An Icon is Born, by Philip Porter
An extract from the forthcoming book on 9600 HP, E-type development prototype, press launch car and road-test car.
At seven o’clock on a cold winter’s evening in 1961, a sleek Gunmetal Grey prototype of what is to be the most exciting production car the world has yet seen slithers out of a set of commonplace factory gates in suburban Coventry. This sleek, long, low projectile is bound for Geneva, where it is due to meet the world’s press the following day, but it is late leaving.
There have been last-minute delays, inevitably. The car will need to show every ounce of its pure racing pedigree if it is to catch the night ferry from Dover and reach Geneva in time. But this car has been bred directly from a triple Le Mans-winning sports-racing car. It has not only stunning good looks, but genuinely sensational performance. No thinly disguised and crude racer, this car is docile and comfortable. However, the car has more than tangible qualities; it is destined to become an icon.
The world is about to throw off the after-effects of the war, the dull uniformity of the 1950s. Fashions such as mini-skirts and outrageously long hair are about to satisfy the clamour for individuality and self-expression. It will be the era when the young break free, shock their parents and challenge the Establishment. This new sports car will shock, it will break conventions, it will make the pulse quicken, it will exude sensuality. With unintentional but perfect timing, it will be a seminal ingredient of the era popularly christened ‘The Swinging Sixties’.
The night ferry safely caught, the car glides down the gangway in Calais in the small hours of the morning to begin a journey of nearly 600 miles across France. As the driver presses on, driving flat out in this seriously fast car, the weather closes in. He encounters fog and yet the clock is ticking remorselessly. He has to balance speed with caution, the risk of being late against that of having an accident. Luckily he had raced successfully in the ’50s and is considerably more capable behind the wheel than the average company executive.
The future of his company depends on this new model. The firm, which has enjoyed a glorious past, is becoming a little jaded. Having grown accustomed to leading, it is now being overtaken. The company needs a spiritual lift as well as a business boost. This car is destined to be such a success that it will not only lift the famous company, but earn immense prestige for British industry. It will achieve such notoriety and lasting fame that the car’s name will become a synonym for speed.
In Reims, the fog is so bad he gets lost in the central square. As the fog finally clears south of Reims, he is once more able to use the performance. Convinced that he is going to be late and that the 200 members of the press who have been invited to a central Geneva park will have nothing to photograph, he has no alternative but to drive it like a racing car. This is before the age of blanket speed limits, but there are no motorways in France. He is using maximum revs in every gear between every bend. The amazing performance allows him to overtake whenever he has half a chance. He dares not take the direct route through the mountains, for he fears the passes will be closed due to snow. He takes the safe option and joins all the lorries on the only route into Switzerland that he knows will be open. Accelerating, braking, accelerating, braking, he weaves in and out of the streams of heavy trucks trundling steadily along. They seem endless.
This secret new car is due to meet the press at midday. At 11.40am, the car speeds into the Geneva premises of Marcel Fleury, the local dealer. As it screeches to a halt, a team of mechanics swoop on the car and begin washing off the grime of the arduous journey and polishing its sensual, curvaceous body. Twenty minutes later, the car arrives in the Parc des Eaux Vives to meet the men who will convey their judgements to the world at large.
They are ecstatic. Their reports are eulogistic. The legend is born. The queues form. The dreams begin.
The make? Jaguar. The model? The E-type. The car? 9600 HP.
Above: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the launch of the E-type in 2011 with 9600 HP at Parc des Eaux Vives.