Classic Sports Car
JAGUAR MKVIIM VS MKX
For too long overlooked, the big, pioneering Jaguar MKVII and now 60-year-old MKX are ready for their time to bask in the sun
60 years on, Martin Buckley traces the lineage of his favourite Browns Lane barge
Time, as well as being our most precious commodity, tends to distort perceptions of a particular car’s place in the world, collapsing and expanding relevant to your current vantage point. Take the MKX Jaguar – 60 years old this year, believe it or not – and think about it like this: when the first examples took to the roads in September 1961, the earliest MKVII Jaguars, direct antecedents in the firm’s post-war saloon lineage, were still only just over a decade old. Yet from a 2021 perspective you could be forgiven for thinking there is a missing link between them. Viewed in the metal, as a pair, you struggle to see how one shape could have followed on directly from the other. The MKVII speaks of the export-or-die austerity of 1950s Britain, a rare splash of colour in a monochrome era of spivs and ration books, whereas the younger machine seems like a glimpse of the modern world we currently inhabit. It is a fully powerassisted, motorway-era saloon that was a short step away from the XJS that consolidated Jaguar’s four-door thinking for the 1970s and ’80s.
The slinky 1968 XJ6 was really a four-door sports car in proportions; the MKVII and MKX made no apology for being full-sized saloons in which luxury held marginal sway over performance. Both were powered by the XK twin-cam engine, of course, a power unit whose reputation and charisma were central to the Jaguar concept. And both were built in volumes that allowed the manufacturer to undercut its rivals by many hundreds of pounds.
In overall terms they were both successful cars, but 25,000 Mkxs in nine years was no match for the 46,500 MKVII, MKVIII and MKIX units sold between 1950 and ’61.
Some were suspicious of the value-for-money element of these big Jaguars. At £998 the MKVII ‘export saloon’ was carefully pitched just under the top tax bracket that applied to luxury goods. The MKX, less than half the price of an S2 Bentley at £2300, stayed true to the Lyons ethos of taking a slimmer profit per unit on a long production run, rather than hiking prices up to what he thought the market would tolerate.
As before, the MKX tended to make its contemporaries look absurdly overpriced and the first examples were so hard to get hold of that it was possible to earn well over list price for a delivery-mileage car. Jaguar couldn’t even spare one for Roger Moore to use in new television series The Saint (p112) – the roomy cabin appealed for filming purposes – and Corgi Toys had to reissue its miniature version of the
MKX, such was its popularity with youngsters.
But this big Jaguar’s star seemed to fall faster than most. Even in the fickle world of luxury cars, the Mkx’s journey from West End glamour to East End gloom seemed a particularly short one. To a certain extent this was history repeating itself, but at least with the appearance of the MKVII the marque’s ‘Wardour Street Bentley’ image had begun to fade. Jaguar’s credibility was hugely bolstered by its Le Mans victories in the 1950s, while the dollar-winning export success of its cars had earned William Lyons his knighthood – as many as 80% of all the MKVIIS, VIIIS and IXS built were for export.
The XK120 tends to get all the column inches when the conversation turns to Jaguars of the 1950s, yet even more was riding on the success of Bill Lyons’ long-dreamed-of 100mph saloon. It was the first Jaguar to have a body built outside of the Browns Lane company, but a hold-up in the preparation of the tooling by Pressed Steel had caused Lyons to delay the launch until 1950, the year petrol rationing ended. Tapping-in to the pent-up post-war demand for new cars, the success of the MKVII was immediate, with 500 orders taken at its New York launch in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.
The first MKVIIS were built in Jaguar’s pre-war Foleshill factory but its real home was
‘Even in the fickle world of luxury cars, the Mkx’s journey from West End glamour to East End gloom seemed particularly short’
Browns Lane. The by-then two-year-old XK engine had been specifically designed for this car and its box-section chassis, with torsion-bar front suspension, had been well proven through its use in about 10,000 examples of the stopgap, pushrod-engined MKV.
Lyons’ shape echoed the XK120 in its swoopy side profile, but the overall result was a blend of slightly bulbous English dignity with a hint of the lithe grace found in some of the immediate post-war Alfa Romeos by Touring and Farina. Flat panels were a device to keep the tooling costs in check, but Lyons knew that the MKVII shell would have to have a long life if he was going to extract the maximum value out of his investment. And he did: the MKVII gave way to the gently massaged MKVIII in 1956 and then the disc-braked, 3.8-litre MKIX in 1958, both externally identified by chrome accent lines that usually went with two-tone colour schemes.
The MKX, ‘Project Zenith’, was emphatically a revolutionary Jaguar in the context of the vehicle it replaced, almost to the point that it was a new and different species to the MKVII, VIII and IX of 1950-’61. Three inches wider, 5½in longer and a full 8½in lower than the body-onframe MKIX, the MKX encapsulated everything Jaguar had learned about body engineering and noise insulation in a new unitary shell that was the biggest and stiffest built in the UK. Its 7indeep, 7in-wide sills were so strong that the roof contributed almost nothing to the overall rigidity. Mindful of this, Lyons pondered making the MKX a pillarless ‘hardtop sedan’ with frameless doors, although the problems experienced later with the wind sealing on the XJC indicates he was probably right to dismiss the notion.
