The height of Jaguar’s sixties ambitions was this famously unsuccessful saloon flagship, the legacy of which resonates to this day.
Several months after the euphoric launch of the E-Type, Jaguar launched this radical saloon. Given the project name of Zenith, Mark Ten was a dashingly modern, dramatically styled leviathan of a car, conceived for the lucrative American market. Famed for his astute judgement, Jaguar founder, Sir William Lyons didn’t believe in customer clinics or product planning. Zenith was his vision of a full-sized luxury Saloon, bigger, more opulent and technically sophisticated than any European rival.
Shockingly modern to British eyes, yet retaining an elegance of line for which Jaguar was famed, Mark Ten wove a fine line between good taste and outright showmanship. An ambitious and radical car, it’s failure was a huge commercial and personal blow for Lyons.
Rushed into production underdeveloped and overweight, Mark Ten quickly ran into teething problems which led to damaging reliability and warranty issues. In addition, the engine that could power a contemporary E-Type to speeds of over 140 mph proved a less than sprightly performer in the weighty Zenith hull. American customers, used to the powerful acceleration of domestic V8’s were less than impressed.
Lyons was also wrong-footed by the US sales phenomenon of the ‘Personal luxury car’. In the early Sixties, the biggest growth area in the US luxury car market proved to be the personal car segment exemplified by the 1962 Buick Riviera. Styled under the legendary Bill Mitchell, the Buick was lauded for its elegance and counted Sir William among its devotees. Virtually overnight, the Mark Ten, so daring to UK eyes, appeared old-fashioned. Criticism of the Mark Ten’s shape was not confined entirely to the USA either, Aston Martin designer William Towns describing it as “a great fat pudding”.
So despite Jaguar’s effort, ambition and the car’s undoubted excellence, Zenith met unprecedented buyer resistance. Indeed, such was the model’s dismal sales that by 1963 Jaguar’s American distributor described it as ‘the lemon‘. Deemed too big and transatlantic in style for European tastes, Zenith struggled to find favour on this side of the Atlantic either. Very quickly, it became clear Mark Ten was not going to pay its way.
Fundamentally, Lyons misjudged his market. He conceived a car aimed directly at the US customer, but ironically, it was possibly for this very reason that the American market rejected the car. Jaguar’s US clientèle were sophisticates. They appreciated European style and craftsmanship and if they wanted a large sedan, they had acres of domestic choice. In the UK however, it was too large and to many eyes, too vulgar. Although the car was continuously developed and became, in final 420G form, a very good car indeed, the market never recovered and sales tailed off to a trickle before its ultimate demise in 1971.
Zenith may not have been the success Lyons anticipated but Jaguar’s founder was not a man to take a setback like this lying down. Defeat was simply not a concept he recognised, ordering his engineers to stretch the Zenith floorpan and inner structure, resulting in the DS420 Daimler limousine – in effect a heavily restyled Mark Ten. The Daimler remained in production until 1992 and with over 4000 delivered, became one of the most successful and recognisable limousines ever. There can be few brides, visiting dignitaries or grieving families who haven’t travelled in one at some time or another. By the time production ceased, Zenith had been in production for an incredible 31 years, making it possibly the longest running Jaguar platform ever.
Mark 10 is a hugely significant car in Jaguar’s backstory. As much of a styling landmark as the E-Type, it set the template for all subsequent Jaguar saloons, its stylistic influence only truly expunged with the equally unsuccessful current-era XJ. Its commercial failure was also a primary factor in Jaguar’s cash-flow problems which led them into a disastrous merger with BMC in 1966. The commercial decline of the current XJ is not likely to tip JLR into the red – they simply wouldn’t countenance such a situation. But it may well precipitate the demise of the full-size Jaguar saloon. Or at least one we can all recognise.
In the final part, we’ll examine what options lie open for Jaguar to reinvent the XJ for a new era.