(first posted 5/22/2015) A street, curbside or parking lot sighting of a sports car from the 1940s or early 1950s is a rare occurrence, and such sightings of coveted high-end icons such as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL or Jaguar XK120 are rarer still. You can imagine my surprise at spotting a Jaguar XK120 in the wild for the first time in my life, in a mundane shopping center parking lot full of ordinary sedans and SUVs. It was an occasion calling for a detailed look at this pioneering postwar sports car. The XK120 and the long line of Jaguar sports cars that continues to today come from a prewar lineage that is shorter than some would expect. Jaguar began during the early 1920s as the Swallow Sidecar company, which first built motorcycle sidecars. Under the leadership of founder William Lyons, it gradually expanded into the car business, producing custom bodies for the Austin Seven, complete cars by the end of the decade, then its first sports car in 1931. During the 1930s, it was a small company that relied heavily on outside suppliers, using engines from Standard Motor Company that it converted from side valves to overhead valves. The SS100 (shown) of 1936-40, which became the company’s best known prewar car despite fewer than 400 examples being sold, was the first to bear the Jaguar name and leaping-cat hood ornament. By this time, the company had been renamed SS Cars, a name which became completely unacceptable in Europe after the Second World War, with the name SS associated with Nazi Germany.
Photo from www.classicandsportscar.ltd.uk
In 1945, the renamed Jaguar Cars Limited faced a world of postwar austerity with uncertain prospects for the sports cars and sporty sedans that had been its main products before the war. Its key asset was the new inline six engine that it had begun developing during the war in spare time from war production work. Called the XK engine, it had double overhead cams at a time when side valve engines powered most road cars, and would debut with a large (for Europe) 3.4 liter displacement and further expansion potential. With an 8.0:1 compression ratio and a 160 horsepower rating in its initial version, it equaled the power output of the 331 cubic inch (5.4 liter) Cadillac overhead valve V8 introduced in 1949. As if its athleticism was not enough, it was drop dead gorgeous with its polished aluminum cylinder head and cam covers on top of its iron block. It gave Jaguar a significant advantage in power over any British manufacturer in its price class, and it would prove to be the company’s mainstay powerplant for four decades, produced from 1948 to 1992 in displacements from 2.4 to 4.2 liters and continuing as Jaguar’s main engine until 1987, continuing for five more years in the Daimler DS 420 limousine. Jaguar originally intended the XK120 to be only a limited production model that would showcase the new XK engine, a “halo car” in today’s parlance. The XK engine was primarily intended for use in the all-new Mark VII sedan, which would not enter production until 1950, and the XK120 was a way to field-test the XK engine and simultaneously enhance Jaguar’s image while it had only prewar models to sell. At the 1948 London Motor Show, the show car’s sensational styling and equally sensational XK engine inspired unexpected demand, and the result was the start of the XK series that established Jaguar as a leading postwar maker of sports cars. In 1949-50, only 239 hand-built aluminum bodied cars were sold, but a redesign for volume production in steel allowed approximately 11,800 to be sold in 1950-54. More than establishing Jaguar’s postwar reputation, the XK120 set the bar for other manufacturers to reach in the embryonic postwar sports car market. The XK120 with its 3.4 liter DOHC six, 160 horsepower, and 120 mph top speed was the world’s fastest production car at its launch. It was the Bugatti Veyron of its day, and Jaguar soon used it to establish speed records, including runs at 132.6 and 135 mph in May 30, 1949 runs on the Ostend-Jabbeke highway in Belgium. Meanwhile, the competitors to Jaguar in the high-end sports car market of the 1950s-60s and today did not exist yet, or had only just begun with lesser-performing cars. Ferrari had reluctantly started producing road cars in 1947, merely to finance the Scuderia Ferrari race team that was Enzo Ferrari’s real passion, and it produced 3 cars in 1947 and 5 cars in 1948, expanding four-fold to 21 in 1949. The Gioacchino Colombo-designed V12 engine displaced only 1.5 liters in its 1947 debut and expanded to 2.0 liters in 1948. Aston Martin was a moribund business purchased by industrialist David Brown for only £20,500 in 1947 (£552,828 in 2015), and the DB2 that would set the template for postwar Astons would not arrive until 1950. Mercedes-Benz would not re-enter the sports car market with its 300SL until 1954. Porsche started production of its first cars in Gmund, Austria in 1948, with approximately 50 356s powered by slightly modified VW Beetle engines producing 40 horsepower from their 1.1 liters.
