This car will always be a star

The E-type Jaguar, icon of the swinging Sixties, is celebrated at the Design Museum

Everyone, it seems, is re-evaluating the Sixties. In London, Tate Britain's show Art and the 60s: This was Tomorrow, examining the innovations of the period, is to be followed by E-type: Story of a British Sports Car at the Design Museum.

Everyone, it seems, is re-evaluating the Sixties. In London, Tate Britain's show Art and the 60s: This was Tomorrow, examining the innovations of the period, is to be followed by E-type: Story of a British Sports Car at the Design Museum.

"We asked ourselves, 'What was the iconic British car of the Sixties?'" says curator Helen Evenden. It wasn't difficult to settle on the E-type Jaguar: when it was unveiled in 1961, it caused a sensation. Sexy and stylish, it became the choice of the stars of the original "cool Britannia" and remains one of the defining icons of the period.

The exhibition both celebrates the triumph of engineering and aesthetics that was the E-type, and acknowledges its celebrity status. "The car is the star," Evenden says. "We want to show the design process that created an iconic object." Six immaculate cars from the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust are show the design trajectory from the Jaguar racing cars of the 1950s to the elegant final E-type version, made in 1974.

"What we found was that the designer was relatively unknown, despite the car's iconic status," Evenden says. The E-type's creator was the aircraft designer Malcolm Sayer, who conceived this sleek automotive sculpture that could top 150mph. A total of 72,000 E-types were made, and most were exported to the US.

Very few design models and sketches survive: unsurprising, perhaps, given that this was a time when ideas would often be scribbled on to beer mats. The E-type was largely conceived in the engineering sheds in the Coventry factory, proving that every design, however sexy, arises from dogged ingenuity and a lot of mathematics.

Unlike its sports-car rivals, such as the Morgan, the E-type was a sexy car designed for swingers, not chaps. Not as flash as a Ferrari, nor as exclusive as an Aston Martin, it was perfect for cruising through the social upheavals of the Sixties, when a new, upwardly mobile generation were tasting the first fruits of consumerism.

"Part of what makes the E-type so fascinating is that it does encapsulate these crossovers," Evenden says. "It fitted perfectly with the democratic liberal ethos of the time, because it brought something glamorous and fast in a completely different price bracket."

Now Jaguar is owned by Ford, and car designers face far more complex challenges. Evenden, who is a tutor at the Royal College of Art's Vehicle Design School, says that the simplicity of the E-type's design is testament to a vanished social and cultural era. "In the Sixties, you had a purer celebration of the appreciation of speed and driving," she says.

Deliciously seductive images of George Best, Twiggy and the like sitting in E-type Jags are now part of Sixties iconography. Everyone looks invincible, the optimism is infectious, the summer of love never ends, the engine purrs as you burn rubber down Carnaby Street, and everything lies in the future...

E-type is at the Design Museum, London SE1 (0870 909 9009), from next Sunday to 28 November

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