The wild ones: Unrestrained icons of the 1960s

Written by Derek Tam-Scott

May 10, 2022

For the sports car enthusiast in the 1960s, there were few cars as exciting as the Jaguar E-Type and the Lamborghini Miura. Each of these cars caused a sensation when they were launched, thanks to their technical innovation and stunning aesthetics. Each became inextricably linked to the era, which was a time of extraordinary change in the automotive landscape. Two seismic shifts in particular made the 1960s such a decisive turning point: one was the change in the relationship between racing cars and road cars, and the other was the introduction of a series of American safety and emissions regulations whose descendants continue to define automotive design today.

Both the E-Type and the Miura are icons of the 1960s because they pushed the absolute limits of automotive design in this unencumbered period, drawing heavily from motorsport in the process.

Historically, the cars that won the world’s great sports car races like Le Mans were derived from street cars: the cars that won Le Mans repeatedly like the Cricklewood Bentleys (1920s), the Alfa Romeo 8C (1930s), and the Jaguar C-Type (early 1950s) were all road cars tuned and modified for competition use, and even dedicated race cars like the Jaguar D-Type (mid-late 1950s) could be driven on the road by the keen (and tolerant) enthusiast. This all changed in the 1960s; the state of the art advanced to the point that endurance race cars became so specialized that they couldn’t reasonably be used on public roads any longer, and the directness of the link between road and race cars was broken forever.

At the same time, growing public consciousness about the environmental impacts of cars, as well as concerns about their safety, led to the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (and others) in the United States. For most European manufacturers, the US market was their single largest market, so they could not ignore the demands of American regulators.

As a result of these two changes in the landscape, the '60s sit at the nexus of two eras: on one side, the Wild West “anything goes” mentality of the preceding decades, which allowed even small teams to experiment with designs that often permanently altered the development of the automobile, and on the other side, a rationalization and specialization of car-making that brought significant advancements in manufacturing, safety, ergonomics, emissions, and with enough time to iron out the bugs, performance.

Feature: Jag + MiuraFeature: Jag + Miura

Both the E-Type and the Miura are icons of the 1960s because they pushed the absolute limits of automotive design in this unencumbered period, drawing heavily from motorsport in the process. In the 1950s, Jaguar fielded one of the most successful runs in the history of the legendary French endurance race Le Mans. Using a competition-prepared version of the seminal XK120 called the C-Type, they won at Le Mans in 1951 and 1953. It was powered by Jaguar’s sophisticated dual overhead cam inline-6 and pioneered disc brakes, a technology developed by Dunlop during World War II for use on airplanes. The C-Type’s replacement, the D-Type, took the formula a step further by adding monocoque construction and a much more radical aerodynamic design. The D-Type dominated from its introduction, including wins at Le Mans in 1955, 1956, and 1957. The C-, and D-, and E-Types Types featured aerodynamic bodies styled by Malcom Sayer, who joined Jaguar after working for the Bristol Aeroplane Company.

Jaguar was a genuine sports car tour de force, right up there with Ferrari, and the competitive landscape was quite different then. Porsche was not even a decade old and was selling exclusively four-cylinder cars displacing less than 2 liters, which still bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the Volkswagen Beetle. Lamborghini did not yet exist, and Mercedes withdrew from motorsport after their tragic accident at Le Mans in 1955 which killed more than 80 people.

In the midst of this period of extraordinary racing success, Jaguar designed a new sports car to replace the venerable XK series which had debuted in 1948 and was showing its age. The new car, the E-Type, was bang up to date, drawing obvious influence from their wildly successful race cars. It used an updated version of the twin-cam XK engine, unitized construction, disc brakes, independent suspension all round, and was clothed in stunning Malcom Sayer-designed bodywork which Enzo Ferrari famously described as the most beautiful car ever made. When the E-Type debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1961, there was no other car available that combined all these sophisticated technical features at any price point, let alone a touch over £2000, which made the E-Type less than half as expensive as the less technically innovative sports cars from Aston Martin, Ferrari, or Mercedes-Benz. It is no wonder, then, that over 72,000 were sold, compared to production volumes in the hundreds or low thousands for cars from these other marques.

Jag x MiuraFeature: Jag + Miura

On the road, the E-Type was a sensation: tuned cars provided to the press touched 150 MPH, while standard production customer cars were a hair slower, but still fast enough to make them one of the fastest road cars in the world. Road holding was also a revelation, and the overarching impression driving one today is how modern it feels compared to other cars of this era.

