an all-new car was the answer, but Jaguar did not have the funds to completely revise the XK shape for the future.  William Lyons, who generally styled the models, did experiment with a low-slung two-door closed coupé and a mock-up was built for viewing, but the costs were too high and he looked, instead, at revising the XK140.  With a few subtle alterations that did not include any major changes of tooling, the XK150 was the answer. 

Meanwhile, the Experimental Department at Browns Lane, under the watchful eye of Chief Engineer William (Bill) Heynes, were considering other options.  The D-type had not been a great success as a production car and unsold examples remained in stock; these were to be converted into two-seat, open top, road-going cars as the XK-SS.  A factory fire in early 1957 put paid to that scheme and only sixteen XK-SS cars were built using the D-types that survived the fire.  Even then the XK-SS was not a sought-after Jaguar, though these days they command very high prices.  At the same time as the XK-SS was coming out of Browns Lane the XK150 was in-build and being made ready for sale for the 1958 model year.  That fire could have put paid to any replacement as in a corner of the Experimental area was a small green-painted open two-seater that was being used to test various engineering features from Heynes and others.

Early in 1956, Heynes gave chassis-engineer Tom Jones the task of producing a worthy successor to the victorious D-type.  Jones worked on chassis design for Heynes and he remembered that Heynes wanted the car – given the suffix ‘E’ – ready for Le Mans in 1956, which gave Jones and his team a scant six months to design, build and test the new model.  Work proceeded with designer Malcolm Sayer providing the body style but leaving the engineering aspects to Jones and his department.  The late Norman Dewis told me about this stage. “What was being produced was a sort of hybrid of the D-type.  It was because the old man (Lyons) wanted a very fast sports car that had to fit in with Jaguar’s image.  This model was a low-key prototype following on the D-type.”

An early production self-contained Independent Rear Suspension (IRS) system as installed in the E-Type.
Seen in the Experimental Department at Browns Lane.

Unfortunately, no photographs appear to have been taken of this all-aluminium, unpainted ‘E’ (Experimental) prototype.  Dewis recalled that it was fitted with a 2.4-litre engine and carried an early version of the independent rear suspension (IRS) designed by Bob Knight.  He also remembered that this prototype was running and was tested but it was not really a finished vehicle.  “Tom and the boys had not been given enough time to get a proper Le Mans car made in a few months.  That was why we ran the D-types for [Le Mans] 1956.”

By this time, Jaguar was too busy with the production of saloons and sports cars to develop this D/E-Type proposal any further.  Their 1956 competition season was not encouraging and the racing programme was cancelled.  The works D-types were sold for £1,000 each to Ecurie Ecosse who raced them with success during 1957 and 1958.  Meanwhile, the E prototype was broken up and work on a road-going sports version was put in motion.  Heynes was the driving force behind this venture and he had had to convince Sir William, who had to sanction any expenditure, that it was a necessary vehicle for Experimental and beyond.  Malcolm Sayer revised the D/E design and Tom Jones got on with the chassis and other mechanical aspects.  An insight into Sayer’s method of working may be gauged from Tom Jones.  He recalled: “I gave Mr Sayer the wheelbase length, chassis details and engine height.  That allowed him to work on how to design the body around the established mechanicals.”   This model kept the E suffix to denote that it was to follow the D-type in sequence.

The car was small, with a wheelbase of 7 ft 11.5 in (2.43  m), some five inches longer than the D-type, and a length of 14 ft 2 in (4.32 m), simple and a very clean model.  Some elements from the D-type may be detected, the central monocoque tub for example, but as a new design it was far-removed from the XK family.  Sayer had produced drawings by the end of 1956 and early in 1957 Bob Blake was given the task of constructing the body.  The frame for the car followed the design of the D-type but unlike that model it did not pierce through the body, rather it was bolted to the front bulkhead.

1959 Christopher Jennings’ wife Margaret seated in the E1A
on the way from Coventry to Wales.
(Christopher Jennings)

Norman Dewis was involved from the outset and remembers that the car, now known as the E1A (Experimental No 1 and A for aluminium), was ready for testing in May, with Heynes and Lyons making the initial drives.  After some further work on the E1A, it was handed over to Dewis to test; on 24 May he took the unpainted car to the MIRA track at Lindley where he and Ted Brookes, who was overseeing the project, drove it at various speeds on the test track.  Though it was logical that after ‘D’ the letter ‘E’ would follow, Bob Knight recalled that he referred to the ‘E’ for ‘Experimental’ and it would appear that this stuck to give the new design its ‘E1A’ identification.

