1996: A Cultural Breakthrough for a British Sports Car

April 3, 1996

The British sports car Jaguar E-Type, which achieved worldwide renown when it was manufactured by Jaguar Cars Ltd. between 1961 and 1974, made another cultural breakthrough by becoming only the third automobile placed on permanent exhibit at the New York City Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Christopher Mount, assistant curator for the MoMA department of architecture and design, underscored at that time the significance of acquiring an E-Type for the museum’s collection. “Rarely has a car inspired the kind of passion in both car enthusiasts and the general public that the Jaguar E-Type has,” noted Mount. “Even today, the E-Type is considered an icon of the postwar British sports car.”

The E-Type was the first automobile introduced by Jaguar Cars in the wake of a fire in 1957 that destroyed that company’s production facilities. Following the formal rollout of the E-Type, no less an authority than Italian sports car manufacturer Enzo Ferrari called this new automobile the “most beautiful car ever made.” 

While the E-Type’s sleek appearance was undeniably a huge part of its attraction, so were the technological innovations that went into creating that car in the first place. Aerodynamic engineer Malcolm Sayer, who brought into play everything from slide rules to seven-figure log tables when designing automobiles for Jaguar, incorporated such then-advanced features as power-assisted four-wheel disc brakes and fully independent rear suspension into the E-Type. The competitive pricing for that automobile likewise helped make this motor vehicle very popular. 

The E-Type ultimately became as emblematic of the “Swinging Sixties” as James Bond and the Beatles and even made its way into music and movies of that era. High-profile owners of that sports car included Brigitte Bardot, Tony Curtis, Steve McQueen, and Keith Richards. The E-Type set the standard for other sports cars and various aspects of automotive design, and the placement of a dark blue 1963 model of that automobile as a permanent fixture at the Museum of Modern Art served as yet more evidence of its enduring cultural resonance and aesthetic appeal. 

“Since 1972, when the Museum acquired its first car, a Cisitalia ‘202’ GT, we have been expanding this facet of the design collection,” asserted Terence Riley, chief curator for the MoMA department of architecture and design, not long before the official debut of an E-Type as a museum exhibit. “We developed a wish-list of ten to twelve cars, with the E-Type at the top. When we approached Jaguar to acquire one or the collection, the company was very enthusiastic.” Riley also stated, “Because of the E-Type’s beauty and sculptural quality, its functionality, and its seminal impact on overall car design, it perfectly suits the criteria of a landmark design object.”

(The above photo of a 1961 version of the Jaguar E-Type was taken in 2013.)

Photo Credit: Greg Gjerdingen (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

For more information on the inclusion of a Jaguar E-Type as an exhibit at the New York City Museum of Modern Art, please check out https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/282

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