50 years of a British classic

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To celebrate the anniversary of the original Jaguar E-Type, this sleek vision of engineering brilliance is being shown at the Design Museum Tank until 6 March 2011. We spoke with F1 legend John Surtees, one of the very first to own an E-type, about this design classic.

Originally launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 1961, the E-Type immediately made its presence felt thanks to its monstrous 3.8 litre XK engine, and a top speed of 150 miles per hour.

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But it was the bullet-like design (it was the first large-scale production car to be developed from the use of aerodynamics) that helped establish it as a Sixties icon. With 70,000 sold between 1961 and 1974, the car also helped mark a new era in accessible luxury. You can salivate in person from February 8 at the Design Museum Tank, free entry. www.designmuseum.org

ESQ: You were one of the first people to buy one – was there a bit of competition among you F1 guys to get one first?

John Surtees: “Well I’d only just started motor racing I’d never competed in races - only motorcycling. In 1960 I was the new boy in racing. Lofty England, the race director of Jaguar showed me this new car – well, when I saw it I immediately asked him to get me one and they arranged to get an early one.”

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What do you remember of the day you bought it?
“At the time I was racing Ferraris and competing against E-Types and I remember Enzo Ferrari saying “that is a very beautiful car.”

Was it actually a great sportscar or did it just look fantastic?

“One of the big things about the car was that it was coupled to a fantastic six cyclinder engine developed by Jaguar after the war So you had that superb engine that was also very tractable. It was a good package though I was not very enthusiastic about the gearbox. You’ve got to remember that Jaguar was a race-bred company and because of that there’s obviously a compromise when you produce a car for the road. But it was a good all round car, a real Jeckle and Hyde -  if you wanted to be fierce with it and drive it hard you could but if you didn’t it was very comfortable.”

Obviously now it’s an icon but how big an impact did it have at the time?
“You were in a different period of life then, the pace was somewhat slower generally. There was so much less traffic on the roads so you got more pleasure from driving. At the time it made everybody sit up and start – especially because this beautiful car had emerged from a British company. It was a bit before it’s time.”

And was it a bit of a babe magnet?
“Ha! Really, everybody loved it men and women. Anyone who had an interest in cars couldn’t help but have their heads turned by it.”