Jaguar XKE Road Tests


The Jaguar XKE was the stuff of dreams -- a racing car built for the road. See more Jaguar pictures.
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The Jaguar XKE seemed the fulfillment of a long-held dream: a roadgoing racing car. If you were the kind of driver for whom the Jaguar XKE carried that message, you approached the car with a sense of awe bordering on reverence.

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Packaged in one wind-piercing projectile was a race-proven twin-cam engine with three carbs, a four-speed gearbox, a limited-slip differential, fully independent suspension, all-wheel disc brakes (still inboard at the rear!), rack-and-pinion steering, and a lightweight chassis featuring a fusion of space-frame and monocoque technologies.

The XKE was the child of the Jaguar D-Type, three times a winner at LeMans, and looked it. Better, the XKE performed almost like the D-Type.

Even so, its great prowess came with all the silky smooth sophistication customary in Jaguars, that feline merging of muscle with manner that left no one unmoved on levels both intellectual and intestinal. Yet even for confirmed Jaguar enthusiasts, this car was something new.

Twelve years of familiarity with the Jaguar XK-series had bred a feeling in some quarters that Jaguar's two-seaters were physically too large and heavy to be "true" sports cars. Yet against the Jaguar XK 150, especially, the XKE seems almost petite.

Despite that long nose, it is an inch-and-a-half shorter overall, and six inches briefer in wheelbase. Its rounded bodywork is an inch wider, but track measures an inch-and-a-half narrower. Matched roofline to roofline, the XKE coupe stands a remarkable seven inches lower. And it weighs several hundred pounds less than the closed XK 150.

This impression of compact efficiency continues as you open the very short door and fold yourself into its narrow opening (fewer than 21 inches separate windshield post from latch pillar). The sill is relatively high off the ground, and a bulky seven inches wide. At a diameter of 16 inches, the steering wheel commandeers some of the space your legs want as they slide in.

You are comfortable enough once settled, but the D-Type's "performance-first" racing philosophy is very evident in the snug XKE cockpit. Within the shorter wheelbase, the engine sits farther back than in the XK 140/150, and while interior volume is adequate, it is hardly generous. In fact, shoulder and head room are each an inch tighter than in the 150 coupe.

However, the instrument panel and steering wheel seem farther away. The wheel still adjusts for reach via a friction collar on the column and, reviving a good idea from the classic Jaguar SS 100, can be adjusted for rake via a wrench. Both column and pedals angle away from the engine, so you are immediately conscious of sitting with your legs slightly askew and with the wheel canted in your hands.

The wheel itself appears high-set, but is lovely to behold. In the style of the day it is large across but thin in the rim, made of polished wood and aluminum, and has racy "lightening holes" drilled into its spokes.

Those spokes are quite springy, though, which can allow a disconcerting amount of flex in your hands. The seat seems minimal: thin in the cushioning and short in the backrest.

Because you no longer perch atop a separate chassis, as in the XKs, you feel nestled much lower relative to both macadam and machine. The gearshift knob now stands almost as tall as the flat horn boss in the center of the steering wheel, and is only a handspan away from the rim.

For the first time on a Jaguar sports car since the SS 100, primary instruments -- rev counter and speedometer -- are located straight in front of the driver. And the tach has been changed so the needle now rotates in the same clockwise direction as the speedo.

Peer through the wide but shallow windshield -- so shallow it requires three short wiper blades for coverage -- and you are captivated by the sensuous curves of the hood. There is enough bodywork falling away out of sight to make you worry a little in tight quarters, but then, this car was not born for tight quarters.

That beautiful bulge rising so prominently in the center of the "bonnet" tells the tale; it seems to be pointing the way to the far end of the unimaginably fast Mulsanne Straight. Or to any horizon you care to imagine.

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Jaguar XKE Driving Experience

Driving the Jaguar XKE put you behind a classic sports car steering wheel and had you looking ahead over a long, shapely hood.
Driving the Jaguar XKE put you behind a classic sports car steering wheel and had you looking ahead over a long, shapely hood.

A push of the starter button and the Jaguar XKE awakes with a spine-tingling growl, that classic Jaguar sound. At once suave and savage, it conjures the image of Tarzan in a tuxedo.