First Tests

This prototype was subject to various modifications during the coming months and one of the tests dictated that the IRS should be mounted in its own frame for use in any production car.  Others also drove the E1A including Christopher Jennings, then Editor of The Motor magazine.  He had been loaned the car – now painted pale-green – for a trusted outside opinion.  Jennings was impressed by the handling, which had been much improved, and by its performance.  He noted that they easily attained 120 mph (190 km/hr).  However, although E1A continued to be tested by Dewis and others at Jaguar, it had outlived its usefulness and was later broken up.  This car should not be regarded as the ‘Prototype E-Type’, it was never intended as such and was meant to be a design exercise and also to trial various engineering developments, especially the Independent Rear Suspension system.  Though, as the months went by the E1A evolved into a development vehicle leading to the E-Type.

The IRS was originally fixed rigidly to the E1A body, initially bolted straight on to the rear monocoque but in tests the vibrations caused the system to be revised.  Bob Knight altered the design with the entire suspension being contained in its own housing and attached to the body by rubber bushes to V shaped rubber saddles, two at each side which secured the unit to the cross member of the body directly above the rear axle.  There was no metal-to-metal contact between the body and the unit; therefore driver and passenger were isolated from road and transmission noises.  This new design cured the vibrations and further revision – made by Knight – following trials with a 2.4-litre saloon, saw the IRS ready for final engineering drawings to be made and the unit to be put into production for introduction in 1961. 

The front suspension was not that remarkable and it followed in the line of the XK120, C- and D-types, with double wishbones and longitudinal torsion bars.  It was a proven design that made sense with the spring loads fed directly into the monocoque section of the hull, reducing the loads where the wishbones were mounted to the tubular front frame.  The use of smaller wheels, compared with the earlier models, gave a lower ride height and lowered the centre of gravity.

Pop Rivet Special and E-Type Chassis 850001

Before the E1A had been scrapped in 1958, a larger plywood and metal mock-up with a wheelbase of 8 ft (2.44 m) and overall length of 14 ft 7.3 in (4.45 m) was taking shape in the Experimental Department.  It was tacked and pop riveted together and firmly bolted to the floor, but when Heynes made a detailed inspection he requested that it should be made into a working roadgoing vehicle.  To carry out this work the frame was strengthened and wood gave way to metal.  Remarkably within a week of the go-ahead being given, the mock-up had been converted into a working example. 

This riveted car – sometimes referred to as the ‘Pop Rivet Special’ – was more like the eventual E-Type than the E1A.  It should be noted that before it was made roadworthy the majority of the pop rivets had been removed, but the name stuck.  On 20 March 1958, this car painted Pearl Grey, effectively the first E-Type, was tested but due to the nature of its construction it was hardly ideal.  Dewis remembered that it shook and rattled and could not be entered into a thorough and intensive test programme.  In build at the same time in the Experimental shop was the first E-Type to be given a chassis number – 850001 – it was painted Cotswold Blue and should be regarded as a better example of the thinking by Heynes, Sayer and Knight for what Jaguar’s new sports model should look like.  The front end was more like the final E-Type design but the rear kept a family resemblance to the D-type.  By June 1959 the Cotswold Blue E-Type prototype had been completed and was already on test with Dewis at MIRA.  Despite its hasty construction the ‘Pop Rivet’ was used in trials for some four months.  

A line drawing of the E-Type monocoque and engine subframe. It was issued at the time of the launch and shows the light and strong structure to advantage.

Sayer had used the data from the prototypes to build a third example that was more like the production E-Type.  Using a similar pattern that had proved successful on the C- and D-types, Sayer, with Tom Jones, used a framework of tubing at the front to carry the engine and suspension; the radiator and the bonnet hinge points were carried on a small frame bolted to the front of the assembly.  The entire nose section of this car was in a single section and hinged upwards to allow access to the engine compartment.

In the centre section the stressed skin shell featured deep hollow sills attached to a hollow member that ran across the car in front of the rear suspension.  The rear section of the body was built up as a stressed skin unit with additional heavy gauge stiffeners that came up from the rear cross member and formed the base to which the rear suspension and drive unit axle were mounted.  Other reinforced panels gave the car great strength, which enabled manufacture of the open version without the need for further reinforcement.  All loads were taken by the body and subframe assemblies. 

A bodyshell known as ‘1st Steel Body’ was produced but never completed or painted and, according to the Records Book, was ‘scrapped’.  Quite what it was used for is not listed, possibly it was used to test stress loads or build methods, but that is pure conjecture.

The Next Prototypes

1960 Norman Dewis with pre-production E-Type
Chassis Number 850002

On 30 October 1959, a third E-Type prototype (metallic grey with a 3.4-litre XK engine) joined the programme and the ‘Pop Rivet’ example was taken back to Browns Lane and later broken up.  This new car was used for trials with various weights added; different tyres; suspension modifications; radiators and final drive options.  Other engineering changes were also carried out in an intensive trial period. 

