Welcome to Rare Rides Icons, a spinoff of Rare Rides where we take a more in-depth look at those particularly interesting cars throughout history. Today’s large and luxurious Icon is the first time we present a Daimler in this series. The DS420 was the flagship of the brand; a car for heads of state. And in fact over 50 years after its introduction, it’s still in use as an official state limousine in several nations.
Daimler was founded in 1896 in Coventry, England by one H. J. Lawson. Lawson purchased the rights to use the Daimler name on his automobiles from Gottleib Daimler, of Daimler-Maybach fame. The company had immediate financial trouble and was bankrupt by 1904. In 1910 the brand was purchased by Birmingham Small Arms Company, a large British conglomerate. Daimler quickly made a name for itself producing luxury cars of high quality and was awarded a Royal Warrant in 1902 to provide vehicles directly to the British monarchy. It would hold royal favor until the Fifties, when it was replaced by that new money brand, Rolls-Royce.
Fast forward to just after WWII, and Daimler established its DE range. DE was a flagship chassis was used for its most expensive cars. They were the sort of phaetons and large sedans supplied to heads of state. The Twenty-seven was the standard chassis with inline-six power, sold alongside the Thirty-six long-wheelbase model powered by a 5.4-liter straight-eight. For the most part, Daimler supplied its luxury chassis to various coachbuilders, who put bodies on top as specified by an exclusive clientele. Daimler also had its own subsidiary, Hooper, which built DEs as well.
The DE series cars ran from 1946 through 1953 when they were replaced by the Regina, a sedan eventually renamed to DK400. The DK400 had less coachbuilder interest and was generally built as a limousine by Carbodies, the company that produced London taxis. Again Daimler’s flagship was used by royalty and was delivered to places like Afghanistan, for its king. The Regina/DK400 was produced through 1960, a point just past the change in Daimler ownership: Birmingham Small Arms ceded Daimler to Jaguar in 1960. Head of Jaguar William Lyons wanted to make more cars and saw an opportunity in Daimler’s underutilized manufacturing facilities.
The DK400’s replacement, DR450, was significant in two ways: It was the last-ever car fully designed by Daimler and was not – like its predecessors – on its own chassis. In fact, the DR450 was a development of Daimler’s Majestic Major, itself a more powerful trim of the standard Majestic large sedan. Meant more as a hired car than a royal limousine, the eight-passenger DR450 was produced in much greater volume than its DK400 predecessor. While the DK saw just 93 examples produced in its ’54 to ’59 run, 864 examples of the DR450 were made between 1961 and 1968. Such vulgar numbers!
There was also a problem, in that this lesser Daimler DR450 was released the very same year as its new owner’s flagship sedan, the Jaguar Mark X. While the Mark X was not a limousine, the DR450 and Majestic Major were making things a bit crowded for Jaguar. Ultimately, the situation was a lose-lose for Daimler. Jaguar was taken over by British Motor Corporation (BMC) in 1966 (quickly renamed to BMH, and then British Leyland). Both companies under the BL umbrella, Jaguar was placed in charge of Daimler design. From there on out, every Daimler would be mostly Jaguar underneath. Enter DS420.
When it debuted in 1968, the DS420 (sometimes known as Limousine) was a replacement for both the DR450 and the Vanden Plas Princess limousine. Sensibly, a consolidation effort by that giant British Leyland. Engineered by Jaguar, the DS420 used a floorplan, engine, transmission, and suspension from the 420G (a new name the Mark X wore since 1966). The body wore sloped Daimler styling, with the brand’s typical fluted grille. The overall look was upright and imposing, as intended.
DS420 rode on a 141-inch wheelbase and had an impressive overall length of 226 inches. Comparative figures for the 420G were 120 and 202 inches, respectively. Power arrived from the 4.2-liter Jaguar inline-six, paired to one of three different three-speed automatics. There were two different versions supplied by BorgWarner, as well as the reliable and heavy-duty GM TH400. DS420s were initially built at the Vanden Plas factory.
At the front of the Limousine, a driver was positioned on a fixed bench seat with but one adjustment in front of him: 2.75 inches of telescope for the large steering wheel. Designed as a chauffeured vehicle for various dignitaries, the DS420 concentrated on its rear passengers. Up to six royals sat behind the partition with a sliding window. The main rear bench seat was over six feet wide and held three passengers. Folding jump seats held the other three, who sat facing forward with their knees against the center partition.
Beyond the standard limousine configuration, the staff at Vanden Plas would add as many layers of luxury trim and equipment as a customer deemed necessary. DS420 was available in a more basic configuration with manual windows, or in more executive spec with a complete mobile boardroom at the rear. The former examples were most often purchased by funeral and limousine companies and used for livery work, while the well-equipped cars went to captains of industry or royals. Worth noting, there were two factory landaulet DS420s produced, but those special examples have been lost to time.
Though Daimler lost their Royal Warrant long before, the DS420 made considerable inroads with other royalty around the world. Many of them had held onto their DE Thirty-six cars and replaced them with the DS420, a car which was coincidentally launched the very same time as the Rolls-Royce Phantom VI (1968-1990). The King of Denmark, Prince of Monaco, and Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother were all devotees of the DS420. The list goes on and includes the royals of Brunei, Malaysia, Oman, Luxembourg, and Jordan. Queen Elizabeth II joined the crowd in 1984 when she ordered the first of several DS420s, that one to transport Prince Charles and his new wife Diana.
Through three decades, there were just a couple of changes to this most traditional limousine. A facelift in 1972 switched up the passenger partition design, grille, and badge placement. There was another update in 1979 when Vanden Plas ceded DS420 manufacture to Jaguar. Suitably for that year, larger bumpers were added. There was one more update in 1987 when bumpers got plastic coating, and some minor interior changes arrived. Known technically as Mark IV, this last DS420 was produced through 1992.
Jaguar and Daimler stretched the DS420 as long as they could. The 1940s XK engine wasn’t compliant with modern emissions requirements, and the old chassis wouldn’t do too well in Nineties crash testing either. That last production day meant an end to more than just the DS420. It was the last coach-built Daimler limousine, the last of the XK inline-six, and indeed the last unique Daimler car, as the brand’s other offerings had become trims on a Jaguar by 1969.
The DS420 lives on as an icon of royal transport and is still in use in Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Unsurprisingly they were never sold in North America, so you’d probably only see one on the news.
Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.