Son of Jaguar E

22/11/16 21:35

I came across these images while distractedly browsing the net as I listened to a Radio 4 discussion about cuisine from the 1950’s.  A weird convergence.  While the food chat was interesting, the most telling comment was that, “in those days, no-one spoke about food, money, sex, politics or religion.”  No-one in polite society, at least.

However: food, money, sex, politics and religion are some of the things which bring pleasure and meaning to life.  The lady chefs interviewed for the documentary acknowledged that many of those unspokens were unwrapped during the 1960’s – and that’s when this advert, which was commissioned by Jaguar Cars’ American concessionaire, was published.

The E-type was unveiled at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show.  At the time it seemed like a startling artefact from the future, and this one has Old English White bodywork and an oxblood red interior.  The MkII saloon is similarly rakish.  The shape we perceive looked like progress, and since we tend to believe that whatever we think is the right thing to think, the E-Type became shorthand for the future.

Until then, Jaguar’s saloons were suited to stuffy diplomats, smoking cigars and twirling their moustaches.  In the words of Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: "Splendid!  Excellent!!  First class!!!"  The XK-E, as it was known across the Atlantic, was different.  The car appealed to the Americans, partly because it was fast, partly because it was sleek, and also because it was European.  It emerged from an era when American designers like Paul Rand and Eliot Noyes pursued an aesthetic quite different to their European counterparts such as Dieter Rams.

The ad men of Madison Avenue used the E-Type to reach out to the Commissioning Classes, the 1% of the population who patronised oyster bars and appreciate modern art.  At least some them, represented here by the guy in the dark suit with the Mk2 Jaguar, commissioned the post-war skyscrapers which made New York and Chicago crucibles of Modernism – a functionalist architecture.

There has never been a Functionalist car; even those which claim to enable minimal motoring like a Lada, or with everything superfluous stripped out, like the Lotus Elan, aren't minimal.  The E-Type is an expressionistic design which looks sleek and cuts through the air.  Malcolm Sayer was an aerodynamicist: he designed the car's skin.  Nowadays car makers employ surface designers, a discipline unknown in those days.

Some designs age badly.  Others remain not just ahead of their time, but outside of time, fashion and taste.  Half a century later, the E-type is regarded one of the high points of car design.  There are only a dozen or so cars in this category: the original Mini, Land-Rover and E-Type.  The Fiat 500, VW Beetle and Porsche 911.  The Citroen 2CV and DS, the Ford Model T and the Willys Jeep.

Yet while the E-Type fixed head coupé of 1961 appeared to come from 1971, the folk in the advert seem to come from 1951.  She wears a turtle neck sweater in French grey and leans on the cant rail of the coupé; he stands casually, hands deep in the pockets of his mock-turtle brown tweed suit.  The fashions seem old-fashioned today, but unlike our current horrified, cynical world-view – guys from that generation evidently loved to smoke, drink and swear without giving it any serious thought.  The ladies always appear extremely well turned out.  Or so we’re told.

Radio 4’s chefs make the point that social mores changed quickly in the Sixties – but this incarnation of the Sixties is pre-hippie, pre-Swinging London, yet seems a world away from the restraint and muted off-colours of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s as portrayed in the recent feature film “Carol”.  The difference couldn’t be more marked, and it suggests that you can read interiors, cars, advertising and even fine art by the colours of the period. 

For example, these muted 1950’s colours - Leaf Green, Old Gold, Coral and Flame, Tan and Slate – come from Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection for an American wallpaper manufacturer.  Schumacher's Taliesin Line of Decorative Fabrics and Wallpapers was launched around 1955 by F. Schumacher & Company, who were and still are a New York interiors firm based on Madison Avenue which sells luxury textiles: perhaps the eponymous “Mad Men” furnished their houses from Schmachers’ showroom.

So we can date cars by their colours as well as their styling: strong colours extended to motor cars with the development of cellulose paints in the 1960’s.  Soft greys, celadons and dull umbers come from the 50's, orange and green are the 60's, earth tones from the 70’s and so forth until we reach today’s “Ralph Lauren” colours… which actually hark back to Bauhaus ideas of colour, shape and line.

All that from a car advert…?  Yes, because this ad was perfectly realised, and fifty years later we can read all these things into it, making many cultural associations the ad men intended – plus a few they would rather we didn’t.  And that’s the the genius of the advertising men.

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