Jaguar XK120

It was the car that put Jaguar on the map internationally with a new benchmark of performance for price. It was also a car of stunning beauty, and it’s still turning heads today
By Richard Heseltine / Photography by Howard Simmons

Intemperate middle age clearly suits him well. Emitting palpable rays of contempt, he stops short of saying, ‘Get off my land’ but only just. Irate of Cambridgeshire is on a mission. You can’t take photos here. Not on my farm track. Move back 10 feet onto what passes for a public rest area and that’ll be just fine, thank you very much. This would be the one person thus far not struck down with puppy love for this vision of gorgeousness. Except our captain of agriculture can’t stay away and, following a 10-minute debrief, he’s cooled his jets and is the latest convert to the cause: he’s all smiles and drooling like the rest of us. This lovely 1954 XK120 coupé has that effect.

Yet somehow this comes as a surprise. You would have thought that over-familiarity would have dulled its allure – this is as heartland as classics get after all – yet everyone seems to love the 120. Passers-by give the thumbs up, other road users veering into your lane as they hunker to get a closer look. So you can only imagine the impact it must have made 60 years ago, when the original roadster edition was ushered in at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show.

Marque principal William Lyons didn’t foresee it having a future – the XK was a testbed after all, a teaser. It wasn’t intended for volume production, yet demand for Jaguar’s brave new world was such that the penny-number coach-built approach just wasn’t going to cut it, with hand-beaten aluminium bodies over laminated ash frames making way for pressed-steel items (with ally doors, bonnet and bootlid skin) after the first 239 cars had been completed. And even then, demand outstripped supply.

All of which is understandable. Priced at just £998, there was nothing approaching its specification or performance for the money – all-alloy double-overhead cam in-line ‘six’, the ‘120’ part of the nomenclature intended to signify ultimate velocity. And it was breathtaking to behold, too. Beauty arbiters routinely cite the XK120 as being one of the greatest feats of automotive artistry ever perpetrated, yet it would be fair to say that the outline wasn’t entirely original. Certainly Lyons had a great eye for design, but he wasn’t a designer. Not by any quantifiable sense anyway. By most accounts, he couldn’t draw particularly well, and like most of the greats worked principally by instinct, often being partnered by a young apprentice draughstsman while whittling full-scale ideas until he was fully happy. The future knight’s real gift was his ability to take inspiration from other cars and then improve upon them, this magpie approach being obvious with the XK: the silhouette bore more than a passing resemblance to the Touring-bodied BMW 328s that ran in the Mille Miglia in 1940. Not that a single line was directly cribbed. Lyons apparently rustled up the XK120 outline in just a fortnight: no committees or customer clinics for him.

The XK120 (X for experimental, K the sequence of engine design designation) is hugely important in marque lore – in motor sport history as a whole – because it put the Coventry firm on the map as an international player. Sure, Lyons’ creations had tasted success before – witness Jack Harrop’s victories for the SS100 on the 1937 and ’38 RAC rallies – yet the breadth of the XK’s accomplishment far surpassed that of even purpose-built competition machinery. Predictably, a number of aluminium-bodied examples found their way into the racing fraternity, the likes of Leslie Johnson, Peter Walker, Clemente Biondetti, Tommy Wisdom and Lyons’ son-in-law Ian Appleyard being among early adopters. The latter in particular heaped glory on the Coventry firm, taking an International Alpine Rally hat-trick from 1950-52 along with RAC and Tulip Rally honours in 1951. Add to that Stirling Moss’ triumph in the 1950 Tourist Trophy – on the eve of his 21st birthday – along with strong Le Mans showings (if not necessarily finishes) and the model’s copper-bottomed status as a sports car legend was already assured.

All of which was further underlined once the fixed-head coupé variant broke cover in the spring of 1951 (followed by the drop-head coupé two years later). While the world’s supply of superlatives had seemingly been exhausted with the roadster, the closed edition had a different, more urbane agenda: it was a proper gran turismo, intended for high-speed travel over epic distances in saloon-like comfort, rather than for back-road jollies. A point that was hammered home in August 1952 when Leslie Johnson – who’d finished fifth in the 1950 Mille Miglia in his privateer XK120 roadster – embarked on a seemingly impossible mission.

