Jaguar MkII

The MkII wasn't always treated with the respect it deserved, says Giles Chapman
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Trips out with my parents were usually boring - except the time in 1973 they took my sister and an eight-year-old me to a banger race at Great Yarmouth to enliven a damp holiday in Norfolk. Most of the audience, munching their hotdogs, guffawed at the ancient ice cream van that careered around the dirt track before it was pushed over by an Austin Cambridge.

Trips out with my parents were usually boring - except the time in 1973 they took my sister and an eight-year-old me to a banger race at Great Yarmouth to enliven a damp holiday in Norfolk. Most of the audience, munching their hotdogs, guffawed at the ancient ice cream van that careered around the dirt track before it was pushed over by an Austin Cambridge.

But I was transfixed by so many Jaguar MkIIs - some pretty tidy despite their smashed-out windows - barging their way through the destruction derby.

It seemed a curious fate for one of Britain's finest classic sports saloons, the pin-up for the nascent classic car magazines of the time. But there were an awful lot of MkIIs about. I didn't realise it at the time but these cars were among the most rust-prone, high-maintenance secondhand saloons in Britain. They were unfashionably curvaceous next to a chunky new Ford Granada Ghia; their engines drank oil and ventilation was absolutely appalling.

Of course, 15 years later the Jaguar MkII represented the pinnacle of the British classic car, with its gorgeous twin-cam engine, walnut-and-leather interior, and delicious driving experience. It was rediscovered in the cash-rich 1980s and, because Jaguar built 83,800 of them, plus another 7,000 of the later 240/340s, there were enough survivors, despite the 1970s carnage, to provide a renovated MKII for every city trader who wanted one.

There is no MkI, of course: it's a retrospective title applied to the Jaguar 2.4-litre, introduced in 1955, and its 3.4-litre stablemate of two years later. These are awful cars.

The 2.4 was the first Jaguar with a unitary-construction body instead of a separate chassis, and the MkII's rust problems stem from this primitive structure, with nooks and crannies where water, mud, fungus and condensation could begin their destructive journeys.

The 2.4 also looked slug-like, with its tapering tail, "spats" sealing the rear wheels into the bodywork, and meanly proportioned windows making the cabin claustrophobic. It had sporty handling, but because of that, its otherwise adequate 2.4-litre straight-six engine made the car feel gutless, and American journalists said so.

Stung into reaction, Jaguar created a 3.4-litre rendition, installing the power unit from the D-type racing car in a saloon. The rear wheel covers received a semi-circular cut-out so wire wheels could be fitted, lightening the look of the car hugely. It could manage 120mph - sensational stuff in 1957, but 210bhp through a narrow back axle together with drum brakes made for a frightening machine if driven hard. In crosswinds at high speed it was unstable.

Yet the MkII revealed at the end of 1959 not only cured most of the earlier cars' drawbacks but emerged as an unlikely all-time great. The handling problems were fixed with a widened rear track, a new back axle, revised suspension and disc brakes as standard all round. The company offered a 3.8-litre engine too, which meant the ultimate sports saloon with blistering 125mph performance.

Jaguar's founder, chairman and design genius, William Lyons, worked a visual wonder for the MkII by slimming the roof pillars and elongating the side window so it tapered to a curvaceous finish just short of a much bigger, wraparound ear window. It transformed it, and the signature Jaguar "windowline" was copied by everyone from Chrysler to Lexus.

The final ones were built in 1969. They were considered living antiques by then, and no wake was held, particularly as the XJ6 was causing an almighty stir. The MkII then began its long stint in the wilderness as a high-octane banger. Perhaps a visit to Great Yarmouth today would reveal the likely classic icon of 2019. Get your parents to take you - and don't forget the hotdog.

Search for used cars

Comments