In Motion Classic: 1954-56 Jaguar MkVIIM – Prima Ballerina

For the passing observer, old cars just seem to blend into each other or fall into cliché. Take this Jaguar MkVIIM for example; ostensibly a luxury cruiser to be sedately and delicately guided around modern hazards. Or something preserved just for show, resplendent but immobile for the many who chance across it briefly.

But to be precious with this fine old specimen is to deny one’s self the fullest of the pleasure it can deliver.

Jaguar’s first new postwar models appeared in 1948. The MkV four-door saloon, two-door fixed-head and drophead models were based on pre-war shapes and engines, albeit with a new chassis featuring independent front suspension.

While the MkV served its purpose well, it was overshadowed by the XK120. A small roadster and coupe with a shape inspired by racing BMW 328 bodies seen just as the war had taken hold. The Jaguar was arguably prettier than its influence, but its sensational presence was also fed by what lurked under the hood.

The XK unit was a revelation, becoming a mainstay for the company until well into the 1980s and equally at home in a road car or Le Mans warrior. This straight six featured a set of overhead camshafts inspired by racing motorcycles and Grand Prix cars and an aluminium hemi head, and was fitted to the XK120 as a 3.4 litre unit.

While it could theoretically have been put into the MkV, the XK engine’s saloon debut would come with the next model.

The MkVII was to be styled by company founder William Lyons, centre.

From its beginnings manufacturing sidecar bodies, Lyons had determined aesthetics be of the utmost importance. He himself would be directly responsible for all model shapes right through to the XJ saloon of 1968.

What’s curious is that no drawings seem to exist for any of these Jaguar bodies, and I have been curious for a long time as too how Lyons actually came to his shapes. The MkVII gives us some insight into his methods.

As per many other manufacturers a scale model was prepared first.

But most of the work occurred at full scale.

Lyons insisted on seeing proposals outdoors and painted in polished black – the most unforgiving colour. He would walk around it, sometimes saying nothing for up to an hour as he processed what he was seeing.

For this Lyons relied on Fred Gardner who was in charge of the sawmill. Lyons was also heavily reliant upon one particular sheet metal worker (whose name is lost to history), and when this individual left he went through at least 20 more until another sympathetic to his highly acuitive needs was found.

Above we can see how this approach marked the MkVII’s progress; at top the front wings terminate in the front doors and beneath a straight-through wingline is considered.

These two images are more telling as to Lyons’ technique. The side treatment is now a sort of compromise between the two previous iterations, the front wing dipping down but flowing all the way through to the rear wing.

It looks like a set of photo collages but it’s actually sections of differing profiles being applied. To my eyes completely distracting but perhaps this is how Lyons was able to determine the final details once the general approach had been determined.

On the actual production model, the wings followed the previous approach, but with a higher treatment. And it was gorgeous. It still harked back to the pre-war idiom, but the 1950-released MkVII shape was decidedly more modern than the MkV it was replacing.

A two-door four seater drophead prototype was also prepared, but not produced. Apparently another utterly gorgeous shape, there would appear to be no surviving photos of it.

What’s sometimes forgotten about Jaguar cars from this period is how relatively cheap they were. The MkVII was sold in the UK for £1,276, whereas the Bentley MkVI above cost £4,474. While it cannot be argued that the Jaguar was exactly on par with the Bentley and Rolls-Royce, the disparity in quality was in no way reflective of the disparity in price.

In some ways, Jaguar can be said to have set the prestige sector value-packaging template for Lexus many, many years later.

As with the MkV, this model was destined for export including the lucrative US market. It was shown in New York and £30 million of orders were taken. From less than 10% in 1938, by 1951 exports had grown to 84% of Jaguar’s output.

Such was the success of Jaguar’s postwar efforts, a new production line was established at the company’s Browns Lane WW2 shadow factory in 1951. This would be the location for the disastrous 1957 fire from which the firm was able to quickly move past.

The Autocar dubbed the MkVII ‘Prima Ballerina’. And that was only after seeing it at the Earls Court Motor Show.

With its nimble chassis and superb engine, this seemingly luxurious tourer was also very capable on its feet. Here it is in the hands of Stirling Moss on its way to one of five successive Silverstone touring car victories between 1952 and 1956. The MkVII also managed to earn its drivers the team prize for the 1955 Monte Carlo Rally, as well as outright victory in 1956.

In 1954, the model was upgraded to MkVIIM specification. High-lift cams increased engine output from 160 bhp to 190 bhp. 0-60 mph went from 14.3 to 13.7 seconds, and top speed increased from 101 mph to 104 mph.

The MkVIIM was differentiated from the earlier version by its fog lamps moving slightly outboard, and in their place were horn grilles. Turning signals were also added low on the front wings.

October 1956 saw the MkVIII. This was largely a cosmetic upgrade, and was most easily discerned by its one-piece windscreen.

The final iteration was the late 1958 MkIX. For this, the engine had been enlarged to 3.8 litres, giving a 0-60 of 11.3 s and top speed of 114 mph, and disc brakes were now fitted.

In 1961 the MkIX was replaced with a completely new model.

These models seem to epitomise the Jaguar saloon perhaps more than any other, including the XJ.

As for the wheel spats, it’s a matter of taste (or needs).

Our hero CC chose not to wear them and appeared more purposeful as a result.

I had the opportunity for a brief chat with its driver who mentioned that he had saved it from the wreckers. His daughter was beaming from the passenger seat and both appeared to be thoroughly enjoying this masterful exercise in grandeur, aesthetics and performance.

It was a pleasure to watch it glide into the congestion of Camberwell Junction with complete poise.

Further Reading

William Lyons and Jaguar by Roger Carr

Jaguar MkIX by GGHO6

Jaguar XK120 by Robert Kim