Having already broken two long-distance records – averaging 107.46mph for 24 hours in 1950 with Stirling Moss, and then 131.83mph over one hour a year later – he set about averaging 100mph for an entire week. Armed with the second right-hand-drive XK120 coupé ever made, with few modifications aside from extra spotlights, a supplementary fuel tank and a two-way radio, his was a bold bid. The sometime GP driver took to the banking at l’Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry, with Moss, Jack Fairman and Bert Handley also on the roster, and together they lapped the circuit over 12,000 times for 168 hours and achieved Johnson’s goal by averaging 100.31mph.

The all-British squad left France with five new class records and also bagged a further four world records over shorter distances for good measure.

It’s little wonder that the likes of Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Ian Stewart used coupés as their road transport. They were in elite company, as only 152 cars stayed in Blighty with a further 2500 or so earmarked for export. With the arrival of the plumper XK140 in 1954 the bloodline continued, the even bigger-boned XK150 appearing in ’57 and only ousted by the arrival of the E-type in ’61. Though arguably better cars in some areas, the purity of line was lost as they feasted on lard cakes, the fixed-lid 120 coupé being the prettiest of the XK breed.

A point brought home on first sight of this rare survivor. Unlike so many of its contemporaries, the addition of a roof here doesn’t look like an afterthought. Its curvature relates to the wing line, the window uprights echoing the screen angle. There are shades of Bugatti Type 57C Atalante (if you squint), the slim bumpers and narrow grille lending only discreet embellishment. Impeccably restored during the late ’90s, this particular car closely apes the look of the Montlhéry record car, if not the exact detailing. It’s beautiful.

And equally lovely inside, and oh so British. Slide in without banging your noggin on the lower-than-you-think roof and it’s every inch the early ’50s GT. Unlike the roadster, with its leather covered fascia, here the dashboard is a slab of walnut, home to a backward-reading rev counter and a fuel gauge that handily doubles as a reading for the oil level when you push in an adjacent button. The steering wheel is vast, the pedals awkwardly spaced, although you soon acclimatise: you have no choice.

The heart of the XK120 is that delicious 3.4-litre twin-cam straight-six, with its low-speed torque and creamy power delivery. It sounds glorious, the owner reporting that while it’s ostensibly standard – so around 160bhp at 5000rpm in period, a 20bhp or so hike for the Special Equipment edition – a ‘bit more power was found’ when the engine was rebuilt. For a 54-year-old car, it feels improbably quick, the need to double de-clutch being debatable but all too hard to resist if only to hear it rear up on the overrun. This car gets driven as its makers intended, having taken in several pan-European trips, hence the addition of an altogether more youthful five-speed ’box in place of the ponderous old Moss four-speeder for longer-legged cruising. Similarly, the brakes have been uprated. The drum anchors originally fitted to XKs were at best adequate in period, but the front discs here transform the car, the lack of servo assist resulting in a reassuringly butch pedal action. That aside, it’s completely standard, for better or worse.

Over calloused asphalt, the XK120 shows its age, feeling almost pre-war in make-up, the recirculating ball steering set-up being easily upset over the bumps with a fair amount of kick-back, while the poorly damped leaf-sprung rear suspension hops, skips and shimmies a little when working hard. On the smoother stuff, the Jaguar is huge fun, and you’ll be surprised at how much ground you can cover, at the sort of speeds unthinkable in anything from the same era other than the most rarefied exotica. Accelerate hard and 3000rpm is a convenient place to change up. You can thrash it past 5000rpm (red line is 5200) but it’s so torquey there’s not much point. The whole experience is dominated by the engine, the accompanying bellow conjuring sepia-tinted images of motor sport heroes from an altogether more gladiatorial age.

That this enduring ‘six’ would outlive the XK series by decades, surviving into the ’90s – and that it powered everything from Le Mans winners to military hardware, world-beating saloons to speedboats – is a testimony to the genius of those who conceived it, namely Claude Baily, Walter Hassan and Bill Heynes. But on top of that, Williams Lyons’ ability to satisfy mass taste without trading soul was unparalleled, his willingness to use motor sport as a medium for promoting the brand proof of the ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ mantra. And though there had been a few toe-in-the-water exercises prior to the XK120, its arrival swiftly prompted full immersion with the C- and D-types. That’s some legacy.

• Thanks to: XK owner David Stone, Neil Godwin-Stubbert and Greenwood Motorsport (