In the Beginning, There Was ‘E’ – Origins of the Jaguar E-Type

Picture of By Nick Skinner
By Nick Skinner

Marketing Executive/Photographer

In the mid-1950’s, Jaguar had become one of the most successful racing teams of all time. With multiple wins at the fabled 24 hours of Le Mans and other races across the world, the manufacturer had gone from strength to strength both on track and on the forecourt.

With the accolades of the C-Type and D-Type safely committed to history, Jaguar began to look to the future. By 1956, the D-Type had begun to lose its competitive edge thanks to its rivals developing cars to bring the fight to the big cats. This sparked a conversation about what concept would take Jaguar into a new decade of not just design but engineering.

William Heynes, Jaguar’s famous chief engineer, would task the now legendary Malcolm Sayer to begin working on the replacement for the D-Type. He put together a small team to begin work on fleshing out a new idea for what the newest Jaguar would be, known as the Experimental Department. In a meeting from the 30th of January 1956, it was noted in the minutes the discussion of a ‘2 1/2 litre engine in a D-Type car. The engine to give 200hp at 7,500rpm and a top speed of 180mph’. This, was the first mention in writing of the D-Type’s sister.

Bob Blake, a master panel maker who worked inside of the experimental department, annotated his notes from the meeting in early 1956 that the car would have ‘an aluminium engine with lighter brakes and wheels and a new body to be 6” lower’. This wasn’t going to be a development of something existing but an all new project for the department.

Previous to this, the idea of a D-Type variant had been mentioned as noted by Workshop Superintendent Phil Weaver, who in an earlier internal memo relating to ‘Models for Le Mans’ and talked about a 3 1/2-litre production D-Type as well as the later mentioned 2 1/2-litre model. This meeting was to do with a rumor that the rules would be changing for the upcoming racing season were by only 2 1/2-litre cars would be permitted in all categories. Weaver wrote of this, ‘Two courses are open to us on this car – one is to design a prototype as small and light as is practically possible and run it purely for one season as a prototype only.’ Following up later in his notes with ‘It might be advisable to considering making the prototype car in such a manner that it would have at least limited demand (as a production model) in a better equipped version for purposes other than racing. In this case, the closed type body would seem to be the most satisfactory answer.’

Tom Jones, a Jaguar engineer who played a key role in the development of the C-Type and D-Type was given the task of producing the sister car to the D-Type. When he was given the job, William Heynes said that the car would be designated ‘E’ and must be ready for Le Mans in 1956 – giving the team just 6 months to develop and produce the prototype for the world famous race. The naming of the cars is an interesting point however. Beginning with the C-Type, its original name was the XK120 Competition but was shortened to its nickname of C-Type and because of its success, the next car would follow in sequence to be named D-Type which would continue on into the late 2010’s with the F-Type.

The designation of ‘E’ wasn’t just it being the letter which followed ‘D’ but also represented the experimental nature of the new project. At this point it is important to state, that ‘E’ was not for E-Type. Jones would rely on master designer and aerodynamicist Malcolm Sayer to pen the new car. With the bodywork being calculated mathematically to give the least amount of drag, the chassis and powertrain were developed by Jones’s Experimental Department.

Decades later, the famous Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis would say of the project at this point ‘what was being produced was a sort of hybrid of the D-Type. It was because the ‘the old man’ (referring to Sir William Lyons) wanted a very fast sports car that fit in with the Jaguar’s image. This model was a low-key prototype following on the D-Type’. Of this first iteration, there are no surviving photographs or any visual records of the all-aluminium car, but it is known to have been fitted with a 2.4-litre engine as well as carrying a very early independent rear suspension development package engineered by the great Bob Knight. Although the car would go into testing, it was found to not be up to scratch due to its hasty development time, so Jaguar would field 3 D-Types at Le Mans in 1956.

1956 however would be the last year that Jaguar intended to race as a factory team. Between 1945 and 1955, the companies growth was meteoric and its road cars like the XK120 and the legendary 6-cylinder XK engined cars (which had been built off the back of the firms racing pedigree) were taking up not only the companies finances to produce but also the workforce to keep up demand. Racing, just wasn’t as important anymore. Sir William Lyons would begin the expansion of the Jaguar road car range around this time with cars such as the Mark VII saloon cars to build up a larger portfolio in the market, including the development of Project Utah which would ultimately form the basis of the MkI and MkII. This expansion would also take up the time of the engineers and technicians needed to run a successful motorsport department so the decision was made to stop.

Then in 1957, there was a fire. The Browns Lane workshops would be severely damaged in February of 1957 with dozens of cars destroyed, including the remaining XK-SS cars (road converted D-Types) as well as causing severe delays to the other production cars while operations were reinstated. With this final blow dealt, Jaguar in any form of competition would now be down to individuals and privateers, but were given help by the engineers from the former Racing department.

So with the company out of competition on the race track as a factory team, and no intentions of building cars for clients, what would be next? How would Jaguar keep their name in the headlines and therefore the cars rolling off the assembly line? The answer would start with an E.

The Le Mans project may have not made it to the track but it didn’t stop being developed. The Experimental Department were still working on the project in late 1956 to try and get something out of it. While William Heynes sat at his draftsmans table, Tom Jones, Phil Weaver, Bob Blake and Derrick White would work on developing the chassis and the mechanical side of the project.