Photo from www.classicdriver.com
A car with this kind of style and performance naturally attracted the rich and famous, and the owner of the first XK120 in America was Clark Gable, shown here with the early aluminum-bodied car and William Lyons. He liked his XK120 so much that he bought at least one more, keeping one in Europe for use while filming or vacationing there. (For more about Clark Gable’s XK120s, see here.) The XK120 became equally coveted on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. With British car companies required to “export or die,” the XK120 sold primarily in the United States in left hand drive form, becoming part of the first wave of imported British sports cars along with the MG TC/TD/TF. It was from a different world than the prewar, 1.25 liter, 54.5 horsepower MG TC, and it soon began winning races and inspiring a generation of car enthusiasts. With this view the one that other drivers were most likely to see, it is easy to understand why the Jaguar XK120 took the market by storm. This roadster shows the design’s smooth flowing lines with its token weather protection – a minimal soft top and side curtains – dismounted and stowed. It is one of approximately 7,600 roadsters produced in 1949-54. A Fixed Head Coupe with steel roof, wind-up windows, and more luxurious wood-trimmed interior debuted in 1951, numbering approximately 2,700 in 1951-54. A third body style, a Drop Head Coupe with a more substantial folding convertible top, wind-up windows, and the Fixed Head Coupe’s interior trim joined the model range in 1953, totaling approximately 1,770 in 1953-54. This particular survivor was in “10-footer” condition with slightly dull paint and light rust on its steel disc wheels, but a like-new re-trimmed interior – perfect for actually driving and enjoying instead of imprisoning as a garage ornament and concours statue. I do not know enough about the XK120 to identify it by year or discern its originality, but I can say with certainty that it was not a fiberglass replica, based on a (gentle) knuckle test. Perhaps someone can comment on its year and originality. Replica status of another sort is proudly proclaimed on a brass plaque on the passenger side of the dashboard. In keeping with the British custom of marketing sports cars and motorcycles as “replicas” of race winners or record setters, leading to names such as Frazer-Nash Le Mans Replica and Norton TT Replica, Jaguar offered early XK120s with a signed plaque certifying the car to be a replica of the car that set the 132.6 mph record at Jabbeke, Belgium in 1949. The record-setting car had modifications such as removal of its windshield, an aerodynamic belly pan, and a taller axle ratio, but Jaguar nevertheless declared production cars to be replicas of them. This plaque may or may not be original, as exact reproductions have been available for sale. This muscular big cat remained aloof as I photographed it, with its owner nowhere in sight to ask questions, so there is no more information that I can relate about it. A small crowd of people that spontaneously gathered around the car, who had to be asked to step aside so that I could take these photos, waited for a long time for the owner to show up, in vain. It was a brief encounter with greatness, with the elder brother of the XK series that became the XK140 of 1954-57 and the XK150 of 1957-61, and the father of the equally iconic E-Type of the 1960s. Seeing one in use in imperfect condition is a rare treat that I am glad to have had.
Related Reading: Cohort Outtake: Jaguar XK120 – The Granddaddy of the Modern Sports Car
Curbside Classic: 1960 Jaguar XK150S — Treasures Are Meant to Be Shared (And Driven)
Automotive History: Jaguar and Sir William Lyons — One Man’s Passion For Gracefulness, Beauty And Speed
Theres a beautifully restored grey XK120 cruising locally but with Beacham Jaguar just down the road classic Jags are quite common here especially his restomod versions, Nice cars they were very quick in their day and reasonably well screwed together it was only with the massive success of the Etype that the assembly quality dipped to meet sales demands.
Nice write-up. Haven’t seen a 120 in many years, though a restored 140 has been knocking around here lately. These look great parked, but when you see them with a driver you realise the old-fashioned chassis makes the seats very high – the driver sits on the car rather than in it. I’m not sure about the steel cars, but I think the aluminium ones were built on a wooden frame, like an MG.
Supposedly the styling was influenced by late pre-war BMWs – certainly a far cry from the SS100.