With effortless ease, the long-stroke engine seems to pick the car up and move it down the road in an oily-smooth feline lope. As your foot goes down harder, the growl changes to a predatory snarl. It is a true warning.

Although there is plenty of muscle at lower revs, at about 3,500 rpm the 3.8 engine takes a deep breath, the exhaust note becomes a wild howl, and the beast seems to leap for the redline. No red-blooded enthusiast can possibly have a soul so dead as to not feel exhilarated by the XK six.

Even magazine writers had trouble maintaining professional objectivity. One of the first to fail was John Bolster, whose factory-press-fleet XKE, a Fixed Head Coupe, was delivered with the promising British registration plate 9600 HP.

His report ran in the issue of Autosport appearing in England on Friday, March 17,1961, two days after the XKE was first revealed and just as it was making its debut in Switzerland.

"If Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans has been responsible for the new 'E' Type Jaguar," wrote Bolster, "then that Homeric contest on the Sarthe circuit has been abundantly justified." Bolster had always written favorably of Jaguars, but he strained for superlatives in writing of this one.

"Here we have one of the quietest and most flexible cars on the market," the writer rhapsodized, "capable of whispering along in top gear at 10 m.p.h. or leaping into its 150 m.p.h. stride on the brief depression of a pedal.

"A practical touring car, this, with its wide doors and capacious luggage space, yet it has a sheer beauty of line which easily beats the Italians at their own particular game ... All this, and 20 m.p.g. [17 U.S.] economy too, comes at a price which is about half that of the current crop of glamour-wagons.

"It is all the more remarkable that this Grand Touring car par excellence is directly descended from the Le Mans-winning 'D' Type. The Jaguar engine is one of the most amazing achievements of modern times...." Some people are hard to please.

But "wide doors"? Well, Bolster would probably have crawled in through a keyhole to drive this car. "To give some idea of the potential performance," he explained, "let us try to imagine an even lighter [Jaguar] XK 150S with a greatly improved aerodynamic penetration. Let us then envisage the virtual elimination of wheelspin by virtue of the I.R.S. The result, of course, is something out of this world...."

By "I.R.S.," Bolster meant the XKE's new independent rear suspension, which he counted a tremendous value. One performance limitation of both the D-Type racer and the hotter-engine XK sports cars had been their "live" beam-type rear axle.

"Live" referred to the method by which it was mounted, but drivers of higher-performance Jaguars would have been forgiven for thinking it was called "live" for the way it bounded about on bumps or tramped violently when too much power set a wheel spinning.

All that was history in the XKE. Observed Bolster: "Autosport has always championed the independent suspension of the rear wheels, and we have often wondered what a Jaguar would be like with this desirable design feature. Now we know, and the answer is -- it's a winner!"

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Jaguar XKE Acceleration

One writer called the Jaguar XKE engine "one of the most amazing achievements of modern times."
One writer called the Jaguar XKE engine "one of the most amazing achievements of modern times."

Acceleration, Bolster enthused, was "almost incredible ... In the past, only racing and the larger sports/racing cars have been capable of breaking 15 seconds for the standing quarter-mile. The S Type actually clocked 15.1 secs. on a wet road and 14.8 on an almost dry one...."

His 0-60 time was 6.8 seconds. For top speed he recorded 148.1 mph, although "a strong side wind was blowing at the time, and I am happy to call this a genuine 150 m.p.h. car." A velocity of 145, he continued, "came up from time to time during ordinary road motoring." He did explain that to see these speeds with the standard 3.31 axle ratio, one had to venture beyond the 5,500-rpm redline, which Jaguar had told him was "permissible" in top gear. "I found that 5,800 r.p.m. was very quickly gained, the last 200 r.p.m. taking rather longer to come up."

Powerful disc brakes and steady, responsive handling made such speeds seem reasonable. "The wet road behaviour is indeed excellent, a slight initial understeer being quickly converted to a balanced condition or a tail slide, depending on the position of the accelerator pedal. On dry roads, the most outstanding feature is the machine's behaviour on fast, open bends. Quite appreciable curves may be rounded at 110 m.p.h., and full throttle may be held without any tendency to 'lose it."'

