Jaguar XKE History


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 By the time the XK-SS appeared, the D-Type had completed its third season and the Jaguar factory had withdrawn from racing.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.

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Jaguar XK-SS

The Jaguar XK-SS was a bridge between Jaguar's racing world and what would become the roadgoing Jaguar XKE. Such a product as the Jaguar XK-SS had been on the collective company mind for about as long as the D-Type itself had been in existence.

1957 Jaguar XK-SS
©2007 Jaguar Cars and Wieck Media Services, Inc.
The Jaguar XK-SS of 1957 was a road version of the
retired
D-Type racer and a stepping stone to the XKE.

Sometime during 1954, Jaguar's resident aerodynamicist, Malcolm Sayer, had sculpted a lump of modeling clay into a miniature roadster that strongly hinted of both the XK-SS and XKE to come.

The job of making racing D-Type into roadgoing XK-SS was done as thoroughly as possible within the constraints inevitable when starting with a purpose-built machine.

The center of the monocoque underwent some surgery, having its shoulder width opened up and its central brace between the seats removed, as well as a passenger door cut into the left side. Also shorn was the driver's headrest and its fairing, leaving the previously concealed quick-action fuel cap exposed.

The low plastic windscreen was replaced with a tall, rather upright one made of glass in a steel frame, and wipers were added. So were a sketchy folding top with detachable side-screens and flimsy quarter-bumpers attached directly to the fragile fenders.

The only place to hang a muffler turned out to be along the left side, under the rocker panel. The only place to accommodate luggage was a rack plunked atop the tail.

Installing some cockpit upholstery, turn signals, and trim rings around the plastic headlight covers completed the transformation of wild racing beast into a demure, if perhaps overdressed, street beauty.

Nevertheless, the XK-SS retained the full racing powertrain as supplied on customer D-Types. This meant a 3.4-liter inline six-cylinder with dry-sump oiling system -- the regular wet-sump engine wouldn't fit under the low "bonnet" anyway -- and a trio of Weber carburetors.

Output was unchanged at 242 pounds/feet of torque at 4,000-4,500 rpm and 250 horsepower at 5,750. Performance thus stood to be shattering, as the dual-purpose car weighed only about 100 pounds more than the pure racer.

To help move the necessary 100 copies, U.S. price was set artificially low: just under $7,000 -- nearly $3,000 less than a pure D-Type. Possibly the bargain of the decade.

Announced on January 21, 1957, the XK-SS attracted the two types of customers Jaguar had hoped it would. There were indeed people for whom it represented automotive nirvana.

One was Hollywood action man Steve McQueen, who is known to have been delighted with his. But several others were purchased by less famous folk who used them for both racing and vivid road driving.

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Jaguar XK-SS Road Test

How vivid was the performance of the racer--for-the-road Jaguar XK-SS? The XK-SS seldom found its way into professional road-test hands, but Road & Track clocked one at 5.2 seconds 0-60 and through the standing quarter-mile in 14.1 at a little over 100 mph.

That was despite considerable wheelspin due to the lack of a limited-slip differential, but another example tested by The Autocar pretty well confirmed those numbers.

Jaguar XK-SS restored vintage racer
©2007 Jaguar Cars and Wieck Media Services, Inc.
The Jaguar XK-SS used the full racing
powertrain of the customer
D-Type.

The traditional 3.54:1 rear-end gearing of other Jaguar street cars was rather short for the XK-SS, so top speed was limited by the 5,800-rpm redline to 144 mph. In all, stupendous performance for the day -- for just about any day, in fact. But enjoying it took some commitment.

As the cockpit was basically identical to the D-Type's, accommodation was none too generous. The passenger side was especially cramped in foot room. In America, that passenger sat watching the oncoming traffic, because no XK-SS was built as a "left-hooker." The passenger also had to put up with heat beating through the aluminum cockpit side from the left-mounted exhaust system.

The driver had more fun, though it was fun of a demanding sort. While the engine retained much of the tractability for which the XK powerplant was long renowned, it did have racing cams, so its power was concentrated in the upper third of the rev band.

Also, because the D-Type engine had no specific flywheel, it responded vividly to the throttle. Both characteristics made smooth engagement of the abrupt multi-plate racing clutch all the harder.

There were other functional quirks that rendered the XK-SS a questionable proposition as a true dual-purpose vehicle. Some drivers familiar with the D-Type felt that the SS chassis flexed a little by comparison, because it didn't have the cockpit center brace.

