The cars : Daimler DS420 development story

The Daimler DS420 remained in production for 25 years and become a national institution, favoured by Royalty and local government alike.

However, under the skin, there’s a fair amount of Jaguar MkX/420G – here’s its story.

The Royal Daimler

The Daimler DS420 Mk1

The conception of Daimler DS420 was – like so many British cars of its era – affected and influenced by mergers and acquisitions. When BMC and Jaguar  joined forces to create the short-lived British Motor Holdings in December 1966, it became clear that both companies’ forward model plans each contained eight-seater limousines.

BMC’s plan was to replace the Vanden Plas Princess, while Daimler’s was to supersede the DR450. Obviously, it would have been madness to continue with both projects. The politics of Jaguar at the time were simple and, after much discussion – involving Sir William Lyons himself – the Daimler design was chosen, at a stroke diminishing Vanden Plas’ importance, and reducing it to the creator of posh versions of mainstream saloons…

At the time of its launch, the PR spin was that the DS420 was the result of a joint effort, drawing on both marque’s expertise – but the underpinnings were pure Jaguar. It used the engine, automatic transmission and all-independent suspension from the Jaguar 420G, and the styling was by Browns Lane, with final sign-off by Sir William Lyons. However, the new car’s interior was largely the responsibility of Vanden Plas. And no trace of any Daimler DNA…

What the papers said about the DS420

According to Autocar magazine’s 1968 launch coverage, the Daimler DS420 was destined to be a big player in a surprisingly successful market segment in the UK. ‘Vanden Plas and Daimler together have sold around 4500 of their big limousines in the past 15 years. Roughly 50-60 per cent of Vanden Plas output goes to car hire firms — the bigger ones buying new cars which, even after 80,000 miles, enjoy high second-hand value, being bought by the smaller companies. Another 20 per cent become company cars. The remainder are sold to corporations, governments, armed forces and royalty.’

Despite the market’s health, relatively small production volumes meant an inevitable dipping into of the BMH corporate parts bin. Only by using tooling and parts already available could the new Daimler’s relatively low price be achieved – it cost less than half the price of a Rolls-Royce Phantom V or Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman and, unlike the latter especially, its underpinnings were relatively unsophisticated.

Autocar again: ‘Taking the 420G main structure as a basis brings in a fully-tooled production assembly and, with it, a first-class modern suspension design with superlative ride and handling characteristics. Because the car weighs roughly 6cwt more, spring rates have been increased from 100 to 130lb/in in front and 150-178lb/in behind. Otherwise the suspension and its track remain the same — wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers and an anti-roll bar, and lower tubular links, fixed length drive shafts, radius arms, twin coil springs and telescopic dampers respectively.’

How to stretch a Jaguar MkX even further

To obtain the necessary extra space behind the driving compartment, the wheelbase was increased from 10ft to 11ft 5in. Pressed Steel-Fisher made the 420G platform chassis, which was sent to Motor Panels Ltd, which cut and welded-in a 21in long additional section behind the front seat. The front end used as many as possible of its panels as stressed members – behind the scuttle, large box section sills which were braced within by a diagonal diaphragm running the entire length of each member carry main bending and torsional loads.

As with the MkX, the Daimler Limousine owed very little to the upper parts of the body for its strength – it was this which allowed Daimler to offer a ‘drive-away chassis’ consisting of all running gear, floor structure, front end and roof cant rails as a basis for specialised bodies such as hearses.

Daimler DS420 interior was focused on rear-seat passengers.
Daimler DS420 interior was focused on rear-seat passengers

Rear door openings were generous, with the sills lowered by about 11in. An unusual feature was a very large boot of conventional design with low floor, upward-opening lid and covered spare wheel mounted vertically at the side, instead of flat under a high floor with a bottom-hinged lid as was the case with the old Daimlers. The rear compartment was very roomy indeed.

