Jaguar’s commercial ambitions reached their zenith with this famously unsuccessful 1961 saloon flagship, whose legacy resonates to this day.
Some six 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 specifically for the North American market. Famed for his astute reading of market trends, Jaguar founder, Sir William Lyons didn’t believe in customer clinics or product planning. The Mark Ten was his vision of a full-sized luxury Jaguar Saloon – bigger, more opulent and technically sophisticated than any European rival.
Shockingly modern to British eyes, yet retaining an elegance of line for which the marque was famed, the Mark Ten wove a fine balance between good taste and outright showmanship. An ambitious and defiantly modern car, its failure was a huge commercial and personal blow for Jaguar’s chief executive and creative lynchpin.
Hurriedly introduced underdeveloped and overweight, Mark Ten quickly ran into teething problems which led to damaging reliability and warranty issues. In addition, an engine which could easily power an E-Type to speeds of over 140 mph proved a less sprightly performer in the weighty Zenith hull. American buyers, accostomed 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 coupé. 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 Riviera was lauded for its elegance of line and counted Sir William among its devotees. Virtually overnight, the Mark Ten, so daring to UK eyes, appeared old-fashioned. Criticism of the Zenith’s shape was not entirely confined entirely to the USA either, designer William Towns latterly describing it as “a great fat pudding”.
So despite Jaguar’s effort, ambition and the car’s undoubted technical 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 vast and ostentatious in style for UK 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 the market. 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. What they wanted was a four seater with the style and reflected glamour of the E-Type.
In the UK however, Zenith was too long and wide and due to its flamboyant styling, deemed vulgar. Although the model was continuously developed and became, in final 420G form, a very fine car indeed, the market never took to the model and sales tailed off to a trickle before its ultimate demise in 1971.
Mark Ten may not have been the success Lyons anticipated but Jaguar’s founder was not a man to accept defeat, ordering his engineers to stretch the Zenith floorpan and inner structure, resulting in the DS420 Daimler limousine.
With over 4000 delivered, it became one of the most successful and recognisable limousines ever. There can be few brides, visiting dignitaries or grieving families within these Islands who haven’t travelled in one at some time or another. By the time production ceased in 1992, Zenith had been in production in one form or another for an incredible 31 years, making it perhaps the longest running Jaguar model line ever.
The Mark 10 is a hugely significant car in Jaguar’s backstory, and not simply due to its longevity. As much of a styling landmark as the E-Type, it set the design template for all subsequent Jaguar saloons, its stylistic influence only truly expunged with the equally unloved current-era (x351) XJ – a car for which the Zenith comparisons run uncannily deep.
However, Mark Ten’s commercial failure also had the more profound effect of holing Jaguar below the waterline; the loss of revenue and its failure to amortise Lyons’ huge investment into the programme would starve Jaguar of much-needed cash-flow, a sizeable factor which lead to the ill-starred merger with BMC in 1966.
There is a very strong case to be made that Jaguar never recovered from the reversal of fortunes the failure of Zenith engendered. Its failure and the losses it incurred meant Jaguar spent the entire decade that followed making do and mending, instead of investing in future prosperity. How ironic, given that throughout the decade, Mark Ten was the finest saloon Jaguar made.
It is said that all leaders require an monument to their ambitions and that its construction usually precipitates a fall. After all, once a Zenith is reached, the only way is down.