The Jaguar XKE leaped onto the world's sports-car stage in March 1961. To anyone for whom the automobile is more about romance than utility, the Jaguar XKE ranks among the most important cars ever created. And not only for its virtues as a vehicle.

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1961 Jaguar XKE convertible, also known as the Jaguar E-Type.
©2007 Jaguar Cars and Wieck Media Services, Inc.
Like the Jaguar XK 120 of 13 years earlier, the Jaguar
XKE was a masterwork, but one with real racing roots. See more sports car pictures.

Yes, in itself the Jaguar XKE was a very exciting sports car, combining speed with style, savagery with civility. But then, Jaguar devotees had come to expect that from their marque.

The Jaguar XKE was something more -- much more. There are enthusiasts who hold that racing is the highest of the automotive arts, and thus a roadgoing automobile must be derived from racing experience. For them, a sports car based on a competition car is the best car.

Such disciples perceive a natural link between the demands of the speedway and the pleasures of the open highway, and believe fervently that "racing improves the breed." The E-Type validated their theology.

Here was a sports car that was not only exquisitely pleasing to look at and exciting to drive in every way, but one sired directly by a racing car. And not just any racing car, but the Jaguar D-Type, which had won the world's most prestigious sports-car race three years running, in 1955, 1956 and 1957.

Though the XKE did not appear until 1961, it was quite clearly the D's lineal descendant, an honest and genuine attempt to adapt the LeMans car's performance technology to everyday use -- to tame the racer for the road.

Jaguar did literally that as a first step. Late in 1956, the company began converting the actual customer-version D-Type racer into a highway-capable sports car. Labeled XK-SS, it was convincing proof that there was more to the job of taming wild beasts than draping them in harness

The XK-SS was not exactly a failure as a sports car, but it was one of those unfortunate ones whose failings seem to outnumber their finer points. A "yes, but," sort of car.

To begin with, the project was a ploy, and everybody knew it. By the time the XK-SS appeared, the D-Type had completed its third season and the Jaguar factory had withdrawn from racing.

It's hard to see it from the vantage point of today, when all such cars are so immensely valuable, but at the time, the D-Type was an aging athlete. It still had some good runs left in it-including another Le Mans victory -- and was more widely honored than ever, but retirement was looming. Faster racers were springing up all over.

In a frank attempt to wring some added value from an obsolescent design, Jaguar hit on the idea of fitting some "production" D-Types with full road equipment. That would suit eligibility rules for the C-Production racing class of the Sports Car Club of America, but meant building at least 100 examples. Jaguar might have a hard time placing that many with true racers.

Still, perhaps some customers in the U.S. and elsewhere might be attracted by the prospect of owning a true super-sports street car. Worth trying, anyway.

For more on Jaguar and other great cars, see:

  • Jaguar Cars: Check out more information on the great sporting cars.
  • How Sports Cars Work: Get the lowdown on hundreds of fantastic sports cars from the 1940s to today.
  • Classic Cars: Learn about the world's most coveted automobiles in these illustrated profiles.
  • Ferrari: Learn about every significant Ferrari road car and racing car.
  • New Jaguars: Reviews, ratings, prices, and specifications on the current Jaguar lineup from the auto editors of Consumer Guide.
  • Used Jaguars: Reviews, recalls, trouble spots, and more on pre-owned Jaguars starting with the 1990 model year. From the auto editors of Consumer Guide.