How did the ultimate 1960’s bit of rough evolve into the best loved classic Jaguar saloon of all?
It has been said that by the mid-Sixties, it was common operational procedure for UK police patrols to stop and search any Mark 2 Jaguar with two or more male occupants aboard – such was the car’s association with criminality. After all, Mark 2’s were easy to purloin and were the fastest reasonably inobtrusive getaway car that could be obtained by fair means or foul in Blighty at the time.
It was perhaps this aura of transgression, coupled with its exploits on the racetracks (at least until the US Cavalry arrived) which sealed its iconography. So it is perhaps ironic that despite the forces of law and order also adopting the 3.8 Mark 2 as a high-speed pursuit car, that it latterly would become synonymous with that most cerebral of fictional police detectives.
The Mark 2 Jaguar was a paradox in that while it was undoubtedly handsome – a finely honed conclusion of styling themes which had begun in earnest with the 1948 XK120 – it was not only a bit of an overweight brute, but a car which never quite managed to transcend its somewhat ill-judged conception. So while it was a relatively up to date product when it debuted in October 1959, by the middle of the following decade, the car’s chassis and styling had dated considerably amid forward-looking, more lithe rivals.
There was of course a sound reason for this, the Mark 2 being largely a comprehensive reworking of the mid-Fifties 2.4/ 3.4 litre saloon series – known internally as Utah and retrospectively dubbed Mark 1. This car, Jaguar’s first ever unitary bodyshell, was not only a huge commercial gamble, but an even greater creative one for engineering chief, Bill Heynes and his under-resourced band of engineers.
But what the car did achieve, in either form, was to broadly define the layout and dimensions of the modern luxury sporting saloon, exemplified by the generations of 5-Series BMWs and their ilk which owe their existence to the getaway Jag. That Browns Lane themselves latterly saw fit to abandon the format was as much a factor of their existential circumstances by the close of the ‘Sixties as it was the carmaker’s intended direction of travel with the XJ-Series of 1968.
Seen in its home market as the choice of a somewhat vulgar class of new money, the Mark 2 became the chariot of choice for such deplorables as members of the acting profession, racing drivers (Graham Hill and Roy Salvadori were owners) and the self-made – all of whom were viewed in ’60s polite British society as hopelessly déclassé.
Notorious too as the motor of choice for the ne’er do well – largely for two of the virtues Jaguar advertised the car upon (pace and space) – the grace aspect being somewhat superfluous in this milieu. Certainly as perception would have it, the Mark 2 driver was at least as likely to be seen wearing a stocking over his face as a sports jacket and cravat.
But in 1959 there was no four-door saloon which could match the outright pace of a 3.8 litre Mark 2. A genuine 125 mph car in manual/ overdrive form, it was perhaps the first ‘super-saloon’. It was also however, despite considerable efforts on Jaguar’s part, a less composed proposition when corners were introduced into the equation. Taken by the scruff of the neck and driven, the Mark 2 could be hustled quite effectively and even enjoyably, but it really wasn’t the car’s metier.
By the middle of the decade, cars like Rover’s V8 powered P5B, and the advanced P6 models, Triumph’s fine six-cylinder saloons, not to mention more compact European sporting offerings from Alfa Romeo, BMW and Lancia could all give the Jag a rather difficult time. But such was the Mark 2’s visual appeal (and famously low pricing) that it continued to sell strongly until 1969, a year after the introduction of the gamechanging XJ, although by then it was (by Jaguar standards at least) very much something of a value offering.
The 1970s were tough on the Mark 2. As values plummeted, owners neglected the frequent and expensive upkeep they required and large quantities of them were consigned to the crusher, their shapely (if moisture-retaining) bodyshells already peppered with rust. Many more ended their days on the banger racing circuit. But the forces of nostalgia would not be held at bay and by the late-80s, restored cars were making serious money. And then of course there was the Morse effect.
Jaguar, it could be argued, made two attempts at replacing the Mark 2, both utilising the Utah base: 1963’s S-Type and the 420 saloon three years later. However, both were larger, more sybaritic offerings. Neither matched the 3.8 Mark 2 in outright pace, even if they could out-corner it with relative ease. But as additional weight kept pace with growing sophistication, both cars moved further from the 1959 benchmark, perceived styling deficiencies notwithstanding.
In 1967, preliminary work began in Browns Lane on a 2+2 sports saloon, although it too appeared to have been a very different car in effect, allegedly something more akin to a Alfa Giulia Sprint in essence (and if chroniclers are to be believed, appearance). It never got past the conceptual phase however.
Jaguar never truly replaced the Mark 2 – or to put it another way, never created a car with such broad appeal; a rakish, slightly bruising, yet decidedly handsome swagger whose redolence was as much of the deserted nocturnal gasworks as the strumpet lights of Soho. The ultimate automotive anti-hero then – of the working class variety.
In a forthcoming piece we’ll examine the Mark 2’s forgotten predecessor.