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A select group of motor cars exude quiet authority without the need for extraneous decoration.
In the late ’60s, the likes of the Ford Corsair 2000E attempted to impress the patrons of the Golden Egg eatery via elaborate chrome decorations and a vinyl roof, but neither the Daimler Sovereign 2.8 nor the Volvo 164 required such gewgaws.
Five decades later, Darren Newnham’s Daimler and Mark Yeulett’s Volvo continue to dominate their surroundings, for these are machines of genuine presence.
In 1968, many a chartered accountant tore their Dunn & Co suits in moderate despair at the demise of the Wolseley 6/110.
Brochures of potential alternatives would have been scrutinised, but they all appeared to be somewhat lacking.
At the same time, the P5B 3.5-Litre saloon was too expensive, while BLMC’s Austin 3 Litre seemed devoid of the Wolseley’s innate dignity.
However, the local Volvo dealer was soon to offer salvation in the form of the new 164.
‘Buying foreign’ might have resulted in some eyebrow-raising at the Rotary Club, but the brand had been established in the UK for more than a decade.
Motor thought it ‘undoubtedly the best Volvo to date, [with] all the ingredients of a comfortable, high-quality family car’ and remarked on the degree of loyalty among owners: ‘Which possibly no other manufacturer in the world can boast.’
Even the grille looked perfect, the Wolseley 6/99 having served as inspiration for Volvo chief designer Jan Wilsgaard when he planned the 164.
Dubbed ‘A joy to drive. A pleasure to travel in. A delight to own’ by its maker, the 164 took a bow at the 1968 Paris motor show, two years after the launch of the 144.
Compared to its cheaper stablemate, the wheelbase was increased by 4in while power came from the new B30 3-litre straight-six.
The company’s previous six-cylinder offering, the PV800 produced between 1938 and 1958, resembled a pre-war Vauxhall 25 and was often used as a taxi.
The impact of the 144 in 1966 is too often overlooked, because it was the first post-war Volvo to eschew American styling tropes.
Unlike the Amazon and the PV544, its coachwork bore no traces of previous-generation Detroit products: this was a vehicle for the European haute bourgeoisie.
The 164 represented a continuation of this theme although, ironically, it was also intended to enhance sales in the USA. Road & Track called it ‘quite exceptional’.
Meanwhile, a potential 164 owner might also have read in Car that the Jaguar XJ6 was ‘probably the best this nation can offer, and certainly among the best any nation has known in 75 years’.
Furthermore, in October 1969 came the debut of the Daimler version, which was even more respectable than its faintly louche Jaguar counterpart.
The wonderfully pompous ‘Sovereign, by Daimler’ brochure promised ‘a discrete but powerful feeling of luxury’, as well as containing mildly disquieting references to ‘a mood of dominance and authority’.
The XJ6 must be the greatest vehicle never to have been declared Car of the Year, and perhaps the ultimate tribute was paid by legendary automotive scribe LJK Setright.
This Jaguar, in his view, was: ‘Not merely remarkable for what it is, but also because it renders superfluous all cars which cost more. I can think of no other car of which this can be as truthfully said.’
Within a year of its introduction on 26 September 1968, there were reports of black-market asking prices of some £1000 more than the book figure to circumvent the 12-month waiting list.
Industry observers had been predicting the imminent announcement of a Daimler XJ.
Jaguar had acquired the famous concern in June 1960 and issued a press release denying ‘unfounded rumours’ concerning the extinction of one of the most renowned names in motoring history.
Many enthusiasts were unconvinced and anticipated the badge’s slow and painful decline.
As it transpired, the 1962 2½-litre V8, combining the Jaguar Mk2 bodyshell with the Turner engine, was a splendid conveyance in its own right and a demonstration that the ethos of the two marques could successfully coalesce.
However, as the decade progressed the last independent designs ceased production – the SP250 in 1964, and four years later the Majestic Major and DR450.
The 1966 420 Sovereign was the harbinger of Daimler’s future in that it was pure Browns Lane, aside from the badging.
The DS420 arrived in 1968, with Vanden Plas coachwork and 420G underpinnings, and the XJ-based Sovereign a few months later replaced the 250 and the 420.
“The grille is far more suited to the shape than the Jaguar item,” reckons owner Newnham. “And the interior refinements are far better in the Daimler specification.”
The advertisements claimed that here was a car combining tradition ‘with modern attack’, and the Sovereign indeed represents one of the most successful examples of the often-flawed art of badge-engineering.
In 1957 the Riley Two Point Six suffered from its resemblance to the Wolseley 6/90, while the 1964 Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R never entirely overcame its air of middle-class suburbia aspiring to the country set.
To encounter both the Sovereign and 164 together in the metal is to be reminded of their almost indefinable poise.
Newnham’s Sovereign exemplifies the sheer grace of Sir William Lyons’ coachwork and, as its custodian notes: “The pure shape of the Series 1 is the original, from which all the others were developed.”
The Volvo’s styling is best described as formal but not staid, with the long bonnet balanced by the slim pillars and the distinctive frontal treatment.
“Scandi minimalism is clearly ‘in’ at the moment,” notes owner Yeulett. “Everyone seems to enjoy seeing the 164.”
It is perhaps the interiors that best encapsulate the differences between the Daimler and the Volvo.
The Sovereign updates the gentleman’s club ethos for the 1970s, with a heating system far superior to any previous Jaguar and a key starter in place of a separate button.
However, the traditionalists would have been reassured by the familiar row of switches and an atmosphere wholly redolent of the goodlife.
“The dashboard is unlike any other XJ,” confirms Newnham. “It hasn’t been messed about with, and there are no tacky plastics like in the later cars.”