If the E-Type represented the ultimate iteration of the past, then Lamborghini’s Miura was an outrageous vision of the future.

The E-Type was born in the golden age of the sports car, combining motorsports innovations with the nearly unregulated environment before smog and safety laws, but changes were afoot and are reflected directly in the way the E-Type (d)evolved over its life. The beautiful headlight covers were removed part way through the 1967 model year, and in 1968, triple SU carburetors gave way to cleaner-running double Strombergs in the US market. Protrusions in the interior, such as the door release handles and toggle switches, were replaced by recessed items which were intended to cause less injury to occupants in the event of a crash. 1969 saw larger light clusters and side markers added, while large rubber blocks were added to the bumpers in 1973 and 1974 to meet 5 mph impact laws, further spoiling its looks.

The gradual devolution of the E-Type in response to safety and emissions laws shows the extent to which it represented the end of an era. It exploded onto the scene in 1961 as arguably the most desirable new sports car available, the ultimate evolution of the traditional sports car, by incorporating loads of technical innovations in a good old fashioned front-engined, rear wheel drive package. Ferrari and Lamborghini caught up a few years later with 275 GTB and 350 GT, but Lamborghini was already looking in a different direction.

Jag x MiuraJag x Miura

If the E-Type represented the ultimate iteration of the past, then Lamborghini’s Miura was an outrageous vision of the future. The company’s first model, the 350 GT, appeared in 1963, but just two years later, they displayed something shocking at the Turin Motor Show. Ferruccio Lamborghini insisted on not building race cars, but it sure looked like that’s what he was up to when his company displayed a bare chassis so innovative that the public could not believe it was intended to be a road car.

The centerpiece was the dual overhead cam transversely-oriented V12, mounted amidships and designed by Giotto Bizzarrini, whose CV included the Ferrari 250 GTO. The engine was installed in a perforated sheet steel chassis with double wishbones and disc brakes at all four corners. Despite not even having a body, dozens of orders materialized for the car, which Mr. Lamborghini had up to that point envisioned as something of an engineering exercise rather than a production car. Not one to miss a commercial opportunity, he put out a contract to design a body for it, which Bertone won, and less than six months later in March 1966, the first Miura with bodywork was unveiled at Geneva, the same place where the E-Type had debuted exactly five years earlier.

While the E-Type and Miura are separated by just five years, it may as well have been 500 years. Technically the second mid-engined production car ever (after the Matra Djet), the Miura was wildly innovative nonetheless; it instantly made every Ferrari (and every other sports car) look prehistoric. Case in point, the Ferrari 330 GTC also debuted at Geneva in 1966, and no one cared because of the Miura. The Miura was rushed into production and was far from perfect as a result, dynamically and otherwise, but it didn’t matter. The car was a true paradigm shift, one which laid the foundation for every mid-engined exotic since.

The reality is that the Miura arrived just in time. One of the last sports cars conceived in the era before regulations, it just snuck under the wire to the US market, a fate that Ferrari’s response, the Berlinetta Boxer, could not enjoy. Instead, Enzo Ferrari simply decided not to bring any 12-cylinder Ferraris to the US for a ten year period spanning the '70s and '80s.

Together, the E-Type and Miura tell a remarkably complete story of why the 1960s are such a golden age of sports cars. Each is a quintessential representation of the 1960s, rendered with a purity that would be impossible just a few years later. The E-Type appeared in the last years during which a front-engined car could be described as truly state of the art, while the Miura seemed to bring the future ten years closer overnight.

But aside from their meaning in the history of cars, both are extraordinary experiences. Driving them is a sensory overload and demands finesse and mechanical sympathy. Anyone who describes the E30 M3 or F355 as intense and demanding will have their perceptions about automobiling shattered by either of these cars, and that really is what makes cars of the 1960s so special. Despite being some of the most sophisticated cars one could buy, both of these cars feel incredibly raw to today’s drivers, which is both a testament to how far we’ve come, and perhaps more poignantly, a representation of what we lost along the way.

The market

Jaguar E-Type

Lamborghini Miura

Meet our contributors

Derek Tam-Scott is a lifelong car enthusiast who grew up surrounded by interesting vehicles — from Volvos, Triumphs, and MGs to Porsches and Italian thoroughbreds — courtesy of his enthusiast parents. You learn more about Derek by following his Instagram (@dtamscott) and by checking out his Youtube channel and website.

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