In December of 1956, Malcolm Sayer would have the revised body design for the new car. A small two-seat sports car that took inspiration from the D-Type but held more of an emphasis on the aerodynamic stability and airflow over the front of the car. In early 1957, these designs were handed over to master panel maker Bob Blake to bring to life. This car, chassis XK101, was dubbed E1A by the team for internal referencing – E for Experimental, 1 referred to its type number and A was for Alloy/Aluminium. This name would stick to all those involved and in memory of the darling older child, the D-Type, the new car was referred to as ‘E-Type’.

As opposed to the newly released XK150, the E1A would use an aluminium central monocoque tub with a non-removable alloy frame work to support its bodywork and the car would employ the use of front and rear subframes for the running gear. E1A would be fitted with a 120BHP 2.4-litre XK engine as a starter, being as how it was an engine that the Experimental Department had access to, and was allegedly the same engine used in the previous ‘lost prototype’. Because of its smaller height, this allowed for Sayer’s design to be smoother over the bonnet without the signature power bulge.

E1A was what many would refer to as a ‘parts bin special’ with nearly all of the components coming from either the racing stores or from the production car spares department. The only thing that was bespoke to the project was that Bob Knight independent rear suspension set up. The car would use two swingarms to carry the wheel hubs as the moved through their arch, while the differential would be housed inside of a steel cage in the centre of the body.

By May of 1957, E1A would begin testing in and around the Jaguar factory. With the break-in period complete, William Heynes would adorn E1A with a set of trade plates (164 WK if anyone is interested) and head out on some real world testing around Birmingham with the one-off prototype and headed for the nearest by-pass to rack up an impressive 25 miles on the car, but later that evening the mercurial figure head of Jaguar, Sir William Lyons, would take the keys to E1A and head out for his own shakedown run. After 9 miles, he returned back to the factory with the engineer Ted Brookes waiting to receive the car. Brookes would be the man responsible for testing E1A on a daily basis, and after a check over the car would complete several 50 mile circuits before it was transferred to the MIRA test track for chief test driver Norman Dewis to put the car through its paces.

Brookes had officially signed of E1A as complete on the 22nd of May 1957 and the car taken into the factory and painted Pastel Green (a colour designated mainly for the Jaguar prototypes) and two small lights were fitted to the car and registered as VKV752. The car would be driven to multiple places across the UK over the next few months, from jaunts to Wales with drivers such as Margaret Jennings to day trips for testing at Silverstone.

E1A would find itself at the MIRA test track for weeks at a time after this. In June of 1957, Dewis would be testing E1A around the banking at the test track and record an average speed of 110MPH and a top speed of 130MPH whilst working with Dunlop to develop the brake and tyre package for the car. With the results gained from the E1A programme, it was decided around this time by the board and the engineers that the car should go into production after more development work on the cars suspension, seeing this new step forward as a game changer for the company and allow them to step ahead of many other manufacturers as the company entered the 1960s.

Between 1957 and early 1958, the car had been fitted with a 3.0-litre variant of the XK engine, as appearing the ‘The Motor’ magazine article by Christopher Jennings MBE. The car had been lent to favourable press outlets to do with as they pleased as long as they were nice about Jaguar’s new baby.

Jennings had decided to really try out and push the car (his wife had been a great fan of the earlier SS cars before the outbreak of war), with famously egging on Sir William Lyons by saying that the fastest car to complete his test had been an Aston Martin. He suggested that he take the car to the Brecon Beacons in the Wales, between Brecon and Carmarthen to a section of road he knew well to see what potential the new car would have. Lyons took the bait, saying he could take the car on this trip if he would compare it directly to that Aston Martin and other high-performance cars of the day.

As he said in his writings ‘On Sunday morning soon after 7am in perfect conditions we made a 20 mile warm up run and then ‘had a go’ – the result was almost fantastic.’ The journalist averaged just over 70mph on the course and on a longer nearly 50 mile stretch, the car would average nearly 68 mph and beat the Aston Martin’s time. Jennings would finish his statement with a very dry… ‘At no time did we exceed 120 mph.’

With some sense of fortune telling, Jennings would use these words in his article – E1A had the ‘potential to be a world beater’.

Development of the E-Type wouldn’t be solely down to E1A. By this time, the team had created the first true E-Type prototype car to begin refining and expanding on the concepts proven by E1A. To this, E1A would be used for high-performance test and for that, Jaguar racing manager Lofty England would call upon the service of trusted racer and Jaguar dealer Mike Hawthorn.

Hawthorn would test the car thoroughly and push it harder than it had ever been pushed before. Writing a detail and extensive report to the team noting the cars driving characteristics, mechanical aptitude and even down to ergonomic suggestions to get the most out of the car. He wasn’t gentle with his report… From this the team actioned several changes to E1A and the official prototype car.

In November of 1958, a simple engineers report in E1A’s fail simply states ‘engine removed to investigate loss of oil pressure – crankcase fractured on for main bearing webs.’ The car later went back to MIRA for further testing in December of 1958, but was called off due to bad weather. This would spell the end of the E1A story, after the engine damage and the abandoned test session, along with the success of the other E-Type prototypes – E1A was broken up for parts with its body panels sold to a scrap yard.

This was the end of not just the car, but the spiritual connection from those Le Mans victory and dominance by the Jaguar Racing Team and now the sophisticated road cars – A project which would give birth to a car the great Enzo Ferrari would call ‘the most beautiful car in the world’. This project, would give the world the E-Type and we, as petrolheads, should thank it every day for that.

One response to “In the Beginning, There Was ‘E’ – Origins of the Jaguar E-Type”

  1. Paul Walraven avatar
    Paul Walraven

    Nice factual historic story. It is important to repeat and publish this story about the birth of the E Type. The younger generations lack this type of information about how the car industry developed . Bravo!

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