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« Viva Riva | Main | Striking Defender »
Thursday
Mar172011

Year of the cat

WORDS SIMON DE BURTON

The eternally young Jaguar E-Type celebrates its 50th anniversary this spring

The Silverstone Classic will be the focus of anniversary celebrations for the Jaguar E-Type

For a lesson in how to grow old gracefully, turn to the Jaguar E-Type: the car that even Enzo Ferrari described as ‘the most beautiful ever made’ turns 50 this year and somehow seems more gorgeous than at any time in its history.

Launched first in America as the XKE in March 1961 before being made available in the UK four months later, the E-Type had already made headlines before it officially hit British roads after The Autocar magazine confirmed Jaguar’s claim that it was a genuine 150mph sports car – well, almost. The test car (which was subsequently discovered to have been a tweaked example with a ‘blueprinted’ engine) managed 149.1.

That sort of performance is pretty impressive today, but half a century ago it seemed truly sensational – and combined with the E-Type’s stunning looks, it established the car as an instant classic with an unmistakable profile dominated by what has often been described as a ‘phallic’ bonnet that seemed to stretch out forever ahead of a compact two-seater cockpit and truncated rear end.

No wonder it became the default choice of chariot among those who made up the zeitgeist of the swinging Sixties – from George Best to Brigitte Bardot and from Steve McQueen to Frank Sinatra, everyone who mattered wanted to get behind the wheel of what US journalist Henry Manney called ‘the greatest crumpet-catcher known to man.’

Purists believe the original 3.8-litre ‘Series I’ cars to be the best, with their simple, leather-covered bucket seats, aluminium centre console, jewel-like rear lights and faired-in headlamps, although the more refined Series II and III versions are still desirable, be they in open-topped ‘roadster’ format or with fixed-head coupé bodywork.

The original price of an E-Type rolling on wire wheels was £2,256 – but by the mid-Seventies the Opec oil crisis and a parlous British economy had combined to hit sales hard. No one, it seemed, wanted to spend the £3,350 it then cost to buy a V12 roadster and stories abound of second-hand ‘Es’ being virtually given away.
That certainly seems hard to believe today, not least because the E-Type is regarded as being one of the most covetable of all classic cars, with the best examples changing hands for up to £150,000 and ultra-rare competition versions potentially being worth £1 million (although less perfect fixed-head coupé road cars can be had for as little as £15,000).

Whichever model you prefer it’s bound to be represented at this year’s Silverstone Classic (22 – 24 July) which is the main venue for the E-Type 50th anniversary celebrations. Up to 1,000 owners are expected to bring their cars from around the world to create the biggest display of E-Types ever seen, and more than 50 race-prepared examples will compete.

The event will also showcase the 11th E-Type to roll off the production line – it was originally sold to Formula 2 racing driver George Wicken who competed in it in 1961 against track stars such as Graham Hill, Roy Salvadori and Bruce McLaren.

If you decide to attend, don’t forget to don flared trousers or mini skirts as appropriate, because one thing’s for sure – it's going to be one hell of a groovy weekend, baby. silverstoneclassic.com