Twilight of A Champion: Part Two – Jaguar’s Zenith

The height of Jaguar’s sixties ambitions was this famously unsuccessful saloon flagship, the legacy of which resonates to this day.

Image via Jag-lovers
The most influential Jaguar ever – from a styling perspective at least. Image: Jag-lovers

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”.

Image via stubs-auto
Even puddings can be elegant. It’s possible to see the genesis of the current XJ’s window line in the Mark X. Image: stubs-auto

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.

Daimler DS420, based on the Zenith platform. Image via homedepotx
An even bigger Zenith. The Daimler DS420, based on the Mark X platform. Image via homedepotx

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.

Zenith in final 420G spec. Image via CMC
Zenith in final 420G spec. Image via CMC

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

7 thoughts on “Twilight of A Champion: Part Two – Jaguar’s Zenith”

  1. I’m not convinced that size was the problem in the US. The Marks 7/8/9 (please excuse lack of Latin numbering) that preceded them were not small cars, but they did look European. The Mark 10 looked wonderfully futuristic to this English schoolboy when it appeared, its length exaggerated by the obligatory ‘artist’s rendering’ in the ads but, as you point out, US styling had moved fast with its 3 yearly model changes and the new big Jaguar had curves that probably reminded US buyers too much of a 50s Hudson. And once inside, although to today’s eyes the Mark 10 interior seems far more classy, comfortable and welcoming that a contemporary Lincoln’s, in 1961 the Lincoln would have looked more modern, and everyone was looking forward then.

    But in the UK, size and flashiness was an issue. The Mark 10 was actually a fair bit wider than the current XJ. I’ve mentioned before here that Jaguar, by virtue of the self-imposed decades-spanning creative coma that has been so eloquently described by Eoin in his XJ40 series, morphed imperceptibly into being seen as a traditionalist brand. But that wasn’t so back then and many people who might have afforded the price of a Mark 10, but not a Bentley, paid a bit less and felt far more respectable in a Humber Super Snipe or Rover 3 Litre. It was however an awful lot of car for the money and they were truly missing out.

    1. I’m not sure I fully agree. Although by the standards of the domestic market, the Mark X was relatively compact, there was little appetite for large Jaguar saloons in America. Sales of its predecessors had peaked in the early 50’s before tailing off. The compact saloons faired better, but even they hit a brick wall by the advent of the original 1963 S-Type, which also flopped badly in the US. It was only the introduction of the compact 420 model in 1966 that saw saloon sales pick up. By 1965, the E-Type was keeping Jaguar afloat in the US. They needed the XJ desperately, but in reality, they needed it far, far earlier than they got it.

      Lyons’ miscalculation over Zenith’s appeal was either a colossal error of judgement, or a case of flawed advice from his US distributor. The revenue lost to tooling and lost sales placed Jaguar in a position where they were seriously short of funds to develop new models, partly explaining the one model policy of the XJ. There simply wasn’t any money by then to develop anything else. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating that within Browns Lane, the XJ was referred to as a Mark Ten with the air let out…

    2. it’s odd that the 420 should have been successful since, if the XJ was the Mark 10 with the air let out, the 420 was the Mark 10 squeezed in at both ends making it look rather high. It’s interesting though that, instead of running away from the Mark 10s styling cues, Lyons refined them to make the XJ. Was that courage or stubbornness? Either way it worked – and for far longer that was intended.

    3. The relative success of the 420 on both sides of the Atlantic suggests Zenith’s styling wasn’t necessarily the issue. You’re right though, if the Mark X looked a little bloated, the 420 was a bit upright, short and slab sided. But then it was merely a stop-gap. In effect, Lyons got the proportions right third time with the XJ – albeit with a little help from a certain Malcolm Sayer.

  2. There’s another candidate for significant failures, perhaps
    moreso than the XJ-40 which at least sold creditably. I find the car very dramatic: that cliff of headlamps and the Lancaster bomber-scaled fuselage hung together in a way similar sized US cars didn’t often manage. It challenges Rolls’ for impact too. As a used car you can assume it won’t make people think you are a wedding car driver.

  3. Back in 1961, my proto-yuppie Dad and his similarly inclined next door neighbour, both vied with each other as to which of them would get delivery of a new Mark X first. It had a purposeful, almost aggressive look that, even standing still, appeared as though it was storming along the ‘fast lane’ of the new M1.

    In view of its unwanted flash image, the Mark 10 joined the roster of villain’s cars of choice – I believe the Kray Twins favoured them. Reinforcing the connection with the new XJ, I’ve noted that, disproportionate with their lacklustre sales in that country, black XJ’s seem to have featured frequently in US TV and film dramas as signifiers that the characters driving them are not to be trusted.

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