Curbside Classic: 1953 Jaguar XK 120 Roadster – The Feline Bares Its Fangs

To belatedly close our British roadster week with an extra dose of panache, we’re going to contemplate, in slack-jawed admiration, the best sports car of the early post-war era. A legendary engine and a drop-dead gorgeous body at reasonable price: Jaguar’s unbeatable magic formula was born with this amazing car – the fastest production model in the world. And it was almost created by accident.

Coventry, in 1945, lay in ruins. Three years of bombings (the Luftwaffe had coined the verb koventrieren (“to Coventrify”) to signify levelling a city) had taken their toll, but the British car industry did not waver. There were a lot of carmakers in this little Detroit of the Midlands: Daimler, Standard, Triumph, the Rootes Group, Armstrong Siddeley, Alvis, Singer and many others – including the unfashionably-named S.S.-Jaguar.

Many had created so-called shadow factories to carry on with the war effort, so the switch back to civilian production was not quite as problematic as the housing situation, for example. So Jaguar, now unburdened by the “S.S.” part of their name, reprised manufacture of their pre-war range in late 1945, consisting in a saloon and cabriolet available with either a 1.8 litre (4-cyl.), a 2.7 litre or 3.5 litre (6-cyl.) derived from a Standard design, which was not a sustainable option in the longer term. Beautiful though they were, these cars, referred to in hindsight as the Mark IV, were a tad primitive, with mechanical brakes and a beam axle front end, so a completely new chassis was also needed.

As soon as they could, Jaguar’s engineers started working on the “100mph saloon” that CEO and head stylist William Lyons called for. Progress on the engine front was pretty swift, with both a 2-litre 4-cyl. and a 3.5 litre 6-cyl. being designed in parallel. Both were double overhead cam – a rarity in car production at the time – and the 6-cyl. was sure to be able to provide more than enough power to propel any fancy four-door Lyons could possibly come up with.

Chassis-wise, the new saloon was to have both hydraulic brakes and a fully independent front suspension, of course. Jaguar engineers had looked into the Citroën Traction Avant and were favourably impressed by that car’s torsion bar setup, so that’s what ended up on the Jag. But merging the engine and the chassis into a cohesive whole was not to be taken lightly, given the new engine’s power. So Lyons decided to keep the Standard sixes going for a bit longer in the new Mark V saloon, but premiere Jaguar’s first in-house motor in a swoopy and sexy drop-top, just to make sure all kinks had been worked out. Both cars were launched at the 1948 Earl’s Court Motor Show.

This decision was taken a bit last-minute. William Lyons reportedly designed the XK120 in just four weeks in the summer of 1948 – proof that necessity is the mother of genius, sometimes. The first cars were bodied in-house using very traditional methods, i.e. ash frames and hand-beaten aluminium panels. But to get the new Jag up to speed production-wise, a true all-steel steel body ultimately replaced it by early 1950.

The Jaguar XK120 became famous even before that due to its amazing performance, of course. When the aluminium-bodied cars first hit the streets and racetracks, nothing could really come close to them. A production car (with its windscreen removed) managed a top speed of 132mph in May 1949 – much faster than the 120mph hope for by its maker. The 3.4 litre twin carb engine was good for 160hp in standard form, but in “Special equipment” spec, it provided 180hp and got a twin exhaust, which seems to be the case for our feature car. More power could yet be squeezed out through a C-Type head, Weber carbs and other modifications.

But it was really more of a matter of aerodynamics: in 1953, this stock-engined XK120 fitted with an airtight bubble top and comprehensively de-accessorized reached a whopping 172mph on the same Belgian track as the 1949 car. Even more amazingly, Jaguar then converted it back to production spec and sold it.

The XK engine was to be the soundtrack of the ‘50s. From Le Mans to Silverstone and from Palm Beach to Monte Carlo, there was hardly an event that did not include the Jaguar 6-cyl. at or near the top finishers. Famously, the Jaguar XK120 was the only foreign car to win a NASCAR race (in 1954), after which these events were no longer open to non-American cars.

The kicker was the Jaguar’s price. It was almost affordable – certainly, it cost a lot less than it should have. This car, more than anything, is what helped kill off the likes of Delahaye and Talbot-Lago, who were still making great big lumbering chassis like it was 1939. Over in the US, the proliferation of attempts at a sports car (Kurtis, Nash-Healey, Cunningham), culminating in the Corvette, was doubtless influenced by the Jaguar’s unqualified success, both on the track and the street.

It took Jaguar a little while to start thinking of the XK120 in terms of a range. The only body style available was the roadster – also known as “open two-seater” or OTS – for quite a long spell, but the need for a bit of diversification began to trickle back to Coventry. In late 1951, the gorgeous fixed-head coupé was added to the mix; it was inevitably followed by the drop-head coupé for 1952. This may explain why the overwhelming majority (i.e. 7606 units) of the 12,000-odd XK120s made were roadsters.

The DHC and FHC have a more traditional-looking wooden dash, whereas the OTS always kept their instruments surrounded by leather. I do have a preference for the leather dash, though this one would greatly benefit from a bit less clutter…

Not everybody felt the XK120 was a superb design, apparently. Some had theirs just modified: Ghia-Aigle made this coupé (top left) from an OTS back in 1950; British coachbuilder Abbott was tasked with turning this one (top right) into a four-seater. More fully-fledged custom jobs included coupés by PininFarina (middle left) and Belgian specialist Oblin (middle right), as well as convertibles by George Barris (bottom right) and Switzerland’s Carosserie Beutler (bottom left).

I’m all for specials and all that, and some of those were quite pretty, but in this instance, there is really no contest: stock all the way. The design was so perfect that it was carried over for the next two generations – though they did get noticeably wider and chunkier in the process. It even bled into the saloons, as the smaller Mark 1s (1955-59) took their distinctive face from the sports cars, as opposed to the Bentley-esque Mark VII.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect vehicle, both literally and figuratively, for the legendary XK engine to debut in. That blessed engine carried Jaguar sports and luxury cars through the decades, in multiple displacements and states of tune, for over four decades. There are happy accidents, strokes of genius and blind luck. This Jag got all three. Truly the cat’s pyjamas.


Related post:


Curbside Classic: Jaguar XK120 — Rare Sighting in the Wild, by Robert Kim

Cohort Outtake: Jaguar XK 120 – The Grandaddy Of The Modern Sports Car, by PN