F for Fabulous

    1 December 2012

    Jaguars must be good-lookers. Sir William Lyons, founder of the marque, had an eye for the sleek and svelte. It is said that he would have his designers build a selection of mock-ups for the next model, walk along the line, point at one with his stick and say: ‘Make that one.’ Then he would point at another and say: ‘With the rear of that one.’ Then he’d go back to his office. And he’d be right.

    The next must-have Jaguar quality is performance — they’ve got to do the business. They haven’t all done it — the 1960s 2.4 Mk 2, the early 1970s XJ6 2.8, were comparatively sluggish, albeit with looks to die for. The third quality is the interior; it’s got to make you feel special, which they usually do. Sir William demanded that, viewed from the side, seats should not protrude above the bottom of the windscreen. It’s almost impossible to find a car like that now, not least because of compulsory headrests. The final quality is that they must not — as Rolls-Royce used to put it — fail to proceed. Sadly, they haven’t always proceeded reliably, most notably during the dark days of British Leyland ownership in the 1970s. But they improved greatly under John Egan in the 1980s and have gone on doing so ever since. Contemporary surveys consistently place them among the most reliable vehicles on the planet.

    The problem with any new Jaguar is the heritage — you’ve got to use it and also lose it. If you’re seen as too close — as with the elegant and capable S-Type — you’re dismissed as retro; if you’re not at all retro you’re ‘not a Jaguar’. Under their brilliant design director Ian Callum, they’ve cracked it with the current brace of saloons, the excellent XF and XJ, but the real challenge is the new F-Type two-seater sports car. Its problem is the E-Type.

    Allegedly described by Enzo Ferrari as ‘the most beautiful car ever made’, the E-Type did for Jaguar what Shakespeare did for English verse drama. That is, it was impossible to improve on. The cars that succeeded the E-Type, the XJS and the XK8 and variants, were, wisely, more sports tourers than sports cars. It has taken until now, 51 years after the E-Type was born, for Jaguar to face the challenge head on. Just calling it the F-Type makes that challenge explicit; they’re either very brave or very foolish.

    I think the braves have it. To start with, they’ve got the rear right. The back end is often the most difficult bit in car design, compromised by safety, handling and golfing requirements, but the F-Type’s rear derives from a sensual double curve in the rear wings, which sweeps across the sloping tail, embracing the slender wraparound rear lights (in homage to the E-Type?) on the way. That rearwards slope is all-important, echoing the front-end curve with its sharpened edges and discreet power bulges. The interior is intimate and functional, with about half an acre of leather that makes the plain old E-Type look about as luxurious as your first bike.

    Sales start in the middle of next year and, so far, we have only the engineers’ word for how it performs. It sounds as if handling and drive will be all you’d hope for — which means the car’s limits will be way beyond most of ours. There are three engine options, all petrol, two versions of the supercharged 3-litre V6 and one of the 5-litre supercharged V8 (it’s good to see the supercharger making a comeback after decades of turbo dominance). The V8 offers 0-60mph in 4.2 seconds and a licence-losing 186mph top speed. Body and suspension are aluminium and the eight-speed Quickshift gearbox is both manual and auto.

    But it will cost you. Prices start at £58,500. Traditionally, Lyons built his Jaguars down to a budget, making them good value compared with their premium-class competition. But that’s also why their metal was thinner, their electrics ancient and their knobs and switches often from the parts bin. Perhaps the F-Type pricing is an assertion by Jaguar that they are truly up with (or beyond) Audi, Mercedes and BMW in status and build quality. They had better be.

    So what’s the provisional verdict on this as yet un-driven beauty? Firstly, it’s no E-Type. That was something wholly new, like no other road car, an engineer’s evolution of the C- and D-Type Le Mans winners. The F-Type is roughly similar to other quality sports cars, built within the same constraints – but it is more beautiful. Callum’s pen (if he uses one) has traced strong, graceful lines to produce a very desirable car that will go and handle far, far better than the E-Type ever did. They’ve taken 2,000 orders already, so if you’re tempted, go for it now.