The MKX introduced new-to-jaguar features such as quad headlamps, a front-hinged bonnet and standard reclining seats, while banishing old customs such as rear wheelspats and centrally placed instruments. Inside it had a new heating and ventilation system with vacuum-operated controls and was the first Jaguar to offer electric windows as an option. It may still hold the record for having the widest back seat of any British car (and few had a roomier boot, even accounting for the space taken up by the pannier tanks in the wings), but it is worth noting that the MKX was a good 20in shorter than the full-size Cadillacs, Lincolns and Imperials it was designed to take on.
Perhaps its top speed of between 115 and 120mph (depending on which combination of compression ratio, transmission and rear-axle ratio you ordered) did not grab headlines in the same way the 100mph MKVII had in 1950; but the MKX driver entered a new world of poise, stability, ride comfort and general refinement in a car that in many ways set new standards of road behaviour for large saloons. Browns Lane had pioneered disc brakes, so Dunlop’s ‘quick change’ Mk2-type calipers issued all round were no surprise, although the 14in wheels – still the smallest ever fitted to a Jaguar – meant that the discs were slightly smaller than those found on the much lighter compact saloon.
The most extensively test-proven Jaguar up to that point, the MKX was designed around having an automatic transmission and offered standard-issue power steering. It shared its straight-port head, triple-su XK engine and double-wishbone/quad-damper independent rear suspension with the E-type, launched six months earlier, but abandoned torsion bars at the front in favour of coil springs.
Jaguar naturally hoped this new saloon flagship – faster, roomier and more luxurious than the car it supplanted – would cause a sensation equal to the one the E-type had generated at Geneva. Yet praise for the MKX was always tempered by a certain disquiet about its sheer size, combined with a sense that its sleek but barrel-sided shape was not Lyons’ finest hour.
Chassis changes lent credence to the idea the Jaguar’s small, hard-pressed development team had probably released the 3.8-litre MKX before it was really sorted. But the 1964 4.2-litre cars
‘The XK120 tends to get all the column inches when it comes to Jags of the ’50s, but even more was riding on Lyons’ 100mph saloon’
were difficult to fault, with straight-line pace on a par with the 3.8 auto Mk2 thanks to a healthy increase in torque, to 283lb ft at 4000rpm.
Brakes and steering were improved by virtue of the new Varamatic steering box and a proper servo that worked directly off the brake pedal, rather than the infamous bellows type. The best news of all was an all-synchromesh manual gearbox as an alternative to a more versatile and refined Borg-warner Model 8 auto.
It is in the latter form that we sample the MKX pitcured here, with a 1956 MKVIIM for contrast, both cars courtesy of Surrey Jaguar specialist Robert Hughes. He has been dealing in these machines, man and boy, for more than 30 years.
Even for Hughes, the big ’50s saloons are unusual things to have on the books: he thinks he’s had about five or six over the years, and has owned this one twice. Its second owner bought it when it was two years old and had it until the early 1980s, although by then it had already dropped off the DVLA’S records having been taken off the road some time before 1977.
The ‘M’ was Jaguar’s first revision of the big saloon from September 1954, still with the divided windscreen but identifiable by its wingmounted indicators and foglights placed on the bumpers of a simplified cross-section and which also wrapped around more at the rear. More significantly the M’s engine, by using
3/8in-lift camshafts, was boosted by 30bhp to 190bhp. Such was the car’s export success it was only in ‘M’ spec that these saloons started to appear on British roads in significant numbers. An automatic transmission, in the form of Borg-warner’s DG unit, had been available since 1953 and this car has it. Thus equipped, a bench front seat was obligatory. Sliding on to it you immediately feel you are sitting quite low in a car with a letterbox-sized back window that makes the rear quarters feel private and cosy but isn’t great for vision. The front view, beyond the tiny clap-hands wipers, disappears somewhat abruptly without even a ‘leaper’ for context.
Holding the massive, cold four-spoke wheel you feel rather like the hired help, but there is much consolation in the sense of well-being and luxury you get from the supple leather, gleaming veneers, the West of England Cloth headlining and even the way the instruments are lit.
The XK engine fires instantly on the button and works pleasingly in tandem with the automatic gearbox, which has a neat, crisp selector quadrant. It hums through the flat floor in neutral but changes gears smoothly on the move, somehow making the MKVII a less ponderous car to drive than what I recall of piloting manual versions with the gearlever nowhere near where you’d like it. Acceleration and mpg figures suggest the automatic gave away very little in efficiency to the Moss ’box.
