With the E-Type Jaguar, form and function united as never before – or since – in an automobile. Design guru Stephen Bayley celebrates 50 years of the car that became a work of art
1961. Gagarin went into space. They started building the Berlin Wall. The Vietnam War began. And, more positively, the E-Type Jaguar was unveiled at the Parc des Eaux Vives on the shore of Lac Léman, Geneva. (Launched in March, it went on sale in Britain in early July.) A lot of people dispute a lot of things a lot of the time, but very few argue that this Jaguar is the most beautiful car that has ever been made. Historically, it is located between the Mini and The Beatles’ first LP. Just when, according to Philip Larkin, sexual intercourse began. It is 50 this year.
Car design is a matter of reconciling niggling details and bravura gestures into a meaningful whole. The E-Type was as much the work of aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer as the willful Sir William Lyons, who had started Jaguar in a Blackpool garage 30 years earlier. Sayer was a technician-pragmatist, not an artist. He was a draftsman, not a sculptor.
The car that established Jaguar’s reputation was the XK120, perhaps the best ever expression of the English sports car idea. The gorgeous, streamlined shape was a sensation when it was shown at the 1948 Motor Show. This was a moment of sensuous privation for the British: Elizabeth David was researching her book Mediterranean Food and pronounced that even to say the words lemon, garlic and oil was like delicious pornography.
The XK120 was, in car terms, similar in effect. In a masterful publicity stunt, Lyons, circling overhead in a chartered Douglas DC-3, had a factory XK120 make a high-speed run along Belgium’s Jabbeke autoroute outside Ostend. Soon, everyone was talking about the fastest production car.
Humphrey Bogart and Steve McQueen became Jaguar customers. And after a lot of R&D, the XK120 became the Le Mans-winning C-Types and D-Types. The E-Type evolved from the racing cars and became the ultimate consolidation of the English sports car idea, making emphatic the connection between sculptured metal and sex.
Clearly derived from the successful Le Mans racers, the E-Type was a fabulous, even promiscuous, concoction of advanced technology, sensuality and availability.
In terms of symbolism, its preposterously phallic shape anticipated the emancipation of pleasure that was integral to Sixties culture. Stance, proportion, composition and detail are all perfectly integrated and resolved. As in a woman with very long legs posing in a short skirt. A phallic presence that would normally be embarrassing is offset by elegance and balance: the car looks masculine, yet has an exquisite femininity.
Herein, perhaps, lies the source of its extraordinary power. When Toyota made its first sports car, it copied the E-Type. When New York’s Museum of Modern Art wanted a production car for permanent display, they chose this Jaguar. Here was proof, if proof were ever needed, that cars have become works of art.
Fifty may not be such a bad place.