Touring The River Trent In A Timeless Example Of Jaguar Design And Engineering
Photography by Virgiliu Andone
One thing that sets classic Jaguars apart from their peers is not outright performance (which, to be clear, they have a long history of front-of-pack motorsport), but the fact that they always strived to deliver the power of their engines in the smoothest possible way. They also did not try to make muscle cars, or brash cars in any sense. On the contrary, their styling aimed to produce shapes that the air would approve of, graced with flowing lines and devoid of anything that might upset its slippery advance on the way to their often prodigious top speeds.
Jaguar has always aimed for a type of power and prowess that was to be defined by serenity rather than melodrama. A power that, although plentiful, was well tamed and totally civilized. Humanized. The kind of sports car that the mother of the bride would be happy to see her daughter arrive in. And this concept of controlling the mighty is very similar to the way mankind tries to deal with the immense power of nature. Such as a mighty river.
The river Trent is known for its dramatic outbursts, that, in the past, resulted in severe flooding after storms and spring snowmelt, sometimes even altering its course entirely. In fact, its very name—which can be traced back to Roman times—is believed to be a reference to flooding. You would hardly think about it, looking at the elegant stillness that the surface reflects on a beautiful summer morning like the one we spent on its banks for this shoot.
We are next to one of the river’s many locks that are used to tame its temper, helping lazy barges navigate up and down its course with hardly a ripple of the Trent’s past bad behavior. But while the river’s energy is mostly contained, occasionally it still gets the upper hand on the best laid plans of its travelers and neighbors.
Our companion for the day on the water is a car that was not originally intended for mass production. Instead, it was once meant as a showcase for Jaguar’s new power unit, a project that they started before the war broke out and that they were finally able to bring to market once the guns fell silent. William Lyons, Jaguar’s founder and chairman, was overwhelmed by the positive reaction that the car was welcomed with at its launch at the 1948 London Motor Show, and decided his brand-new straight-six would not be restricted to powering luxurious saloons, but would also be allowed to stretch its legs under the bonnet of real sports cars.
The sunny morning attracted its usual early morning traffic of joggers and dog walkers on the banks of the Trent. Many of them stopped to talk to us, left in awe by the beauty of the Jaguar XK120 OTS. The car is one of the most recognizable designs in automotive history, yet it seems to still cause a sensation, even so many years after that pivotal London Motor Show. Soon, a pattern emerged among the pedestrians. Most of them were or still are Jaguar owners. We even ran into a gentleman who used to have his E-Types looked after by P&K Thornton, the same people who are currently giving a little pampering to the XK120 that we are shooting—small worlds and all that…
We are clearly in the heart of Jaguar country, where people don’t just buy them, but genuinely identify with them. Whether it’s the modern electric cars or the iconic classics, people here seem to have a very strong connection with these cats from Coventry, their distinctive shapes appearing in many a driveway in the picturesque villages that surround us.
Inspired by a pre-war Italian-bodied German car, the Jaguar XK120 managed to transcend its origins and become so much more than a stretched out copy of the Touring-bodied BMW 320 Mille Miglia. Sometime during its creation, the surfaces took a life of their own, resplendent in a design language that we can all recognize now as quintessentially British. It’s so voluptuous that you might find yourself blushing just by looking at it. And you may also find yourself disinclined of touching it, not so much for fear of scratching the paint, but for the anticipation of being promptly slapped on the face for such a display of indecency.
But of course some parts are made to be touched, such as the lovely leather padding that surrounds the open cockpit, evocative of pre-war biplanes. That joyful feeling of the air caressing your arms at speed is a delight from a bygone era, where curtain airbags and thick doors were not standing in between your elbow and the outside world.
In 1951, when this particular car was made, the memory of the war was still vivid and the perception of what was considered dangerous was a very different one from what we have today. For a generation of survivors, the greatest risk seemed to be not living one’s life to the fullest. In this car, driving pleasure is delivered in droves long before the speedometer approaches the Jag’s much-advertised 120mph top speed. It is very much at home on the winding B-roads, changing direction with an agility that belies its elegance, and responding to the driver’s input with a degree of telepathy reserved for much less comfortable suspensions. For all the boldness of its technically minded marketing, the character of the car is much more suave then the headline figures would suggest. Truth be told, the British cars, such as this one, first sold by the Jaguar Manchester, were designed to be fueled by the lower octane “Pool petrol” of the era, so they lost some power compared with their export counterparts.
Fortunately, they lost none of their charm, and this car’s very first owner was none other than Joseph Cyril Bamford. Having served in the RAF during the war, he must have been seduced by that open cockpit aircraft feeling and promptly signed on the dotted line. He bought the car the same year he started painting his products in the now iconic yellow of JCB. His company, which is still in family ownership to this day, was still in its infancy and its JCB logo only appeared for the first time two years later, in 1953. The rest, as they say, is history.
This XK120 clearly cannot be credited with inspiring Mr Bamford’s color of choice, but it must have pulled its weight when it came to indulging him with the finer things in life. Seeing the slick shape against the austere backdrop of the lock’s inner workings, you cannot escape noticing a strange harmony between the two, as if they were faces of the same coin. One is a lavish design intended to please the eye, the other a brutal contraption, faced with the task of resisting a tumultuous river. Together they seem to evoke an era filled with its own mix of lofty dreams and pressing challenges, an era that was shaped by enterprising people, such as Bamford. An era defined by ambition, as well as by elegance. An era who’s allure the Jaguar XK120 encompasses so thoroughly, and seemingly effortlessly.