Here’s Why The XK120 Was The Start Of Jaguar’s Golden Era
Photography by Patrice Minol
Nearly every Jaguar has the capacity to remind us of driving’s inherent pleasure, and from the heralded E-Type of the past to today’s F-Type, the brand’s best sports cars have consistently earned a following of car enthusiasts who are equally discerning when it comes to style as they are about performance. The XK120 is no different, but its charms extend beyond the driving experience to place this car comfortably among the quintessential British roadster crowd.
Though an object with many assets to its name, this car’s essence comes first and foremost from the mechanical side; at the time of its introduction to the public, this roadster was more or less a show car hauling around the then-new six-cylinder XK motor that Jaguar was developing for their next sedan. The result of this marriage between the dual-carb’d motor and the sleek form of the roadster was more than just the world’s fastest production car (an early aluminum-bodied car had reached 120mph—there’s the namesake—to earn that title for a brief period), it was the birth of a stylish machine that transcended the role of automobile. It was in equal measure a fashion statement, playboy toy, and a champion of British engineering and grace.
Let’s go back to that motor briefly though. The company’s founder, Sir William Lyons, once remarked that “It doesn’t cost more to make an engine look pretty,” and the straight-six in the Jaguar XK120 is still one of the prettiest you’ll find under almost any hood. It was also a performer, as the XK motor was more or less in production in the same basic form for over 40 years after its debut in the XK120 in 1948. Variants of this would be fitted to the C- and D-Type Le Mans-winning cars, emphatically proving the motor’s competitive potential.
The story of the XK120 of course goes further than its impressive engineering, because back when it was first shown to the public they never really let it out of their sight afterwards. And following the debut show, the British roadster was quickly jumping up to the top of many a mental list of coveted cars, and the order numbers reflected this once the car was ready for sale. Most were exported—it is estimated that more than 85% of total production went abroad—and by the time the model had run its course, Jaguar had churned out more than 12,000 in its various guises. Given these rather high figures for a sports car, this only makes the early run of 240 alloy-bodied XK120s (they switched over to steel for the rest) even more desirable.
The story of this particular XK120 OTS (Open Two-Seater) begins all the way back in 1950. Shortly after its creation, this car began racing in various events outside of England in ’52 and ’53, and after some time abroad, was shipped back to its homeland about 20 years ago. Even though Jaguar built a roadster in a country known for its rain, the owner of this one, Duncan, still drives it regularly. This is no museum piece; Duncan’s a true gearhead, one who’s ready to don a big woolen coat and some goggles before packing a few tools in the trunk and hopping in his Jag to drive it through the rain and fog.
And what a sight that must be, the circular headlamps cutting through the weather’s nastiness while the big haunches over the rear tires direct and catch the spray sent off from the wire wheels. Even in stasis though the car looks like it’s in motion. This is a cliche of course, but it applies; just look at the drop the body’s curves take toward the rear. It’s as if there’s a vanishing point trying in vain to suck the car back toward it, with the rest of the car looking like it’s mid-leap. Inside the thoughtful design continues in harmony with its wrapper. The cockpit truly lives up to the name, with the circular open-air cabin lined with instrumentation and leather. There are certain pieces that draw the eye on their own though, like the Herwins rally clocks, the chrome petrol hatch, and the leather hood straps that send your mind back in time.
The XK120 isn’t the most popular Jaguar, the E-type or D-type probably take that title, but the XK120 has something special and unique about it too. It kicked off a new generation of Jaguar sports cars, it introduced the brand’s venerable XK motor, and if the E-type is the iconic Jaguar in term of Jaguar’s style, I think this one is the paragon of their philosophy.