Buyer Guide: Jaguar XKE

Photograph Courtesy Jaguar

[Editor's Note: This article originally ran in the March 2009 issue of Classic Motorsports.]

Buff books and specialty guides are crawling with ink praising the Jaguar XKE. Read over one of these articles and you’ll be hard pressed not to feel it. You know, it—that familiar sense of glamour and leather-upholstered elitism surrounding the car. Though these plush descriptions are widespread, they still manage to make us salivate every time. So, let’s play along. 

Commence snobbery.

When it debuted in 1961, the Jaguar XKE—known as the E-type in England—was like nothing else available. Long, sleek and fast, the car took the world by storm. Technically advanced with a DOHC six-cylinder engine, fully independent suspension, and four-wheel- disc brakes, it was also very refined thanks to its leather interior and numerous creature comforts, including a telescoping steering wheel.

Sure, the U.S. had the Corvette, Germany gave us the Porsche, and the Italians had their supercars, but the Jaguar offered the best attributes of all of these. It was a relatively high-volume production car with great handling, quick acceleration, and a 150 mph top speed. Jaguar had raised the bar for the high-end sports car market, and they had built enough for the masses. 

End snobbery.

That wasn’t so bad, right? At this point, XKE guides will often devote a few words to exactly which XKEs you should buy and which you should avoid. We’d like to knock this snooty approach down a peg. Here’s our take:

  1. Any XKE is cool. Sure, some of the variations might be better than others, but there are few cars cooler than even the worst of the XKEs. 
  2. While many people fantasize about owning an XKE, most feel they don’t have the means to buy one. There is some truth to this, but XKEs can be affordable. 
  3. Despite the fact that XKEs are cool and can be affordable, they are not perfect. Even the newest ones are 34 years old, and some of them have undergone substandard repairs for years. Done right, these cars can be fun, reliable daily drivers. Done wrong, and they turn into frustrating money pits.

Birth of Cool

The XKE’s long hood, low silhouette and sleek tail conspire to create an original shape that looks fast just standing still. Park any XKE in a parking lot, and a crowd will often form around it; this has been the case since the car came out. To the people in that parking lot, E-types are all pretty much the same. For us, there are some differences. 

Of course there are two basic models, the coupe and the convertible. However, there are actually two types of coupes, the standard two-seat model and the four-seat 2+2. Next, there are two basic engine configurations: Early cars had either a 3.8-liter or 4.2-liter DOHC inline-six. Later cars had 5.4-liter V12 engines with a single overhead cam for each cylinder bank.

Photograph Courtesy Jaguar

Photograph Courtesy Jaguar

The XKE debuted for the 1961 model year, but hints of what was to come preceded it: Jaguar campaigned this E2A prototype in 1960 (top). The original XKE (middle) had a shape that was unmatched; the later Series II car (bottom) carried that torch forward. Photography Credit: John Swain

The V12 cars were more like luxury grand touring cars than the earlier sports cars. They all featured power steering and improved power brakes, but less road feel. Many of these later cars also came fitted with creature comforts like air conditioning and an automatic transmission. 

Even with the big V12, power and performance were down from the six-cylinder version. These V12 cars were also plagued with increased complexity over the earlier models. Thanks to a recession, a fuel crisis and added money and labor problems at the factory, the cars also received poorer quality control.

Read those buff books and guides we mentioned earlier, and you’ll usually come away with an impression like this: The most desirable XKEs are the earlier six-cylinder cars or the later 12-cylinder cars. Convertibles are always better than coupes, and 2+2 models are almost undesirable. Are you starting to sense some snobbery here? Hold that thought; we’ll use it later when we work on our budget.

Big Fun

What’s it like to drive an XKE? If you’ve driven other British cars, you have a bit of the idea. While an MG or Triumph pilot might feel at home in the hot seat of an XKE, the driving feel has a character of its own. 

The engine starts like a heartier version of its smaller cousins, but it’s smoother, torquier and much more powerful. The chain-driven dual overhead cams give the XKE a much different sound than its solid-lifter pushrod contemporaries. 

The ride and handling are also smoother; occupants don’t bounce around quite as much due to a longer wheelbase combined with torsion bars in front and coil-overs in the rear. However, the car isn’t quite as nimble as the MGs and TRs. The XKE was made to go fast, and that’s where it excels. It’s a car that feels like it’s going 25 when it’s actually knocking on 70. As a result, disobeying the speed limit is all too easy.

The six-cylinder harbors a separate spirit from the V12 cars. Every pre-’68 example features a race-car-inspired interior that even recalls the cockpit of an aircraft. Slide in through the slightly too-short doors and you’re faced with a dash full of gauges and toggle switches. To bring the car to life, turn the ignition switch to the On position, set the choke, then push a separate starter button to crank the engine. 

Upgraded seats were part of the Series II interior changes. The cool lens covers were dropped to meet federal regulations. Photography Credits: John Swain

Once in motion you’ll find plenty of power, but the torque is what you’ll really feel. It doesn’t matter which gear you’re in; the XKE just pulls smoothly to whatever speed is desired. 

The rack-and-pinion steering is very responsive, but the low seating position and long hood can make those first few maneuvers a little tense. The thought of having power-assisted, four-wheel disc brakes might keep the mind at ease, but these pieces aren’t quite like those on a new Honda. They’re great by 1960s standards, merely good by today’s. 