Distance from the division to rear seat squab was about 55in. Use of the fold-back occasional seats reduced this to just under 30in, so that an average-sized six-footer sitting in the back seat had the clearance in front of his knees brought down from 32in to about 5in. In effect, the Daimler DS420 was – and is – a commodious beast, with room for six in the rear compartment alone.

A well-appointed interior

The interior was the last word in luxury. All cabinet work was carried out in traditional burr walnut, including the big wooden instrument panel — which was topped by a leather padded crash roll. The front seat, liable to receive the most wear, was upholstered in leather supplied by Connolly. Rear seat upholstery is available either in leather or West of England cloth.

A broad armrest could be pulled down to divide it into two generous places, and the outer armrests incorporated an ashtray, cigar lighter, courtesy light switch and — on the left-hand side only — a rheostat for the variable speed rear compartment heater fan.

Power was by the legendary 4235cc dohc Jaguar XK engine delivering 245bhp at 5500rpm, and 282lb ft at 3750rpm. In reality, it was rather a sporting power unit – not many limousines could boast a Le Mans-winning engine under the bonnet. Comparisons with the predecessors is interesting – Daimler DR450: 220bhp at 5500rpm; Vanden Plas Princess: 120bhp at 4000rpm.

Automatic for the people

The DS420 was offered as an automatic only – it used the Borg-Warner Model 8 three-speed epicyclic gearbox with dual drive range and a torque converter driving through a 3.54-to-1 Salisbury 4HA final drive. Twin 10-gallon fuel tanks in each rear wing have their electric SU pumps controlled by a selector switch on the dashboard.

Tyre size was increased from the 420G’s 205-14 tubed Dunlop SP41 to 225-1 8in tubeless versions of the same make, slightly increasing overall gearing. The manufacturer’s performance figures were interesting: 0-50mph in 9.2sec, 0-100 in 43.5sec, a standing quarter-mile in 19.5sec and a top speed of 110mph.

The Sunday Express’ Robert Glenton road tested the DS420 in 1970. He waxed lyrical about the six-seater rear compartment – but it was his impressions of driving the beast that were really interesting: ‘There comes a moment when even the most idle owner wishes to have a go. Once he had got used to the length he would find this an easy car to drive. Certainly he could contemplate taking it on a touring holiday. With the glass partition retracted, all that space and a cavernous boot it would be a boon for the family although I hate to think how high hotel prices would rise the moment they saw him and his Limousine coming. Because the front scat is not adjustable (that’s class distinction for you), the steering wheel is. This is a remarkable car. Daimlers once held the crown in the carriage trade. Now they are trying to regain it.’

Assembled in London

Final assembly and furnishing of the Daimler were initially carried out by Vanden Plas (1923) Ltd at its Kingsbury works in North West London. It received body shells in bare metal which were then phosphate-coated, bituminous-sealed, baked, primed and finish-painted to a very high standard.

The body shells were made by Park Sheet Metals Company, assembling panels supplied by Motor Panels of Coventry and by Pressed Steel-Fisher. This convoluted process was rationalised with the closure of Kingsbury in 1979 – and it moved to Jaguar at Browns Lane in Coventry in 1979, where it continued until the car’s death in 1992.

The DS420’s first facelift came in 1974. The main changes were centred on a revised window arrangement for the rear passengers, which saw a one-piece rear glass replaced the old two-piece opera window. Beefed-up anti-corrosion measures were introduced and, to observers, the uprated model could be spotted by its revised grille and less woody interior.

Daimler DS420 Executive interior.
Daimler DS420 Executive interior complete with Epson HX-20 computer

The joy of a DS420 was that you could buy and trim it to match your budget and personal (or professional) requirements. So you could have a cloth-trimmed example with manual windows – or spec it up to boardroom-on-wheels levels, with on-board TV, Epson HX20 computer and car-telephone. And it was this adaptability that made the DS420 a darling to the specialist industry.