Bolster also made the significant point that Jaguar's painstaking development of a rear subframe mounted on rubber bushings had eliminated one of the chief arguments against independent rear suspension: noise intrusion into the cockpit. The XKE, he said, was quieter in terms of gear whine and road rumble than most conventionally suspended cars.

For his part, Autosport editor Gregor Grant had this congratulatory capsule for Coventry: "It is a true conception of a modern sports car, displaying features which could only have resulted from intensive development work and a racing history...."

Similar sentiments filled public prints all over the world. Seldom has any new car received the voluminous coverage lavished on the XKE during 1961. Not only was it sexy and sensational, ranking right up there with recognized supercars, it was attainable.

At $5,595 in the U.S., it was less than half the cost of a contemporary Ferrari. As with the XK 120, many thousands of people would be able to buy the XKE. And that made it important.

Five days after British readers had devoured Autosport's test, The Motor's came out. It told a tale of 3,000 miles in England and on the Continent with an open two seater.

The staff had anticipated that the XKE would be "something of a landmark in sports-car progress" but they were resoundingly convinced after their week's hard motoring: "Curiously enough, its very close connection in design and appearance with competition Jaguars gives people the impression that this is essentially a racing car with all the limitations for ordinary use that this implies.

"Nothing could be farther from the truth; admittedly, it is quite easily the fastest car ever tested by The Motor, but the roadholding is entirely capable of handling the power, the springing is more comfortable than that of many sober touring cars and the engine is extremely flexible and devoid of temperament.

"The ease and delicacy of control is such that 220 b.h.p./ton was no embarrassment at all on the packed snow and ice of Swiss mountain passes using ordinary racing tyres."

"Ordinary racing tyres"? Well, the manufacturer did list Dunlop R5s as an optional extra. With these better boots, plus a weight advantage of about 100 pounds over the coupe, Motor's roadster motored to 60 in a breezy 7.1 seconds and through the standing quarter in 15.0 (a retest on normal Dunlop Road Speeds dropped that to 14.7).

Maximum speed was 149.1 mph with the soft top up. Here, too, the engine was taken 500 rpm into the red zone. The cost of all this speed was a "touring fuel consumption" of just under 18 miles per U.S. gallon.

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Jaguar XKE Handling

The Jaguar XKE's nose was an ideal shape, but the glass-covered headlamps provided inadequate illumination.
The Jaguar XKE's nose was an ideal shape, but the glass-covered headlamps provided inadequate illumination.

As a driving instrument, the Jaguar XKE was found to be a delight in many ways.

The independent rear suspension was able to give a soft ride over rough roads allied with a feeling of great stability. The steering was light, smooth and precise "to an outstanding degree," yet there was little kickback. Body rigidity was deemed high for a convertible.

As for handling, Motor's description likely set a million mouths to watering: "A great deal of clever development must have been required to produce cornering characteristics which are not only outstandingly good but particularly well suited to the unusual power-to-weight ratio.

"It is basically very near to being a neutral steering car, but the driver is constantly astonished by the amount of power he can pile on in a corner without starting to bring the tail round; as with front-wheel drive, hard acceleration through a bend is the right technique, and lifting off suddenly gives a marked oversteering change.

"Naturally, the power technique can be overdone in the lower gears, but this merely increases the nose-in drift angle in a most controllable way. It is possible to go on increasing the sideways 'g' value to a quite surprising level, because the XKE retains its balance far beyond the point at which most sports cars have lost one end.

"The very low build (we only realized how low when we saw a small foreign GT coupe towering over it) and anti-roll bars at both ends keep the roll angles right down, and it seems natural to throw the car about in a manner usually reserved for smaller and lighter sports cars."

Motor noted some negatives, though. There was some audible engine "pinking" (ping, or detonation) in the 2,000-2,500 rpm range even with 100-octane petrol. Oil consumption was very high, about one American quart for every 250-300 miles. Spark plugs tended to protest prolonged low-speed work by fouling.

Then there was the four-speed transmission: slow, heavy, balky, and noisy-shifting, exacerbated by Jaguar's typical long clutch travel, coupled here with incomplete clutch disengagement. Pedals weren't well spaced for heel-and-toe techniques, either.

The magazine also opined that by sports-car standards, the coupe offered ample luggage space (enhanced by a side-hinged hatch door), but judged the roadster's "boot" too shallow to be very useful.

