GRR

Were these the best new cars of 1968?

04th January 2018
Bob Murray

Welcome to the new year – half a century ago. Yes, it’s 1968 again. It was the year Harold Wilson backed Britain, an American bought London Bridge, the M1 was completed, a new series called Dad’s Army hit our screens and the first Datsun arrived. For most of us though the headline that tore us apart was the death of a champion. Jim Clark was killed in an F2 race at Hockenheim.

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And the cars of ’68?  A pretty good crop as it happens. As we head into 2018, we’ve singled out five worthy G-reg debutants… 

Jaguar XJ6 

For Britons, the car of ’68 was the new XJ6. Everyone wanted one. With such a sleek look, luxurious cabin (face-level air vents!) and superb ride and handling, the debut model rolled all Jaguar attributes from disparate earlier models like the Mk2, 340, Mk X, S-type and 420G into one sensational package with a (thankfully) simple new name. XJ originally stood for eXperimental Jaguar but for 50 years now it’s been synonymous with the archetypal British luxury saloon.

The XJ was company founder Sir Williams Lyons’ last Jaguar, and a car he delighted in promoting. He envisaged it as a four-door with the handling of an E-type and often called it “the finest Jaguar ever”. 

Click here to see Sir William giving Pathe News a quick tour of the car at its UK debut at the 1968 Earls Court Motor Show.

Just over 98,000 Series Is were made – 2.8s, 4.2s, V12s, swb, lwb, Jaguar and Daimler versions – setting in train a dynasty of British-made luxury sedans that continues to this day. The XJ is William Lyons’ longest-lived legacy. 

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Ferrari 365 GTB/4

The model designation might not be familiar to all – everyone except Ferrari knows this car as the Daytona – but its shark-nosed styling by Pininfarina’s Leonardo Fioravanti cannot fail to be instantly recognisable.  

Against its predecessor, the 275 GTB, this sharp-edged and glassy two-seater coupe looked very modern, despite staying with the front-engine layout that the mid-engined Lamborghini Miura had by ’68 shown to be yesterday’s news. 

But then the Daytona could claim to be the fastest car in the world. That was courtesy of its 4.4-litre Colombo-designed four-cam V12 with 352bhp. Top speed? 174mph – enough for Dan Gurney to drive from New York to Los Angeles in under 36 hours (average speed 80mph) in the 1971 Canonball Run. 

The Daytona was made for just over four years, there were fewer than 1300 coupes and only around 150 of them in right-hand drive. It was up against the new-fangled Lambo and was never a factory racer, in spite of privateers’ GT success at Le Mans. Yet the Daytona remains the most iconic of all Ferrari’s front-engined V12s and a car consistently in the top echelons of lists of the greatest-ever Ferraris. 

Isuzu 117 coupe

Here’s our 1968 wild card, one of the unsung classic car heroes of the Japanese car industry.  

Pretty car? You bet. The elegant coupe was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro when he was at Ghia (see the lines of his later Fiat Dino in its profile?) and powered by a 120bhp 1,600cc twin-cam motor from the racing Isuzu Bellett GT-R. The 117 was roomy, practical, well equipped and could top out at 118mph. It was also largely hand built and as a consequence was fantastically expensive in Japan. 

It sold in mere handfuls, to begin with, but despite that, it remained in production for 12 years after its production debut in ’68. Unthinkable at the time, Isuzu even put a diesel engine in it – the world’s first diesel sports coupe was born.

It is of course rare outside Japan, but not impossibly so: just a few weeks ago Classic Car Auctions sold a 1978 1.8-litre 117, incredibly with just two owners, in the UK for £5000. Not bad for a Giugiaro original! 

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Lamborghini Espada

How appropriate that the Espada is celebrating its half-century in the same year Lamborghini is releasing its newest mould-breaker, the Urus SUV. Wild two-seat sports cars are fine, but if you want to hit the sales heights and save the company then there’s no substitute for a four-seater.  

The Espada – it means bullfighting sword – lined up in the Lambo range of the day alongside the 2+2 400 GT and the mid-engined Miura. It looked right at home thanks to a concept car-inspired design from Miura master Marcello Gandini of Bertone (which also built all Espadas). The sumptuous front-engine GT was one of the most exotic car shapes of the ‘60s but also stunningly handsome, with its huge round headlights, NACA ducts in the vast bonnet, slim pillars and a roofline that extended right to the cutoff tail and its signature vertical glass rear panel.  

It went well thanks to a 4.0-litre engine with a requisite number of everything: 12 cylinders, six Weber carbs, twin overhead cams, 24 valves and up to 350 horses, enough for 0-60 in under 7secs and 150mph or so. Not bad for a roomy four-seater with luggage space.

There were three series and in total 1217 were made. It was Lamborghini’s best seller – and money-maker – for each of the 10 years it was in production. Follow that, Urus. 

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Mercedes W114/115

Mercedes’ old W model designations were confusing enough, let alone when they came with an /8 suffix. It’s a significant addition, however, because it stands for 1968 and the launch of what were known at the time as the new generation models.  

Since the end of the war Mercedes had reused the same chassis, but in 1968 it all changed with a new clean sheet design of semi-trailing arms at the rear. It would provide the basis for a host of mid-size saloon and coupe models, evolve into the first S-Class (of 1972) and generally endure in one form or another until the 1980s and the first multilink suspension.   

As such, the W114/8 (six-cylinders cars like the 230, 250 and 280) and the W115/8 (the four-pot 200, 220 and 240) weren’t just new and improved models in their own right, but were integral to the development of luxury saloons that would set the pace in technology and safety, such as anti-lock brakes, ESP and airbags. Yes, even those ribbed rear lights so the mud didn’t stick. There’s also a family connection here to wonderful machines like the  450 SEL 6.9.

Oh, and they all made excellent taxis…

And finally… 

There is one 1968 debutant that didn’t catch on. Invented in Middlesex, it was called the Cube, it seated six, was BMC 1100 powered, had a 50mph top speed and cost £900. Oh, and you most definitely would not want to hit anything in it…

  • Lamborghini

  • Jaguar

  • Ferrari

  • isuzu

  • Mercedes-Benz

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