From London to Coventry

In 1979, the move to Coventry also ushered in the third and final facelift in the DS420’s life, when larger impact bumpers and a revised rear number-plate surround were fitted. It was in this form that the by-then iconic car would see out its days. And surprisingly, given the tough times it endured, the DS420 elegantly glided through the 1980s, all the way to 1992. By production’s end, the DS420 was the only model in the Jaguar range still using the XK engine, and it shared nothing else with the then current Jaguar range.

No direct replacement was produced by Jaguar and, to this day, no bespoke coachbuilt alternative has been produced by the UK. Clearly, the DS420 was the last of a very exclusive line – and yet, its achievements should never be under-estimated. It brought a taste of the bespoke to more those with more straitened budgets – after all, the similar grandiose Rolls-Royce Phantom VI cost three times as much by the time it went out of production in 1991…

The Daimler range of 1975
The Vanden Plas range of 1975

The Queen’s Daimler DS420 Limousines

The British Royal Mews is in possession of three Daimler DS420s. The Queen Mother had four DS420 over the years (all registered NLT1 or NLT2), including one of the last three models to be produced in 1992. All of the cars delivered for royal use featured certain special features including cloth seats, removal of chrome around the doors, a bullet-shaped blue light and a mount on the roof for the Royal Standard and Coat of Arms.

One of the Queen Mother’s Daimler DS420s, painted in Royal Claret, is now in the Royal Mews, along with two other models already owned by HM The Queen. These are classed as state cars although, unlike the Royal Rolls-Royce and Bentley models in the royal fleet, they do have number plates.



Further reading

Keith Adams
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  1. I’ll bet for this story you don’t get many messages saying the usual things like “my dad had one of those in the 70s” or “my first car was one of these, in red” or “didn’t they do a 1600 with twin carbs?”

  2. You still a lot in service. even today.

    I agree with Ayd, and the latest XJ does have echoes of this car…

  3. Firstly, can someone tell me what the computer in the back of the DS420 is?

    Secondly, can anyone think of a reason why Daimler hasn’t returned yet? If Rolls-Royce and Bentley are still successful, I see no reason why Daimler wouldn’t be, especially if XJ underpinnings were used.

    • The problem is that whilst it still has some meaning in the UK, in key markets such as the US and China they associate it with Mercedes.

  4. oh my god i dont believe it. my dad had one of those in the 70’s in fact so did i. it was my first car but i had the 1600 verion with twin carbs…lmao sorry KC i could resist lol

  5. @ No 1.

    My Mate’s Dad’s Dad had 2 of them. 😉 So Neeerrrrr…

    (Yes, He ran a wedding car business)

  6. I had the delight (or unfortunate) pleasure of being whisked of in one of these. Well it was whisked on the way back from the funerals! It was probably the most comfortable car I have been in (That includes my mates Bentley Turbo). However it was a shame they did not use the fabulous Edward Turner V8. The last Daimler designed limo, the DR450, had this engine and it is so smooth (my friend had one of these). I read in a book about Jag that the V8 was fitted to the DS420 and it was quicker than the XK version, but William Lyons did not like the engine and the rationlisation had kicked in and went no further

  7. A family member used to drive for a coach hire / wedding car company. They had an obligatory DS420. Said filling up both sides was like a lorry, and it got single figure MPG (partially why wedding cars are so expensive?…).

    As a car, it is unique. It shouldn’t work, it looks like a bloated taxi and the proportions are all wrong. Yet it always looks classy without being ostentatious or aggressive (RR I’m looking at you…).

    JLRs observation of the fate of Maybach may be part of the reason why they aren’t in a hurry to get back into this market. Reducing their CO2 output as an organisation may be another one (or could we expect to see a Daimler “Cygnet” based on the Tata Nano? 😮 ).

  8. And the computer the HX-20 is generally regarded as the first proper laptop.
    Though it was fairly limited in what it could do (compared to modern computers), and those who sat in the back of limos like this would be more interested in reading the Financial Times than a 4 line LCD display.