The E-type offers a fine ride in town, but get it out on the highway and it’s a real treat. Smooth at highway speeds, it simply stands up and goes when you floor the gas pedal. Just keep in mind that this smoothness leads to misinterpreted speeds at higher velocities, too. The car will quickly hit 90 mph, but you’ll think you’re going 70.

The post-’67 machines give up a bit of the raw excitement found in the earlier versions, but not much. The removal of one carb cost the car some power, but it received some refinement in exchange. The seats gained headrests and recliners, and thanks to the federal government, the dash became padded, the toggle switches were replaced with rocker switches, and the starter button disappeared; its function was integrated into the key switch/steering lock. The result is a car that drives and looks pretty much the same as its earlier version, but with a little more plushness and fewer styling charms.

Three carburetors feed the 265 SAE gross horsepower six-cylinder cars, while the Series III V12 makes 250 SAE net horsepower. Photography Credit: John Swain

The later V12-powered car is a different cat in several ways. The longer doors and interior provide easier entry and a bit more room, but the cockpit loses more of its aircraft feel. The engine, though bigger, is not as powerful as its predecessor and doesn’t feel like it wants to wind up as much. However, it is smooth—12 cylinders can hardly be anything else. 

The power steering, while not missed on the earlier cars, is a nice addition to the V12. The improved brakes bring the car to a stop very nicely, although they have a bit of a disconnected, mid-1970s “American car” feel to them.

Somethin’ Else

The XKE has been put on a pedestal since its release, and with good reason. It was one of the most iconic cars of the ’60s, and it manages to turn heads and impress drivers to this day. 

The XKE isn’t perfect, but it can be fun, affordable and reliable. You just have to decide: Do you still want one?

Things to Know

Photograph Courtesy Jaguar

Drivetrain

If the carbs are in good working order and set by a competent tuner, they’ll work very well; the trouble comes when the carbs wear out. Meanwhile, mixture quality is often negatively affected by vacuum leaks along with worn needles and jets. 

Poor running is often caused or exacerbated by improper use of the choke. Some owners use the choke too little or too much, neither of which enhances the car’s drivability. Too little choke makes the car hard to start; you’ll then encounter stalling, spitting and backfiring as it warms up. If the choke is used too much or too long, the car will blow black smoke, stall and foul the spark plugs.

Except in very hot climates, the original cooling systems will perform just fine if everything is in good order. For owners in extra-hot regions, uprated aluminum radiators will be a welcome addition.

Pulling the engine and gearbox isn’t the one- or two-hour job it is in many other cars. Think more like eight hours, and reinstallation takes longer still. 

When inspecting a prospective purchase, spray some carburetor cleaner around the throttle shafts to look for vacuum leaks. (On a clean engine bay, be very careful with these cleaners as they can eat away at paint.) Check for oil leaks; you’ll likely find some, but make sure they’re not excessive, especially at the rear main seal. The clutch should require moderate effort and not slip, and the gearbox shouldn’t grind or make excessive noise.

For dual Zenith-Stromberg cars, retrofitting triple SUs is a quick way to regain some horsepower. Of course, there’s nothing like the sight of multiple Webers, so that’s an option, too.

Five-speed gearbox conversions are available, although the rear axles are geared high enough that stock four-speeds can handle highway revs without much of a problem. Replacing the pre-1966 gearbox with a five-speed adds a synchronized first gear along with the extra speed, so the swap makes a little more sense with these cars.

Body and Interior

Considering that the E-type has a more complex wiring harness than the average MG or Triumph, there is more opportunity for corrosion, bad grounds and poorly executed modifications.

As with any classic, rust is the biggest deal-breaker. Since XKEs were always high-end cars, many of them enjoyed dry climates and proper storage. Look for these examples. Rusted cars that have been repaired by marque experts with the right panels and methods are also worth seeking. Keep in mind that there’s no such thing as “a little rust.” If you see a single hole of any size, think about walking away. 

A lot of these cars were restored in the ’80s and ’90s, which is a double-edged sword. While some of these restorations were done very well by experts, others were done with less than professional results. In other words, that nice paint job might be hiding some pretty bad metalwork underneath.

Chassis

XKE brakes tend to get a bum rap. When it comes to brake problems, age and lack of proper maintenance are almost always the culprits. We’ve found that these systems perform well when they’re properly maintained with quality parts. Almost all service for the rear brakes requires removal of the rear axle, so deferred maintenance is more common at this end of the car.

The rear axles commonly need replacement bushings and mounts. Torque steer is an indication that this work is needed.

Most E-types have wire wheels, and don’t expect them to be in perfect shape. Look for wobbles along with loose, broken or missing spokes. Shimmies and shakes, especially in the 60 to 65 mph range, are clues that something is awry. Splines can wear, too; clunks heard during acceleration or braking can signify that new wheels—and possibly new hubs—are needed.

Coker and some other manufacturers make quality tires in the series I correct 185R15 size. However, upgrading to a performance tire will require moving to a bigger size. We’ve usually found 185-70R15s to be a good size for XKEs, but they’ll rub on the inner rear bumpstops if used with stock wheels. Dayton makes a nice chrome wire wheel with the proper offset for modern tires; Superlite offers a knock-off alloy that also works.

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