1966 Jaguar E-Type Review: Power and Poise Worthy of an Icon
Not just beautiful, but fast, comfortable, stylish, and nimble: Britain’s finest sports car truly does it all.
Cars are unique as consumer goods. The speed at which the industry moves, combined with its need to blend mass-market appeal with niche specialization, means that they can embody an era and a style unlike any other consumer product. They become characterized by their owners and heritage. But with certain rare models, they take on an almost indefinable quality. The 1966 Jaguar E-Type is an excellent example of a car that seems to defy categorization. Despite permeating pop culture since its inception, it has always had a vague definition of what it was for.
With a 14-year production run and popular praise lavished upon it, the E-Type was widely beloved, of course. But what exactly is it? Is it a sports car? Is it rolling art? Is it a boulevard cruiser? I’ve never found a satisfactory answer. So when I had the chance to drive one, I was determined to find out for myself.
1966 Jaguar E-Type 4.2: By the Numbers
- Powertrain: 4.2-liter naturally aspirated inline-six | 4-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
- Price (when new): $5,620
- Horsepower: 261 @ 5,600 rpm
- Torque: 283 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
- 0-60: 7.0 seconds
- Top speed: 150 mph
- Quick take: The E-Type is a stunning work of art that also happens to be one of the best driving classics at any price.
Jaguar's Extraordinary E
The E-Type is legendarily pretty. Calling it rolling art might be a bit of an understatement. Enzo Ferrari famously said it was “the most beautiful car in the world," and the influence of the E-Type in later Ferrari two-seaters is plain to see, with its taut, teardrop cabin looking out over a vast expanse of bulging hood in a way that’s more graceful than menacing. The Jaguar universally appealed to those with style that sought to make an entrance in the way only a stunning sports coupe could: Frank Sinatra, Brigette Bardot, Tony Curtis, and Steve McQueen all drove E-Types in the '60s. Despite the car not being quite the ostentatious statement of wealth that many modern celebrities cruising the boulevard flock towards—a 1961 E-Type started at $5,620, roughly equivalent to $50,000 today—it was so sleek and forward-looking that it had no parallels priced above or below it.
And this specific example, a 1966 4.2-liter straight-six hardtop, is the spec to own. The E-Type went through several variations. The first, from the car’s inception in 1961 to 1967, is known as the Series 1. In 1965, the infamously long-lived Jaguar XK straight-six (which debuted in 1949 and was not retired until 1992) got a bump in displacement, increasing it from 3.8-liters to 4.2-liters, and raised horsepower and torque at the same time. Additionally, it received synchromeshes for each gear (earlier 3.8-liter cars had an unsynchronized first gear), more comfortable seats, an upgraded electrical system, and a more reliable brake package.
Shortly after, in 1968, the Series 2 E-Type debuted, where the pure vision of the Jaguar design was changed in concessions to new NHTSA safety regulations. The unrestrained power of the inline-six was held back with new EPA constraints that saw it lose a carb and gain a more restrictive exhaust. So it was only for the 1966 and 1967 model years, then, that Jaguar offered the most powerful and purest vision of what the E-Type could be. This is one of those few cars.
Stunned at First Sight
Upon first contact with the E-Type, it’s easy to see why it was so favored by anyone who could afford one: It is, truly, stunning.
Unlike the last bright red sports car I reviewed, there is no intimidation built into the design; the Jaguar epitomizes British class and restraint, despite its outlandish proportions. The beltline running seamlessly from the clamshell hood to the rear taper of the trunk looks good at every angle possible. The covered headlights, ostensibly to help with aerodynamics, make the profile of the car uninterrupted and streamlined. Even the delicate-looking taillights and centered twin-exhaust pipes look like they each had a design team dedicated to them; there is no detail forgotten on the entire car. It is still breathtaking to behold today. In 1961, well before the Corvette had found its footing and the Japanese automakers were still a decade away from producing heavy-hitting sports cars, this truly had no rival except in well-established Italian tourers that cost orders of magnitude more.
And it’s not like the E-Type gained a following just for good looks, either. It was based heavily on the earlier Jaguar D-Type, a Le Mans prototype race car campaigned by the factory race team in the '50s. It was one of the first to forgo ladder-frame construction in favor of a monocoque with subframes. This dropped weight significantly and helped the D-Type win three straight 24 Hours of Le Mans races, in fields stacked with some of the most legendary postwar racers ever built.