  9. @daveh
    I am not sure about the DS420, but the 4.5 litre V8 was tried in the S1 XJ while being developed, and it brought into question the whole V12 project it was that good. However a chap named Bill did not like V8 engines, as as far as Jaguar went what Bill wanted happend, and the cars were scrapped

  10. My cousin occasionally used to drive one of these for his father-in-law’s wedding car business. He said the old girl would pick up her skirts and run if you prodded her enough with your right foot – he could be very disparaging about his mother-in-law!

  11. These were great and offered limousine travel for all – I think everyone has been in one of these at one time or another for either a funeral or wedding. I was dismayed as a child however to find that most that you see are in basic trim (vinyl and manual windows) without any sign of a TV or drinks cabinet.

  12. @ Will M:

    The problem with the Maybach is its astronomical price when compared to an S-Class. Perhaps a Daimler limousine that sells for less than the cheapest variant in the Bentley Continental range might be a better prospect?

    If such a prospect possessed elegant looks and authority without having to be too chintzy or blingy, then it may well appeal. What wouldn’t do the Daimler name any credit would be simply a rebadged version of the Jaguar XJ, even though the XJ is a very well liked car. Daimler needs to go beyond badge-engineering. Think of it along the lines of comparing a Freelander with an Evoque or a Discovery with a Range Rover Sport.

  13. Sad thing is a lot of us will have ridden in one at a funeral. I did but I cannot really remember what it was like, I had other things on my mind.

  14. @8- Daveh- I was going to mention what you said about the Majestic Major (DR450) but you beat me to it.

    I read an article about that car in a classic car mag- apparently both the limo and the hearse were capable of 130 MPH, but it liked to use all three lanes doing so, as it used crossplys (the suspension was not strong enough to cope with the cornering forces of radial tyres). We can only speculate how sporty the DS420 would have been with the V8 married to Jaguar suspension!

    I think the 420 was a better looking car (if still far too pompous-looking) than the Majestic Major.

  15. @8 – CHris – The DR450 was an ugly brute but it did have a luxurious interior with very deep pile carpets. My mate sold it as it was guzzling fuel – it certainly did not like to be pushed round corners.

  16. @Ian

    Perhaps that is the sign of a truly great car that it just does not get in the way and doesn’t leave you with bad memories of being cramped, crashing over potholes, leaving you ill etc. it just gets on with it in a classy way.
    A bit like I’d imagine a good old fashioned butler should be, unnoticable until he is needed.

  17. Was on the M6 today, Passed a Transporter truck loaded with brand new XJ’s All going to their new undertaker owner by the looks 1X Hurse 3X XJ streched limo’s one of the limo’s looked like it had extra head room as the roof had been raised. Very impressive load. All the cars had the registration ORN 2 ORN 3 & ORN 5 Anybody know where they had come from and where they were going?

  18. Saw one of these yesterday with a wedding party driving through town – made me want one.

    I wish Jaguar had done with Daimler what RR did with Bentley. A combination of luxury and performance always goes down well.

    • The back end was typical of British Limos of the mid 20th Century, GM/Cadillac copied the style(badly) in the 70s/80s maybe to project a “classy” image. They failed to do that BTW 🙂

  19. Wash your mouth out, Paul. The ’83 Seville has a Daimler DS420 rear end.

    Anyway, didn’t they do a 1600 with twin carbs? My mate’s Dad had one in the 70s, manual box I’m sure.

  20. Probably a follow on to the pre Silver Shadow Rolls Royces, the kind of car you’d rather be driven in than drive yourself. The Jaguar XJ L is its spiritual successor, but with better economy and driving abilities. That said, the Daimler Limousine had the sort of presence on the road that you don’t get now.

  21. Far, far better looking than a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI.

    Out of curiosity, does anybody know where the picture at the top was taken? It looks to me like Parliament House in Edinburgh- next to St. Giles Cathedral and the Court of Session- anybody agree?

