The Jaguar XK-E is the most beautiful car ever built. Savor the unblinking certainty of that. While we may argue, debate and pull each other's critical pinfeathers over which is the best movie (All About Eve, Citizen Kane, Star Wars) or the best book (One Hundred Years of Solitude, As I Lay Dying, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), no such debate surrounds most beautiful car. It's the Jaguar XK-E convertible, a two-seat six-cylinder sports car that debuted in 1961.
For the naturally contentious, there is a real pissing match over the second most beautiful car. Another time, perhaps.
For men, to admire the XK-E is to flirt with your homoerotic side, because there is nothing remotely allusive or suggestive in the XK-E's shape. It is frankly dildonic: long, rounded and aroused. This is not the sublime masculine physicality of Greek art that Vasari admires, but patently pantomimic. Which is to say, it's a big hard-on. Love it at your own risk.
The XK-E had some pretty obvious styling precursors, particularly the Alfa-Romeo Disco Volante (flying disc). But its ecstatic shape was dictated largely by engineering factors. The XK-E featured a monocoque chassis, which was lighter and stiffer than a body-on-frame design and also avoided the raised profile that frame rails would have necessitated. Even more significant was the influence of aerodynamics, then coming into its own in the world of automotive design. While Jag founder and director William Lyons is often given credit for the XK-E, the car's historic shape is most singularly the work of William Sayer, the company's aerodynamic engineer.
There is no evidence that Lyons, Sayer or anybody else in the Jag organization was particularly phallocentric--of course, they were British--and I imagine there must have been a moment of wincing embarrassment among these men when the critical commentary started rolling in. Were their psychosexual skirts showing?
The XK-E--make mine a black convertible, 1964, please--has been on my mind recently. I've had the pleasure of driving one owned by Raleigh architect Brian Shawcroft, a good and proper Englishman who bought his tomalley-green coupe new in Great Britain in the '60s, then proceeded to drive it all over Europe and America. Brian's car reminded me of the rough pleasures of a real sports car: the thin hoop of a steering wheel flexing in my hands (Brian has broken two steering wheels during vigorous driving); the brutally stiff rack-and-pinion steering (no power steering); and the liveliness of a direct throttle linkage with no intervening electronics.
Brian's XK-E has the hot, reeky smell of hypoid gear oil and sunburned leather, the classic banks of toggle switches, the aeronautic dials. It's all thrumming exhaust and sensory overload. Damn, that's a cool car.
How different the XK-E is from its purported successor, the XKR. This is the supercharged, high-performance version of the XK8 coupe/convertible that debuted in 1997. And as easy as it would be to damn the new car in comparison to the old, I must say Jag got the styling largely right. The XKR is quite a bit bigger than the XK-E. The new car has softer radiuses and more practical doors and windows. But there is plenty of provenance in the new car. The rear clip, the part below the trunk, has a contour line that is angled upward, like the kicked-up rear end of the old XK-E. The long hood of the XKR, with the lengthwise dome like the old car, also wears the louvered grills like the original XK-E. Though no sighted person would prefer the lace alloy wheels of the new car to the elegant piano-spokes of the old, at least you don't have to tune and balance the alloys every few thousand miles.
Where the new car departs from its heritage is inside. Here a luxury interior worthy of the limpest Lexuses resides. It shouldn't surprise anyone that a five-speed automatic transmission is the only gearbox available (no power-extracting six-speed manual is available). The now-traditional Jag J-gate shifter is an island amid a sea of burled walnut, Connolly leather and high-end audio. The XK-E was a sports car. The XKR, even with its oversized rims and supercharger, is a grand touring car.
Under full sail, the XKR's 370 horses can certainly crack off some good laps, hustling to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds in an aural wash of roaring and whistling (the supercharger has a distinctly tea-kettle effect). At high speed, though, the car feels a little unsettled, precisely because the steering is overboosted. The brakes, while very smooth and calm in reactions, seem a little slippery and soft for so powerful a car.
The XKR is a beautiful car, no doubt. But to admire it is only to appreciate more thoroughly the clean perfection of the XK-E, in style and performance.
Jaguar has a new car on the horizon, the F-type. This will be a much smaller roadster, roughly on the same scale as the Honda S2000, Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3. It will be powered by the Jaguar/Ford V6, supercharged to around 300 hp.
Stylistically, the F-type, seen first in Detroit in January, hopscotches all the way back to the XK-E, with clean and sensuous lines, a flexed biceps' tautness and a low stance. The concept car currently has some impractical touches, like a cut-down windshield and no door handles. But if this is the direction Jag is going, I say high time.
Particularly since Ford bought Jaguar, it seems no great feat for the company in Coventry to produce a powerful GT with all the luxury appointments. It's a far harder thing, I think, to produce a sports car for the ages. But if Jag can do it once, why not do it again?