What a shape. Interesting rear overider bumperettes. That brochure pic has the rear lights in a lower position where those bumperettes are placed. Maybe that’s one way of dating this or maybe that’s US spec, although Bryce’s example also features them. Profile looks great with the colour-coded wheels (not wires thankfully) and rear wheel cover. Sublime.
The one I shot could be a 54/55 so fairly late in the 120 production run, the front if that helps date it
Perhaps it is indeed US spec. Here is a picture of another XK120, likely taken around 1960 to 1962. Even though the rear bumpers are somewhat covered, they look to be quite similar to those shown on the featured car.
I think the brochure features a pre-prod model. I just found this insane paragraph detailing the various mods as the xk120 progressed. Judging by the placement of the exhaust, relative to Bryce’s, this is a pre-late1950 version.
I am amazed how quickly these revolutionary models were able to be built after the war. It must have been thrilling inside Jaguar when the car was able to be turned from a showcase to an actual model. England still sweeping away the ruble of war and the end of empire, and building a world beater.
The 120s are so much more elemental with their clean lines, wheel skirts and spare trim. Thank God a line of rich guys showed up to buy it. So Jaguar and others will show what can be done. To have what had to be one of the best engine designers in the world and one of the all time great stylists, Sir Lyons, together working in such a small organization, was truly a gift to the world.
You are indeed very fortunate to have found this in the wild. Not sure I’ve ever seen an XK-120 in the metal but they are beautiful.
There is something about these Jaguar’s that is so hypnotic. Since writing the article you have linked above, my appreciation of the craftsmanship and engineering that went into these Jaguar’s has only intensified. These have a very unique combination of a mature persona with a stealthy, ready to pounce demeanor – I’m at a loss to think of anything comparable and Jaguar is the definitive name for these.
Robert, this is a terrific article on a truly wonderful car.
Amazing — I saw this same car a few weeks ago, just a block away from where you photographed it. Could very well have been on the same day (I believe it was Sat., May 2, at around 9:00 a.m.). An older couple was driving it, and just seeing an XK120 on the road was enough to make my day a good one.
Ironically, my sighting of this car came one day after I saw a Series I E-Type on the road, and that’s pretty much the only vintage Jaguars I’ve seen in the wild in the last year or so.
With the 120 or the E-Type, I could probably sit and stare at one for an hour and not get bored. Both would be in contention for the most beautiful car every built.
I’ll take it. Just like that, slight wear, white over red, fender skirts that make it look like a Buck Rogers windup toy.
Clark Gable was evidently a discerning car guy, he also had a Duesenberg. BTW, Gable served in the War on several B-17 combat missions from England until panicky MGM had the AAF reassign him Stateside.
That’s the kind of war it was, where even the rich & famous stuck their necks out.
And occasionally paid the ultimate price (Glenn Miller).
Beautiful car! And after zooming in on the picture, I can say that I know exactly where that is, as I was visiting relatives in McLean last weekend. There were some very nice cars out, but none of them were parked when I was out on my 2 excursions into that part of the city.
The only one of these I ever saw in the wild was in the early 70s, when I was at a neighbor’s house and a friend of the dad pulled in to show it off. I can’t recall if it was a 120 or one of the later flavors. All I remember was that it had been a light blue car, but that the owner was quite proud of the 1973 Ford dark metallic brown that he had just had it painted. Even in dark brown, the car looked exquisite.
Someone out there has excellent taste! I hope that he/she will join us and share the car’s story.
I may have seen one of these years ago, parked in the driveway of someone else with excellent taste. Aside from that, only in books or on the web.
I don’t know. Even a ‘gentle’ knuckle-test seems like a very easy way to receive a rather severe beat-down should the owner spot you doing it.
On a lighter note, an XK appeared to be what J. Peterman (of Seinfeld fame) used as his everyday ride. I would suspect that the car was actually from Seinfeld’s personal collection of classic cars.
That shot of the car in front of the wine shop says it all. If you have the wherewithal, I can’t think of a more appropriate car for a trip to retrieve a fine bottle of vino.
“… full of ordinary sedans and SUVs…” — except for the late-70s/early 80s B-body wagon behind the Jaguar. Had the Jag not been there, I suspect we’d be having a conversation about that car instead.
We have. It’s Robert’s car.
Photobombed by design!!!
These never fail to move me. It’s such an influential car; for a whole generation this was the ideal of a sports car, and everyone tried to make one in its image. This is the reason the Corvette exists.
