Jaguar XK 120

An original road test taken from the Motor Sport archives, April 1951
By Bill Boddy

Power: 160bhp
0-60mph: 9sec
Max speed: 120mph

The car that began the Jaguar legend on road, stage and track. First to use the twin-cam XK engine, in 3.4 form, in stunning body. Optional wheel spats accentuate streamlining. Torsion-bar IFS, leafs at rear, drum brakes. Drophead and coupe more comfortable, but spartan roadster is purist choice. SE version brought stiffer springs and 20 more bhp; later C-type head offered 210bhp. Perfect spec: to admire roadster with bolt-ons and spats. To drive: SE coupe with C-type head.

After going along to Henly’s showroom in Great Portland Street, the ‘street of cars’, to snatch a preview of the new fixed-head coupe, I was able to take away for test an open XK120. First impressions of an unfamiliar fast car are not always the most favourable, and so it was with this XK. The snug hood and rigid sidescreen were erect when I took over, and as the reassurances of ‘Lofty’ England were cut off abruptly as he stood upright I realised that I was alone in the maelstrom of London traffic in England’s fastest standard car. Naturally no self-respecting motoring journalist wants to loiter in such a vehicle, but as I pressed strongly along I was a bit put out at the way the Jaguar wallowed and howled its Dunlops when deflected from the straight ahead. You have to be used to sailing small boats to master this chap, I thought to myself.

But the response to the throttle was magnificently stimulating. It was immediately apparent that the 31/2-litre twin-cam engine was, like a bank clerk, devoid of temperament. I left it idling in Bayswater traffic hold-ups and poodled in top gear from 500rpm without upsetting the mixture, but when a gap appeared — my how we made use of it!

So to the A30 arterial, where people roaring homeward in the right-hand groove were sometimes peeved to receive a reminder from the Jaguar’s very polite horn, so that we could get on with our motoring. The way we left everything behind will long live in my memory.

At first I felt alarmed at the thought of hurrying along the twisty bits in a car so softly sprung, for the XK120 is that all right. It gives a most comfortable ride though the outer front wheel scrubs in a manner I met pre-war in the MkV Bentley and V12 Lagonda. But I realised how well the wheels followed the surface contours and later, when I negotiated twisty roads at advanced throttle openings, I was surprised how correctly geared the steering seemed. Indeed, the Jaguar ‘holds in’ splendidly round fast bends, while only the slightest tremors are transmitted through the wheel. Whip an XK through the ‘chicane’ type of bend and you will quickly appreciate that, if ‘disconnected’ in the modern manner, the steering is very good. It is also reasonably light, although at racing speeds one is conscious of holding the car against the powerful castor action.

Rev up the engine and pleasing sounds come from the exhaust, but the outstanding impression left by this wonderful car is its combination of extravagant performance and silent, effortless functioning. The immense acceleration, with no display of effort, thrusts the car forward into the 80s and 90s in a refreshingly brief space of time. 90mph becomes commonplace in dodging between the lorries along any main road as you make hawk-like swoops past slower traffic, punctuated by firm applications of the brakes to tuck you safely behind prevailing obstructions. It is all so tremendously exhilarating and accomplished so easily that after hundreds of miles you never begin to feel blase. The quick steering and this smooth, unending surge of acceleration bring familiar towns and villages quite astonishingly close together.

The Lockheed brakes do their stuff admirably, too. Truly powerful, progressive, snag-free retardation is available, without which the XK120 wouldn’t be half the car it is.

This suave Jaguar was so enormously quick from one place to another that to plot its true performance seemed somewhat pointless. The engine ran straight up ‘into the red’ — well over 5000rpm — without the slightest anxiety. Normally, of course, I started in second, went almost at once into third up to 70, and then got going in top. How easily speed builds up is illustrated by a casual run down past Frensham Ponds from Farnham, when, baulked on the ‘run in’, I nevertheless got up to about 97mph along the undulating straight beside the lake. Later I saw 120 along a mile or so of straight road, but the surge of acceleration from 80mph onwards is perhaps more exhilarating than these impressive maximum speeds.

For a car good for 100mph almost anywhere, the XK120 is notably docile in conception and demeanour. The fascia is devoid of masses of switches and dials; it even incorporates a cigar lighter. (Fancy smoking a cigar in an XK!) There is one of those wonderful petrol gauges that becomes an oil level indicator when you press a button. This is a snug car, too, when hood and side bits are unfurled, absolutely suited to taking the popsie to — well, to the pictures. Open, the big screen gives excellent protection even at 100mph. And torrential rain blows clear of the occupants over 40mph. Both wings are easily visible, and the rear-view mirror is excellent for those areas where they do not disguise their police cars.

Lack of cubby holes is compensated for by excellent door pockets, the doors shut ‘expensively’ and getting in or out couldn’t be easier. The lines of the car are superb, and the hood stows away neatly. A few rattles intruded, but the gears are well behaved. I was spared a radio and heater, liked very much the fly-off handbrake, and found the headlamps penetrating. The big luggage locker is useful too — and in case anyone asks what this and similar ‘amenities’ have to do with real sports cars, let me say that the very rapidity and driving pleasure afforded by such cars makes them appropriate for long-distance touring.

Before parting with the car it was subjected to some very hard laps of Brands Hatch, after which it completed some very enjoyable miles in Kent with only slightly more free movement of the brake pedal to indicate how hard it had been driven. It never boiled and on the circuit only slight brake fade intruded.

By the high quality of its finish and appointments alone the XK120 represents very good value for money, while its very liberal speed and acceleration, accomplished with such willing ease, are unrivalled. To drive this Jaguar is to experience one of the highest pinnacles of modern motoring.