Curbside Classic: Jaguar Mark X – Curvaceous Coventrian

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Long-term readers will recognize these shots as those of Laurence Jones, with a characteristic richness and saturation only fitting for a car with such exaggerated proportions. Though known for their performance, the classic Jaguar shape suggests a lushness incongruous with grand touring and dynamic prowess in the current idiom.  When this US-oriented high roller was conceived, however, it was still a while before sober-looking German models would redefine the elegant, high-end sedan and with its resplendent contours, it represents a very different aesthetic sensibility.

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Looking somewhat like a stretched version of the 1959 Mark 2, it introduced the now well-recognized forward slanting front end with four headlights at the same level.

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And it’s quite a car, isn’t it?  At 76 inches wide, it was broad of beam for its day and remains so in 2014; it’s 54.5 inches tall, which is low by current standards (though less so upon the car’s introduction in 1961).  Even still, it looked low to the ground with a long 120-inch wheelbase and 202-inch overall length, and is dramatically squat to today’s eyes.  Many criticized the car for being a bit too wide and fat looking; fair enough, but in many ways, it simply underscored the nature of what was supposed to be an indulgent car.

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You can come to your own conclusions; few sedans looked like this when it was new and the same is true today and for all its alleged girth, it looks svelte compared to contemporary models.  The combination of organic curves and a wide stance imparts a sense of athleticism and, when combined with the uniqueness of its overall appearance, makes it pleasing to most eyes.  Whatever else could be said about the car’s styling might spoil the experience of just taking it all in, and as all possible cliches have already been employed in describing Jaguar styling, these excellent pictures make it clear that I’d be wasting my… keystrokes by describing it much further.

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Under this earlier model’s sculpted hood sits a triple-carbureted, 3.8 liter twin-cam straight-six making 265 (gross) horsepower.  This was bumped up to 4.2 liters in 1964, which was the max displacement the engine, dubbed XK6, would reach until the end of its life in 1987 after a thirty-eight year run (1992 if you include the Daimler limousines).  At about 4,200 pounds, performance was as good as anyone could expect, but despite the added displacement meant to satisfy American customers, high-speed cruising was more the car’s forte.

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If the Mark X was the first Jaguar conceived with American tastes, it had an equally enduring legacy when it came to the nuts and bolts, as it was the first sedan equipped with Coventry’s famed independent rear axle, a design used by no other manufacturer.  Fully isolated from the body structure, using four coil springs/shocks, in-board disc brakes, big trailing links and axle half-shafts acting as upper control links, along with lower lateral links, it was a masterful way of reducing unsprung weight and tuning the chassis for ride comfort without losing the necessary degree of body and wheel control.  Jaguar cars used it in modified form all the way until the last XK8 left the production line and even then, it wasn’t necessarily the rear suspension which dated that car’s driving experience.

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What it might have been was the overboosted steering, a Jaguar characteristic which defined later XJ40 derivatives and much as it defined the MarkX/420G.  People rave about the marque’s masterful combination of ride quality and handling prowess, but complaints seem to center around ergonomic missteps and poor space utilization, never the crazy lightness of the steering.  As contemporary accounts of driving the MarkX/420G mirror my experience in the few Jags of the ’80s and ’90s I’ve driven, there’s obviously a chink in the armor.

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The Mark X initially did well, with 17,500 sold through 1965, but only about 5800 were moved during the remaining five year run.  The car was re-badged as the 420G in 1967, but remained a flop.  Its appeal to American buyers was obviously limited by the mid ’60s and in many ways, the sedans which followed were similarly characterized by a caricature of old-world charm which no longer defined the UK or the world in general.

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While the Jaguar’s engineering was certainly something to be proud of, I see more of post-war Britain in progressive designs like the 1959 Mini and the fabulous Rover P6 and Hillman Imp of 1963.  Once cars like the Mercedes W108 became popular in the US, the Jaguars seemed even more quaint.

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By 1967 the 420G ceased to be imported to the US, and by 1969 the sleek new XJ6 effectively replaced all Jaguar sedans, capturing whatever momentum the heftier cats had left, and not a moment too soon.  The car’s more updated version of Jaguar sedan styling themes seemingly lasted forever, with twelve-cylinder versions finally being replaced in 1992.  That sort of production run will make anything seem like a classic, and certainly, the XJ was a gorgeous car, but in light of the recent discussions around Cadillac, I have to wonder: should Jaguar have pursued a more modern image long ago?

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With hindsight being 20/20, we can look back and see that none of the famed British luxury marques have survived as independents (then again, neither have Nissan or Chrysler).  But if ever a Jaguar should have embraced old-fashioned style, this intended Rolls alternative would be it; “charm” can be a viable business model only when profit margins are gigantic and after the 420G went out of production in 1970, nothing officially replaced it.

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With today’s XF and XJ, Jaguar has finally let go of retro inspired style in search of a look that’s truly contemporary; it will be interesting to see whether or not it’s a successful effort.  Naturally, a lot of enthusiasts have been left cold (though some have obviously embraced it), but regardless of your take, it’s taken a long time for the brand to assume a more modern image.  For fans of the company’s old-style look, though, it’s hard to top the MkX/420G, and the similar looking–but smaller–Mark 2 and associated S-Type and 420.

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If not the last word in progressive, forward looking styling, these cars provided inspiration for decades after they went out of production, keeping the brand viable in the face of taller, more rationally conceived high-end sedans.  It’s a look so distinct, and so physical, that it’s never been extensively co-opted by anyone else.  The same can’t be said about the sedans which outsold them.

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Related reading:

Curbside Classic: 1959-1961 Jaguar Mark IX – An Englishman Abroad

Curbside Classic: Daimler DS420 Limousine – Forgotten Lesser Royalty

Car Show Classic: 1980 Daimler Double Six – This Was The Best Car In The World

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