Feline Expedient

The story behind the Jaguar 420 may be more interesting than the car itself, but this may belie its significance.

Image: Hemmings
Hello Kitty. Image: Hemmings

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.

Jaguar S-Type (left) alongside its 420 brother. Image: Driven to Write
Jaguar S-Type (left) alongside its 420 brother. (c) Driven to Write

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 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.

The bulk of the 420 changes centred on the nose. Image: inopian
The bulk of the 420 changes centred on the nose. Image: inopian

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.

The 420 dashboard was Jaguar's first to feature crash padding. Image Classiccars.com
The 420 dashboard was Jaguar’s first to feature crash padding. Image Classiccars.com

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.

Image: Classiccars.com
Image: Classiccars.com

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “Feline Expedient”

  1. I’ve wondered how I’d view the 420 if the Mark Ten hadn’t existed. Knowing the Mark 10, to my eyes the 420 had the gauche look of a young teen dressed up in his dad’s coat and hat. With time, I suppose I feel that less and, unsurprisingly, with a better rear end and bigger engine, many say that, objectively speaking, the 420 is by far the best Mark 2 derived Jag. Although, for me, time has also made the S-Type look less clumsy and a 3.8 on wire wheels would be the choice to me. As for the Mark 2, I passed one driving along the motorway in Belgium a few months back and I thought it looked quite antiquated (rather than just old)- though maybe that was because it was being driven in the inner lane at a ridiculously modest speed, in the way that some owners prefer to drive their cherished cars, but which seems totally unnatural to me.

  2. Great story, which puts me in mind of one of my own. A few years ago, my future wife and I both decided that we wanted a classic Jaguar for our wedding car. We contacted a very well spoken old boy who said he had a 420, so off we went to his house in Oakham to have a look.

    “Hop in my car,” he said, “I have a couple stored just around the corner.”

    It turned out that “a couple” and “just around the corner” were both fibs: there were classic Jags stuffed in barns across half the county of Rutland. As well as the 420 we went to look at, we also saw various XJs, a 340 and a 420G. Under various dust covers I also spied the silhouettes of Rovers (P6 and SD1), a Triumph 2000, a couple of Morris vans and a Land Rover mark 1.

    I was keen on the 420 until the old boy whipped the covers off a very rare postwar Mark V. That was the end of the conversation as far as my future wife was concerned.

    Making the return journey to his house in his 20 year old Toyota Corolla, I asked the chap why he didn’t open some sort of museum?

    “Well,” he said, “the cars are not all mine.” He then tapped his nose and added, “And the less Her Majesty’s Customs knows, the better. Ha ha!”

    1. Lyons certainly got his money’s worth with the body tooling. This unitary shell – (dubbed Utah at the factory, trivia fans) could be in the running for the most facelifted of all time. First you had Utah Mark One – 1955-59. Then Utah Mark Two – 1959-66, which subsequently became the 240/340 series (’67-69). Additionally, we had Utah Mark Three (or XJ3) – the 1963 S-Type which continued until 1968 and of course, today’s celebrant, which to all intents and purposes was Utah Mark Four.

    1. Yes. I’ve been noticing quite a few happy young couples gazing at me from the past in car photos recently. If you find them poignant, I’m finding them even more so. Actually the conversation goes : “Just keep waving and smiling sweetheart. Once they’ve gone we can carry on burying the bodies”.

  3. The 420 looks to me like the template for the XJ. Maybe these photos are flattering but I rather like its style. The wing pressings must have taken a huge amount of handwork to complete as well. In those days that was taken for granted. Today it makes the car look like a Rolls Royce. Stopgap does not really do the car a service.

    1. All Jaguar bodies – until the advent of XJ40 anyway, used large quantities of lead filling to hide the joins. Very labour intensive and difficult to ensure uniform quality, not to mention rustproof. Looked lovely though. There used to be a running joke about Jaguar bodies weighing so much because of the volume of lead therein…

  4. Mark X Appreciation Society member here. both the Ten/420G and the 420 look gorgeous to me, but not the S-Type. I’m still a decade away from having one of them as a daily driver, but can’t stop dreaming of it.

    1. You’re a good man, Eduardo, don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise!

    2. I was talking to a serial car collector a couple of days ago and he was saying that he had a hankering for a Mark 10. He (kindly) suggested that I would soon be just one of a small group of people who actually know what a new Mk10 / 420G was like to drive. Hmmm. But, yes, it was very nice to drive and, though I haven’t driven one for 45 years, it remains memorable for its comfort and a competence that belied its bulk and,I imagine, a long motorway or cross country trip in one would still be just as pleasant as ‘all those years ago’. So keep that dream going Eduardo!

    1. The slightly awkward child of a Gordon-Keeble, an Alfa – and perhaps with some faulty genetic matter from a Camargue?

    2. I’d rather say the front is a Triumph with a Jaguar grille tacked on. The rear wheelarch and C-pillar region reminds me of the first Opel Manta. Where do you spot Camargue?

    3. Jaguar and the carrozzerie never went all that well together (XJ facelift excepted). Maybe Sir William’s imprint on the cars was too strong for outside stylists to fully grasp and successfully merge with their own ideas?

      But apart from the silly grille, it’s not too bad (was it Giugiaro who actually penned it?). It reminds me of an oversized, slightly fussier predecessor of Bertone’s/Gandini’s Garmisch prototype.

  5. I can see Camargue in the proportions and Opel and Triumph in the details. It´s interesting but not the Jaguar that Jaguar should have produced. Lost opportunity it is not. It raises the question as to whether one should keep a family resemblance to a coach-built car or use the mechanicals as a starting point. If they were going to go down the latter route then drop the Jaguar grille and give it a new name. Thanks for posting that. It is utterly new to me. It needs to be given the Classic & Sportscar treatment of a milquetoast four page review that fails to mention its flaws and waxes lyrical over how wonderful serial production at 15,000 a year would have saved Browns Lane.

    1. “It needs to be given the Classic & Sportscar treatment of a milquetoast four page review that fails to mention its flaws and waxes lyrical over how wonderful serial production at 15,000 a year would have saved Browns Lane.”

      LOL, or how wonderful serial production at 50,000 a year would have saved the whole British Leyland!

  6. Eduardo: yes, 50,000 would be even better. Still, it´s great to see these alternative visions. The car is from 1966 – did Michelotti rip off the front end for the 1971 Triumph 25000? Or is there an earlier car with a similar treatment around the lamps?

  7. Silly me. I was looking for GS Camargue clues, but now realise everyone is talking about a Rolls Royce.

  8. Eduardo: What began as a comment relating to the Bertone FT is scheduled for tomorrow as a full blown post. That’s your fault…

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