(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.