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.

16 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.

  4. I don’t think it’s the cars general size or intended market that is the problem, but limited engince choices and an unfortunate bloated look. It really looks overweight with too much fat trying to get out of a too small costume, or like a pudding with the air gone out of it.

    The bulging waistline is simply too curved with too much tumblehome, it should’ve needed a straighter and more rectilinear section. The deck height is too high vis a vis the greenhouse, making the car looking like it suffers from microcephalitis with a too small head to a too large body. The design would’ve benefitted from being sectioned and having its entire deck height lowered onto the body.

    And it should’ve gotten the Daimler 4.5 litre V8 from the start, that were actually at hand within the company. I put this on William Lyons ego alone, because he simply thought it wasn’t invented there. It was a great engine and it was at hand, the only thing that was stopping him was his own damn ego. If the car had been just a little bit taut and nimb, and if they had had the V8 from the start, I’m sure the car would’ve been a far greater success than it was.

    It wasn’t anything fundamentally wrong with the car in itself, it was a great car and a great chassis somewhat let down by an unfortunate look that felt old already from the start. Lyons could’ve sent it to his Personal Trainer Pininfarina for a crash course in getting fit, I’m sure Pininfarina could’ve made something out of it he wasn’t able to see.

    1. By 1963 Lyons knew he was in trouble with the Mark X, but he seemed incapable of deciding what to do about it. Styling work had begun on what was to become XJ4 in 1961, initially on a Zenith-sized base, but quickly shrinking to the size we would become more familiar with. Uncertainty abounded however and it appeared Lyons’ previously uncanny judgement had deserted him.

      The Daimler V8 is something that comes up quite frequently. It was a very good engine and one from which a lot of power could have been extracted. Whether it could have been made in sufficient quantities at Radford is moot, and this coupled with the fact that work on the V12 was already in hand saw the in-house engine prioritised. This is unfortunate given the time lag in getting the twelve into production. Even produced in small volumes, the 4.5 litre Turner unit would have been a far more suitable engine for Zenith, which really ought to have been rebadged a Daimler and sold at a further premium.

      The pity is that not only was Zenith a much better car than its given credit for, it was commercially speaking, the straw that broke the cat’s back. Jaguar never really recovered from the losses incurred from this programme.

    2. Of course, there’s always a lot of ifs and buts, but I really think they could’ve made something out of the Turner V8. And the Mk X should’ve had a Daimler brethren to take over after the Majestic Major. The Major was produced between 1960-68, on a chassis from 1937.

      Wikipedia has this to say about the engine:

      “Approximately 20,000 of the 2.5-litre version of the engine were made for use in the SP250 and the 250 saloon, while approximately 2,000 of the 4.5-litre version were made for use in the Majestic Major saloon and its limousine variant which remained in production until 1968.

      Limited investment in tooling for the 2.5-litre engine led to limited production capacity, with a maximum weekly output of 140 engines. This prescribed maximum output was never achieved during the production of the engine.

      Jaguar became part of the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) in 1968. BLMC chairman Sir Donald Stokes decided that the production costs of the Daimler V8 engine were too high and ordered its discontinuation. The Majestic Major was discontinued without replacement in 1968, followed by the V8-250 in 1969.”

      Total production of the Mk X/420G was just under 25 000 cars, plus about 5000 limousines. Maximum output of engine production was about 7000 engines per year, which they never reached. Even within factual reality there would’ve been no problem making a slight change in priority between the smaller and the larger engine, and produce more of the larger. If some of that slack had been taken up by the other Jaguar engines.

      And with making an investment in production, there would’ve been no problem making 2000 engines per year of the larger version. That would make 20 000 V8 engined Zenith cars under ten years production, and an unknown quantity of six cylinder cars on top of that.

      If the V8 was too costly to produce, they could’ve kept it as a halo product and priced it accordingly, and limited production to perhaps 500 cars per year. That would make about 5000 V8 cars to 20 000 6-cylinders under factual reality. At the same time Mercedes sold 383 000 cars from their W108/W109-line. And it didn’t get a V8 until late in its life. Total V8-production was just over 52 000 cars, making the six cylinder range stand for 86% of total production.

      I don’t think Jaguar ever produced more than 30 000 cars per year during that time, but it seems to me they could’ve made a case for the Mk X to sell more if they only had put more resources into it. But with so much cost already sunk into it, I can see why they didn’t. Perhaps the air just went out of them, just like it did with the car.

    3. The problem here is twofold. Firstly hindsight, which is always 20 : 20. The fuel crisis hadn’t happened, large engines were very much the direction of travel and for Jaguar, they had already committed to the V12. Secondly, you can’t look at all this without considering the broader situation. By 1968, Jaguar were part of BLMC, who were by necessity a good deal more serious about rationalisation than BMC had been.

