Wheels of fortune: Jaguar updates its iconic E-Type with the launch of the F-Type sports car

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The E-Type was the world’s sexiest sports car. Jamie Merrill meets Jaguar’s update on a 1960s classic.

As a young boy, Ian Callum remembers sitting in a neighbour's Bentley Silver Cloud and staring in amazement at the simplicity and beauty of its huge Connolly-leather door panels.

"That was the first time that I realised that a piece of nothingness can actually be very beautiful," he says. "I was fortunate to discover that when I was very young and probably, thinking back, that's where my desire to design cars came from."

Now 58, Callum is design director at Jaguar and the man responsible for the firm's most important car in a generation: the new F-Type.

If ever a sports car had a lot to live up to, this is the one. Alphabetically just one character along from the E-Type, the company's era-defining roadster of the 1960s, it needed to be sleek and stylish but also transform Jaguar's reputation from the car of the 'older gentleman' to something more vibrant, and profitable.

The biggest challenge for Callum is that the car the F-Type is following is more than just another 1960s two-seater sports car. The E-Type is a piece of British design history and became a potent symbol of the excitement and optimism of the swinging Sixties. The term iconic is bandied around too easily, but the classic lines of the E-Type are accepted as some of the most beautiful in car design. Even the great Enzo Ferrari admitted it was "the most beautiful car ever made". George Best, Brigitte Bardot, Tony Curtis and Steve McQueen all agreed, and were just some of the owners that gave the E-Type star quality.

It was more than just a thing of beauty, though. Sleek and low-slung, the E-Type was the result of the engineering talent of Malcolm Sayer and became the first large-scale production car based on aircraft design principles. Launched at the Geneva Motor Show in 1961, it caused a sensation with its wrapped sheet-metal looks and top speed of 150 mph – this only two years after Harold Macmillan opened the country's first motorway. It was remarkable, too, for its relatively low price compared to its rivals. It cost around £2,500, close to £40,000 in today's money. In comparison, a new F-Type starts at £58,500 while the market leader, the Porsche 911, will set you back at least £73,068.

At the firm's 110-acre Castle Bromwich plant in the West Midlands, up to 80 F-Types a day are already rolling off the production line. They are each constructed from lightweight aluminium and Jaguar has had to recruit 1,100 extra staff to handle the 2,237 rivets each car requires during its 600-minute production time. The stakes are high for Jaguar. The firm is part of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) and has been owned by the Indian Tata Group since 2008. It is in very rude financial health today, but most of that is down to Land Rover's success with the new Range Rover Evoque and Freelander SUVs. In fact, of the 357,773 vehicles sold by JLR last year, only 53,847 of these were Jaguars. In comparison, Porsche sold 40,000 sports cars, plus another 100,000 SUVs and saloons.

Jaguar is a small player then, but Callum seems pleased with his efforts on the F-Type and relaxed in following in Sayer's footsteps: "The very nature of the F-Type makes it the spiritual successor to the E-Type but I couldn't let that burden me. You can't – and this is true for any artist – let yourself be burdened by something that had such high iconic status that you feel obliged to emulate it or in some way follow it."

The F-Type isn't just a carbon copy of the E-Type, but Callum, who was born in Dumfries seven years before the E-Type first hit the road, certainly understands the firm's heritage. As a teenager in 1968, he wrote to Jaguar's vice president Bill Haynes to get advice on getting into car design and, 31 years later, after time as a car designer for Ford, Aston Martin, Nissan and Volvo, joined the firm as design director.

"Good design is about beauty and simplicity," he explains as he points out the sweeping lines of the F-Type's body and its tapered rear end at the Castle Bromwich plant's visitor centre. "The best cars can be drawn with two lines and the very best car design is about knowing when to stop and what not to include on a car. There's something very British about that which is as true today as it was in the 1960s."

Not everyone agrees. Nick Wiles from classic car auctioneers COYS isn't so sure the F-Type is radical enough to match the E-Type. "Of course it's very difficult to say exactly what makes a future classic, but the F-Type has an awful lot to live up to and I just don't think it is as radical as its forbearer," he says. "It was the E-Type's radicalism, especially in the 1960s, that made it so successful and still so desirable today."

Matt Saunders, a motoring journalist at Autocar magazine who has covered the F-Types since its inception, seems to agree. "The E-Type had a legendary reputation for being fantastic to look at and it defined the mould for the great British grand touring sports cars that followed. The F-Type isn't as keenly priced as the E-Type and love it or not, while it's a good piece of design, it isn't beautiful."

"I get really upset by people who say something is bland or that what I've done is not radical enough," responds Callum. "They don't understand the beauty that lies in the middle of simplicity. Yes, Jaguars should be radical, but not in their shape or form but in how they play with proportion."

Jaguar did spend a time in the design and financial doldrums, admits Callum. "In the past 30 years we fell into something called 'classical' and 'traditional' design. They are not the true values of Jaguar." He is alluding to a run of cars including the S-Type and earlier XJ that, thanks to their 'traditional' styling and use of wood and vinyl, gave the firm a reputation as 'the old man's car company'. Another insider points to Jaguar's time under Ford ownership when the American giant "seemed determined to milk the badge without any respect for its heritage or the investment it needed". And as recently as 2009 – while under JLR's Indian ownership – the firm sought a government-guaranteed loan and was considering the closure of a plant with the loss of thousands of jobs.

Thankfully for Callum and the workers at Castle Bromwich, Wiles and Saunders are probably in the automotive minority when it comes to the F-Type and it is already getting rave write-ups, even before any reviewer or customer has driven one. Much of this is down to Tata's long-term investment approach, including £2.75bn this year alone, thousands of new jobs in the Midlands and new factories in Saudi Arabia and China. Jaguar won't confirm it, but a new small saloon and baby SUV are expected in the middle of the decade to take the fight to the big German manufacturers.

These are important cars for Jaguar's future (and its share of Britain's export market) but it's the F-Type which gets all the attention. It's the sexy one, the car that the firm hopes will reinvent the brand and that enthusiasts have been poring over online for months in anticipation of its formal launch next month. "Like every overnight success, it has taken Jaguar 10 to 15 years to get where we are now," says Callum. "I've never actually owned a car I've worked on before, but I'm going to buy an F-Type".

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