How Jaguar tried and failed to replace the mighty E-Type! How do you go from what Enzo Ferrari called “Jaguar’s E-Type is the most beautiful car in the world.” to the next level and profit-making supercar? Read on..
Success is a double-edged sword. It’s hard to get it, it’s even harder to maintain it. The E Type, almost despite Jaguar’s best efforts, was an overnight sensation. Those who could, bought one. Those who couldn’t, wanted one.
The trouble with creating an icon is that it becomes impossible to replace. Just consider how Porsche struggled after the 911. The firm soldiered on with an ancient version of the original car well into the 1990s because every attempt to replace it failed.
Jaguar faced exactly this problem with the E Type. Work began on a replacement almost as soon as the car was launched. But difficult second album syndrome quickly set in.
As with many very successful things, everybody was quite clear on why the E Type was successful – it looked sensational – but when it came to doing it all over again everybody had an opinion.
How We Got The E Type
The E Type had developed in quite an organic way, with a small team headed by Jaguar designer Malcolm Sayer. There wasn’t really that much pressure on them – the car was only intended to compete and win at Le Mans, which Jaguar had already done several times. If a road car was built – like the D Type before it – that was very much an afterthought. The new car was designed to grab headlines in order to sell other Jaguars.
Work began on the new Le Mans car in December 1956 and the first version of what became the E Type was the E1A of 1957. The antecedents of the production car are clear from the photos of this car – as is the legacy of the D Type. The E1A is effectively a smoother, lighter and more aerodynamic D Type, as befitted the brief to create a car that would be faster at Le Mans, but with a smaller capacity engine.
The Jaguar factory fire of 1957 effectively put paid to those original plans. It convinced Jaguar that it didn’t actually need to go racing in order to sell cars because the publicity the catastrophe generated filled showrooms.
But Jaguar still needed a sports car so the Le Mans project gradually morphed into what became the E Type. As the photo of E1A shows, not much about it changed. This was mainly because Jaguar didn’t really expect to sell that many – it was intended to be a halo car, like the D Type, and sales projections were only made very late into the car’s development.
The E Type evolved with few expectations, particularly in terms of sales, and that enabled it to develop free from the usual interferences that can plague a car’s route to production. The result was a very single-minded and uncompromising vision of a sports car.
Despite its origins, the E Type was the first Jaguar sports car that was a road car first and a racing car second. Its success, far from making it easier to develop a successor, made it much harder. Jaguar had to grapple with the weight of expectation, plus the thorny issue of whether to run with the car’s practical failings – it wasn’t very easy to get in and out of, the ventilation was terrible and the doors let in water – or create a car that was much more market-friendly. And risk, in the process, killing the car’s character.
The car that was designed to replace the E Type was code named internally XJ21 and developed by the man who created the original – Malcolm Sayer. This car began to appear in October 1966 and was essentially a rebodied 2+2 E Type with more passenger space and styling very much in the contemporary Italian mould but with nods to the curvacious E Type. There are shades of the Fiat Dino in the early styling proposals.
Putting XJ21 into showrooms would have been relatively easy as it was essentially a reshelled E Type. The car was originally conceived as a coupe and convertible that would form part of a range of Jaguar sports models. This range would include a smaller coupe and convertible based on the shorter, standard E Type platform, and a four seater sports car based on the new XJ6 platform. All cars would feature new V8 and V12 engines.
So, by the late 1960s, Jaguar envisaged launching four new cars based on E Type running gear.
It quickly became clear that the smaller sports car wasn’t going to happen – not helped by problems developing the new V8 engine – so plans were drawn up to launch the XJ21 in September 1970. In the meantime Jaguar would introduce a quick restyle of the existing E Type that would give the aging design a new lease of life and handily meet US safety legislation (this became the Series 2 E Type).
The final version of XJ21 (above) represented a further move away from E Type curvature towards contemporary Italian styling. There are definite echoes of the Jensen Interceptor in the side glass.
Meanwhile, work on XJ27, the four seater sports car, continued. This car became the XJS, launched in 1975.
In May 1968 Jaguar became part of British Leyland and the new owners instigated a full review of every new car project. XJ27 survived because it made a lot of commercial sense: it was planned as a premium priced model that shared many parts with the XJ saloon, so on paper it was highly profitable. However, what looks good on paper doesn’t often work out in real life. For the first five years of its life, the XJS was a sales dud.
The BL review cast a spotlight on the project to replace the E Type. And highlighted a new problem. Jaguar had been developing a V12 engine that would eventually be available in every new Jaguar but particularly the recently launched XJ saloon. BL and Jaguar recognised that the aging XK engine was a potential liability, particularly in the USA and saw the V12 as the car’s – and the firm’s – lifeline.
BL knew the new engine was a risk. It was complicated – nobody had ever mass produced a V12 before – and it was vital to get it right. To mitigate the risk, BL wanted to put the V12 into the E Type first in order to test production at relatively low volumes and iron out any post-sales issues. There wasn’t the money to do this and launch XJ21.
The E Type V12 project – code named XJ25 – got the green light in November 1968. At the same time XJ21 was put back by seven or eight months, with plans to launch in 1971.
Of course, XJ21 never saw the light of day. It is tempting to attribute that to the poor performance of the only car that did emerge, the XJS, ans the effect this had on Jaguar’s cashflow, but that isn’t what happened. XJ21 was canned even before the V12 launched in the E Type in 1971.
The decision not to proceed appears to have been taken in 1969, not long after that BL review that favoured XJ25, the V12 E Type. The reasons are not entirely clear but it feels safe to assume finances formed part of it. In the late 1960s BL was in a mess, confronted with an aging product range that needed rationalised and renewed. That took money, lots of it.
XJ21 was really just a rebodied E Type, which meant it was based on an outdated and stand-alone platform that was comparatively expensive to produce. It would also be low volume – despite the E Type’s success, after its first couple of years it was never a huge seller. It is perhaps not difficult to see why the project stalled.
Conversely it is, as we’ve seen, easier to see why the XJS project went forward. It was fairly cheap to make and pitched at a high price.
Time For a Rethink?
The stalled efforts to replace the E Type, whilst disappointing, prove one thing: the XJS was never intended to be an E Type replacement. But the failure to launch XJ21 did have one unintended consequence: it affected XJS sales. Car buyers expected and wanted another E Type. What they got was what BL, in a manner they would repeat often over the next 20 years, decided they wanted.
A Missed Opportunity?
Could Jaguar have launched XJ21 and made it successful? The opportunity was definitely there but I’m not sure Jaguar would have made it work.
The E Type’s success depended on its beautiful styling, which tended to disguise its other shortcomings. Whilst not awful, the XJ21 styling proposals are hardly in the same class, appearing to be collages of other cars rather than game-changing style leaders. And they’re hardly beautiful.
Porsche proved through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s that it was possible to update and improve an old design to meet new challenges. Jaguar did update the E Type to create the Series 3, but with less commitment and less success. Where the 911 was a simple, timeless design that was suitable for improvement and the weathering of age, the E Type was much more a moment in time, a big bonneted, fastback 60s car that looked anachronistic by its demise in 1975. Not so the 911.
Had Jaguar pulled an equally beautiful and iconic design out of the bag in the form of the XJ21, then possibly it may have succeeded. But it didn’t, and perhaps it was an impossible challenge anyway. The E Type is a design icon, a product of a small team led by one man’s vision. XJ21 was a team effort to meet multiple market demands.
Perhaps we should be grateful that Jaguar didn’t produce another E Type. It has made the car iconic, representative of a brief moment in time when British design and culture ruled the world.
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