If the Sovereign was transport for a day at the races, the Volvo was a mobile office, one boasting such practical touches as lumbar-support controls for the front seats.
The leather upholstery looks faintly incongruous in such a rational cabin, dominated by a dashboard with a faux-woodgrain finish, while a Daimler owner would probably look askance at the strip speedometer.
Two mildly dated touches are the air vents mounted in the footwells rather than the fascia, and the column-mounted selector for the automatic transmission.
Today, both cars are rarer than an EastEnders episode in which the cast does not resemble a gaggle of failed Anthony Newley impersonators.
Production of the first generation of XJs ended in 1973, with only 22,555 customers specifying the 2.8-litre engine – and the Sovereign was even more exclusive, at just 3221 units.
Volvo developed its flagship throughout its run, including the Bosch-injected ‘E’ in 1972, but the 164 suffered from the upward expansion of the 144 range.
Sales of the flagship ended in1975, shortly after the unveiling of the replacement 264, and by the end of the decade the older model was fast becoming an unusual sight.
Yeulett’s grandfather purchased VHV 539G new in 1969 as a retirement present to himself, trading in his Austin A110 Westminster. “My grandad loved the Volvo,” Yeulett explains.
“When he passed away in 1989, I kept the car going and would take my grandmother out in it. The 164 stayed at their house, and I did some work on it to try and get it up to scratch.”
He took full ownership on the passing of his grandmother in 1991 and was determined to maintain the Volvo’s condition because it meant so much to its original owner.
In terms of road manners, the 164 is a fast and easy cruiser, aided no end by its optional power-assisted steering.
“The 3-litre straight-six will easily keep up with modern traffic and is no stranger to the fast lane,” says Yeulett.
“People do a double-take when being overtaken by a 51-year-old Swede. Most classics can be tiring to drive over a longer journey, but the 164 simply glides along.
“I took it to Goodwood in 2019 and droved own the night before to meet some colleagues. The 100-mile trip was a blast, and I felt completely fresh on arrival. The suspension is very forgiving, although spirited driving will induce body roll in the corners.”
He echoes the observations of the Motor road test, that the 164 had ‘little sporting appeal’. “It’s not really what she was built for,” he admits.
Childhood memories similarly prompted Newnham to acquire his Daimler: “My father owned an identical car when I was a boy, and I told him at six years old that I would own one some day. And I did just that.”
The cream 2.8 was discovered by chance and, even more incredibly, it was a one-owner car that was the same year, colour and specification as his dad’s. The car had been dry-stored since 1978.
“A mild rolling restoration has kept it on the road since,” its owner reveals. “In 2019 I treated it to some fresh paint and a Vanden Plas interior.
“The floor and sills have never been welded and are totally original. It now has 46,000 miles on the clock, and had 43,000 when I bought it.”
Newnham finds the Sovereign to be very smooth. “The steering is exceptionally light,” he says. “With minor upgrades, electronic fuel pumps and ignition, the Daimler is now very reliable. It is far more comfortable than our family Mercedes C-Class.”
Jaguar intended the 2.8-litre unit to appeal to overseas customers, where smaller engines attracted tax concessions.
In reality it suffered from both in-house competition and complaints about holed pistons.
However, Newnham believes it to be a great engine. “It is not as powerful as a 3.4 or a 4.2, of course, but it’s not for racing about in,” he says.
“The Borg-Warner automatic ’box suits the car, but it obviously feels very different to the manual version.”
Naturally, the Daimler and the Volvo attract a great deal of public attention, as befitting machinery of such distinction.
“The Sovereign has become much more of a ‘stop and stare’ car in the past five years or so,” admits Newnham.
“When I first bought it, in 2007, only a few people would pause and mention it. Now most passers-by comment on how lovely it is.”
“The 164 stands out quite a bit on the school run,” adds Yeulett. “I’ll never sell it – I’ll pass it on to one of my sons to own, run and enjoy.”
These very different but equally impressive machines would have co-existed in period in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
The Volvo more than lives up to its memorable slogan, ‘A civilised car built for an uncivilised world,’ and was ideal for a solicitor who regarded colour television to be the outer limit of contemporary living.
You can equally imagine a Peter Bowles-style young barrister piloting the Daimler from Lincoln’s Inn after a productive meeting.
And anyone who questions theSovereign ’s important place in the XJ family has probably never experienced the curtain-twitching social judgement that was just a part of life in the Home Counties, circa 1969.
Images: John Bradshaw
- Sold/number built 1968-’75/146,008
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-iron, ohv 2978cc straight-six, twin Zenith carburettors
- Max power 130bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 152Ib ft @ 2500rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual with optional overdrive or three-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, radius arms, transverse link; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted worm and roller
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 15ft 6in (4724mm)
- Width 5ft 8¼in (1733mm)
- Height 4ft 9¼in (1454mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 10½in (2705mm)
- Weight 3270lb (1483kg)
- 0-60mph 11.3 secs
- Top speed 108mph
- Mpg 20
- Price new £2048 12s 6d
- Price now £5-20,000*
Daimler Sovereign 2.8
- Sold/number built 1968-’73/3221
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 2792cc straight-six, twin SU carbs
- Max power 180bhp @ 6000rpm
- Max torque 182Ib ft @ 3750rpm
- Transmission Borg-Warner Type 35 three-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by semi-trailing double wishbones, anti-roll bar rear lower wishbones, driveshafts as upper links, radius arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 15ft 9½in (4816mm)
- Width 5ft 9¾in (1772mm)
- Height 4ft 5in (1343mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 1in (2764mm)
- Weight 3389lb (1537kg)
- 0-60mph 11 secs
- Top speed 118mph
- Mpg 17
- Price new £2356
- Price now £7-28,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication