February 8th 2018
The simple answer is that the seductively swoopy XK120 still turns heads, still wins hearts, and still makes people smile. But there’s more. After making a splash on its debut at the London Motor Show in 1948, for decades afterwards the XK120 and the XK engine continued to send ripples far and wide. Here are five good reasons why.
Britain was still on its knees in 1948, struggling to rebuild infrastructure and industry in the aftermath of the Second World War. The nation needed foreign revenue so badly that a slogan of the time warned businesses they should “export or die.” In this shattered grey world the XK120 arrived shining as brightly as a zillion-watt rainbow. Dazzled admirers lusted after the Jaguar on both sides of the Atlantic, exports accounted for the majority of sales, and dollars flowed into British coffers.
Great performance and great looks were complemented by great value. The XK120 carried a price-tag at launch of just £998 (equivalent to about £36,000 today). To match the Jaguar’s pace and style required something as exotic as a Ferrari at three times the price. So while film stars Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart dashed around in XKs, upper-middle-class professionals could do so too.
The XK120 had the most powerful production engine you could buy. Oozing 160 horsepower, its 3.4-litre twin-cam straight-six made this the fastest production car in the world - able, as its name affirmed, to reach 120 mph, but capable also of even greater speeds. In 1949, on a closed section of Belgian autoroute, an XK120 roadster zinged through the flying mile at 132.596 mph. In 1950, at the Autodrome de Montlhéry in France, an XK120 roadster whistled around the steeply banked oval track for 24 hours at an average of 107.46 mph. In 1951, also at Montlhéry, an XK120 roadster ate-up 131.83 miles of track in an hour. And in 1952, at Montlhéry once again, an XK120 fixed head coupe averaged 100.31 mph - unbelievable though this seemed - for seven consecutive days and nights. An entire and entirely fantastic week of speed!
The XK120 was conceived as a long-legged touring car without any serious forethought given to a competition career. Yet this model distinguished itself as a winner in racing and rallying. Most notably, Stirling Moss led an XK120 1-2-3 in the 1950 Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, and Al Keller’s victory in a 1954 NASCAR road race at Linden Airport, New Jersey, caused such an upset among American automakers that foreign cars were subsequently banned from the series. Out on the stages, Ian Appleyard and his wife Pat (daughter of Jaguar co-founder and chief William Lyons) triumphed in the Tulip Rally and twice won the six-day Alpine Rally, a gruelling and perilous event which traversed many of central Europe’s highest mountain passes.
The XK120, it turned out, was just the start of the XK story. The XK engine, a standard-setter at the outset and gradually improved over time, powered Jaguar’s legendary C-types, D-types, and E-types, and was the beating heart of five 1950s Le Mans winners. The XK also propelled Mk 2 saloons, XJ6 saloons, and . . . and, well, most Jaguar models right up until 1986. The XK had given a much-needed morale boost to post-war British industry, put Jaguar on the international map and, for nearly four decades, kept it there.
By Phillip Bingham