Jaguar XKE History
The sensational Jaguar XKE
It's hard to imagine a car today having the kind of impact on modern culture that the XKE had in the early 1960s. It was a wild and free time—mini skirts, French bikinis, Andy Warhol and the Beatles were just some of the symbols of an era when creativity, not productivity, were in the forefront of the news. The automotive industry was lagging behind the times: the 1961 Corvette, the Porsche 356 and the various MGs and Triumphs were hold-overs from the 1950s. Then, suddenly, there was the XKE!
Jaguar sprang this tour de force on the public at the 1961 Geneva Auto Show, where it absolutely stole the show. The XKE borrowed stylistically and mechanically from the famous Le Mans-winning D-Type Jaguars, but to keep costs down many of its components were pulled from the Jag production parts bin. The body, though, was like nothing anyone had ever seen. Smooth and balanced, the Jaguar E-Type (known in the U.S. as the XKE) swept back from covered headlights to a long hood, ending with a gently rounded tail. There were two models, a coupe that was perhaps more stylish and a sporty roadster.
The engine was a 3.8-liter twincam six inherited from the previous Jag sports car, the XK-150S. It used triple SU carburetors and produced 265 hp. The chassis was all new and based on race car practice, with a monocoque center section and a front subframe to mount the engine. Brakes were disc all around (mounted inboard at the rear) and wire wheels were retained by two-eared knock-offs. It made everything else available for the road (including the Ferrari 250 GT and the Maserati 3500GT) look positively ancient. Not only that, but with a top speed of 150 mph the 1961 XKE would outrun any production car in the world!
The biggest shock was the price: the XKE retailed for only $5,595, only slightly more than a Corvette and less than half the price of a street Ferrari. Imagine if the latest Lamborghini today was priced at $35,000—that's the reaction most people had when the XKE exploded on the scene. Every car magazine in the world showcased the new model on their covers and the writers ran out of superlatives to describe it.
And of course every celebrity had to get one. Jack Paar took delivery of his on the set of The Tonight Show. Rock stars and celebrities wheeled them around fashionable eateries and clubs, and they became a familiar prop in movies when a stunning entrance was required.
The XKE was also a sales success, with the majority of the cars being shipped to the U.S. (helping to tip the trade balance back to level). For his considerable success in selling cars in America, Jaguar founder William Lyons was later knighted.
Once the Jags started getting into the hands of customers some flaws were discovered. The 4-speed transmission did not have a synchronized first gear, and was notchy to shift into the other gears as well. The brakes were frequently spongy, a result of using a poor power steering booster. And the electrical system was prone to failure, particularly as the cars aged. The myriad small problems were exacerbated by an insufficient number of dealers qualified to work on the XKE.
The Series 1 XKE was built from 1961 to 1964, when an improved Series 1A (unofficially known as the Series 1-1/2) was introduced. These had 4.2 liter engines with the same horsepower as the 3.8, but with more torque. A fully-synchronized 4-speed had been introduced shortly before the changeover. The brakes were improved as was the interior, with more legroom for tall drivers. The 3.8-liter cars were considered to be more challenging to drive, while the 4.2-liter versions were more refined. In 1966 Jaguar added a 2+2 version, with an extended wheelbase and a less graceful roofline. XKEs were raced all over the globe, where they proved to be quick but generally outclassed by the Ferrari 250 GTO and the Shelby Cobra.
A total of 38,410 Series 1 XKEs were built through 1967, when Jaguar was forced (kicking and screaming) to adapt the car to more stringent American crash and emission standards. The graceful covered headlights were opened up and the headlights slid forward in the openings. The knock-off spinners had to go, and the taillights were chopped off and stuck under the rear bumper.
Under the hood the news was even worse, with a 240-hp engine wheezing through only two Stromberg carburetors. Top speed dropped like a rock. The Series II was still popular, with 18,820 sold through 1970, but the XKE now had serious rivals from improved Corvettes, Ferrari GTBs and the Porsche 911.
Jaguar needed to keep the XKE in production while they developed new models, so they launched the Series 3 version in 1971. The XKE six was losing the horsepower race, so Jaguar dropped a new V-12 engine into the old warrior. Only two versions were offered, a 2+2 coupe and a roadster, all built on the longer 2+2 chassis. The 5.3 liter V-12 produced around 250 hp, but the weight had increased to the point that the new car was slower than a good Series 1. Bigger ventilated brakes were added, but the styling was compromised by tasteless steel wheels (wires were optional) and a larger grill.
Jaguar bankrolled an impressive American racing effort, led by Group 44 and Huffaker Engineering, who rolled back the Corvettes with their two mighty V-12 XKEs, but it was too late. The XKE was now truly outdated in performance and styling. Only 15,290 were sold from 1971 to 1975 when the XKE was at last laid to rest.
Today the XKE is one of the most sought-after collector cars in the world. Even after all this time, the Series 1 XKE is still ranked by many stylists as the most beautiful production car ever built. Clean Series 1 XKEs sell for more than ten times their original selling price. Series 2 and all 2+2 models lag way behind in value, making them the best bargains. The V-12 roadsters also have some collector cache, but restoration and maintenance costs are high. Even though the cost of XKE ownership has gone up over the years, they are still a bargain compared to collector Ferraris and Porsche Carreras. Some things never change.
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