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Jag History Brings Back Memories

by Bob Hagin

May 21, 2001

Not long ago, we received a promotional kit from Jaguar announcing the 30th anniversary of its legendary E-type, a two-placed sports car that still turns heads after three decades. It was accompanied by a photo of the car as it was introduced to the American public at the New York International Automobile Show that year. The original shot included Marilyn Hanold, actress and Playboy centerfold, appropriately clad in a haute couture evening gown.

I remember the introduction of the E-type (although most of us called it the XKE), and that event got me to thinking about automotive things that were going on in the auto world 40 years ago. I was a part-time auto journalist for the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., as well as a full-time auto mechanic working for a Jaguar dealer.

But in 1961 there were many other things going on in the automotive world besides the introduction of that new Jaguar model, and while few of them were earth-shattering, many of them were milestones for the industry.

Most American cars were still very large but they were beginning to trim down from the sheet metal excesses of the '50s. All the domestic auto builders were obviously worried about the spectacular annual successes of the Beetle (although the Volkswagen factory hated the name at the time) and in response, came up with their own "import-fighters," a term that is popular still. Chevrolet was the only one to break the traditional mold when it brought out its first Corvair the year before. The Corvair carried a flat-opposed air-cooled "boxer" engine in back just like the Beetle, but it sported two more cylinders. It also had the same type of rear suspension as the VW and was even more prone to flip during convoluted maneuvers. A book was published called "Unsafe At Any Speed" that chronicled the shortcomings of the Corvair and in an attempt to discredit its consumer-advocate writer, General Motors used underhanded means and when its nefarious "dirty tricks" were revealed to the public, the publicity catapulted author Ralph Nader into the public spotlight and ultimately into his Don Quixote run for the presidency last year.

Other domestic car makers were also going after buyers of VWs, and the Ford Falcon, Dodge Lancer and the Plymouth Valiant all carried uncharacteristically small six-cylinder engines. One of the most successful U.S. compacts was the American put out by Rambler, a company that had evolved from Nash. Rambler had 16 different American body styles listed in '61 but its enthusiasm for small cars didn't keep the company from being melded into American Motors a few years later.

The undisputed King of Luxury Cars back then was the Cadillac Eldorado, a name that has been in continuous use since 1954. Cadillac had five different models listed and its rival Lincoln only had the four-door Continental to sell - albeit in sedan and convertible form. The now mighty Mercedes offered several smallish models, but it created only a blip on the sales records screen back then. Even smaller was the BMW Isetta "bubble-cars," one of which carried a single-cylinder engine and the other a two-banger.

The Saab of 1961 was also short on cylinders and its strange little two-door sedan had only three.

Volvo had been in the U.S for 11 years by then and had developed a reputation for strength and durability here but nothing that would rival Volkswagen. The 544 Volvo two-door sedan looked for all the world like a miniature '41 Ford Tudor, which made it very popular on the West Coast with aging hot-rodders. It also offered a more up-to-date 122 model that Volvo purists instantly labeling as sacrilegious.

Honda is a strong force in the American car market today but in 1961, Hondas in this country all rolled on two wheels. It would be another 10 years before Honda cars were imported here in any great numbers.

As for Toyota, I hesitate to bring up the infamous Toyopet of that era. I had to work on them and judging by the quality of current Toyota vehicles, the company learned valuable lessons from its past mistakes.

The year 1961 was also the last hurrah for the middle-class De Soto, a Chrysler Corp brand that had been a step above its stablemate Dodge for over 30 years. Its exit had been preceded in 1960 by the ill-fated Edsel, a short-lived Ford entry into the same market niche.

The only motorsports event of national interest in 1961 was the annual Indy 500, which has been an ongoing American "happening" since 1911, except for the war years. The 1961 winner was the still-active A.J. Foyt who would become a three-time winner of the event. Foyt was driving the Bowes Seal Fast Special, a traditional Offenhauser-powered oval track car. But of more importance was Australian Jack Brabham, who piloted a tiny, underpowered, Cooper Formula One car to eighth place. It was the beginning of the "Rear-Engined Revolution" and its design parameters endure to this day in American open-wheel racing.

The Jaguar E-type didn't start any major upheavals in the auto world 30 years ago. it was simply one of the many facets of those exciting and interesting times.