Wednesday November 28, 2018
Suppose you were a visitor to the London Motor Show in 1948 and you had just put your name on the waiting listing for a Morris Minor. Now, feeling pretty decent life, despite the shortages and the ration books, you make your way to the Jaguar stand to marvel at the company’s first new post-war model.
Of course, you are familiar with the pre-war SS100, but the XK120 has an all-new 3,442cc DOHC engine and coachwork that is, frankly awe-inspiring. Plus, it was the world’s fastest standard production car.
The history of the XK120 is well-known – how it was intended as a ‘test-bed’ for the latest Jaguar engine, how its appearance at Earl’s Court was because of the Mk. VII would not be ready until 1950 and William Lyons required a show-case.
Browns Lane originally planned to build a limited run of 200 cars; the response from the public and press demonstrated that this was a watershed model in the history of the company.
The XK120 used a modified chassis from the Mk. V saloon and the first 242 cars featured aluminium coachwork on a wooden frame so to avoid tooling costs; later models had a steel body apart from the boot lid, bonnet and doors. 1949 saw the Jaguar make its US debut in the New York Motor Show; the first production roadster was owned by none other than Clark Gable, and over 80% of XK production would be in LHD form. In May of that year, Ron Sutton drove an XK at over 130 mph along the Jabbekkehighway in Belgium.
1949 also saw the XK120 win the production car race at Silverstone and that November the Jaguar was subject to a ‘Continental Road Test’ by The Motor. The price was £1,263 3s 11d – expensive but not as much as a Bentley or a Lagonda – and by the standards of the late 1940s, the chaps of the magazine positively raved – ‘the Jaguar technical team have very evidently evolved a winner, a car which is superb even by this early stage in what should be a very long and honourable career’. By the following year, a dashing young driver named Stirling Moss competed in the Tourist Trophy and wrote in his memoirs how:
On race day the weather was appalling: relentless rain, a gale blowing down marquees, and the spectator areas a sea of mud. Because there was a big field of cars in each class, down to the little MGs and HRGs, lapping the traffic in the spray on the narrow road was quite hairy at times.
However, ‘At the post-race party that night Bill Lyons, the autocratic Jaguar boss, sat me down and got my signature on a works contract for the following year’.
1950 was also the year when Ian Appleyard’s famous “NUB 120” achieved victory at the Alpine Rally and if this Pathé news footage of the event does not make you want to immediately start saving for an XK120 you might just be officially deceased -
By 1951 the Jaguar was now available as a Fixed-Head Coupe, with US customers offered the luxuries of winding windows, exterior door handles and a heater; the FHC would not be available in the home market until 1953.
There was also the SE “Special Equipment” option which gave the owner some 180 bhp, and towards of its run the XK120 was offered in Drophead Coupe form – ‘a car appealing to discriminating owners’.
The XK140 replaced the XK120 in late 1954 and the impact of the first sports car to bear the Jaguar marque name cannot be over-estimated. And here is a glimpse of how it mesmerised would-be owners 70 years ago…