Soon 850002 in Red was completed as a pre-production E-Type and on 28 June 1960 Norman Dewis and his team were busy at MIRA on this car.  Meanwhile, also joining the test cars was the second Fixed Head Coupé 885002 prototype.  This was tested at MIRA and also on the M1 motorway, which had only been open a few months.  Dewis spent some time logging the traffic flow and could see that it was safe and possible to test the E-Type at speed on this smooth and long piece of tarmac.  It was better for high speed runs than MIRA.  With various items of trim removed bumpers etc, he attained 143 mph (230 km/h) on the motorway.  Traffic was light in those balmy days. 

The importance of airflow was not neglected and the two different body style prototypes were wind-tunnel-tested at MIRA.  Silverstone was also pressed into use for E-Type testing during 1960.

The strong structure of the Coupé is clear in this image. From the central tub the triangulated sub-frame to which the engine, gearbox and front suspension were attached.

By July 1960 there were four E-Type prototypes – two fixed head coupés and two open roadsters – in the test programme. 

It is worth noting at this point that while Malcolm Sayer designed the roadster, the credit for the Fixed Head Coupé must go to Bob Blake.  He made a mock-up of a closed car using bits and pieces which was then seen by Sir William Lyons.  He was taken immediately by the purity of line and told Blake that it was good and asked that he continue to refine the design.  Lyons added some aspects of design to the FHC and decided that it would enter production alongside the open top car. 

Many years later Bob Blake recalled that, “Malcolm Sayer later drew the shape [for clarity and engineering] and corrected all my errors, but I did the basic shape and the big back bootlid.”   That last feature alone marked the Jaguar E-Type out of the ordinary. 

It is also worth noting that it was Bill Heynes who kept up the pressure to develop the E-Type concept into a production model to join the Jaguar catalogue.  He believed in the model and was the driving force from the start and was convinced it would sell.

One of the Coupés was used almost exclusively on the notorious Belgian pavé section at MIRA and by the end of the trials was only fit for scrapping.  By early 1961 the roadsters had also reached the end of the line and were scrapped, but FHC Prototype No 7 (885002) survived the testing and was registered 9600 HP on 10 February 1961.  It was earmarked as a Press car for the coming public launch of Jaguar’s new sports model. 

At the time there were three complete cars, one Roadster and two Coupés; the open car 850003 was registered 77 RW (the second production roadster) was continuing the test programme at MIRA, with the two Coupés (885002 and 885005) due to make the journey to Geneva where Jaguar were going to unveil the E-Type. 

Ahead of the Motor Show, 77 RW was loaned to Charles Bulmer of The Motor magazine, he drove the car 1,000 miles on a round trip to Italy and back.  On the Autostrada Bulmer recorded a speed of just over 149 mph (239.8 km/h); his report in the magazine was very favourable and coincided with the Geneva Motor Show launch. John Bolster wrote in Autosport, after test driving an early E-Type (FHC 885002): ‘Figures are all very well, but these almost incredible times [150 mph] are recorded in a silky silence that has hitherto been foreign to the sports car.’

Debut at Geneva

15 March 1961 Sir William Lyons with 9600 HP
in the Parc des Eaux Vives in Geneva

Jaguar chose the 1961 Geneva Motor Show to launch the E-Type, and on 15 March it was unveiled to the assembled world press. 

On that Wednesday morning a crowd had assembled at the Jaguar stand around a large wooden crate.  Soon the crate began to move upwards and as it did it revealed a gleaming Opalescent Gunmetal E-Type Fixed Head Coupé (885005); the only E-Type available for static display inside the hall. 

Inside the Hall in Geneva was the gleaming Opalescent Gunmetal E-Type Fixed Head Coupé (885005).
Sir William Lyons and William Heynes are seen at the right of the photograph.

Outside was the other FHC (9600 HP) in the Parc des Eaux Vives for the press, but demand for photography and trial rides caused an urgent call to the factory for another car to be brought out. 

1961 Norman Dewis driving 77 RW
at Geneva Motor Show

Norman Dewis was test driving 77 RW and he was summoned to take the car to Geneva.  This marathon drive through the night has been recounted many times in various accounts of the E-Type’s history and need not be repeated here.  Suffice to say that Dewis arrived early in the morning and looked forward to having a “cup of tea and a bit of a rest”, but the late Bob Berry, Jaguar’s Press Officer, put Dewis to work as soon as he arrived. 

