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1963 Jaguar E-Type Roadster (front) and a 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT (rear) on display at the grand opening of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Queens, New York on June 29, 2002. (REUTERS/Chip East)
1963 Jaguar E-Type Roadster (front) and a 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT (rear) on display at the grand opening of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Queens, New York on June 29, 2002. (REUTERS/Chip East)

50 years of the Jaguar E-Type Add to ...

Last week at the Geneva motor show, Jaguar put some small effort into celebrating the 50th anniversary of the iconic Jaguar E-Type, a car many feel is one of the most beautiful cars ever made.

The original E-Type was unveiled at the Geneva show in March 1961. It made a splash then and has continued to do so. Even New York's Museum of Modern Art has given its nod of approval. In 1996 I was there on the night MOMA added a blue roadster to its permanent design collection. The only other car so honoured: a 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT.

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"It is impossible to overstate the impact the E-Type had when it was unveiled," said Jaguar design director Ian Callum last week in Geneva. Callum as a young man fell under the spell of the E-Type and the XJ6 sedan and today considers the E both a burden and a benefit.

It's a benefit in that the E-Type set a standard of design excellence and elegance that is forever associated with Jag. It's a burden, he said, because "I will never be able to do anything quite like it."

The E-Type was the successor to Jaguar's C-Type and D-Type race cars, both of which enjoyed a string of wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the 1950s, not to mention other racing events.

The E-Type's legacy isn't racing, though; it's design, though there were notable engineering flourishes. For instance, the monocoque structure, based on aircraft technology, was thoroughly modern and made the car very light. The disc brakes were race car-like and the clever suspension design made the E quick, responsive and agile.

Standing beside the original grey E-Type from March 1961, Callum happily and lovingly discussed the car's design. It was the work of Malcolm Sayer, an aerodynamicist who had worked for the Bristol Aeroplane Company in World War II.

Sayer created the C-Type and D-Type bodies and you can see hints of both in the E-Type. But Sayer was not a designer as such, but more of a mathematician in search of the perfect aerodynamic shape. He is said to have created the E-Type in a private room at Jaguar, consulting his complex tables of numbers and formulas and outlining mysterious elliptical shapes.

"Sayer was about drawing the optimal aerodynamic shape of a car to within a thousandth of an inch," said Callum in Geneva, pointing to the car. A MOMA brochure describes "the car's beauty and overall harmony of line" as arising "from the universality of these mathematical proportions, which are by definition not subjective but absolute."

Callum, though, was quick to say the E-Type is more than the product of cold mathematical formulas. Robert Cumberford, a critic and historian of automobile design who joined us on the stand in Geneva, says the car is the ultimate automotive expression of "Phalliform Perfection." You get the idea.

Callum also pointed out that we'll never see another production car quite like the E-Type for one simple reason: government regulations won't allow this kind of pure form to make it into showrooms unaffected by the need for good crash test scores and other safety rules.

The original E-Type was introduced not at the auto show itself, but by Jaguar's founder, Sir William Lyons, at the Restaurant Hotel du Parc des Eaux-Vives in a park by Lake Geneva. It had arrived only just in time after being driven some 700 miles from the British Midlands to Lake Geneva, averaging some 70 miles per hour all the way. That's another element to E-Type lore.

A few other fast facts: the inline six-cylinder engine displaced 3.8 litres and produced 265 horsepower. The E-Type first sold for $5,595 (roadster) and $5,895 (coupe) in the United States. And it was replaced in 1974 by the XJ-S.

The E-Type is a gorgeous car, but it was also a product of an England which in 1961 finally found itself emerging from the suffocating grip of post-World War suffering and rationing. England in the 1960s was coming alive with music (The Beatles, the Rolling Stones to name two) and fashion (Twiggy) and sexy secret agents in literature and on film (James Bond 007).

So it was not just a work of rolling art, but a sign of exploding English creativity and culture and self confidence, all of which had been largely bottled up since the end of the Second World War.

How could Callum and his designers ever really compete with all that? They won't try, he said. But we won't forget where we've come from, either, he added.

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