On its debut 60 years ago, the E-Type famously shocked the world so much it moved rival Enzo Ferrari to dub it “the most beautiful car in the world.” It was, and still is, an impossibly cool car and made every high-end sporting rival seem outdated and extortionate. Its sumptuous curves were rivalled only by the world’s most beautiful women and under the central bulge (at least in the first generation) was a torquey deep throated straight-six. All E-Types have a remarkably supple ride and quiet calmness at cruising speeds, rare for a car of their time. When combined with smooth, accurate steering and the imperturbable grip that comes with a properly planted car, the E-type became the stuff of automotive legend.
It was launched in 1961 (Series I) with a 3.8 litre straight six in coupe and convertible bodies. In 1964 the engine was replaced by a torquier 4.2 and in 1966 the more practical 2+2 body was released. In 1967 headlight covers were ditched, a deviation that warranted its own generation, the 1.5. Series 2 was unveiled in 1968 and Series 3 in 1971 to meet new US regulations. Early cars have always been prized for rarity and originality, but the changes that occurred with each generation were ultimately improvements to comfort, usability and practicality, so in many ways, the later the car, the better. E-Types are brilliant to own, fun to drive and when well picked can be reliable and inexpensive to run.
Series 1 1961-1967 (Engine upgrade in 1964)
The Series 1s were first released as carefree soft top cabriolets and sleek rigid fastback coupes with a unique side-hinged tailgate. Both had a reported 265 bhp but owners said the output was closer to a still superfluous 220bhp. Under the hood was a hefty 3.8L XK straight-six with twin overhead cams and three SU carbs. Independent suspension and disc brakes made handling, even at speed, sure and steady. The flattened-tube cross-section spokes were a nod to the exciting developments in aircraft engineering and aerodynamics also echoed in the space age American cars of the time. These early cars had the divisive ‘Moss box’ with an unsynchronized first gear and a crisp, narrow-gated shift. Many complain of poor synchro and slow action but good, unworn ones do exist and anyone willing to spend the time required to understand them (and get good at double-declutching) will be rewarded with huge mechanical satisfaction and an engaging driving process. However, on post-1964 models, this was no longer an issue. The engine was enlarged to 4.2 litres and paired with a new, all-synchro gearbox.
Series 1.5 1967-1968
In 1967 headlamp covers were removed, fashionable toggle dashboard switches were replaced by rockers in order to fit in with incoming US safety regulations. At the same time, a new body option was released, a higher-roofed, more practical coupe model known as a ‘2+2’.
Series 2 1968-1971
As US regulations got stricter, Jag realised they couldn’t just keep up with facelifts alone so were pushed to release a re-design. The series 2 had a bigger front air intake for improved cooling, larger side indicators, and enlarged rear lights which were repositioned under the rear bumper, spoiling the look for some (including me). These improvements made the S2 a more usable alternative to the S1 but without losing driving feel. Add in their more often than not lower price tag, and the S2 hits the sweet spot where originality meets usability.
Series 3 1971-1975
It might seem strange that such a quintessentially British car’s generational changes were so dictated by ever-changing US safety regulations, but the US was by far the E-Type’s biggest market, and the Series 3 its greatest change. Built on the elongated 2+2 wheelbase, the Series 3 featured a creamy 275hp 5.3 L V12 intended to hark back to the power and pace that had marked the distinguished cars of the 60s. Whilst it was almost as quick as the S1, the driving experience was very different thanks to the long wheelbase and handling progress made over 10 years of production.
Because most of the production numbers were for export, there are a lot more LHD cars out there than RHD. Many of the RHD models that you see on the market are US cars that have been converted, and whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, look out for cars that have lived in dry states and ensure the job hasn’t been done cheaply. If you can manage, a LHD car is a good-value choice, and conversions are too, just make sure the change is reflected in the price. Thanks to their symmetrical build, E-types were always easily modifiable so RHD/LHD conversions are just one of the commonly made changes to look out for. In the 1980s there was a preference for the early ‘flat floor’ cars, therefore several fakes were made which now would need to be reversed. Many early cars have been fitted with items to make them more usable in modern-day traffic such as a better radiator and electric fan, stronger brakes, and electronic ignition. If purity is your poison, avoid, but if you want a drivable car, these changes can often add to a car’s value when fitted correctly.
There really isn’t much of an excuse for shoddy workmanship on an E-Type. If you buy one you’ll find more specialist workshops, forums and clubs than you can throw a wrench at. If well maintained and regularly used, an E-Type is robust and reliable. It will need servicing every year, if not more, but services are a few hundred pounds and wouldn’t be hard to do yourself with the easy access afforded by the huge front-pivoting bonnet. Whilst they aren’t an expensive car to run and maintain, you’re best buying a solid example rather than spending a fortune turning a bad one good. Cars run into the ground 30 years ago and then left to stand are worse off than cars that have had continual use which makes checking history on low miles and restored cars especially important. Contrary to popular belief, fidgety cars don’t always need modification, just setting up by one of the multitude of experts and replacement of any consumables. Neither of these should break the bank, but this is not to suggest you should go looking for a project. Because of the hand-finished nature of the cars, a part from one car, won’t always fit its production line successor, so be prepared for a lot of work. Silly sums have been paid for sitters and barn finds which would be a gold mine for other classics, but a premium should really only be paid for an E-Type if they’re exceptionally rare or exceptionally original.