  22. There were four generations of the Daimler DS420: MkI 1968-1972; MkII 1972-1979;
    MkIII 1979-1987 and MkIV 1987-1992. Visual changes were first with opera window arrangement (MkII), then air inlets changed to rectangular shape plus different side signals (MkIII) and finally the massive plastic bumpers installed (mkIV)

  23. …and they always turned up in the movies, when some diplomat / royalty / VIP was being collected / transported / kidnapped. Does anyone remember Bond being transported at speed through London with M, Ms.Moneypenny, and outriders?

    • Tomorrow Never Dies

      Moneypenny in the front seat with the computer

      Was nice to see an “action” shot in London

      The Bond car was controversial as it was a BMW 7 series.
      Actually thought an inconspicuous German repmobile suited a secret agent posing as a businessman, instead of going around everywhere in a flashy supercar (indeed, in Spectre, in prototype models!)

      • Also in Patriot Games – old Harrison Ford thwarts the attempt on the Royal family member who was in a Daimler

  24. I do recall seeing a black Daimler limousine transporting people to a haunted house in the 1973 horror film The Legend of Hell House. Sort of suited the film, the four main cast members being picked up in the fog in a car that was well known as a funeral car or a hearse at the time.

  25. I remember it was a running joke in Bread that when the Boswells wanted to all go somewhere the local taxi firm would send a couple of cars decked out for a wedding. I’m not sure if they were Daimlers, doesn’t have many pictures from Bread.

  26. I rode in one of these just once, on my wedding day. It was a short journey but a memorable one because it was the only time I have drunk a glass of champagne in a car. It says a lot for the suspension that I didn’t spill a drop.

  27. I went to a funeral in one in 1986, so not the most joyous of occasions, but the Daimler had an extremely comforting ride and looked the part.

  28. A pity it never carried over the Daimler V8 in 5-litre form.

    Also curious to know what the original plan was to replace the Austin / Vanden Plas Princess prior to being the Daimler proposal being chosen, was it to be in essence a stretched version of the Austin 3-litre powered by 200-268+ hp 4-litre Rolls-Royce G60 6-cylinder Twin-Cam?

    On Cliff Ruddell’s site, it is mentioned several facelifts were commissioned in 1979 by head of the limousine operations Keith Cambage with discussions for a complete replacement taking place in 1983. Some concept drawings for a modern limousine based on the XJ40 were produced, however at only 3 hand built cars a week, the limousine operation was soon no longer viable and production ceased in 1992 after 4116 cars had been built.

    • God knows what performance the daimler engine would have given it. With an Xk under the bonnet it had lots of go, and having been in majestic major I know the v8 was frightening quick in such a heavy car. A very much underused engine

      • Agreed. It would have also added a unique Daimler touch to the DS420, while making of a modified Jaguar Mk10 platform and Vanden Plas designed interior though am sure power would be sapped due to its use in the DS420 along with emissions regulations.

  29. They just don’t make cars like this any more, which is a shame as the Daimler Limousine was the ultimate in excess, a dinosaur that struggled to do more than 10 mpg and was the last word in luxury and refinement if you ticked all the options boxes. Even Rolls Royce didn’t offer a PC as an option.

  30. I had a motorcycle which had an expensive handlebar mounted fairing, I think it was made by Craven, the indicator assemblies on the fairing were the same model fitted to the DS420

  31. I attended a funeral in a six door Jaguar XJ L, which is a more modern take on the Daimler Limousine, but with the same principle of carrying six passengers in supreme comfort. For all this was a sad day, on the return from the crematorium, without the Jaguar hearse in front, the chauffeur was allowed to drive at the speed limit and the limousine was almost completely silent and soaked up the poor road surfaces with ease. Also the leather, wood and climate control that could be adjusted by passengers were a nod to the old Dailmler.

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