Last week I drove the oldest surviving E-Type roadster. Built in early 1961, this was the car that Jaguar development driver Bob Knight drove overnight from the factory in England to the Geneva motor show to satiate the demands of an over-excited press. Now maintained by the Jaguar Heritage Trust, it's worth at least $500,000 and is only allowed out on special occasions.
Spearing across England's green and pleasant lands, I was fulfilling not my fantasies, but those of my father. This was the automotive equivalent of sleeping with Bardot before she became a bunny-loving tree-hugger. In April 1961, when the E-Type-dubbed the XKE-was shown at the New York motor show, Frank Sinatra was heard to shout: "I want that car and I want it now."
It's impossible not to empathize with Ol' Blue Eyes. The original E-Type, before it was compromised by safety and packaging constraints, remains the most erotic shape ever to be pressed into metal. This was a car styled by an aerodynamicist, Malcolm Sayer, in an age of confidence and beauty. Britain was about to embark on the Swinging '60s, and for the cad about town, an E-Type was a ticket to ride.
In the past few years, a retro mix of wood and leather has defined Jaguar's interiors, which is ironic given that the E-Type's fascia is swathed in aluminum. The only timber on display is on the lovely, thin-rimmed steering wheel. The toggle switches have a resolute 'click' and feel like they've been made to last a millennium. The simple, beautiful Smiths instruments have a timeless chic-way beyond the mass-produced plasticity of modern cars.
The E-Type also feels properly rapid, even by today's standards. The original 3.8-liter six-cylinder engine developed 265 bhp and 260 lb-ft, so an Englishman and his lady could engage in some 'spirited motoring.' Even on a cold December afternoon, it's possible to imagine the thrill of cruising to Henley or Wimbledon with the top down, and some chap called Beatle singing about love, love, love on the wireless.
But succumbing to a tsunami of nostalgia misses a crucial point-much of the E-Type is rubbish. The Moss four-speed gearbox is laughably bad. First and reverse sit side-by-side, and so on at least three occasions I find myself going inexplicably backwards. In a car of such historical significance, this is more than a little worrying.
Shifting from first to second is a triumph of patience. The best technique is to slide the spindly lever into neutral, shout 'God save the Queen' then slot the next ratio. Getting back into first is even more of a challenge. The absence of synchromesh makes it necessary to come to a complete stop, or attempt a double-declutch downshift and risk selecting reverse.
The E-Type also feels monumentally dangerous. The tiny seats have no seatbelts, my head pops out above the windscreen and the steering column protrudes from the fascia like a jousting pole. In a front-end collision, there's a good chance my testicles would be skewered by the steering wheel. And if I rolled it, the E-Type would pivot about my head. I might be a namby-pamby modern metrosexual, but I haven't felt so vulnerable in a long time.
These days, this most famous of E-Types is kept in a museum near Jaguar's English headquarters, lovingly buffed by Jag buffs. There are members of the royal family that receive less pampering, but that still doesn't stop it breaking down. I'd been driving for about half an hour when the engine started to misfire. The temperatures all looked fine and there was plenty of oil pressure, but every time I prodded the accelerator, it spluttered like a flu-ridden child. Then it stopped working altogether, leaving me stranded in the middle of a country lane. For 10 minutes I was forced to stand in the road, directing traffic around my precious artifact. There is nothing even remotely cool about a broken-down E-Type-you just look like a posh twit.
The nice man from Jaguar arrived and we peered under the hood. We poked at the carburetors, twiddled with battery terminals and scratched our chins. Then we shut the hood, switched on the ignition and prodded the starter button. For some unknown reason, the old six sprang to life. It ran well for a moment or two, and then it started spluttering again.
Given Jaguar's recent woes, it has become all too easy to look back on the '50s and '60s as a halcyon era. If only, the theory goes, we could recapture the spirit of the XK120 and the E-Type, then all will be well. The crucial word here is 'spirit.' Sinatra wanted an E-Type because it looked forward, not back. It was a car that helped define its age, instead of harking back to a bygone era. The dangerous, unreliable E-Type is no more relevant to today than a black-and-white television. But the creativity and ambition that made it great must live on.