Curbside Classic: Daimler DS420 Limousine – Forgotten Lesser Royalty

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An automobile used by a beloved member of the British royal family and other royalty, produced for 24 years, and which may have inspired one of the most controversial American automobile designs of the past several decades should be well known to car enthusiasts.  Nevertheless, the Daimler DS420 Limousine appears to have slipped away from popular memory, seen and referenced by millions but with few remembering it specifically.  Inspired by a chance encounter with one in Southeast Asia, here is a brief profile of this historic limousine.

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The DS420 was a product of its era during the 1960s, when the British car industry was consolidating and Jaguar took over the upper-middle segment of the British automobile market, previously filled by numerous manufacturers such as Alvis and Armstrong-Siddeley.  In 1960, Jaguar acquired Daimler, a far older and more established maker of luxury cars that had long been a preferred car of Britain’s aristocracy, used as official limousines by each British monarch from Edward VII to Elizabeth II until Rolls Royce became the favored make during the 1950s.  Jaguar gradually phased out its legacy car and engine designs from Daimler, including the DR450 limousine, and in 1968 it introduced the entirely Jaguar-designed DS420 limousine.  The DS420 replaced both the Daimler DR450 and the Vanden Plas Princess Limousine, produced by BMC corporate affilate Vanden Plas, which like Daimler has become merely a nameplate for higher specification Jaguar sedans.

The design of the DS420 showed its origins as a Jaguar outfitted to serve as a Daimler limousine.  With a chassis based on the platform of the flagship Jaguar 420G sedan and the XK twin-cam six cylinder engine, it wore the four headlight front end styling of 1960s Jaguar sedans with Daimler’s trademark fluted radiator grill shell.  The only British competitor to the substantially more expensive Rolls Royce Phantom VI limousine, the DS420 was a well-accepted and successful model, lasting until 1992.  It became the last car to use the classic Jaguar XK six cylinder engine, five years after its last use in the Jaguar XJ6.

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Numerous royal families around the world used the DS420, the most famous user being the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.  She used the DS420 as her official car from 1970 to her passing in 2002, owning a total of five, including one of the last produced in 1992.  Other royal users included the ruling houses of Denmark and Luxembourg.

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Non-regal but noteworthy DS420 owners included Howard Hughes, who ordered one with an unusual centrally mounted rear bucket seat that he believed reduced pitching motions for him as the passenger; the Inter-Continental Hotel in Hong Kong, which purchased numerous DS420s to use as limousines for high end guests; and the funeral trade in the United Kingdom, which used the DS420 as both a hearse and as a limousine for relatives of the deceased.  DS420s served in both roles in the funeral of Princess Diana.

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Inside this particular example, the DS420 shows the usual concern for driver comfort in a period limousine: none.  As in a Cadillac Fleetwood 75 of the same era, the chauffeur of a DS420 sits on a flat bench seat with a fixed, almost 90 degree vertical backrest and no adjustments at all, not even fore and aft.  The chauffeur is expected to sit up straight at all times and put up with any discomfort.  A change to individual seats with some adjustments in 1985 helped somewhat, but the comfort of the hired help in front still was not a priority.

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Passengers in a DS420, on other hand, sat on a chair-height sofa with almost infinite legroom in which to stretch out.  Large windows gave a panoramic view of the common people outside, and the partition window gave privacy from the driver.  For the royal or otherwise important passenger, the DS420 clearly fulfilled its design brief well.

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The elephant in the room since the second photograph has been, appropriately, the trunk.  You have seen it before on a far more common vehicle, beloved to some and hated by others: the 1980-85 Cadillac Seville.  Although widely described as inspired by prewar Daimlers and traced here back to a 1967 concept inspired by a classic Hooper-bodied Rolls Royce, the “bustle-back” (“slantback” in modern urban slang) rear end of the second generation Seville has an obvious antecedent in the DS420, which was in production and conspicuously used (albeit mostly in the United Kingdom) at the time.  This model must have been known to Bill Mitchell and General Motors stylists at the time, so it is likely that this car was a significant part of the inspiration for the second generation Seville design.  A visit to London inspired Bill Mitchell’s creation of the first generation Buick Riviera, according to legend when a Rolls Royce appeared out of the fog; a visit to London with a sighting of the Queen Mum’s car may have inspired the Seville’s trunk.

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Having finally considered the rear end of the DS420, it is appropriate to address the end of the model.  In 24 years of production, Jaguar/Daimler produced only 4,141 limousines and 903 chassis for hearses.  A small number of royal family cars remain in service, receiving the care normally given to royal family cars.  At the other extreme, many in the U.K. have ended their days in banger racing – a racetrack event for old cars with colliding and wrecking the cars encouraged.  (According to one account, the first entry of a DS420 in banger racing occurred in 1985, and by November 2012, 207 hearses and a similar number of limousines had been destroyed in this way.)  In between, many limousines have found second lives as wedding cars, often converted into landaulets; some remain in use with hotels, such as the featured car in Bangkok; and private collectors have preserved others.  Being used mostly in rainy environments and very expensive to maintain and repair, it is likely that substantial numbers have already succumbed to rust and mechanical failures beyond economical repair.  Having been owned by a small number of people, many of them not the sorts who post on the internet a lot, this model has a very small web presence, but one is quite thorough: http://www.myds420.info/.  One hopes that it and the survivors perpetuate its memory well into the future.