Automotive History: Muscle Cars To Malaise Era-Part 4

muscle to malaise part 11 jag cover

(first posted 4/25/2015)

Muscle Cars to Malaise Era – Part 4

The transition years, 1969-1974

After putting so many American cars through the transition trial, I think it’s time to examine that British sports car icon, the Jaguar E-Type. Yes, the symptoms of Malaise were not limited to our native brands, nor to muscle cars and personal luxury cars. While European and Japanese automakers found their stride in the 70s building sales on the newfound demand for lighter, fuel-efficient autos, all car companies were subject to the same economic, social, and environmental challenges.

1971-1975 Jaguar E-Type Series 3

The original 1961 E-Type Series 1 was a revolution in sports car design. The shape was elegant, lithe, and exotic.

1961 Jaguar XKE

With half the car’s slinky overall length devoted to the bonnet, it was hardly a paragon of space efficiency, but that wasn’t the point. The shape was a direct descendant of the C and D-Type race cars. An extravagant dash to axle ratio housed the 3.8 liter six-cylinder carried over from the XK 150, but otherwise it was a clean sheet design. The XK models had been highly competitive throughout the 1950s, but it was time for a refresh.

The performance stats were superb for the day, but this discussion is about styling. If the E-Type isn’t in your top five most beautiful cars of all time, you might need to see your optometrist. Consider the lovely details, from the glass covered headlights, (later stupidly outlawed by new US regulations), to the delicate yet fierce grill, to the perfectly rounded rump. The chrome bumpers hugged the beautiful body as though they were in love. And who could blame them? The thin roof pillars are sweet, and isn’t it refreshing to see a nearly vertical windscreen? This was how it used to be done. Consider the windshields of these 1960s era sports cars – MG, Corvette, Cobra, Porsche 911, and Ferrari 275. When you have a more upright windshield, it allows you to devote more space to the hood without making the overall length excessive. Nearly every modern car today, from economy cars to hyper-exotics, sports a windshield angle more laid back than an Evergreen College freshman. This is fine, it is an obvious styling cue that conveys speed. But now that everyone is doing it it’s no longer a standout design attribute, and I find myself noticing the cars with a more upright greenhouse.

The man largely responsible for the design, Malcolm Sayer, languished in obscurity. Perhaps this was because Britain didn’t celebrate its designers the way Italy and America did in the 50s and 60s. Sayer was an excellent mathematician and aerodynamic expert who had worked in the aircraft industry. But according to this BBC article, his technical sensibilities may have rendered him difficult to understand. Perhaps with better PR, he would have been as well-known as Bill Mitchell or Sergio Pininfarina. But lest you think him a cold, analytical fish, he was also an amateur musician, cartoonist and watercolor painter, and could be very witty.

In Sayer’s mind, the beauty of his cars was a product of a strictly rational and scientific design process. However, Sir William Lyons also lent his refining hand to the E-Type. He slightly altered the basic contours to make the light line fall in an unbroken stream across those sexy curves. This is one of the most emotional and evocative shapes ever, automotive or otherwise, and I suspect Lyons finishing touch and eye for detail had a lot to do with it. If you have an hour to kill, do watch this excellent History Channel documentary about the E-Type.

Sayer’s goal was to create a visual representation of aerodynamic science at its most pure. So how exactly was this achieved in the days before wind tunnels and computer aided design? According to the BBC article, “The prototypes were given a special road test which involved large tufts of wool being taped to the body and Sayer would then drive alongside and monitor how the wool was affected by the airflow over the chassis.” And when Lyons’s touch was applied, Sayer was there to make sure none of the alterations harmed the aerodynamic purity.

As the 70’s dawned, Jaguar had to make some major updates to the E-Type in order to keep it in compliance with the new emissions control and safety standards.
1974 Jaguar XKE

I skipped over a detailed breakdown of the unofficial Series 1 1/2 and the Series 2 of 1969-1971. Although at least two deleterious design changes happened in with the Series 2 – the loss of the beautiful headlight covers and the tail lights hanging below the bumper, this isn’t enough to warrant transition status. It was an accumulation of design changes on the Series 3 that make that one the “T-Generation”. The new 5.3 V-12 was the big news up front, accompanied by a larger grill and tacked-on scoop to feed it more air. In fact, “more” sums up the Series 3’s evolution. The shorter 96″ wheelbase was dropped and both coupe and convertible ran with the 105″ length. The coupe was now only available in 2+2 layout, as the E-Type graduated to be more of a grand touring machine than pure sports car. Even though the new E was tiny compared to nearly every other contemporary American car, it did grow about 600 lbs fatter. Plus it sprouted those unfortunate giant rubber bumper over-riders, front and rear by ’74. But consider the bumpers on a ’74 Camaro – it could have been a lot worse.

Still, it wasn’t all bad news. The V-12 restored performance lost with the Series 2, and it was smoother and more refined, if not to say broughamy. The track was wider, which one could consider a beneficial performance car attribute, while the suspension, steering, tires, and brakes were all improved. As this was now essentially a ten-year old design, Jaguar had time to tweak the inherent flaws present in the Series 1 and 2 cars. Unfortunately, by relying exclusively on the V-12 they also introduced new problems, like having no fuel efficient alternative to deal with the ’73 oil embargo. The first E-Type was quite light, under 3000 lbs, and could get over 20 MPG.

