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The quintessential Jaguar – it looked the part, it had the performance and it spawned the C and D-types. Needless to say, the XK120’s legacy lives on
By Richard Heseltine
Time spent away from racing clearly hasn’t blunted his competitive edge. National racing legend Dave Coyne, the man who yo-yoed between junior formulae for much of the 1980s, was a surprise entry for July’s Silverstone Classic. A surprise in that the 50-something should be enjoying his comeback aboard a Jaguar XK120 rather than a more customary single-seater. But there he was, making what had been a road car until four weeks prior to the race go faster than ever seemed feasible. Right up until the point it caught fire. But as our hero emerged from the self-immolating classic, he was all smiles. “It’s a lot faster than you might think, and you have to work at it that much more than with a modern car, but it’s great fun!”
Which just about sums up the Jaguar XK120. The fact that there was a stand-alone XK race at the meeting is equally illuminating. Whether it was storming an Alpine rally stage in the 1950s or a ModSports 10-lap clubbie in the ’70s, this charming throwback has been a motor sport constant since its inception more than 60 years ago. The XK120 remains the quintessential post-war British sports car.
As we all know by rote, the XK Open Two-Seater Super Sports (as it was called originally) caused a seismic impact when ushered in at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show. The world’s media launched into a sea of purple gush, eulogising over its beauty and the promise of its other-worldly performance. Yet marque principal William Lyons didn’t foresee the car having a future – the XK was a rolling laboratory, a test bed, after all. It wasn’t intended for volume production, yet demand for Jaguar’s brave new baby was such that the penny number coachbuilt approach just wasn’t going to cut it. After the first 239 cars had been completed, the hand-beaten aluminium bodies (over laminated ash frames) made way for pressed-steel items (with ally doors, bonnet and bootlid skin). And even then, demand outstripped supply by a considerable margin.
All of which is easily explicable. Priced at a mere £998, there was nothing approaching its specification or performance – all-alloy double-overhead cam in-line ‘six’; the ‘120’ part of the nomenclature intended to signify ultimate velocity – for the money. For the same outlay, you could own a Lea-Francis 14hp Sports, which for all its virtues somehow didn’t have quite the same allure. The XK was swanky, sexy and elegant, all at the same time.
And the Jaguar really was a stylistic triumph. Beauty arbiters routinely cite the XK120 as being one of the greatest feats of automotive artistry ever perpetrated, and yet it would be fair to say that the outline wasn’t entirely original. Certainly Lyons had a great eye, but he wasn’t a designer. Not really. 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 draughtsman while fashioning full-scale ideas until he was absolutely satisfied.
The future knight’s real talent was his ability to strip-mine the good bits from other cars and then improve upon them, this magpie approach being all too obvious with the XK: the silhouette bore more than a passing resemblance to the Touring-bodied BMW 328s that ran in the 1940 Mille Miglia. Not that a single line was directly cribbed, you understand, just processed and refined. With an engine that by itself was a work of art, an aircraft-like cabin and motor launch-esque windscreen, there was nothing else quite like it. Thing is, 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 competition success before – witness Jack Harrop’s victories for the SS100 on the 1937 and ’38 RAC rallies – yet the breadth of the XK’s achievement far outstripped that of even purpose-built racing machinery.
Predictably, a number of aluminium-bodied examples found their way into the motor sport fraternity, the likes of Leslie Johnson, Peter Walker, Clemente Biondetti, Tommy Wisdom and Ian Appleyard being among early adopters. The latter – Lyons’ son-in-law – in particular heaped glory on the Coventry firm, famously taking an International Alpine Rally hat-trick from 1950-52 along with RAC and Tulip Rally honours in ’51 aboard ‘NUB120’, the sixth of six pre-production cars. In sealing his third straight Alpine triumph, Appleyard also became the first ever recipient of a Coupe des Alpes en Or award. Add in Stirling Moss’s triumph on the 1950 Tourist Trophy at a sodden Dundrod – on the eve of his 21st birthday – along with strong Le Mans showings (if not necessarily finishes), and the model’s blue-chip status as a sports car legend was already a given.
