Magazine Covers, Post-College Road Trips, And Two Jaguar XK120s
Photography by Marco Annunziata
“How many 20 year old guys working their way through college have you ever heard of that bought a Jaguar XK120 in the ’50s?” After meeting Daryl Butcher, I can put my count at least one now.
Daryl bought his 1951 XK120 in 1958 while he was a senior at the University of Illinois, paying with $900 in assumed car payments and a ’48 Plymouth. More than half a century later, the XK120 in our photos has become what Daryl calls his “go home again” project, the long-time-coming replacement of his first Jag, a fully restored near-twin that he found a few years ago in 2016.
I only saw his first example in pictures from his physical collection, including snaps like the one he took at the Petrified Forest on Route 66 in 1959, on the way from Illinois to California, seen above in the article header. But from what I can see, the replacement is a worthy one. Daryl had been enchanted by the Jaguar XKs in grade school, and following the introduction of the XK120 into the American market, he became something of an encyclopedia about its motorsport activity, in particular when Phil Hill was driving.
“Who would have imagined that many years later I would meet Phil Hill and his wife Alma on several occasions, and even drive five laps on the Laguna Seca raceway with him! He was driving a 1928 Blower Bentley, and I was driving a 1935 Rolls-Royce 20/25.
“I know some people who wrongly think that Americans do not appreciate motorsports other than NASCAR, and only think in terms of manufacturers like John Deere and International Harvester. Well, that’s just not the way it always is.”
After weighing in on the common stereotype of American race fans, Daryl proceeded to show me a photo of a motor polo team that was taken in Illinois in 1926. The old Model T Ford chassis were fitted with wagon wheel hoops on the sides so the participants had something to brace with as they used mallets to chase a ball around a cow pasture in a manner similar to polo, just with a different breed of horsepower.
“These so-called country bumpkins managed to combine motor racing with the sport of kings and queens. Imagine the mayhem that ensued when two teams of these vehicles entered into a contest!” That motor polo team in the photo was called “The Crazy Four,” and Mike, one of the members, became a part of Daryl’s XK120 story.
“Mike and his brother Tony ran a Shell station right on the original alignment of Route 66 when Illinois Route 4 was used for the mother road, and they helped us high school-aged drivers with our various jalopies. In fact, this Shell station, Soulsby’s, is located on the alignment of the first pavement specifically built for Route 66, and it happened to be about three miles from my parents’ home. It was built in 1926, the same year the motor polo picture was taken.”
During his high school years in question, Daryl drove a 1937 Chevrolet two-door sedan that he’d painted dove gray over metallic blue, using the paint brushes he could round up in his dad’s garage. He enjoyed the Chevy, but thanks to a few school trips, his focus turned distinctly to the Jaguar.
“In 1954, the ‘commercial club’ students that took typing, shorthand, etcetera, sold magazines to finance a trip to Washington D.C. About a dozen of us took the Greyhound overnight,” he recalls.
While waiting for the bus to arrive at the local terminal, Daryl bought a sports car magazine that featured a white XK120 on the cover with the brightwork finished in gold plate. He was mesmerized by the elegance beauty of the car, its ability to deftly blend opulent style with speed and high performance engineering.
He was pretty smitten with the car after reading that article a few dozen times, and a year later the high-school faculty carted around the students interested in the sciences to the engineering open houses at nearby universities.
“We went to Washington University in St. Louis, and a couple of weeks later we drove the 135 miles up to the University of Illinois. We drove in four cars for that trip. I remember three of them for sure—my dad’s 1954 DeSoto, a 1954 Buick Century, a new Pontiac Starliner convertible, and the fourth was, I think, a ‘lead sled’-style 1950 Mercury.”
“My mother, knowing about my infatuation with sports cars, had made a sports car-themed shirt for me. She was a superb seamstress. The shirt was white and had an MG TD, a Triumph, and an XK120 roadster repeated in a pattern, and I was wearing that shirt for the trip to the University of Illinois.
“When we arrived at the designated parking area and were forming up to walk to the engineering campus, a member of the university faculty came running up to me all excited about my shirt. He told me that he had a white XK120 roadster just like the one on the shirt, and just had to have one of his own to wear.”
One thing led to another, and he got Daryl’s address and they sent letters back and forth for a time; Daryl’s mother made him a shirt and charged him $5 for the job, including the material. This was in the spring of 1955.
“Three years later, I found myself enrolled in the Electrical Engineering program at the University of Illinois as a Junior. My dad and I had agreed to find a place for three of us guys to live on the cheap, and we had driven up and leased a two-room apartment on the top of this old Victorian castle that was located about a mile from campus. We were not aware of it at the time, but it was not ‘legal’ for unmarried students under the age of 21 to live in unapproved student quarters.
“We had to get a friendly professor to vouch for us and assume the responsibility, and we split the rent of $70 a month between the three of us. One of our rooms was a kitchen, and the other was the bedroom and living area. We kept track of our food expenses for the two semesters that we lived there and divided the total by three and paid off differences between our individual expenses. It came to a total of $95 each for our food for the school year. We got very good at being frugal and taking advantage of every free meal offered by any organization within bicycling distance!”
