The story behind the Jaguar 420 might be more interesting than the car itself, but this belies its significance.
Often portrayed as a decade of unbroken success, the 1960’s were troubled years at Browns Lane. The halo provided by the E-Type masked faultlines elsewhere – especially in the area of new product development. Jaguar’s 1961 Mark Ten saloon, their most ambitious and expensive model programme yet had proven a commercial failure. But by mid decade, matters were equally worrying for its compact saloon stablemate in their most crucial export market.
The S-Type was a heavily modified version of the Mark 2 saloon with a raised roofline, longer tail styling and a variant of Bob Knight’s double wishbone rear suspension. Perhaps due to its appearance, which fell awkwardly between a number of stools, the model did not find favour with American buyers. With Sir William Lyons’ energies directed towards managing a growing business empire, the Jaguar founder’s previously unerring touch appeared to have deserted him.
Furthermore, years of indecision had seriously hampered the XJ4 programme – (to become 1968’s XJ Saloon), and by 1965, a lack of engineering resources had delayed it further still. With the full-size model not paying its way, Lyons hoped the S-Type could maintain sales until the new saloon was ready, but signs were that it was fading.
Sir William attended the Earls Court Motor Show that October. Closely monitoring crowds on the Jaguar stand, he noted to a subordinate; “There’s not enough interest being shown in the S-Type, we must do something quickly.” Dancing girls weren’t really the Jaguar CEO’s style, so on his return to Coventry he immediately set to work.
This was as close as Sir William got to product planning. The new car, internally dubbed XJ16, would be, from a stylistic perspective at least, a facelifted S-Type, giving it a Mark Ten in miniature appearance. In some ways arriving at a styling solution was the easy part, engineering it and obtaining the revised bodyshells from Pressed Steel proving the real challenge, especially when Lyons informed his engineers and PSF’s Joe Edwards that he wanted the car on the market the following autumn.
With Bob Knight’s development team flat out on the XJ4 programme, the additional workload was met with dismay, but at Pressed Steel, where the bodyshells were produced, it was flatly refused – Jaguar offering no detailed engineering drawings for the revised front end, simply a styling mock-up. Lyons called their bluff, threatening that if Pressed Steel did not agree, he’d have the first 2000 bodies made by hand. Lyons’ brinkmanship paid off with PSF capitulating to possibly the worst seven months of their lives.
Exactly a year later in October 1966, Jaguar launched XJ16 as the 420. Changes also ran to the fitment of a mildly detuned twin carburettor version of the 4.2 litre XK engine, an improved cooling system, negative earth electrics and safety-related revisions to the interior. The availability of the innovative Marles Varamatic Bendix variable-ratio power steering further improved the car’s road behaviour over the S-Type and Mark 2 models, while the extra power and torque made for a usefully faster car than the 3.8 litre ‘S.
Unlike the US, where it supplanted the slow-selling S-Type, the 420 slotted in above the existing model in the home market. In fact, Jaguar continued to sell a bewildering range of compact saloons in the UK, a decision which massively complicated matters at Browns Lane. Fortunately, Lyons’ instincts were proven correct, because when the 420 became available, sales took off immediately, maintaining Jaguar’s saloon car presence in the US market until the advent of the XJ6 two years later.
Nevertheless, despite its importance to the marque’s fortunes during this difficult period, the 420 has always been viewed as a stopgap car and because neither are regarded by the cognoscenti as all-time classics, both S-Type and 420 have languished in the shadow of the more familiar and much loved Mark 2. Even Jaguar own people seemed at best ambivalent about the car, a former senior engineer telling this author, the 420 “was an awkward car… its styling was peculiar”. Awkward or not, the car’s success in the United States was both undeniable and vital.
Stopgap cars are generally dismissed as children of expediency and therefore languish in the wake of more inspired fare. So even if we can argue the 420 isn’t one of Jaguar’s all-time greats, its place in history as one of their most commercially significant might instead be something to coalesce around.