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 an honest-to-God gran turismo in the truest sense. Here was a car 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 had finished fifth on 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, one with few modifications save for 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 more than 12,000 times for 168 hours and achieved Johnson’s goal by averaging 100.31mph. The all-British equipe left France with five new class records and also trousered a further four world records while they were at it.
So it’s little wonder that the likes of Moss, Mike Hawthorn and Ian Stewart used coupés as their road transport. They were among elite company as only 152 cars stayed in Blighty with a further 2500 or so being earmarked for export. With the arrival of the plumper XK140 in 1954, the bloodline would continue, 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 appeared a mite more brassy: more bullet bras and sculptured blonde coiffage than demure sophistication if you will.
Since then, the XK has been a staple of British club racing, be it Dave Preece’s Oldham & Crowther ‘silhouette’ car demolishing all comers for much of the ’70s, or more recent epic battles throughout the order in the hugely popular Jaguar Enthusiasts’ Club XK Challenge (now run alongside the Masters Racing Series). Eligible for everything from the Mille Miglia retrospective to other pan-European stand-alone meetings, the XK120 also represents one of the cheaper ways of competing at a high level internationally.
Cheaper if not necessarily cut-price, according to experienced XK racer and car builder Ian Mills of Twyford Moors: “If you were to start from scratch using a standard road car, you could easily spend £100,000 and more. The engine alone could account for £10,000. It’s cheaper to buy a car that’s already been done properly or just enjoy racing what you have and uprate the car as and when you can afford it. You can get 300bhp out of an XK, but even in lightly tuned form you can surprise a lot of people. You can get an XK to go very, very quickly indeed without making too many changes. And the weight distribution is better than on later XKs as the engine is mounted further back. It’s also that bit lighter, too. Really, an XK120 a great car for hillclimbing, club racing and just enjoying yourself.”
And you will enjoy an XK120. Though almost pre-war in make up, you’ll be surprised at how much ground you can cover in even standard form, at the sort of speeds unthinkable in anything from the same era other than the most rarefied exotica. That the XK120’s enduring straight-six would outlive the car that first bore it by more than 40 years is remarkable. That it powered everything from Le Mans winners to military hardware, world-beating saloons to powerboats, is clear evidence of the genius of those who conceived it – Claude Baily, Walter Hassan and Bill Heynes.
But more than that, Williams Lyons’ capacity for understanding mass appeal without trading integrity was without equal: the XK120 had substance below the surface flash. He just didn’t do formulaic box-tickers. Then there was his willingness to use motor sport as a platform for advancing the brand on the global stage. It’s hard to escape the gravitational pull of the XK120’s trackside legacy – without it there’d be no C or D-type. A state of affairs that is frankly too horrible to contemplate.
“I raced one.”
This effervescent veteran is a confirmed XK120 fan irregardless of the weather…
“I first drove Dick Skipworth’s ex-Ecurie Ecosse car – the only one of its kind left, I believe – at Donington for an XK-only race in 2004. It was like being entrusted with a Rembrandt but I remember the drum brakes were only good for two laps. It was great fun, though, and I did a lot of out-braking, if not always intentionally.
“Since then I’ve driven Dick’s other car on quite a few occasions. It’s much more standard than some of the other XKs out there and has the most wonderful character.
Of course, by modern standards they’re not very sophisticated, but you can surprise much more modern cars with a sorted one.
“Anyway, I suppose my best ever drive in Dick’s car was the BRDC Historic Sports Car race at Silverstone in 2006. We shouldn’t really have had a shot at winning as there was some really powerful kit out there; real racing cars including a Maserati 300S. But it bucketed down and I’m quite happy driving in the rain – it doesn’t bother me. The car really suited the conditions and rain is always a great leveller. Well, I had the most fun and beat them all, with Graeme Dodd finishing second in his Cooper Monaco. Dick is still racing the car and I’d love another go.”
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