The 1937 Chevrolet from high school was no longer with them, and Daryl’s dad had bought a 1948 Plymouth business coupe for his son to use in its place.
“That Plymouth was a really great car. It ran like a top. We had fitted it with a Sears Roebuck short-block engine, and it featured prominently in my eventual ownership of an XK120.
“All three of us in that apartment were paying our way through college. I worked at the University Antenna Research Laboratory for about $1.25 an hour. My roommate Dale was studying paleontology, so he worked as a student assistant, drove an ambulance, served as a soda jerk, had loans, and found various other ways to pay for his education. He was interested in sports cars mostly because of their artistic styling, and one day he happened upon a white XK120 in a used car lot near the University. Now, what are the odds of that car not being the same one that had been owned by the guy my mother made the shirt for a couple of years earlier?
“It had to have been the same car. There were very few XK120s even in the whole state of Illinois back then, and I was convinced. I couldn’t afford the car of course, but Dale had just received the princely sum of $1,000 in a grant and felt a little rich. So he made a down payment and got the car for himself. I wanted it so bad I couldn’t stand it!
“Dale got accepted for graduate school at the University of Chicago shortly afterwards. The University of Chicago was not a land grant college, but a private school, and the tuition was going to go up to dramatically higher than the $120 a semester we had been paying as undergrads. He could no longer afford to make payments on the XK120 as a result of this new reality, so we reached a deal where I would give him my old Plymouth in return for his equity in the Jaguar, and I would take over his remaining payments.”
And that is how Daryl came by his first 1951 XK120. He was confident he could afford to pay it off because although he had a summer session remaining until he graduated, he had already been offered a job with Hughes Aircraft in Fullerton, California.
“So here I am with my cousin and my XK120 before leaving for California. This was one of the only times it ever had the top up. The top was only used in California if it rained heavily, which as you know can be pretty rare. During that summer session before graduation in 1959, I had the pleasure of driving the car as a college student, and not a rich Chicago frat-rat student, but one from a coal miner’s family. There were a couple of MGs and a Porsche around that I can recall, but that was it as far as imported sports cars.
“Soon enough, I had to start preparing the car for its over 2,000 mile trip to California.”
The first thing that Daryl did was take the car up to get it serviced at Mike’s garage, the one mentioned at the beginning of the story. They put the car up on the one cylinder lift, wheeled the oil catch tank under it, raised the funnel, pulled the sump plug, and went into the office to relax and talk while it drained. When they went back into the garage area the floor was covered in oil.
“No one ever heard of a car that held twelve quarts of oil, so I had a mess to clean. We didn’t find anything out of order besides that while we did the rest of the checking up, and it seemed to run just fine. The plugs looked good too, so we declared it ready to drive the mother road to California.
“My grade school and high school classmate who had recently been discharged from the Navy and I packed everything we owned into the skimpy trunk of the car and behind the seat crammed in with the top and batteries, and then shoved off in the first week of September of 1959 for the long trip west.” This was one year and a month before the first episode of the classic Martin Milner and George Maharis TV series Route 66.
“We made our way west, and seeing as it was September, it kept getting hotter the further we went. The first day we made it to Shamrock, Texas. We found a little shade later on in New Mexico, and rested under the only tree for miles. We forged on past Albuquerque and Gallup and eventually to Arizona. We went past the Jackrabbit Gasoline signs, Winslow, and don’t forget Winona. We did all of the usual things. We looked at the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest and went to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. We went to the meteor crater and were too tight to pay to view. We stayed in a wigwam motel. We got well and truly sunburned.”
Eventually, the two friends made it to California, but put on a few extra miles to head up to the lakes in the San Bernardino mountains. Through it all, the car performed perfectly. “Even in the the desert at noon, it never overheated once, and we seldom drove below 60mph.
Not long after that, Daryl then spent two years at remote radar sites in Alaska after driving the Jaguar non-stop back to Illinois by himself. His dad did a lot of work on her once it arrived, including fresh paint and some new upholstery, as Daryl recalls. “Dad let a mechanic friend tune the car. He took it for a spin and didn’t have the bonnet properly latched, so it blew open and came completely off the car and was rolled up like aluminum foil. Dad lost interest and we sold the car to a guy in St. Louis, and when I got back I searched for another one off and on for the next 50-plus years.”
Daryl finally got serious with putting an end to his search in 2016, and restored one the easy way. “A gentleman in Florida had run across a virtual barn find and had gone all the way with a total rebuild. It took a few years to restore, but I purchased the car and had it shipped to California where I have been enjoying it since, just like I did after college.”
Although Daryl’s “new” Jag has a tan interior whereas his original’s was red, it is the same year and very much the aesthetic sibling of the one he had back in the late 1950s. Mechanically it’s even better, as he tells me before we part ways. “It does have one major improvement. It is fitted with a five-speed Tremec gearbox, it carries the XK140 dual exhaust system in stainless steel, it has the biggest valves that will fit in the head, and has a 9:1 compression. It is indeed quite fun to drive, but then again, I’ve thought that was the case since 1958.”