Then there was that bulky exhaust system, which apparently was pretty noisy and probably not hard to scrape on a curb. Prolonged urban slogging risked running the battery down, because the generator (no alternators yet) was set up to need more than 2,000 engine rpm to charge.

When the time came to top up the huge rubber-bag gas tank, the same 44-gallon (U.S.) item that filled the shapely tail of the D-Type, it had better not be raining, because the top had to be dismantled to get at the racing-type fuel port.

On the good side, ride quality was described as surprisingly comfortable. The windshield seemed to work well, though it was something less than graceful to look at. And though the steering suffered some of the kickback over bumps characteristic to rack-and-pinion mechanisms, it was quite quick at 2.3 turns lock-to-lock on a 32-foot turning circle, yet pleasingly light.

There was a noticeable tendency to under steer that had been deliberately built into the D-Type for stability at LeMans, and which proved to work well on the highway. Yet whenever a corner seemed too tight, there was plenty of poke to get the tail out. The all-wheel disc brakes, of course, were fabulous.

Sixteen cars were built up from scratch -- more accurately, from incomplete D-Type chassis. Two more finished D-Types were converted to XK-SS specification, one apparently the very car that had finished second at LeMans 1954 and was later tested for Autosport by John Bolster. (On the other hand, several owners of cars originally built as XK-SSs subsequently converted them to D-Type spec.)

Then, overnight, production ended. Was such a super-sports concept too virile to be as popular as one might have expected? Perhaps, but we will never really know. On the night of February 12, 1957, only three weeks after the XK-SS had been formally introduced, the part of the Browns Lane factory where it was built caught fire. Several incomplete chassis and many parts were destroyed; more crippling, so were most of the jigs and tooling.

Thanks to enormous effort and dedication, production of normal cars was going again within days, but it just wasn't worth restarting the XK-SS line. So in a flash, Jaguar was out of the super-sports business, though perhaps that wasn't entirely bad. But there was a lot of obvious good in the basic idea of a sports car built on D-Type lines, and it was worth pursuing.

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Jaguar E1A XKE Prototype

Thus came step two toward the eventual Jaguar XKE. It was taken late that same year, 1957, when Jaguar's engineering department laid down an experimental chassis for a genuine roadgoing sports car, a project designated E1A.

Whether the "E" simply stood for "experimental" or had already been chosen for a new production model is not clear. The meaning of the "1" is clear, of course. The "A" signified "aluminum," or perhaps "alloy," the material of which both body and chassis were made. That implies Jaguar was already envisioning a later version of steel, which was more suitable for volume production.

Outwardly, the E1A prototype bore a strong resemblance both to the D-Type/XK-SS and to the clay-model roadster that Sayer had carved back in 1954. Structurally, it was very much a D-Type derivation, with a similar ovoid-section central monocoque tub and space-frame front structure.

As on the earliest D-Types, tub and tubing were welded together, with the front frame again being light alloy. But there were two departures from D-Type convention. Instead of a 3.4/3.8 engine, E1A carried the short-stroke XK six of Jaguar's then-new 2.4-liter compact sedan.

This was because the prototype was physically small, being shorter, narrower, lower, and probably also lighter than the race cars that came before and the road model that was to come. Also, ElA had an experimental independent rear suspension instead of the D's live rear axle.

It's worth remembering that Jaguar engineers had been working with independent suspension since before World War II, beginning with William Heynes' early investigations. During the war years, the company had built two different prototypes for a lightweight military vehicle, both with independent suspension of all four wheels.

The XK 120 and Mark V sedan emerged in 1948 as the first production Jaguars with separately sprung front wheels. Later, during the D-Type program, some testing had been done with a de Dion rear end, which has some of the advantages of full independence. So the thought had long been in mind to bring Jaguar's road cars, both sports models and sedans, into the modern all-independent world.

Late, 1957 was the time, and E1A was the development vehicle. It was running by early 1958. And run it did, logging many thousands of hard miles on test tracks, race tracks, even public highways.

In fact, on one extraordinary occasion, Sir William Lyons handed the keys of the top-secret prototype over to a member of the automotive press -- the editor of Motor, no less -- who was to take the little light-green roadster along some favored back-country roads in Wales and report back. He returned with words like "astonishing," "sensational," and "world-beater."

The scribe kept faith with Lyons and kept quiet about the car in public, but sent a "secret and confidential" memorandum to his boss in May 1958. Published many years later by Paul Skilleter in Jaguar Sports Cars, the note revealed this editor's understanding that the production sports car to come would be a 3.0-liter with an amazing output of 286 horsepower and a projected top speed "not very far short of 150 mph, which is going to make us think."