The two cars and their drivers – Dewis and Bob Berry – were kept busy giving demonstration rides to the press, dealers and VIPs. 

Lyons was surprised at the reception at Geneva for the E-Type but quickly realised the Jaguar had another winner on the books.

US Debut and Demand

New York Motor Show 1961 – with fashion model and actress Marilyn Hanold for added glamour.

In January 1961, Sir William authorised plans to show the E-Type (XK-E) in North America, and just a month after its unveiling at Geneva the E-Type was centre-stage at the important New York International Motor Show.  Here four examples, two Open Two Seaters (OTS) and two FHC were on display.  FHC 885003 (British Racing Green) and 88004 (Opalescent Bronze),  the last was displayed on a revolving turntable with fashion model and actress Marilyn Hanold in attendance.  Everett Martin, Jaguar’s advertising and PR manager in New York, thought the glamour of the XK-E and the elegantly-dressed model would help publicise the new car.   Photographs of car and lady were reproduced across the USA; the XK-E was glamorous enough without Miss Hanold but no doubt she helped. 

The two open cars were 875002 (cream) and 875003 (Opalescent Dark Blue); all four cars were pre-production and were despatched to the US in February and March 1961.

Jaguar need not have feared that their new XK-E would not be admired, it was, and when the E-Type made its debut in New York; six cars were sold within the first 30 minutes of the Show opening, and over 2,000 orders were taken in New York and there was soon a waiting list.  Orders poured in, some accompanied by $1,000 deposits.  Demand was great and dealers estimated orders for the first year of some 5,500 units and it was obvious that the American demand would not be met for some months. 

By the end of the Show Jaguar North America had secured $30 million (£11 million) in orders for their products, with most of that for the E-Type.  Prices in the US for the E-Type were: $5,595 (OTS) and $5,895 (FHC).  Though matters were improving Britain was, in 1961, still struggling to build up revenue after the expenditure of six years’ of war and the Jaguar orders plus those from other motor manufacturers was boosting the exchequer.  There were cartoons in the newspapers highlighting Jaguar’s success with the XK-E in the USA.  

When compared with over $11,000 for a Mercedes-Benz or even more for a Ferrari, the XK-E, which was faster, offered excellent value.  Perhaps the E-Type was not as comfortable to drive, but it looked far more attractive and dynamic when compared with the expensive competition.  Unlike many sports cars of the time, the interior of the E-Type was well equipped, if slightly lacking in Jaguar’s usual luxury trim, but the usual leather and deep carpets were present.  Under the long bonnet was a 3.8-litre XK engine with three SU carburettors giving 265 bhp at 5,500 rpm to propel the E-Type to just under 150 mph (240 km/hr).  However, the main feature was the independent rear suspension, which made all the difference to the general handling and ride of the Jaguar.

E-Type Production

Early E-Type body assembly at Browns Lane.
The panels from Abbey Panels were fitted to the frame by workers and made ready for paint.
These very early cars were built-up almost as individual examples.

However, production at Browns Lane was slow, as Jaguar had not anticipated the demand and by August 1961 just 372 Roadsters and eleven Coupés had been completed.  However, by the end of the year production figures show that 1,729 Roadsters and 431 Coupés had left the factory.   

The E-Type was now on the way to becoming the best-selling sports car from Jaguar and the panel makers (Abbey Panels) retooled to meet the growing demand.   Like the XK120 in 1948, Sir William had thought the E-Type would be a low-volume model and that Browns Lane would be fully occupied with the Mark II and later Mark X, but this was not the case; the success in the US proved that and with the order books overflowing and a waiting list growing they had to deliver. 

Amazingly, apart from Heynes, there was no expectation within Jaguar that the E-Type would be a success. Production methods at Browns Lane were, at first, labour-intensive, with Abbey Panels delivering the various panels to be welded and fixed by hand on a small production line in a section of the factory.  Later, to meet the demands, the line was streamlined to deliver a speedier build-up of bodies and sub frames. 

Thought to be the first production batch of right-hand-drive Open Two Seaters, there are fifty-four E-Types ready to depart Browns Lane on a rainy July (1961) day. They are all, apart from a couple that are visible, fitted with trade plates.

There is much more to the gestation of the E-Type than we have covered here, but what is remarkable is that in reality a handful of people designed and built just four or five prototype or pre-production examples that were tested in two-three years before being introduced for sale. 

By contrast today a new model involves many hundreds of people and test cars, costs a great deal and takes anything from five to ten years to design, build, test and launch.  Added to that there will have been in-depth market research programmes and test clinics around the world to assess a model’s desirability and sale potential. 

A far cry from that small team at Browns Lane sixty-odd years ago.  


Author: François Prins

© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust  – Except (where named)