Enzo Ferrari called it the most beautiful car ever made. He wasn’t the only one. The Daily Telegraph, one of the smarter newspapers in the United Kingdom, said virtually the same thing when it compiled a list of 100 comely cars. Defunct American magazine Sports Car International named it the top sports car of the 1960s. And really, we have all seen one and fought the instinct to drool as it purred down the street, even now, 50 years since it first came out.
In a world where one man’s Angelina Jolie is another man’s Angela Lansbury, the E-Type seems to have a universal appeal. And it’s all thanks to mathematics. The name of the man who designed the E-Type is well known: Malcolm Sayer. He was an aerodynamicist before he joined Jaguar and created his shapes using complex logarithms. This was before the days of computer-aided design (CAD), which now does all that numerical heavy lifting.
It was also a time before wind tunnels, yet the E-Type’s drag coefficient (Cd) is a respectable 0.4. Most contemporary sedans hover around 0.33 and one of the most slippery vehicles in common use today is the Toyota Prius, with a 0.25 Cd. But in 1961, the E-Type could stake its claim as the most aerodynamic full-production sports car, adding credence to the old test pilots’ adage: “If it looks good, it’ll fly good.”
Not much is known about Sayer the man. He went to a school where his father taught mathematics and art—an unusual combination, but oddly prescient. Sayer is said to have obtained his winning formulae from a German professor while working at Baghdad University. However, there is no hint of his private character and how he felt about creating lines so unashamedly sensual just as Europe was moving slowly out of post-war austerity. And this wasn’t his first time.
Sayer had also penned the equally curvaceous C-type and D-type racing cars for Jaguar. All this from an Englishman, from a nation better known for Yorkshire pudding and the dark, satanic mills of its industrial revolution than for the kind of design flair that would make an Italian envious. Sayer died in 1970, five years before the E-Type ceased production, with sales totaling more than 70,000. But he did see his crowning achievement become an instant classic and an iconic sports car.
Although looks are a big part of the E-Type’s success, it also had the performance to back them up. At its launch, the car had a 3.8-liter straight-six making 265 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque (later models had a 4.2-liter straight-six and a 5.3-liter V12). Jaguar’s racing experience showed in its chassis setup; the car was one of the first to use a monocoque construction. Initial price was 2,000 pounds Sterling. Using a wage-indexed equivalent, that works out to $96,971. For comparison, a 2011 XK Coupe starts at $83,000.
There is one less-celebrated name connected with the E-Type, Bob Blake, born in North Dakota in 1916. He taught himself panel beating as a hobby, joined the armed forces and went to the UK during the Second World War. He met a local girl, married her and stayed. He got a job at Jaguar and soon became adept at translating Sayer’s drawings into three dimensions. He was the right man in the right place at the right time.
The irony is that the rest of America was distracted from the car’s true looks when federal regulations dictated that the glassed-in headlights be replaced with normal ones, and the Series III models had awful rubber over-riders instead of an elegant chromed front bumper. But not even that could really spoil the E-Type’s beauty.
From an Englishman, and a nation better known for Yorkshire pudding... than for The kind of design flair that would make an Italian envious.