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The common housefly has a lifespan of four weeks. Most car designs don't fare much better – they explode onto the market in a burst of hype, enjoy brief renown, and are then rapidly consigned to the trash can of stylistic history. Does anyone remember the Mercury Capri, a 1970s sensation that lasted about as long as the Bay City Rollers and the Earth shoe? How about the late and unlamented Infiniti J30, a car so bland it could have served as a dental waiting room? Or Cadillac's woeful Cimarron? I rest my case. Most cars don't stand the test of time.

But then we come to the Jaguar E-Type, a 55-year-old design that still has the power to turn heads. This is style at its most timeless. Like the Chanel jacket and the little black dress, the E-Type still works. Not bad for a machine that was designed when Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy were still alive.

So what gives the E-Type its lasting appeal? Like a fine wine, great cars have a provenance and flavour that speak to their heritage and industrial DNA. The E-Type was designed as the everyman's supercar. It cost a fraction of a Ferrari, yet exuded the same kind of exotic charisma – maybe more. This was not an easy feat.

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With their hand-formed bodies and beautiful castings, the Ferraris of the time oozed a languid Italian ambience. You could envision teams of artisans hammering out sheets of aluminum and crafting gorgeous steel suspension arms in a process not unlike the making of a Michelangelo sculpture. This was not far from the case: A Ferrari was a cost-is-no-object machine, built for the wealthy cognoscenti.

By comparison, the E-Type was an inexpensive machine, built on a tight budget. It was the product of design genius coupled with industrial desperation. Unlike Ferrari, Jaguar was a fast-paced, assembly-line-style operation, and the company's back was to the wall – rising costs, fierce competition and protracted battles with its militant labour union had taken Jaguar to the financial brink. The company needed a hit.

The design of the E-Type began in the late 1950s. Two men were instrumental in its development. One of them was Malcolm Sayer, a designer who had been heavily influenced by Second World War aircraft like the Supermarine Spitfire. The other was Sir William Lyons, the Jaguar company's gifted and autocratic founder.

Sayer created the immortal lines of the E-Type in a back room at the Jaguar factory, sketching its shape with lead pencils and French curves – there were no straight lines on the E-Type. Lyons, meanwhile, oversaw the E-Type's design and engineering program with the critical eye and spot-on taste that had made him an industry legend. Lyons was a manager who guided teams to greatness. His role was not unlike that of music producer George Martin, who guided the Beatles with such an unerring hand that he became known as "the fifth Beatle."

When it hit the market back in 1961, Enzo Ferrari himself declared the E-Type "the most beautiful car ever built." Everyone wanted one, and it attracted a long list of celebrity owners, including Twiggy, Roy Orbison, Steve McQueen, Brigitte Bardot and Frank Sinatra. The E-Type became the signature ride of hard-living soccer superstar George Best, and it inspired the quote that summed up his life: "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars," Best said. "The rest I just squandered."

The E-Type stayed in production for 14 years, going through a series of variations – there were hardtops and convertibles, lightweight race cars, plus a regrettable four-seat version that desecrated the car's perfect shape. In 1971, Jaguar introduced the E-Type Series 3, with a 12-cylinder engine that required a swollen, extended nose to house it. (Today, the most valuable E-Types are the Series One cars, with six-cylinder engines and body lines that most closely correspond to Sayers' original sketches.)

Like many great beauties, whether human or mechanical, the E-Type is fraught with complication. In its era, Jaguar was long on style but often short on execution quality: Many E-Type's came from the factory with misaligned body panels, leaking hydraulics and electrical systems that seemed to be inhabited by evil demons (like most British manufacturers in that era, Jaguar bought its electrical components from Lucas, a company that came to be known as "Prince of Darkness"). The car's flaky systems played a starring role in a Mad Men storyline. When one of Don Draper's advertising colleagues decides to kill himself by running a hose from his Jaguar's tailpipe into the cockpit, he's foiled when the car fails to start. (He hangs himself instead.)

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Never mind. The E-Type has a special ambience that runs bone deep. Beneath that beautiful curved skin is a set of components that made it a sports car for the ages, complete with independent rear suspension, a crooning engine and inboard disc brakes. At the time, these brakes were a technological marvel. They reduced the load on the vehicle's suspension by moving the mass of the brakes away from the wheel. And this is just one of many beautiful technical features of the E-Type: When you put a Series One on the hoist and get underneath, it looks even more beautiful than it does from above.

Of course, those exotic brakes can turn a rotor replacement into a days-long job, filled with cursing, broken knuckles and multiple runs to the parts store. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, complications and all. Long live the E-Type.

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