Viewed from the outside, the MKVII whips away from a standing start with a sense of purpose that defies its 1950s origins. On the inside, low-speed corners or parking manoeuvres mean Scotland Yard-style police-regulation wheel shuffling, yet the steering lightens nicely once up to any sort of speed and centres pleasingly as you straighten up.
Town carriage manners take precedence over any ‘sports saloon’ pretentions in the MKVII. To drive it quickly is fun, but tends to draw unwanted attention to your activities in the form of body roll and tyre squeal that look more alarming than they feel.
This 1965 MKX 4.2 was owned by a lady in Grimsby until 1971, when she sold it to a haulier friend who used the car for holidays until the early ’80s. “He then stored it in his warehouse,” says Hughes, “simply because there was no point in selling. It had no value. But he took it for an MOT every year, so it’s not been off the road.”
Around 20 or 30 years ago it was sheer size that kept the values of these cars down. “Most people’s garages were not big enough,” explains Hughes. “The best Mkxs are now making £40k and a few have even had £100,000 restorations. Once they get to a certain value the size doesn’t matter; it’s an asset, expecially with ‘Goodwood’ cars, which is what both of these are, really.”
The MKX is in all respects a much more suave device than the undoubtedly charming MKVIIM. It has a far lower centre of gravity and feels more of a piece, which of course it is. The more logical dashboard, certainly by Jaguar standards, and much better all-round vision put you at ease at once, while the power steering and strong, light brakes give the car a 1970s feel as it gathers pace seamlessly.
The game and lively MKVII easily drifts along with modern traffic, but in the MKX you have the urge in hand to go past much of it. You could doubtless cruise in the 4.2 at the older car’s 100mph maximum. And even at that rate of knots your rear passengers, luxuriating in the massive legroom, could write legible notes on the picnic tables, so smoothly resilient is the ride.
Regardless of the speed, the MKX is a lot less ‘work’ to drive than its predecessor. The power steering is light but not absurdly so – it isolates you from the understeer but tends to blur the edges of any ‘feel’ in the way the steering comes back to centre. Yet it responds precisely to inputs and allows you to command the MKX confidently in all situations, riding a suspension system that generates levels of grip that not only eclipse the cart-sprung MKVII, but also puts the ride of many modern cars to shame.
Yet the MKX, which was a grave disappointment to boss Sir William Lyons, was perhaps the first Jaguar that didn’t sell itself, and the first not to win universal praise from both the press and general public. Logically its size, comfort and its power-assists should have endeared the MKX to US buyers, but they never took it to their hearts in the numbers Lyons had hoped for. The fact that the model got off to a bad start with a spate of radiator failures did not help its cause, particularly on the American side of the Atlantic.
So happy 60th birthday, MKX Jag. Like the MKVII and its successors, you were certainly one of the best saloon cars in the world in your prime. But you faced tougher and more numerous competition than the MKVII, perhaps most significantly from within your own ranks in the form of the more handily sized – but also fully independently suspended – S-type.
There was a lingering suspicion that you looked like too much car for the money to be any good, in a market where buyers did not necessarily see your bargain price sticker as a positive thing. Instead, they possibly saw that as a reason to suspect that you were merely a bloated, empty status symbol.
But that much is history. All I know for sure is that the MKX (and the later renamed 420G) will always be my favourite Jaguar saloons. There’s nothing I like better than a bloated, empty status symbol.
Sold/number built 1954-’56/9261
Construction steel box-section chassis, steel body
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 3442cc straight-six, twin SU H6 carburettors
Max power 190bhp @ 5500rpm
Max torque 202Ib ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, optional overdrive, or three-speed automatic, RWD
Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, torsion bars, anti-roll bar
rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs Steering recirculating ball Brakes drums Length 16ft 41/2 in (4991mm) Width 6ft 1in (1854mm) Height 5ft 3in (1600mm)
Wheelbase 10ft (3048mm)
Weight 3866Ib (1754kg)
0-60mph 14.3 secs
Top speed 100mph Mpg 18.5
Price new £1616 Now £15-40,000
JAGUAR MKX 4.2
Sold/number built 1964-’66/5680
Construction steel monocoque
Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 4235cc straight-six, triple SU carbs
Max power 265bhp @ 5500rpm
Max torque 283lb ft @ 4000rpm
Transmission four-speed manual, optional overdrive, or three-speed Borg-warner Model 8 automatic, RWD
Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear driveshafts as upper links, lower wishbones, trailing arms, twin coil spring/damper units
Steering power-assisted Marles variable-ratio worm and roller
Brakes Dunlop discs
Length 16ft 10in (5130mm)
Width 6ft 4in (1930mm)
Height 4ft 63/4in (1390mm)
Wheelbase 10ft (3048mm)
Weight 3990Ib (1810kg)
0-60mph 10 secs
Top speed 121mph Mpg 18-23
Price new £2156 Now £10-40,000
‘The game and lively MKVII easily drifts along with modern traffic, but in the MKX you have the urge in hand to go past it’