Examining Utah’s transitory visual life.
The Jaguar iconography was founded upon a small number of significant characteristics, but of these, visual appeal was perhaps the most crucial – and certainly the most obvious. For any car design to succeed in the marketplace, and to do so for an extended period of time, this appeal must be apparent, not only from the outset, but be capable of being maintained throughout a lengthy production run.
Fortunately, in Sir William Lyons, Jaguar had an arbiter of form, line, proportion and more importantly still, taste, which gave the carmaker a significant edge over both domestic and non-domestic rivals. However if Lyons had been a chef, he would have been one who had himself never cooked a meal, yet could still be hailed a master of his craft. A closer analogy might be that of a virtuoso-conductor, one who somehow transcended what in lesser hands would be mere interpretation into something that he alone could orchestrate. In short, Lyons at his best was unsurpassed – but only at creating Jaguars.
The Utah-series of compact Jaguar saloons which ran from 1955 to 1969 are therefore a fascinating insight into both the constancy and progression of Lyons’ stylistic muse over a decade and half when automotive form evolved perhaps faster than at any other period in the automobile’s history.
The styling theme for Utah Mark One can be traced back to the pre-war streamliner era. This flowing, separate envelope style (in the words of MoMA’s Arthur Drexler) of shaping panelwork, as applied to the ultra-luxurious and decadent coachbuilt coupés and dropheads of the period, left a profound mark upon Jaguar’s stylistic imperator. His interpretation however would be marked by a restraint conspicuously lacking in the work of much of the pre-War coachbuilders.
An evolution of both Mark VII and XK 120 Jaguar bodyshapes, the falling wingline of these cars (itself a reference to pre-war style), was eschewed in favour of a lineal beltline, closer to the prevailing styles of the day. Notable however, was the fact that while most mid-Fifties body styles were strongly influenced by the products of Detroit, Lyons, details apart, largely ignored contemporary American trends.
The 2.4 Saloon of 1955 therefore was a curious amalgam of modern and traditional. While other, more Avant Garde marques were placing the headlamps outboard, Jaguar maintained their positioning adjacent to the tall, upright, if gracefully curved grille. The all-enveloping silhouette, with full rear wheel-spats, while lending the car a good deal of visual grace, was very much fading from contemporary fashions by then – and would be modified a mere two years into the car’s life. Similarly, the overt taper to the rear quarters, while lending the car a compact, purposeful stance, also heightened the sense of visual conservatism.
And yet, heavy-handed screen pillars apart, Lyons pulled it off. Viewed as an entity, the 2.4’s proportions, the relationship of the volumes and the manner in which the surfaces accelerated and faded out was masterful. It’s relatively easy to see why Lyons became hooked upon its shape, allegedly refusing all entreaties to alter its uncompromising proportions. Indeed, it does appear that he arrived at the definitive shape very early in the process, merely refining as he went. Interestingly, early body prototypes were fitted with slim body-painted bumpers.
Lyons wanted his cars to have a strong visual association with the more exclusive coachbuilt marques he admired so much. This informed a good deal of his stylistic choices, the old-fashioned framing of Utah’s door apertures being a notable example of this. Technology had moved on by the mid-Fifties, and while no World-leaders, Pressed Steel Fisher (who engineered and built the bodyshells) had the capability to propose a more contemporary solution, but it’s evident that Jaguar’s Knight-gaffer wanted it thus, as it lent the car a more upper class mien.
When it came to restyling the car, Lyons focused primarily upon the canopy, which dated the design to a greater extent than any other aspect. The door pressings now ended at waist level, the upper chrome-plated door frames being bolted into place. The notably more slender front and rear screen pillars necessitated a modified roof pressing, but the height and shape remained the same. The wider rear quarters were something imposed upon him by engineering, but he made the best of this, incorporating the changes in an almost imperceptible manner.
There was however one quite significant consequence. By broadening the rear of the car, its aerodynamic qualities were affected, particularly in the significant wave vortices left in the car’s wake, aiding drag. The earlier car was better in this respect – the full rear spats no doubt also smoothing the car’s passage through the air. Lending credence to this was the fact that while the original 2.4 litre Saloon could comfortably exceed 100-mph, no factory-specification 2.4 litre Mark 2 ever attained this figure.
Other visual changes were of a more decorative variety – a more prominent central grille bar, the fitment of sidelights into integrated pods atop the wings (further promoting drag), and larger, more ornate tail lamps. The boot pressing was also modified.
Cabin-wise, the ambience remained very much in the classic British idiom – key changes being the grouping of the major instruments in front of the driver (previously centrally mounted) with ancillary gauges and switchgear neatly grouped on a fold-down central panel. Seating was more voluminous (if not necessarily improved) as was trim and equipment. The heating and ventilation received attention, but remained, even by old World standards, marginal.
Hailed by many, (including a former Jaguar engineering chief well known to these pages) as the most visually successful facelift ever, Mark 2 was the deftly handled work of a master at the very top of his game and for many (from a visual perspective at least), what the 1955 car ought to have been from the off. But nonetheless, its roots were soon showing and within a few years, Lyons had no choice but once more to act. His decisions in this arena however would prove far-reaching.
Next, we will consider how Utah evolved through the 1960s.