On its first appearance before the world's press at the Geneva Motor Show, the Jaguar E-type turned heads, broke records and created a legend all of its own
When the Jaguar E-type was revealed to the public at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show, it launched a motoring legend. Even the great Enzo Ferrari was awestruck, declaring it: "The most beautiful car ever built".
The hand-built prototype - fixed-head coupé 9600HP - had been lent discreetly to a few journalists - Autosport's John Bolster, Motorsport's Bill Boddy, The Telegraph's John Langley and The Times' Harold Nockfolds - in order for them to prepare road-test features in advance. It was then driven flat-out to the Parc des Eaux-Vives by Jaguar PR man Bob Berry, arriving with 20 minutes to spare. "Good God, Berry," said Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons as the car was frantically wiped clean. "I thought you'd never get here."
Berry then proceeded to give eager journalists a taste of the E-type on a nearby hillclimb course, but demand was so high that a second car was needed. As Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis recalls: "Berry hadn't had a break, and he said to Lyons: 'I can't keep this up all week, it's killing me'. Lyons rang back to Coventry and said: 'Get Dewis, wherever he is, to drop everything, and bring the open-top E-type over.'" Dewis completed the 600-mile journey in an astonishing 11 hours, at an average of 68mph.
Dewis's overnight run was one of many ways in which the canny Lyons maximised the value of the E-type launch. As motoring journalist Patrick Mennem explained: "One of the cleverest things Lyons ever did was to launch the E-type at Geneva. He knew the world's motoring press would be there, so the SMMT [the UK's motor industry body] paid for the reception. He had the most fantastic launch I can recall for a car, and hadn't spent a penny. Very astute fellow."
With 265bhp from the 3.8-litre straight-six engine, amazing looks and a price tag at least half that of an Aston Martin or Ferrari - neither of which could match the E-type's 150mph top speed - customer interest in the E-type was naturally high.
"None of us never dreamed of the impact the E-type would have," says Dewis. "As soon as the press saw it, it went through the country like a prairie fire. The idea of a 150mph Jaguar that was only £2,000… to get a Ferrari you'd have to wait six months, it would cost you five times as much, and probably wouldn't do 150mph on the road. Of course, the orders came flooding straight in. We weren't envisaging mass production, so we had to get a new track laid down in the factory, just for the E-type."
Jaguar had planned to make 250 examples of the E-type, but by the end of the Geneva Motor Show, pre-orders topped 500. Over the next 14 years, they would sell 72,000.