By today’s standards, the Jaguar E-Type is not particularly fast nor forgiving, but it brought a whole new language to sports car design and deeply affected the craft’s evolution.
Unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1961, the car caused a sensation. Capable of achieving 150mph, but costing a fraction of the price of rivals with similar performance, the “affordable supercar” became Europe’s first mass-produced sports car and an instant icon – remaining in production for no less than 14 years.
The car design was the work of Malcolm Sayer, one of the first engineers in the world to systematically apply aerodynamic principles to car design. A firm believer in the use of wind tunnels and smoke testing, his first creation at Jaguar was the streamlined C-Type followed by the even more radical D-Type. The latter’s light but stiff monocoque body carried the various loads through its outer structure like an aircraft fuselage, rather than via a heavy frame-like chassis, as the C-Type and other cars had largely done till then.
For the road-going E-Type, Sayer took a lengthened version of the monocoque concept with a subframe to brace the front torsion-bar suspension, but added an entirely new type of rear suspension. Given its power-to-weight ratio, a solid rear axle would have made the E-Type more than a handful for the average motorist, as the back end hopped and skipped under hard acceleration. The only answer was to make the motions of the rear wheels independent of one another.
In Sayer’s design, each wheel had its own pair of springs, one on either side of the drive shaft, with the disc brakes placed well inboard—so they would not add to the unsprung weight of the rear wheels and thereby hamper the action of the springs and shock absorbers. The assembly was carried on a pair of steel cross-members, which were bolted to the monocoque underbody by means of four large rubberised mounting pads. The arrangement not only improved the ride and handling of the car, but also isolated the interior from most of the noise and vibration generated by the wheels, suspension and the differential.
When Enzo Ferrari clapped eyes on the E-Type for the first time, he declared it “the most beautiful car ever built”—and went on to copy aspects of it for various Ferrari models that followed. But it wasn’t just Sayer’s flowing lines that captivated the Italian master carmaker. The E-Type’s innovative rear suspension subsequently found its way, in one form or another, into luxury and performance cars the world over.