The early twin-cam straight-six’s can withstand hard use and uprating but need frequent oil changes and top-ups. They are tough but watch out for a blown head gasket and check for the usual issues: excessive rattling, knocking from a worn bottom end, shaky timing gear, tapping from worn cams, signs of blue exhaust smoke, low oil pressure (healthy pressure for all E-Type engines is around 45psi) and leaks of oil or water. If leaking check the rear crank seal because fixing it is an engine out job. Once warm and driving, make sure the fan cuts in and that the overall feel is smooth and powerful. If it doesn’t feel that sure but passes all the other checks it probably just needs a good service and tuning however lumpy running could be worn carb diaphragms. On the later V12s, check the quality of the coolant, hose condition and for signs of warped cylinder heads. Ignition systems, fuel pumps, alternator and radiator can be weak spots but modern replacements are excellent and won’t impact resale value. Whilst the cooling system should be up to scratch, E-Types weren’t designed with modern-day traffic in mind so check for signs of overheating and have it inspected if in any doubt as a full engine rebuild is £5k+.
As previously mentioned, the original early Moss ‘boxes have no synchro in first, but their successor, the Jaguar four-speed, has synchromesh through the whole range. As always, check for gears jumping or crashing and diff whining, and on autos check for leaking fluid. The conversion to a 5-speed is a popular modern update. On that note, the Gertrags are excellent but hard to rebuild, Tremec ‘boxes are also fine but don’t always adapt well to the XK engine so can cause problems down the line, and in 2+2s the Borg-Warner Model 8 autos can be clunky and if smooth, could be an early warning sign of excess wear. When you take the car out make sure to feel for clutch slip as replacement is a costly laborious process involving the removal of the bonnet engine and gearbox.
Suspension and Brakes
E-Types were brilliantly designed to be firmly planted cars. A general rule of thumb is that if things feel soft, they’re worth checking. If the steering doesn’t feel tight and precise, the bottom wishbone bushes or ball joints could be worn, both of which are best checked with no weight on the wheels. Alternatively, a loose feel in the steering wheel could be an issue with the column UJs, track rod ends, or the rack-and-pinion steering itself. Soggy laboured handling could also be the rear suspension dampers (note: there are four rather than the normal pair), creaks from the rear suggest corroded lower hub pivots and rear brakes should be checked for oil contamination coming from the diff. Check the subframe and brake discs for rust and ensure the handbrake hasn’t seized. Brakes are effective and inexpensive to replace on 4.2s and on 3.8s whilst more complex, are strong and resilient. If test-driving a few vehicles, it’s worth noting that US diff ratios are low.
Okay, here’s where you really need to pay attention. Body rust is a worry. Read that again. Bodywork on an E-Type is the number 1 thing that needs careful checking. Monocoque construction means if you’re going to spend money on work, you’d rather it be on ropey mechanics than problematic bodywork. Spotting corrosion can be challenging but initially, rust will show around the rear wheel arches and in the join between the sill and floor so check for thick underseal and excessive filler. Also look at the front valance, door bottoms, engine supports and rear wings for signs of corrosion and pass a magnet over the body to identify excess filler. Accident damage can cause distortion to the tubular front frame, check for bad past repairs and blemishes from bad jacking. Even panel gaps are a must but beware as many restorers will struggle to trim and extend in order to achieve good gaps and often use filler to compensate.
Unless the car has been expertly restored at a great cost, expect peeling trims, crack leather and a few dropped stitches. Seats were improved with each generation, so 4.2s are a great deal more comfortable than 3.8s. Some cars have been fitted with MX5 seats so just make sure the originals still come with the car.
All E-Types – even the metaphorical bottom rung, 2+2 autos – are fast cars with taut steering that should feel lively but manageable on the road. E-Types are a great first classic car as they’re easy to maintain and enjoyable to drive. If this is your first classic, start with a 4.2 S1 or S2 with the simpler full-synchromesh gearbox and more modern brakes. Find a car with a good body shell and then check for originality of body and parts. Next, decide if your priority is originality or drivability as most updates only serve to improve functionality. Unless you’re racing, the engine will have ample power so won’t need upgrading. An S3 is a comparatively undervalued car but the longer wheelbase and V12 make it a more modern driving experience, although comparable to the early cars in enjoyment factor. Don’t buy an E-Type based on snobbery or stigma, buy one that suits you, your priorities and your price point. An E-Type will always draw attention and put smiles on the faces of passersby no matter what generation or variant. Prices really vary on these cars, according to Hagerty: “from 30-40k for a tatty 2+2 or Series 2 restoration project up to half a million for a near-perfect 1961 car with external bonnet locks.” They are a true pleasure to own so decide what your non-negotiables are and pick a model that best fits your budget. The E-Type’s voluptuous looks, when combined with practical usability, an abundance of experts and spares, extensive model choices and room for upgrades make it an unsurpassable classic.