      By then, the organisation was awash with V8 engines. Rover had the Buick unit. Triumph were well advanced with their own V8 derived from their slant-four unit. Jaguar themselves not only had both the Daimler engines, but were working on a 60 degree unit derived from the V12 project – an engine that continued to be developed until 1972, when Bob Knight pulled the plug on it. (See DTW’s Jim Randle interview for further info on that one). In addition, Coventry Climax had developed a 1.5 litre V8 derived from a racing unit which Jaguar had considered for a road car project during the shortlived BMH period.

      Something had to give. Stokes took the easy decision by cancelling the lowest hanging fruit. It was a real shame, given both Daimler engines’ potential and the fact they were proven and durable in service. Perhaps had Daimler developed one engine of around 3.o litres capacity instead of two separate (if possibly related) engines of 2.5 and 4.5 litres, it would probably have been a more compelling proposition for Jaguar, as this was where the need lay. The V12 was to be their export engine. Their own development of the XK in-line six was for an alloy version of 3.0 litres which was tested in development versions of the XJ4. However, they ran into problems and abandoned it quite late in the programme, opting instead for the underpowered and troublesome short stroke version of the 4.2 six. They really needed a modern multi-cylinder unit of around 3.0-3.5 litres capacity.

      Getting back to hindsight, Stokes would have been better served using Jaguar and maybe Triumph as centres of excellence and had them develop a series of modular engines which could be used across the organisation. But that, as you can well envisage, would have been very much an ‘ecumenical matter’…

  5. I guess you’re right, but one can dream, can’t one?

    I’d like to show you a counter factual piece I wrote for Keith Adams over at Aronline some years ago. It’s a wet dream of an alternate reality where every possible dream came true. It’s escapism, but highly entertaining if I may say so. And it’s well worth a read. Enjoy…

    http://www.aronline.co.uk/facts-and-figures/essays/counterfactual-histories/essay-counterfactual-leylandjaguar/

    1. Here’s something else to consider. Stokes apparently had two opportunities to run the business in a manner similar to the one you suggest. First in 1968, when presented with BMH’s accounts he realised their parlous financial situation, not to mention the product and industrial-relations mess he was inheriting and threatened to pull out. A good deal of political pressure was placed on him to relent, but in the end the prospect of the top job in the British motor industry is said to have swayed him more than any more rational arguments. It wouldn’t have helped Jaguar’s prospects much, but it could equally be argued that becoming part of BLMC didn’t either.

      The second chance came in late 1974. In John Egan’s memoir, he tells an anecdote where he suggests to Stokes that he hand the UK government the volume car business and retain the profitable parts. Stokes refuses, saying he won’t break up what he created. Egan states he was in anguish over the situation and something of a hostage to fortune, having committed what he described as ‘the cardinal sin of running out of cash.’

      I think what these illustrate is that Stokes’ ego seems to have got the better of him on more than one occasion, and while he’s perhaps more vilified than is justified, this led him to make some spectacularly poor decisions.

    2. Jaguar, Triumph, Rover: they were always going to tread on each others’ toes. I think there might have been space for big Jaguars and smaller sporty Triumphs (no price overlap a no engine sharing). Rover seems to me to have been the brand to kill off.
      Of the BMC bunch, maybe Austin would have sufficed for mainstream cars.

    3. Richard: I think that’s only an argument one could make retrospectively. In 1968 nobody could have foreseen what was coming down the line. At the time, Rover had a strong identity, its own very fine engineering department and a progressive outlook. Do not forget that the P6 was probably the most advanced British car of its era, this side of the Issigonis’ ADO trio anyway. Triumph too were for a time at least, a sort of British Lancia. Rover and Triumph did end up overlapping eventually, but that was as much due to BLMC/BL policy decisions as much as market forces or brand positioning. That Triumph was the brand with greater traction was not apparent then. Let’s not forget that the UK wasn’t even in the EEC at the time and it was by no means certain that they would be allowed to join, having been rebuffed two years earlier.

      What is clear is that there were too many brands, too many factories, too many models, too many competing engineering programmes and no real semblance of an over-riding plan – or a leader who could bash heads together. The Ryder Report gave them one retrospectively, but tragically, it was the wrong plan and it proved a disaster.

    4. Ryder Report: file with the Beeching Report and the Buchanan report (“Traffic in towns”). Are there other damaging analyses from the same era named for their author?
      My riposte is that others did guess better at the future and they inherited it. Why were the UK marques worse at this game?
      I see Triumph more like a cross between Alfa Romeo and BMW. I don’t they ever had the same aristocratic character, good and all as they were.

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