Launched in 1948, Jaguar’s first postwar sports car the XK120 was an instant success, its beautiful shape and exemplary performance setting new standards which were clearly appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet the car was originally intended by its progenitor, Bill Lyons, as a limited-production publicity exercise.
Influenced by BMW’s pre-war 328 model, the body styling was unsurpassed in its beauty and the six-cylinder DOHC 3.4 Iitre engine was the world’s first large-quantity twin-cam. Designed by Wally Hassan, it developed 160bhp on twin SUs in standard form, endowing this big cat with close on 120mph performance potential.
Under its curvaceous bodywork — aluminium alloy was used for the first 200 cars — was a sturdy steel chassis frame, independent front suspension by wishbones, longitudinally mounted torsion bars and an anti-roll bar, and semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear; telescopic shock absorbers were fitted at all four corners.
The spartan roadster version was followed by the attractive fixed-head coupe from 1951, and the short-lived drophead coupe was available from 1953. All three variants had split two-piece windscreens, 4-speed manual gearboxes without synchromesh on first, and all-round drum brakes which were only slightly more useful than an ashtray on a motorbike.
Roadsters and tin-top’ versions were offered with an optional Special Equipment package from 1952: this included centre-lock wire wheels, twin exhaust pipes, high-lift camshafts and a lightened flywheel; maximum power was increased accordingly to 180bhp.
The XK120 was superceded by the XK140 in 1954. The split windscreen and drum brakes remained, but there was rack and pinion steering to replace the recirculating ball type, a heavier chromed radiator grille, a Le Mans winners badge on the boot lid, stronger torsion bars, optional overdrive and more power under the bonnet — up to 190bhp for the standard unit and 200bhp for cars with the Special Equipment extra-cost option.
Revisions to the body styling were subtle but allowed for improved luggage space or an occasional rear seat in the coupe and drophead versions. The roadster remained a strict two-seater as previously. There were precious few right-hand-drive roadsters too — just 73 in all — and left-hand-drive factory conversions were diabolical; don’t expect to be able to reach the brake pedal in a hurry if you’re over 6ft tall.
And despite appearances, the differences between the roadster and its fixed head coupe and drophead coupe sisters became more pronounced. The former’s hood was unlined, there were removable side screens instead of wind-up windows, leather adorning the dashboard and door cappings instead of wood veneer, and a host of other distinct differences. Some late models of the XK140 were also available with automatic gearboxes, but these cars are exceptionally rare today.
With the advent of the XK150 in 1957 the styling, although essentially the same, was revised again and became very much more bulbous. There was also a more modern, one-piece panoramic windscreen for all three versions (the roadster arriving in 1958). Engine power was increased again, up to 210bhp in standard form, but an S version with straight-port heads pushed out healthy 250bhp.
There were all-round Dunlop disc brake to replace the drums of the previous model and from 1959, the more powerful 3.8-litre engine became available. But then the XK150 needed more power; like so many cars after a lengthy development phase, the XK underwent many production changes and had put on serious quantities of weight as a result — even the roadster was treated to wind-up windows. And the sales figures are most interesting; more than 12,000 Xk120s, 9,000 XK140s and 9,400 XK150s found customers in a long production run which lasted until the introduction of the E-Type in 1961.
When the XK120 was originally announced, Jaguar had no shortage of competition in the sports car market, especially from Porsche, Aston Martin and Ferrari, whose formidable efforts all began at around the same time. Jaguar’s strongest suit was in providing a top-class product at an almost unbelievably low price. In brief, you got more horses for your money than any other manufacturer could offer or provide.
In the hand of people like Stirling Moss, Peter Walker and Jack Fairman et al, these cars were also immediately successful in motorsport, both at circuit and rally venues. But despite their impeccable racing pedigree, prices for these fine vehicles remain reasonable today. XK Jaguars are also in plentiful supply but beware — many have been rebuilt to indifferent standards, and where advertisements entice you with words like ‘rust-free’, it often turns out to be the case that the rust is free and there’s plenty of it.
Over the past few years, a small number of cars have made regular appearances on the auction circuit and dealers’ forecourts and are clearly not what they purport to be. Before buying, therefore, it pays to consult an expert: creating a fake XK is only slightly more difficult than building an Airfix model aeroplane.
On the road, a well-fettled Jaguar should feel as though ‘hewn from solid’. By today’s standards, the steering is a little ponderous, but the roadholding is excellent — even on the original-pattern crossply tyres — and the engine should feel strong and willing across the rev range. A good well-maintained example should bring a smile to your face as soon as you switch the engine on — a bad one probably won’t.
A classic among British sporting classics, this is a notch or two above the rest where charisma is concerned and can be used ‘fuss free’ on today’s roads, but at a price. XK Jaguars will pass just about everything — except a petrol pump! Push the pedal to the metal and vast quantities of 4-star disappear at an alarming rate. For the fun you’ll have, though, it’s worth it, and there’s a bonus: the engines in these cars are almost unburstable so you are not going to be burdened with expensive bills for rebuilds too often.