Wind noise was judged excessive at the junctions of the side windows and top, while seats were termed "unsatisfactory" because of inadequate lumbar support and a tendency to let the body slide forward (this well before seatbelts became common).

Taller people found the cockpit too short and too low. Ventilation was not up to hot weather, and fuel odors sometimes invaded the cockpit. The editors said the aerodynamic "LeMans-type" glass-covered headlights proved "not really adequate for the performance.

There was insufficient spread to illuminate the sides of twisty roads and the dipped beams seemed to cause considerable annoyance to other road users."

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Jaguar XKE at the Limit

Magazine road testers reported cruising at 155 mph in a Jaguar XKE coupe, impressively fast today, and astounding in the early 1960s.
Magazine road testers reported cruising at 155 mph in a Jaguar XKE coupe, impressively fast today, and astounding in the early 1960s.

Overall, thought The Motor, none of the Jaguar XKE's bad points were likely to overwhelm the good ones in the eyes of Jaguar's clientele: "It is difficult to see ... how this car can fail to be a tremendous success. The sheer elegance of line which Jaguar seem able to produce by total disregard for fashion trends is allied to a combination of performance, handling and refinement that has never been equaled at the price and, we would think, very seldom surpassed at any price."

Motor Sport's William Boddy had a much shorter run of only two hours in an XKE coupe (apparently Bolster's 9600 HP), but it was long enough to make him a fan: "Put the XKE in top gear and it just goes faster and faster, until it is cruising along M1 [Britain's first superhighway] at 6,100 rpm, which we calculated to be a pretty genuine 155 m.p.h.

"At this speed it is possible for driver to converse with passenger in normal tones, wind noise being low and little noise coming from transmission or final-drive-a fantastic experience!" Any speed below about 110, Boddy said, "is loitering." Among superlatives in the balance of the story were "exceptionally" and "outstandingly"; "staggering" he used twice.

This same well-flogged coupe carried famed competition driver and longtime Jaguar friend Tommy Wisdom, plus wife "Bill," down to the Alps in 1962.

He returned with some interestingly philosophical remarks for readers of The Motor. The XKE's sheer excellence, Wisdom felt, pointed up a very real, very fundamental change that had occurred in sports cars since the 1930s-sports cars such as the Jaguar SS 100.

As he wrote after reaching a speed of 120 mph across France, with plenty more in reserve, "I could not rid myself of the recurring thought -- the racing Jaguar 31/2-litre S.S. 100 at Brook-lands before the war was not as fast as this."

Yet even at such speeds, Wisdom went on, the XKE demanded a conscious effort lest one lose concentration: "Many of these new cars, because they are so quiet and comfortable, and hold the road so well, need a new approach to driving. Though these modern cars are intrinsically safer, they can, in inexpert, inexperienced hands, be more dangerous than the old D-Type sports cars.

"Think back to the ... S.S. 100 and other great machines of the 'thirties. Their noise, both exhaust and mechanical, the harsh suspension, uncertain brakes, heavy, direct steering, the very rush of wind at a mere 80 miles an hour made you concentrate -- mentally and physically -- on handling them. The rattling, jarring, bouncing machine really kept you on the job."

With this perspective, he felt that the "faster, quieter, safer machines of today can easily lull you into a false sense of security. Unless you 'Drive on instruments' you may be chatting away to your passenger with too little appreciation of the speed at which you are proceeding. It is too easy. Stirling Moss once said that concentration is the hardest lesson to absorb in the whole manual of driving instruction, and the very effortlessness of the modern fast car makes this more difficult."

Jaguar, of course, had been among the most aggressive and successful automakers in bringing this about. It was hardly fair to blame the company now for doing too good a job. Realizing this, Wisdom concluded his essay by saying of the XKE, "Here is a car which, like a pedigree gun or a green-heart trout rod, is so worth learning to use properly."

These words joined millions of others. Everyone, it seemed, had something to say or write about the "staggering" XKE. Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of that Autocar editor, uttered after his clandestine test of the experimental Jaguar E1A  XKE prototype:Jaguar's new 150-mph super sports car really did "make us think."

For more on Jaguar and other great cars, see:

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  • 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.