With the correct ingredients, and some particularly good chefs, Jaguar could rustle up saloon-car fare to cordon bleu standard seemingly at will in the 1960s.
From Mk2 to MkX – via the 420, the 420G and the 2½-litre Daimlers – the engine, transmission and body-style combinations were bewildering in what was almost certainly the most complete range of luxury automobiles available anywhere in the world.
But if the larger-engined Mk2s were hard to beat on the basis of performance for your pound, it cannot be denied that the 1963-’68 S-type derived from them was a measurably better car in almost every way.
As usual, Browns Lane made the formula look easy: take your most popular saloon body, fit your latest, quad-damper independent rear suspension, and garnish liberally with extra luxury touches and styling refinements to make a car that fits neatly between your flagship chairman’s barge (the MkX) and the sportier, more compact Mk2.
With the plushness of the former and the manoeuvrability of the latter, but with better roadholding and ride, the S-type was probably the best saloon Jaguar produced in the 1960s, prior to the XJ6.
Nearly 25,000 sales proved that the long-tail, fully independently suspended S-type, as a 3.4 or 3.8, was the car customers wanted – particularly in the business class where, post April ’61, tax relief was only allowed on company vehicles worth up to £2000.
It was this new legislation that partially inspired the creation of the Vanden Plas Princess 4 litre R.
Carefully priced at £1994 on its August 1964 introduction, this was a product of the giant BMC conglomerate, which saw a shortcut to Jaguar-challenging prestige in a de-finned version of its largest Farina-inspired saloon body, powered by a Rolls-Royce FB60 all-aluminium straight-six.
Structurally stiffer than before, and with more upright front and rear ’screens (the latter allowing the rear bench to be moved back to gain legroom), the 4 litre R ran fatter tyres on smaller, 13in wheels and had lower spring rates all round than the other big Farinas.
Groomed to hand-finished near-perfection by Vanden Plas of Kingsbury, BMC’s luxury brand, how could it fail?
In fairness, given the relative success of the previous 3 litre VdP – which was selling to the tune of 100 cars a week – it was an idea that, superficially, had its merits.
The scheme had emerged from a short-lived early ’60s liaison between BMC and Rolls-Royce centring around a project to build cheaper, higher-volume Bentley saloons based on a modified ‘big Farina’ ADO10 bodyshell.
Two Project Java prototypes were built, one with a Bentley grille and stacked headlamps, the other fitted with a Roll-Royce four-speed automatic ’box.
The performance was good – they were evaluated at 116mph on the M1 – but the work involved in making a product worthy of the illustrious Bentley badge would have been considerable.
So when Crewe, unable to see a cost saving (and fearful, perhaps, of the damage to its reputation), pulled out of the arrangement in October 1962, BMC forged ahead. Enter, in August 1964, the doomed Vanden Plas 4 litre R.
The specification looked promising, on paper at least.
With power steering and the latest, American-supplied Borg-Warner automatic gearbox as standard, the 4 litre R was aimed at the MkX market, but priced closer to the sub-£2000 S-type in which an auto ’box and power assistance were cost options.
The R was 50% more expensive than the outgoing 3 litre – which had been powered by the venerable and hefty C-series straight-six – but for the additional outlay you got a much faster, 112mph car with the added snob appeal of that Rolls-Royce powerplant.
A civilianised version of the ‘F-head’ FB60 short-stroke ‘six’, it had hydraulic tappets, seven main bearings and 175 (gross) horsepower.
With 60mph from rest in 12.7 secs – and 100mph in 45 secs – performance was in the Rolls-Royce class; but so was the fuel consumption, at 14mpg.
Sales of 1910 cars in 1964 and a further 4000 in 1965 showed that buyers were willing to overlook the well-documented military origins of the engine, but they certainly had a right to expect better reliability.
Problems with rough running, water leaks and cylinder-head studs pulling out of the aluminium block became widely reported, causing sales to fall off the proverbial cliff in the final three years of the 4 litre R’s existence. Only 200 cars were sold in 1967.
Behind the scenes, while BMC chairman George Harriman pushed both Vanden Plas and Rolls-Royce for increased production (forcing both firms to hire less-skilled labour in order to catch up), 1400 unsold 4 litre Rs languished on an airfield.
The model’s trade reputation became so bad that retired BMC boss Leonard Lord felt compelled to have the ‘BMC 1’ numberplate removed from his chauffeur-driven 4 litre R, after being accosted so frequently by disgruntled customers.
The shame of it was that, by the end of the car’s production run in May 1968, the 4 litre R had become quite a nice, sorted car.
In the metal, Robert Hughes’ 66,000-mile, black-over-Carlton Grey 1966 example – a Vanden Plas Owners’ Club concours class-winner in 2021 – sits a little too tall and narrow to truly disguise the Austin Westminster/Wolseley 6/110 origins of its sheet-metal.
Yet this is a good-looking machine, its faux-Bentley/Alvis front end handsomely resolved with neat auxiliary lights and indicator units.
Inside, great swathes of gleaming veneer and fragrant red leather make you feel well disposed towards it at once, as do the individual armrests for the front seats and the tidy, tasteful switchgear. Surprisingly, it has a manual choke.
There is a touch of early Silver Shadow about the shape and layout of the VdP’s dashboard – if not the look and position of the giant steering wheel, which almost sits in your lap – and rear passengers get fold-out writing tables and generous legroom, albeit not quite enough to justify choosing the rare ‘Touring Limousine’ option with glass division.
For ultimate smoothness, the Borg-Warner automatic transmission gives you the option of locking out first gear in ‘D2’ to cut down on revs and gearchanges.
Shifts are smooth at low speeds, but slightly jerky at wider throttle openings. Of its type, the column shift is precise and easy to use.