Jaguar was thinking of making 100 per week, he added, and said that the new model, which people around the factory were already referring to as "the XKE;" was to go on sale in the autumn of 1958.

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Jaguar E2A XKE Prototype

Alas, that timetable would eventually be put back two-and-a-half years. Happily, most of the rest of his predictions came true. Around the time Jaguar was playing with the E1A, it also built the E2A.

The Jaguar E2A protoype being readied for test runs at LeMans in 1960.
The final step from the XK-SS to the production
XKE was the Jaguar E2A, shown here being
readied for test runs at LeMans in 1960.

Though similar to the E1A in both looks and rear suspension concept, it resembled even more the eventual XKE. It even had the longer, 96-inch wheelbase of the forthcoming road car, although in the interest of high straightaway speed it had a narrower track than the D-Type.

Actually, E2A was conceived more as a racer than road car. Many in the company still hoped Jaguar would return to formal competition, and this other "XKE" was really a follow-on to the D-Type.

And after some years of clandestine development, the E2A finally did get to race, being taken to LeMans in the spring of 1960 as an official entry. In fact, it was an official entry of the Briggs Cunningham team along with a trio of Chevrolet Corvettes (one of which would finish eighth overall and first in the Grand Touring class).

Word was given out that this spectacular new Jaguar had been "specially commissioned" by the marque's American stalwart, but the truth was the aging hack had already been pushed to one side when Cunningham was asked to take it racing.

For a pre-race test session at LeMans in April, it ran sans paint, its bare aluminum bodywork bearing only a British registration number. By race week, though, it was in American racing livery of white with blue stripes. But nobody could have doubted its real origin and original intent.

Made mostly of aluminum like the D-Type, the E2A "XKE" ran at LeMans with a special aluminum-block XK engine featuring dry-sump oiling and fuel injection. Nearly square bore and stroke dimensions of 85x88 mm meant displacement of 2,997 cc, just 3 cc below the contemporary 3.0-liter limit in the prototype class where the E2A qualified.

With big valves, hot cams and a high 10.0:1 compression ratio, horsepower was a tingling 293 at a whizzing 6,750 rpm. Indicating the peaky nature of this engine's power delivery was the high 6,000-rpm speed for peak torque, which was 230 pounds/feet.

This "XKE" proved quite fast in test sessions and in the race itself. Driven by American aces Walt Hansgen and Dan Gurney, it even set the best practice time. At the end of the first 8.36-mile lap, the E2A came by the pits in third place behind a Maserati and a Ferrari, and well ahead of the other Jaguar entered, a D-Type, that grand old model having its last LeMans hurrah.

Then a broken fuel line set up a series of long pit stops to correct engine troubles. E2A made it past the ninth hour, but eventually quit. Autosport thought the Jaguar had been strong enough to win outright, and expressed regret that there hadn't been a team of three.

Cunningham then took the car back to the States, where he raced it several times with a normal 3.8-liter, Weber-carbureted engine crammed under a "power bulge" in the hood. In this form, Hansgen won with it at Bridgehampton, Long Island, beating a Jaguar-powered Lister.

But the mid-engine revolution was at hand. At least the E2A would find safe haven in the hands of a collector. The E1A? Unsentimentally, Jaguar cut it up as scrap -- though perhaps only because the company had long since turned its full attention to preparing a roadgoing XKE for production.

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Jaguar XKE Chassis and Suspension

Apparently, the basic concept that would evolve into the Jaguar XKE had evolved since Motor's clandestine evaluation of the E1A in Wales.

No longer a very small, very light sports car, it had grown to the wheelbase of the E2A (96 inches) and track dimensions at both ends as wide as the D-Type's front (50 inches). Chassis and body would be made of steel rather than light alloys, and though a lift-up hood/front-fenders assembly would be retained, it would reveal a normal iron-block 3.8 with a standard deep sump.

 The Jaguar XKE's elongated purity of line owed much to stylist William Lyons.
The Jaguar XKE's elongated purity of line
owed much to the inspired hand of
born-stylist William Lyons.

Basic chassis structure again involved a front space-frame of square-section steel tubes, but this was now bolted to a rear monocoque of sheet steel. Front suspension would be very similar to the D-Type's, with forged control arms, tubular shock absorbers, and longitudinal torsion bars. Steering would be rack-and-pinion, of course.

Such familiarity only highlighted what would be a big attraction of the forthcoming XKE: Jaguar's latest independent rear suspension. This employed the usual U-jointed halfshafts to take power from a chassis-mounted differential out to the wheels, but also used them as upper control links.

This efficient, two-jobs-in-one idea was not new, having already been used by Lotus on some of its racing cars as well as on its roadgoing Elite. In America, Zora Arkus-Duntov had been using such a design experimentally since the late 1950s and would adapt it for the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray.

Under the halfshaft was another control arm forming the lower element of a wheel-locating parallelogram. In the E2A, this had been a wide-based transverse "wishbone" or A-arm, but in the production XKE it took the form of a lateral tube with a forged yoke on each end.

Its job was to locate the wheel in both camber and toe. A third control link ran from this tube forward to the bottom of the chassis to resist braking and accelerating forces.

"Ears" on each tube supported a pair of vertically sited coil-spring/tubular-shock units per side. Having pairs precluded twisting forces on the tubes and allowed the spring/shock units to be small enough to fit beneath the rear floor area without undue space intrusion.

That was important, because this same independent rear suspension was also going to be used in Jaguar sedans. The entire suspension package was carried on a steel substructure, which itself was rubber-mounted to the main monocoque to keep noise and road shock out of the cabin.

Naturally, all four brakes would be discs, but the rears would be mounted inboard, next to the differential. Some of the time between 1958 prototype and 1961 production car had been spent making sure that heat from the rear brakes wouldn't soak into the differential.

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Jaguar XKE Engine

By contrast, Jaguar decided to simplify things in the Jaguar XKE engine department by fitting just the 3,781-cc six. Moreover, it would be offered only with the straight-port head and its trio of two-inch SU carburetors, as on the hottest XK 150S.

The Jaguar XKE 3.8 twin-cam six engine.
The Jaguar XKE's classic 3.8-liter twincam inline
six cylinder made 265 horsepower at 5500 rpm.

Although 8.0:1 compression was specified for markets with poor-quality gas, most XKEs would run 9.0:1 pistons, in which case the 3.8 was said to produce 265 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 260 pounds/feet of torque at 4,000. Unlike its canted position in the D-Type, the engine stood up straight here.

A four-speed manual would be the only available transmission. No overdrive, and no automatic. This wasn't for the sake of simplicity, though: There was simply insufficient room for those options in this compact, tightly packaged sports car. However, a limited-slip differential would be standard.

With all its civilizing changes, the old XK roadster had become a contradiction in terms as a 150, and was not selling well anyway, so XKE body styles would be limited to the familiar pair of coupe and convertible.

The latter was occasionally called Open Two Seater, but in neither model was any attempt made to cram extra seating in the back, "+2" or otherwise. For the first time, Jaguar offered the drophead with a detachable hard top, an idea doubtless borrowed from America and here also rendered in fiberglass.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the new production sports car emerged looking much like the E2A. But where the latter had seemed a bit stubby, perhaps even dowdy to eyes long used to feasting on the D-Type, the roadgoing Jaguar XKE was so lovely as to make the heart ache.

The original lines may have come from Malcolm Sayer's wind tunnel, but in the grace, the balanced proportions, the subtle electric excitement, one surely saw the hand of William Lyons.

For its formal introduction to the world, the XKE was taken to the international arena of Switzerland and the Geneva auto show of March 1961. It was fully the sensation the XK 120 had been in London over a dozen years before. But even more so. Incredibly, Jaguar had ignited yet another sports-car revolution.

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1961-1968 Jaguar XKE Specifications

The Jaguar XKE was formally introduced to the world at the Geneva auto show in March 1961. Sired directly from the D-Type racing car, the speedy -- and lovely -- XKE instantly sparked a sensation, and yet another sports-car revolution for Jaguar.

Jaguar XKE Specifications

Years produced
1961-1968
Number built
38,410
ConfigurationFront engine; two-seat and 2+2
Body style
Coupe, convertible, 2+2 coupe
Suspension, front
Independent with torsion bars
Suspension, rear
Independent with four coil springs
Wheelbase (inches)
96 (105 for 2+2)
Track, front (inches)
50
Track, rear (inches)
50
Overall length (inches)
175.5 (184 for 2+2)

Jaguar XKE Engines

Engine XK-6
Type
I-6, iron block, aluminum head with two overhead camshafts, two valves per cylinder
Displacement, liters/cc
3.8/3781, 4.2/4235
Maximum horsepower
250, 265

Jaguar XKE Performance

Best 0-60 mph (seconds)
6.9
Best top speed (mph)
153

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