It usually takes a lot of planning and effort to do a truly great end product. Leonardo didn’t just paint the Mona Lisa freehand in one go, nor did the Beatles record Sgt. Pepper’s in one take. Likewise, Jaguar’s seminal saloon, the XJ6, didn’t just come out in late 1968. It took Jaguar founder and stylist Sir William Lyons a few drafts to get the XJ6 exactly right, which sales figures show he certainly did.
First draft: the Mk X (1961). Nice styling ideas, such as the quad lamps and the slippery shape, but overall too bloated, and the Mk X’s unit body managed to be 180lbs heavier than its BOF predecessor. The new independent rear suspension was very satisfactory, but the 3.8 litre XK engine seemed to lack torque and the Moss gearbox was hopeless. These last two issues were sorted when the 4.2 XK came out in 1964, along with a new in-house gearbox.
Sir William Lyons figured that the gap between the small Mk II and the huge Mk X was costing Jaguar a few customers. Enter the S-Type (1963), the second draft. Simple recipe: take the Mk II body, mate it with the Mk X’s rear end (and its suspension), revise the roofline and top it off with a bulbous front-end redesign. The car sold well, but the styling was not unanimously praised.
Lyons knew that he needed a well-sorted four-door before the end of the decade, and set his team to work on the XJ project even as the S-Type came out. But this would take time and resources. Jaguar was profitable, but its factory was cramped and outdated. Major investments would be needed soon and the Mk X was not selling well.
This led Lyons to seek a partner with deep pockets within the British motor industry. In 1965, the British Motor Corporation (BMC, makers of Austin, Morris, MG, Innocenti, Riley, Wolseley and VandenPlas) bought Jaguar’s body supplier, Pressed Steel Fisher. To safeguard its access to bodies and financing, Jaguar had no option but to merge with BMC in June 1966 to create British Motor Holdings (BMH).
The second thing Lyons needed to keep Jaguar’s prospects on the up and up was a new car. This was pretty obvious: put the new 4.2 into a revamped S-Type package to be sold at a higher price. The Mk X’s front styling was more agreeable than the S-Type’s, so a narrower version of it ended up on an S-Type shell, thereby creating our CC, the Jaguar 420. This was to be the third and final draft before Jaguar’s world-class saloon.
Launched almost 50 years ago, in October 1966, the 420 was an immediate sales success, mostly to the detriment of the S-Type, whose production dipped to just over 1000 cars in 1967 (compared to almost 10,000 in 1965).
From the rear, it’s quite difficult to tell the S-Type and the 420 apart. But the front styling seems much better on the 420, which made all the difference. It was like a Mk X that had lost its pregnancy pounds.
The 420 was only built for two model years (1967 and 1968) but managed just over 10,000 units, 40% of which went to the US (basic list price: $5630).
This car was one of 263 that were sold new in France during the 420’s short production run. It was ordered with wire wheels and the column-mounted overdrive.
The interior was in the Jaguar tradition – leather, wood and ample space. The dashboard on this one could use a new coat of varnish. It is identical to the S-Type’s, except for the added padding and the central clock which, strangely, is battery-powered.
Also in the Jaguar tradition, there are two gas tanks and a toggle switch allows the driver to verify each tank’s level with a single fuel gauge.
Three-point seat belts were not mandatory in all markets yet, though this car had them from new. These now seem very antique: no pre-tensioners, no inertia reel, aircraft-like lift buckles positioned midway on the passenger’s torso, etc.
The ‘leaping cat’ was making its final official appearance on top of the grille. Jaguars designed without the leaper (from the XJ6 onward) do look sleeker, but they lost a bit of the identity of the marque. The allure of this ornament has remained strong to this day and many a newer Jaguar’s hood was drilled to install some version of this cat by their owners (and quite a few dealers).
I like specialist / coachbuilt versions of most cars. It’s always interesting to see what they can come up with. With the 420, I could only find two: a one-off 1967 Radford convertible. Not exactly a looker. Doesn’t seem like the 420’s basic design could be improved on much, unlike the stunning XJC.
And there was Bertone’s Jaguar FT coupé, which was presented at the 1966 Geneva Motor Show in 1966 on an S-Type chassis. A second FT (above) was made by Bertone on a 420 platform sometime later, in late ’66 or early ’67. Both cars are still with us; the 420 FT seems to be for sale… Again, not my cup of tea. The greenhouse is out of proportion with the rest, like a fish tank with wire wheels.
The Daimler version was produced until 1969. It sold pretty well – almost 9000 units in three years – but was a pure badge-engineered job, unlike the previous Jaguar-built models that still had Daimler V8s. Irritatingly, when Daimler’s version of the XJ6 finally bowed in mid-1969, it was also called the Sovereign. But this was not the only naming mishap in the 420 story.
Concurrently with the 420, Jaguar gave its Mk X a (very) minor facelift and renamed it 420G (for ‘Grand’). The cars looked pretty similar and now had similar names. Then, in 1968, the new Daimler limousine was announced. Based on the 420G, it became the DS420 and lived on until 1992. This profusion of similar names in a short time-frame made for a needlessly confusing range.
Fortunately, 1968 and the XJ6 beckoned and replaced all the older Jaguar and Daimler saloons, starting with the S-Type and the 420. Unfortunately, 1968 was also the year that BMH merged with Leyland (Triumph & Rover)… By 1970, the range was tidied to a sports car (E-Type), a saloon (XJ6 / Sovereign) and the DS420 limo.
The 420 was the last dress rehearsal before the big show. It ushered the XJ6 into the world with aplomb, even as Jaguar embarked on the Titanic that was British Leyland. It’s pretty much the least well-known XK-powered Jag, and if you can find one, it will cost far less than the smaller Mk II or the more sought-after S-Type. But don’t tell anyone. Great secrets are meant to be kept.