The stately, strangulated refinement of the engine note – and the heavy, cumbersome throttle action – tends to make the acceleration feel less lively than it really is.
There are no figures available for an automatic 3.4 S-type, but I suspect that the cars would be a close match in a straight-line burn-up.
More relevant is the 4 litre R’s ability to stride briskly and cleanly to 80 or 90mph on the motorway, then hold that speed without constant correction.
It is very stable in a straight line and under the brakes (discs front, drums rear), which are potent, progressive and well balanced.
But if the 4 litre R handles tolerably well, with less understeer than you might think, then it steers poorly.
With Burman Hydrosteer as standard, the opportunity was taken to speed up the ratio to 2.6 turns between locks, but somewhere in the equation precision of control was sacrificed in favour of low effort at parking speeds.
Viewed from the outside it doesn’t roll as much as you expect, but from behind the wheel your sense of what the front end is doing is lost, making the Princess hard to position confidently for ambitious progress.
Where the 4 litre R reeks of bank-manager-like ’60s respectability, there is a raffish air about the S-type Jaguar that conjures images of people who rob banks rather than manage them.
Yet these compact Jaguars, considered by many to be the finest cars of their type during the ’60s, were thoroughly respectable executive-express transport.
Almost exactly the same length as the Vanden Plas, the S-type is slightly narrower and quite a lot lower-slung, riding on a 3in-shorter wheelbase.
With dual pannier fuel tanks, it extracts a much longer – albeit shallower – boot from its dimensions than the 4 litre R and, surprisingly, weighs in at around 100lb heavier.
You step down into its more intimate but by no means cramped cabin, which is superficially as lavish as the R’s but less exacting in detail.
Only the seat facings are genuine leather, for instance (everything else is Ambla), and it lacks the height-adjustable seats and rear picnic tables of the more ‘coachbuilt’ BMC car.
Having said that, you do get individual front armrests and a parcel shelf under that classic Jaguar dashboard.
With its separate minor gauges, rev counter and impressive line-up of toggle switches, it assumes a level of enthusiasm for driving on behalf of its owner that the 4 litre R, with its slab of timber and two deeply recessed instruments, appears to go out of its way to discourage.
The throaty engine note and free-revving character of the XK straight-six underline how quiet the well-soundproofed Vanden Plas really is and, having manual gears and steering, the S-type cannot match the effortless ‘town carriage’ manners of the Princess.
But the Jaguar is a much less formal, more intimate car that combines limousine-like virtues of bump-absorption, road-noise isolation and drivetrain smoothness that eclipse the 4 litre R, with its leaf-sprung live rear axle.
Even considering roll angles that would alarm modern-car drivers, the well-balanced, well-sprung and progressively understeering S-type invites you to throw it around, exploring the revs and the gears – including the handy optional overdrive on top – in a way that is completely alien to the charming, capable but fairly stodgy 4 litre R.
Yes, the Jaguar would be less fun as an automatic, but a fairer comparison. It would also, probably, be a nicer car with power steering.
In reality, the S-type’s unassisted steering is only a real chore when stationary: it lightens up pleasingly once you are rolling and castor-returns nicely.
Apologists for the 4 litre R may point out that it was never intended to be a ‘driver’s car’, but merely opulent, high-status transportation for a market with little knowledge of, or interest in, the finer points of driver appeal.
But it was born into a world that was changing quickly. Standards and expectations were on the rise, and Jaguar was leading the way in building luxury saloon cars that were fast and refined but also satisfying to drive, and that offered outstanding value for money.
Today it is the Vanden Plas 4 litre R that offers the best value, when you can own what must be one of the finest original examples in the world for just over £20k. Robert’s 3.4 S-type is just as nice, but commands a £10k premium.
The Jaguar is the better car, yet viewed from a 2023 perspective – a frightening near 60 years on from the heyday of these saloons – you could equally make a case for the 4 litre R as the more interesting buy.
Its glorious interior, rarity and Rolls-Royce associations might well be worth the price of admission alone. But for me, the principal charm of the Vanden Plas 4 litre R is the story of corporate hubris it tells, a warning from history, if you like, about silk purses, sows’ ears and misplaced optimism.
Fast, cumbersome, jumped-up and misconceived, in many ways it is the greatest British barge of all, and for that you have to love it.
Images: Luc Lacey
Thanks to: Robert Hughes Automobiles
Jaguar S-type 3.4
- Sold/number built 1963-’68/9928
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 3442cc straight-six, twin SU carburettors
- Max power 210bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 216Ib ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, optional overdrive, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers rear lower wishbones, upper driveshaft links, radius arms, twin coil/damper units
- Steering worm and nut
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 15ft 7in (4750mm)
- Width 5ft 6¼in (1683mm)
- Height 4ft 7¾in (1416mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 11½in (2730mm)
- Weight 3647Ib (1654kg)
- 0-60mph 11 secs
- Top speed 112mph
- Mpg 15-22
- Price new £1885
- Price now £6-35,000*
Vanden Plas 4 litre R
- Sold/number built 1964-’68/6555
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, inlet-over-exhaust 3909cc straight-six, twin SU carbs
- Max power 175bhp @ 4800rpm
- Max torque 218Ib ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission three-speed auto, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, lever-arm dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Armstrong Selectaride dampers
- Steering power-assisted cam and peg
- Brakes discs front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 15ft 8in (4775mm)
- Width 5ft 8½in (1740mm)
- Height 4ft 11in (1499mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 2in (2794mm)
- Weight 3570Ib (1619kg)
- 0-60mph 12.7 secs
- Top speed 112mph
- Mpg 13-17
- Price new £1994
- Price now £5-20,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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