The E-Type carried forward this heritage with a unibody design combined with independent suspension and power-assist disc brakes at all four wheels. Throw triple SU carburetors on the already well-proven XK straight-six with a four-speed manual behind it, and the Jaguar promised top speeds of up to 150 miles an hour and a zero-to-60 in the seven-second range, specs that were completely unheard of from any car in the early '60s—much less from a production sports coupe that started under $6,000.
So I was pleased when I stepped into the cockpit of the Jag and the racing-style ignition greeted me. The key goes into the middle of the dash and turns to prime the fuel pump and a simple button-press fires the starter and awakens the straight-six. Toggle switches control the main auxiliary features, and even the heater vents are controlled with very nonsensical chromed sliders; the interior makes no attempt to portray excessive wealth or luxury and instead emphasizes its racing heritage. The steering wheel is a delicately carved wooden one, with weight-reduction holes drilled through the aluminum spokes, and it frames a gorgeously '60s-looking pair of gauges: road speed and engine speed. Everything here means business. The only flair for excess the interior exhibits is the steering wheel centerpiece, which is a superb glass-encapsulated Jaguar emblem.
And it’s all business for damn-good reason: This car truly had no parallel in the '60s from a performance standpoint. The triple-carbed XK motor has one of the most linear-feeling torque curves of any car I’ve ever felt, and because it’s an inherently balanced inline-six, it pulled all the way to redline with shocking ease and smoothness. It was easy to forget it was carbureted because it ran so, so smoothly, without any of the ill-mannered cold behavior of most classic cars. The transmission was one of the best ones I’ve felt in a car, era or cost be damned. The gates were so easy to find and yet so precise that I legitimately had a hard time believing this car is older than my parents.
The manual steering rack communicates through the exquisite wood wheel with perfect clarity, so despite the fact the E-Type has a reputation to be a little tricky to handle in tight corners, I felt no concerns. Even the long hood, which had worried me a bit before I took off driving, became a non-issue—the seating position made it easy to see out over the vast expanse of flowing red clamshell, and the accurate steering-feel made it easy to aim. The length helped to determine—very early on—if the rear was sliding or the front was plowing. In short, the Jag would tell me if I was pushing too hard, and it felt shockingly easy to have fun in as a result.
So with its sportscar provenance proved, it was time for a jaunt on the 101. And somehow, this car did what, 50 years later, most mid-range sports cars struggle to do: It cruised comfortably. The post-1965 revision of the car came with more plush seats, and it was easy to find a position that allowed me to lean back, arm on the sill, and feel like the queen of Hollywood as I purred down the freeway. Those incredibly well-mannered carbs and the smooth inline-six did more than just make it easy to floor it out of hairpins in the hills, they made it cruise on the freeway with more poise and silkiness than some modern tourers I’ve driven. And suddenly, I realized why the E-Type had such an outsize reputation for literally decades and how it became an icon larger than its racing successes or flowing lines.
Building or purchasing a car is like constructing an ideal character in a video game: It forces a min-max mentality. We exchange comfort for sharpness or power for response. But the E-Type somehow eschews all of this. Despite having a pedigree that most performance manufacturers dream of and the driving characteristics to back it up, it somehow manages to be thoroughly pleasant to drive around in. Despite being stunningly pretty with dimensions that look more conceptual than production, it accommodated my tall body with comfort. And underneath all of this was some of the finest technology the era could offer at a price that was downright reasonable.
It's obvious why so many celebrities chose it and it was plain to see why it dominated Le Mans within the span of an hour behind the wheel. This was the bedroom-wall car before car culture had the concept of a bedroom-wall car. It could appeal to anyone for any of a myriad of reasons and they would all be equally valid. It is a beautiful piece of rolling art. It is an unparalleled sports car. It is a highway-eater and boulevard-cruiser.
A fun theoretical exercise in car enthusiasm is to build a perfect two-car garage, and frequently, when asked this question, I choose one absurd sports car and one comfortable cruiser or one stylish luxury car and one homologation race machine—always two cars diametrically opposed to cover all my bases for what I could want. With the E-Type, there is a perfect one-car garage and this is it—because there are no more bases to cover. Fifty-five years ago, Jaguar, somehow, did it all.
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