As Jaguar launches the F-Type, its first new two-seater since 1961, Jonathan Meades rates its predecessor “the high point of English automotive achievement”

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013 ENZO FERRARI CALLED Peter Collins “a really great driver”. He described the E-Type, designed by Malcolm Sayer and launched in 1961—three years after Collins’s death at the Nürburgring—as “the most beautiful car ever made”. Yet in their home country, both man and car were, 50 years ago and in a Britain still saturated with post-war monochrome, ahead of their time. They were fast—a tad gaudy, immodestly glamorous, almost Italian.

Collins lived on a yacht in Monaco, shirked National Service, looked like a film star and married an American actress. The E-Type would doubtless have behaved kindredly. For it was, after all, a Jaguar. And in those days Jags possessed—in their native country if not elsewhere—the reputation of being the car of choice of the spiv, the wide boy, the chancer. A Jag, especially the 2.4 and the 3.4, was the automotive equivalent of bookie’s checks. No matter that the E-Type’s precursors, the C-Type and D-Type, had won Le Mans five times in the 1950s—the marque quite lacked the handmade allure of Bristol, AC, Morgan, etc. Jaguars, however, were for driving and boasting, for amour propre and seduction.

Further, the E-Type was not a sports car but belonged to the exotic classification of GT (Gran Turismo): indeed, it was initially destined for the export market. It was evidently more at home on Highway One or La Grande Corniche than heading for adventure between Mundesley and Cromer. At about £2,000 it was less than half the price of an Aston Martin DB4, a third of the price of a Ferrari 250. Of the last, only 39 were built, whereas 70,000 E-Types were manufactured between 1961 and 1974. This comparatively cheap, mass-produced vehicle matched the performance and outdid the looks of every other car in the world. Speed, sleekness and high style had been democratised—to an extent.

Malcolm Sayer would claim that aerodynamic properties determined the E-Type’s appearance: no designer will ever admit to being led by something so trivial as mere looks. But it was those looks which made the world gasp. They anticipated the “organic”, biomorphic forms of today’s buildings. Blobbiness had never been so sexy. Its only contemporary rival in this regard was a Flaminaire cigarette lighter shaped like a pebble. Other cars still retained the vestigial articulation of their parts. Their design was accretive: wheels, cabin, boot and so on. Form was partly determined by functions. Streamlining existed in a single dimension. But the E-Type’s semi-monocoque construction lent it an appearance that was integrated to an unprecedented degree. It represents, half a century on, the high point of English automotive achievement.

The circumstances were propitious. Petrol was cheap, the first oil crisis a dozen years in the future. Emissions were not mentioned in polite conversation. The environment had yet to be invented and seatbelts were for flakes. Mankind was not as risk-averse, as pusillanimous, as it is today. Cars contain the preoccupations of their era. Most contemporary cars claim to be at least 200% sustainastic, green as algae. Sullen and heavy, they snarl their eco-sanctimony like four-wheeled Tartuffes. Gaiety and grace have absented themselves. Can they be revived with a name?

The Jaguar F-Type will be launched this spring. It at least shows an alphabetic progress which cannot be said for the unwisely named new Citroën DS. But whereas the E-Type was, on its launch, unlike any other car of its era, the F-Type appears to be pretty much indistinguishable from the rest of the pack. And I mean pack: where once GTs were lithe and darting, like outside halves and wing three-quarters, today they are bulkily muscled hulks from the front row of the scrum, and about as lovely as those man-monsters. They may be useful but they are unlikely to prompt the sheer awe and joy that an E-Type could. The F-Type is not, admittedly, as stupidly ugly as the Ferraris and Lamborghinis that footballers race along Park Lane and Deansgate. It is akin to the current crop of Aston Martins and Maseratis. Maybe it’s their peer in the tiresome matter of performance.

What is certain is that it is cheaper. And that it will be more revered outside England than in it. Not long ago in Lyon I spotted a Series 1 XJ of about 1970. Gleaming chrome. Fabulously rich burgundy bodywork. Whitewall tyres. I reflected that the only XJS of that vintage to be seen in England are in breakers’ yards. This one had Torinese plates. Italians are on to something.

Jonathan Meades is the author of “Museum Without Walls” and a broadcaster.