The story behind the Jaguar 420 may be more interesting than the car itself, but this may belie 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 was arguably one of Sir William Lyons’ less inspired stylistic efforts, the model did not find favour with American buyers. With his energies directed towards managing a growing business empire, Lyons’ previously unerring touch appeared to have misfired.
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 Mark Ten 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, noting 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 founder’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 XJ 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 detuned version of the 4.2 litre XK engine, an improved cooling system, negative earth electrics and safety-related revisions to the interior. 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, in Jaguar and Daimler form; a decision which massively complicated matters of manufacturing and procurement. Fortunately, for Lyons his instincts were proven correct, because when the 420 went on sale, sales took off immediately, outstripping that of its predecessor, and maintaining Jaguar’s saloon car presence in the US 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 as styling classics, both S-Type and 420 have languished in the shadow of the cosily familiar and much loved Mark 2. Even Jaguar principals seemed to view it pejoratively; a former insider telling this author, the 420 “was an awkward car… its styling was peculiar”. Awkward or not, the 420’s success in the United States suggests the larger Mark Ten’s saloon’s commercial failure was not rooted in style alone.
Stopgap cars are generally dismissed as children of expediency and 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 be something to coalesce around.