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Sixty years ago, Jaguar arguably created the first true sports saloon but the death of our F1 World Champion in one could have ruined its reputation suggests Andrew Roberts
This year sees the 60th anniversary of a Jaguar that helped to create a new market sector and created fresh interest in the marque – the understated but always magnificent 3.4 ‘Mk 1’. Its origins date back to 1952’s ‘Project Utah’, Jaguar’s plan for a five-seater monocoque bodied sports saloon. The company were fully aware that the Mk VII and XK were vulnerable to any future economic downturn and that a smaller car, one that would compete with the likes of the Rover P4, was the logical solution. This meant a heavy financial investment – £1million was a vast sum for such a small specialist firm in the early 1950s – but it was one that was instrumental in ensuring the future of Browns Lane.
In October 1955 the 2.4 Litre saloon was unveiled at the Earl’s Court Motor Show and for £1298 for the Special Equipment Model (virtually no-one wanted to save £30 for the ‘Standard’ version that lacked a heater, windscreen washers and most other items of equipment – were any every made?) the new Jaguar represented excellent value for money, something which remained a trademark for decades. The styling was elegant, the ambience was refined – the subframe helped to insulate the occupants from suspension noise and the dashboard was splendidly elaborate. When various dashing chaps with Terry- Thomas moustaches and well-cut sports jackets finally took delivery, their only gripe was that the 2.4 could do ‘with a tad more performance, old boy’.
Of course, by 1955 standards, a top speed of just over the ton was highly impressive. In terms of similar cars of that time, a Riley Pathfinder cost £1238 14s 2d and the top speed was around the same mark but the Riley driver would have probably found the Jag’s road manners a revelation.
However, by downsizing the MkVII’s 3.4-litre engine to 2483cc and placing it in what was still a fairly substantial car (the 2.4 is larger than a Zodiac Mk1 or E-Series Vauxhall Cresta) there were definite performance penalties and Browns Lane’s vital US market demanded more. If US dealers were to tempt Buick and Chrysler owners to “buy one of those foreign automobiles” then Jaguar’s compact saloon had to be made more suited for freeway use.
The logical solution was to fit the sports car’s 3.4 litre XK unit into the saloon’s engine bay although this was not an entirely straightforward operation; the rear axle and front coil springs had to be reinforced to cope with the new power plant, for instance. The engine itself was essentially the XK140 unit fitted with the B-Type cylinder head and a stronger shell and produced an exceptionally impressive 210bhp.
A batch of 200 cars went to the USA for evaluation, prior to its launch in February 1957 but, on the 12th of that month, a fire famously decimated the Browns Lane factory. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the workforce normal production resumed within six weeks and the 3.4 still made its official début. The newcomer could be distinguished from its smaller engine stablemate via a larger front grille and cut-away rear wheel spats; subtle differences that belied the 3.4’s startling performance. The car that marked ‘the embodiment of all the highly specialised technical knowledge and engineering achievement that have gained for the name “Jaguar” the highest international repute had a maximum speed of 120mph. This made it as fast as an XK140 and with the four-speed plus overdrive Moss gearbox (Borg Warner automatic was an option largely aimed at the North American market) 0-60 could be achieved in a fraction over nine seconds.
The first examples may have been for export only and the Preston-by-Pass would not open until 1958 but Jaguar had already produced the ideal British car for the motorway age. Enthusiasts could boast of how the back springs were a variation of the Jaguar D-type’s system and for a young Washington DC lawyer or Madison Avenue executive, a new 3.4 was the perfect transport.
There’s no stopping it…
The main issue, with the early examples, was that of the brakes as the first 3.4s were fitted with 2.4 drums that were wholly inadequate for the car’s extra performance. Jaguar had fitted discs to the XK150 and when UK sales of the 3.4 commenced in late 1957, they were a £36 15s option.
A natty red warning triangle badge on the rear bumper warned other motorists that they were following a car with exceptional stopping power and although drums remained listed until early 1959 virtually no-one specified them.
The 3.4 sold on the British market for £1672 7s and on the 13th June 1958 Autocar described the 3.4 as ‘both outright and in terms of value for money as one of the most outstanding cars in current production anywhere’. That sum – a large but not excessive one in the late 1950s – would have also bought a Rover 105S, while some extra guineas would have gained you the keys to an Armstrong-Siddeley 346 or a Sloughbuilt Citroën DS. All three were – and are – excellent motor cars but neither offering the Jag’s sheer performance. Within a few months, the 3.4 had become associated with chaps about town, members of the unofficial economy who needed to outrun any police Wolseley and members of the racing fraternity.