Sadly, the world had moved on, baby. And as we all know, the 1970s presented formidable obstacles to cars whose engineering bones were built years before. Some important enthusiast cars did get their start in the 1970s, like the BMW 2002, the Datsun 240Z (ironically a brilliant Japanese version of the E-Type), and the Mazda RX-7. But they were designed from the inside out to meet that dark decade’s safety, environmental, and economic challenges. I can’t think of a performance car from the 1960 that survived without having its character substantially altered. Yes, hallowed marques like the Corvette, 911, and Firebird continued to offer something for the performance minded buyer. But they all had to go through significant changes through the years, and in fairness benefitted from vastly greater engineering resources. Jaguar simply wasn’t a modern company, the 1968 British Leyland merger made a hash of operations, and when Sir William Lyons retired in 1972, there was no one left to protect the delicate kitty. The E-Type became too obsolete to adapt, and so was quietly euthanized by 1975, to usher in the next phase in British luxury motoring.

Did Jaguar truly enter the Malaise Era in ’75 with the XJ-S?

1984 jag xjs

That plucky, British spirit may have been bowed, but was not broken by the bumbling British Leyland bunch. The XJ-S was controversial upon launch, owing to the E-Type purists who were wishing for a reincarnation of the original classic. If Datsun was building a two-seat inline six cylinder sports car, a veritable copy of the original E-Type, why couldn’t Jaguar? They even managed to make the Z reliable and practical. Without analyzing Jaguar’s product planning strategy in the 70s, I would guess that they felt as a luxury brand they had to follow the market. Their target customer was now older, richer, and while they may have had fond memories of racing E-Types at their local tracks in the 60s, they weren’t the ones buying all those 240Zs. Time to move on, and up.

They had only released the V-12 a few years prior, and it was already acknowledged as a fine GT motor. Given the tremendous bonnet on the XJ-S, it is safe to say this one was designed around the engine. All dimensions increased, but it was still a low, low, 49.6″ tall. Typically, the British auto press gave it rave reviews, while others were disappointed that it was larger and heavier than the Series 3. But this was clearly not a replacement for the E-Type, it was a grand touring machine in the European tradition. Although with a curb weight pushing 4000 lbs, could one say it was a sort of British Monte Carlo? And I’m not referring to the city or the race.

Still, with the V-12 it was one of the fastest cars in a straight line for 1975, faint praise though that may be. Americanized cars did 0-60 in about 8 seconds, nothing to brag about in 2015, but back then a Corvette was lucky to hit that on a good day. Of course it drank oil fields whole, but this is supposed to be a discussion about styling. What was the rationale for the shape? Apparently, Malcom Sayer had started penning the XJ-S in the 1960s, but died suddenly in 1970. Perhaps his original vision wasn’t realized in the final production model, similar to what happened at Chrysler when Virgil Exner suffered his heart attack with all the full-size models still in clays. Chaos reigned at Jaguar then, with scant resources due to the parent company British Leyland seeming to wish that Jaguar would just die already. Perhaps they felt the company’s efforts should have been directed towards further development of the Austin Princess.

The flying buttress roof is undoubtedly the most controversial design feature, although I rather like it. It lacks ultimate harmony with the rest of the shapes, but certainly is distinctive when considered in isolation. The biggest problem is relationship with the rear quarter windows and large blank filler panel. It looks like Sayer had some other vision that wasn’t realized, and they finally had to finish the damn thing because as usual, Jaguar was a few years behind schedule. The revised side windows that appeared in 1992 present a cleaner, more finished approach, but it was well clear of the Malaise era by that point.

Moving around to the front end, this is one of those European imports that looked much better with the composite halogen headlamps, rather than the dual quad units foisted upon the US market. But that was hardly Jaguar’s fault, and they did as good a job with the conversion as Mercedes did with the SL or BMW with the E24 coupe. I do think that Porsche’s popup headlight design for the 928 was more innovative and they didn’t have to waste resources coming up with 2 different solutions.

Looking back on all the cars I’ve analyzed so far, the E-Type / XJ-S really does shine in comparison. Even though it was clearly a victim of the times, who wasn’t? And suppose for a moment that the XJ-S was judged on its own merits, rather than by wistful memories for a car who’s time had come and gone. Were people actually pining for the E-Type or a bygone era that was simpler and more fun? Compared with the Mercedes SL, Porsche 928, BMW 635CSi and in a stretch the Corvette, it had bags of character and British charm. But the XJ-S lasted almost 21 years. All the competing cars had relatively long lives, due to their high development costs and low volume. The respective companies had to wring the most out of their respective halo car platforms to help amortize the tooling. But while the 928 had 18 continuous production (1977-1995), the Jag evolved and improved, (albeit with substantial re-engineering), from 1975-1996. If one must hang the Malaise label on it, I think it applies only to the early years. It was and is a fantastically interesting and distinctive motorcar.

See all my other posts at my blog, Wired On Cars. It’s about car culture; the focus is on car shows, car museums and car design. But all things automotive are fair game.

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