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Discover what made the future: Jaguar E-type Zero

Earlier this year, Jaguar dropped an electric powertrain into a 1968 Series 1.5 Jaguar E-type Roadster. But first, some context regarding “The most beautiful car ever made”. You can barely avoid quoting Enzo Ferrari’s famous response to seeing the E-type, so we’d might as well get it over with.

It helps, of course, that it’s true. After all, the E-type became only the third car ever to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, in 1996. Apart from its breath-taking beauty, however, MoMA’s motivation for exhibiting the opalescent dark blue 1963 model they acquired was that the E-Type was considered “the paradigm of the modern sports car”. The original press notes that “the sleek, bullet-like shape of the Jaguar E-type continues to be one of the most influential and imitated styling forms in sports car design”. Others called its long, curved sleek form “blatantly phallic” (that was the architecture critic at The New York Times), but that probably added to its allure. It was, after all, 1961 when the E-Type was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show – the beginning of the sexual revolution.

That fluid-lined automotive vision perfectly articulated the disruption, the optimism, and the decadence of the times looking like a message form the future. There was also something more egalitarian about it than other sports cars, capturing the collapse of the social barriers that the 60s represented. It was faster than a Ferrari, but a fraction of the price. And it collapsed other distinctions: it brought the Le Mans-demolishing performance of Jaguar’s famous racers – the C- and D-types – to a car you could drive every day.

Its looks weren’t deliberately provocative, although they were groundbreaking in their own way. Those curves are the result of its designer Malcolm Sayer’s early experience in aircraft design, particularly lightweight construction and aerodynamics. It was a form that followed function. Sayer’s complex diagrams and aerodynamic studies are often said to contain the basis of computer-aided design. And the use of a wind-tunnel to test the E-type’s performance was also a first: technology used for the first time in a production car. (It is also, true, however, that Sayer used to sticky-tape tufts of wool onto the bodywork of prototype models and drive alongside at 130 miles an hour to observe how they behaved!)

Whatever the combination of social change, technological innovation, art and sheer magic went into its making, the E-type became an instant “landmark design object” (MoMA again). And now, in retrospect, you could easily make the case that as the internal combustion engine reaches its last gasps of refinement, and hands the baton over to the electric motor, that the Jaguar E-type was really the ultimate realisation of the motor car as we know it: the most beautiful form that followed the function of its powerplant.

Back to the future, this year British GQ awarded the Jaguar E-type Zero the “Best use of Electricity Since The Lightbulb” in its annual Car Awards. The idea is that Jaguar could give the treatment to almost any classic Jaguar (and make the modification completely reversible, so as not to compromise the classic car, or give a second life to those with engines damaged beyond repair). Company director Tim Hannig said the idea was to “future-proof classic car ownership”.

Still, they couldn’t resist making the Jaguar E-type Zero about a second faster to 100km/h (5.5sec) despite otherwise providing dynamics and driving experience about as close to the original model’s as they could rather than souping it up.

Half of the thrill of the Jaguar E-type Zero, however, is the tantalising symbolism Jaguar invokes when it puts an electric powertrain in the E-type. What does it mean in terms of the E-type’s status as a design object? It seems to ask: what will the ultimate design realisation of the electric car be? The seed has been planted in the right place…

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