Stuff of champions
Of the last-mentioned, Mike Hawthorn will always be associated with VDU 881, the British Racing Green 3.4 that was loaned to him by Jaguar when he was a works driver. Hawthorn raced the 3.4 at the 1957 and 1958 Daily Express International Trophy meetings at Silverstone and, in the words of David Phipps of Motor Racing Magazine, his choice of car was “a tribute to British motor engineering”.
The Hawthorn Jaguar was a manual overdrive model fitted with, Mintex brake pads, a competition clutch, high compression pistons and an exhaust that was made at the legendary Surrey Tourist Trophy Garage.
The back wheels were two inches wider (essential as even a 2.4 could prove a handful in the wet) and stronger suspension. The Hawthorn Jaguar also sported a 160mph speedometer as its ‘owner’ was apparently “tired of going off the clock” with the standard gauge and an enhanced final drive ratio as he disliked being out-accelerated by what he called ‘Kraut cars’. Phipps further noted that “In respect of road-holding, the 3.4 can be driven round corners extremely fast but it really needs a Hawthorn to get the best out of it”.
In an appalling irony, Hawthorn was killed when his 3.4 crashed on the A31 Guildfordby- Pass on the 22nd January 1959. The wreck was subsequently destroyed on the orders of Jaguar’s boss Lofty England and there have been many theories raised as to the cause of the accident; a stuck hand throttle being one suggestion. For my own part, I find this newsreel almost unbearably moving – https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=SyiJQ5_CbXM.
The replacement for original compact Jaguar was being planned in 1958 and the new car would eventually be launched as the Mk2 in October 1959 which may have been a blessing given the reputation the earlier model could have subsequently gained.
Now retrospectively called the ‘Mk1’, the model remained listed until 1960 and the legacy of the 3.4 merits a closer examination.
If the 2.4 established the breed then it was the use of the larger engine that alerted motorists around the globe to the potential of grace, space and pace in a reasonably sized and elegant package. For this reason, the 60th birthday of the Jaguar 3.4 deserves a major celebration.
The 3.4 was launched slap in the middle of the nuclear age and at a time we were told that we’d never had it so good! But was our PM ‘Supermac’ right? Here’s a brief snapshot of that year
Good old days? A typical house cost £2000, and petrol cost 25 pence a gallon although you have to remember that the average wage was £10 a week. Suez crisis was only a year before and most minds were on economy due to a resultant huge price hike and fuel rationing didn’t end until June.
Poor health sees PM Anthony Eden resign at the start of the year, he is succeeded by Harold MacMillan and just a month later the Midlands suffers a minor earthquake! Independence is popular with Singapore, Ghana and Malaya breaking away from the Commonwealth. ERNIE picks the first Premium Bond winners.
Eight people are killed in Oxford Street, London after a bus ploughs into a queue of people at a bus stop while a train crash in nearby Lewisham claims the lives of 90 passengers with almost 200 injured. An IOW flying boat crash in the IOW Solent kills 45.
The legendary strip cartoon Andy Capp is first published in the Daily Mirror that August (still running) while Sunday Express editor John Junor is called to the Bar of the House of Commons for a reprimand for contempt of Parliament and he became the last non-politician to be tugged. The ground breaking consumer publication Which? is launched.
The space race blasts off with the launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite that October – it crashed to earth the following January. In the UK TV series The Sky At Night with Patrick Moore is first aired by the BBC and continued until his death in December 2012!
Jags were mere pipe dreams for many. Motoring wasn’t as cheap in comparison with earnings as the Austin’s A35 £596 price suggested – perhaps a two year old Consul Mk1 at £575 or a nearly new Vauxhall Victor was more up your street - or perhaps a ’52 MG TD at £465? DIY was rife; Halfords sold spark plugs for 25p each, a battery a fiver – or you could build a kit car for a few hundred pounds using a scrap 1940’s donor car.
When The Car Was The Star
A 3.4 featured in the splendid 1961 crime drama Payroll and sped off of a cliff in several ITC productions such as The Saint when one famously skids off a cliff face. Curiously, the scene appears in several other programmes when ITC needed – well, a car skidding off a cliff!
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