Sweet car! I’ve been lucky enough to get a ride in a XK 140 Roadster and, contrary to every piece ever appearing in print, the Moss gearbox presented no problems at all for the driver. So don’t let the rumours put any of you off getting one.
Body work was inspired by the French luxury cars built some 10 years earlier , except they were more stylish but without doubt that was where the inspiration came from. German coachbuilders may also had been an influence.
However the Pegaso Z-102 Saoutchik Cabriolet shows the direction that cars would go in appearance. A much more modern design , ahead of it’s time.
One car that stands out is the much earlier BMW 328,1936-1940, these were well thought out and had fresh styling , as well as being beautiful to drive, innovative in the extreme and breaking the mould of vintage cars.
The car industry would take another twenty years for another ground-breaking masterpiece.
Contemporary to the XK120 was the Lancia Aurelia which was a modern car where the XK 120 was not. Lancia got this design right for the time and it shames the Jag XK120 in it’s sophistication of design and modernity.
The Lancia Aurelia made almost every car of it’s time seem agricultural, which was what Lancia cars seemed to have a habit of doing.
The last series Jag XK150’s are a nice car but it took Jaguar too long to get there .
What the Jaguar did was introduce was an affordable mass produced sports car with a big engine, it was pitched correctly into the market, made few enemies.
The rest is history.
Beautiful cars – nothing else like them. I went to an antique Jaguar show in Toronto about ten years ago, and saw two – a soft top in deep blue, and a cream-colored fixed head. I took pictures, but there’s nothing like seeing one in the metal.
Does anyone remember……Denise McCluggage ?
She will be missed
You beat me to the post Robert – both literally and figuratively! An XK120 turned up last year here in my rural New Zealand town. Cream with tan leather interior. The awesome thing is that it’s used as a daily-driver by its owner – seeing an XK120 parked at the supermarket or post office is really rather surreal! I do prefer the red interior of the one you spotted though.
Great find Robert, and excellent write-up.
Another aspect of the XK was its competition record, these were amongst the fastest sports cars available at the time and had an excellent record in both racing and rallying. I think I remember seeing one even won an early Nascar race?
I know I’m crazy but if I had to choose I’d take the white Custom Cruiser in the background of the first photo!
My father had the 17th right hand drive XK120 he purchased in 1950 being of 1949 manufacture in lightweight aluminium body. He raced it extensively modified with C Type
components, the car was timed down the straight at Bathurst race track in Australia at
132 mph. The biggest problem under racing conditions was severe brake fade with the
old mark five brakes. By the mid 1950,s it was outgunned by the dedicated sports racing
cars. So it was retired to hill climb racing of which it was very successfull until 1960.
The car sold at auction in 2011 for $ 249,000 AUD.
Twenty years before these photographs were taken, I saw a beater-quality XK120 in the Rio Hill parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia. I recall being shocked just how pre-war the ergonomics were; the steering wheel crowding the chest of the driver and being perfectly appropriate for an Aston Martin Ulster. I had driven an XK150 only about half a dozen years earlier, but the XK120 seemed antediluvian surrounded by the daily-drivers of the mid ’90s.
I will be absolutely dragged for filth for this, but I find these Jaguar sports models to be unappealing in the extreme. Closer to a boat in appearance to these eyes, with that way back passenger cabin. I also really don’t get the original E-type. The roadster is passable, the coupe to me is hideous. A slender woman’s painted index finger with a boil past the knuckle.
I’m in trouble, aren’t I?
Not with me; I share your opinions.
Another vote of agreement. The engine is beautiful; the car rather less so to my eyes. It might just be too far before my time. The fifties Jaguars just don’t do anything for me. I didn’t even get all the fuss over the E-type…until I saw one in person. Some cars you have to see in the metal and that might be more true the curvier they are.
The XJ-C, however…
Saw this one last year
That Jabbeke replica plate means it originally had the same spec as the car that did 135mph, the actual car that did that was past the redline at the time.
The 1940 Chrysler Newport had a similar design including the scalloped doors. Was this a copy or had something preceded the Chrysler?
How very different, low, lithe and exotic this Jag had to have been when sitting next to the same generation Chevy or Dodge
Always a stunning car. As a child, drawing Jaguars was one of my pastimes.