Sixty years ago, the Jaguar XK120 Super Sports Open Two-Seater took the Earls Court Show and the motoring world by storm. Combining performance that had previously been enjoyed only by racing cars and a few examples of rarefied exotica with ultra-modern styling and relative sophistication, the XK120 really was a landmark.
The XK burst into a very grey world that was still recovering from the ravages of World War Two, and which served only to heighten the drama of the car’s entrance. Famously intended just as a testbed for the new engine that had been designed for a fresh range of saloons, the clamor for the sensational new sports car,
in spite of some skepticism about its claimed performance, was overwhelming. Jaguar stuttered into production over the 1949-’50 period, in the process switching from the initial aluminum and ash frame construction to pressed steel panels.
Jaguars for America
With ‘Export Or Die’ the dictat from Government, the 120 led the way into America, both symbolically and commercially. The stars of Hollywood embraced the Jag-wah. An unambiguous demonstration of the car’s genuine performance in front of the press at Jabbeke in Belgium and a fairytale win in the model’s first race at Silverstone (admittedly against some pretty average opposition) only served to lengthen the order books. A tentative entry at Le Mans nearly resulted in unexpected glory.
A very young man who had impressed everyone vastly in little motor-cycle-engined single-seater racers was looking to make the step up and make the crucial breakthrough. He managed to borrow one of the six works-prepared 120s (Jaguar was not amused) and, with a masterly display in appalling conditions, Stirling Moss took a brilliant victory in the classic Tourist Trophy.
Combine all this with record-breaking and Ian Appleyard’s unprecedented success in international rallying with another of the six (NUB 120), and the 120 could do no wrong. What was its secret? The heart of the car was the new twin-overhead-cam engine that William Lyons had the courage to put into production. Believed to be too complex for a road car, the engine, with its hemispherical aluminum head, gave excellent performance, terrific torque and, above all, had massive reserves for future development. One of the greatest engines of all time, it would remain in production for almost 40 years and power everything from world-beating sports racers to silent executive saloons, from tanks to the equally sensational E-type.
The 120 Roadster, as the Open Two-Seater became known, was a traditional sports car in some senses and radically different in others. It had a rudimentary soft-top, crude sidescreens and standard seats that were something of a joke when cornering hard. It was a real wind-in-the-hair sports car, of the type beloved pre-war. Yet it shocked some of those diehards because it had ‘boulevard’ suspension. With a massively over-engineered chassis, inherited from the new Mark V saloon, and suspension that was rather soft by traditional sports car standards, the 120 found a wider audience and proved that sports cars did not need to be for masochists only. And if anyone said the XK was a softy, just look at what it achieved in motor sport, where there are no compromises.
Far from perfect
Having said that, the 120 was far from perfect. The brakes had not kept pace with the increased level of performance, an area Jaguar needed to address. Some felt the position of the steering wheel as it was presented to the driver, and its heaviness, were truck-like. Lights were marginal for the virtually unheard-of performance. The gearbox was slow and agricultural, even if it was very tough. In general, the car was no lightweight.
The XK120 gave the Jaguar marque what today we would call the ‘halo effect’. The new Mark VII saloon basked in the reflected glory of its sporting sibling, and victory at Le Mans with a competition version of the XK120, the C-type, brought untold publicity for the little British company, putting it on the map worldwide.
Great car though the 120 was, it could not be considered that practical in climates less friendly than California, and Jaguar responded with the introduction of the XK120 Fixed Head Coupé in 1951. The styling was another Lyons masterpiece: though he had simply crafted a roof onto the basic Roadster shape, no-one could have known it was as simple as that. Highly revered today, the FHC had definite undertones of Jean Bugatti’s work and is pure sculpture.
Coupe opens new markets
The new Coupé was actually a very different animal to its stablemate in a number of ways. It was, if you like, a tamed Jaguar. Gone was the devil-may-care character of the Roadster and instead here was a car that was highly sophisticated. It combined the essence of the performance with pre-war levels of opulence. The luxury of wind-up windows was complemented by the decadence of a veneered dashboard and door cappings.
While rather more practical than the Roadster, the Coupé’s interior space was actually at more of a premium and its boot space very similar. But for these compromises, the 120 FHC would have been a true Grand Tourer. It was, though, a fabulous long-distance car for those who travelled light!
Announced as being for export only, it seems you had to be someone to obtain a right-hand-drive example, and, with less than 200 built, these are exceedingly rare cars today. The list of original owners includes Ecurie Ecosse racer Ian Stewart; Neville Duke, the famous test pilot; ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears, who raced his; Jack Hallay, who rallied his; and Sir Jackie’s brother, the late Jim Stewart, who drove for Ecosse and the Works.
The Roadster and Fixed Head represented two extremes. There was room for yet another version that bridged the two, a car that had the FHC’s sophistication but could also offer open-air motoring. The solution was what the Americans called a convertible and what Jaguar christened the Drop Head Coupé (DHC). Aping the opulence of the FHC with its interior fittings, it was graced with a luxurious, fully-lined, folding top. Once again the model found favor in the vital US market and gave Jaguar superlative coverage of the higher performance sports car sector.
As with all Lyons’s cars, the XKs were incredible value for money, which further fueled demand. This was achieved by relatively long production runs, by saving money on sophisticated tooling and, sadly, by compromising on quality in certain areas.
By 1954 it was time to ‘refresh’ the XK range, and also address some of the slight shortcomings. The result was the evolutionary XK140.
The 140 essentially retained the 120’s style, and the Coup� interiors were the areas most altered; both these models were given two seats in the rear that could be occupied by children or fully-grown pygmies. Today they are used by most owners for extra luggage and such like, and are thus rather more practical. To achieve the extra space, the batteries, which had previously enjoyed the privilege of being adjacent to the interior, were demoted to positions under the front wings. Externally, the DHC model was little changed in terms of overall shape.
The FHC, though, came in for rather more radical surgery. To potentially house one’s little horrors in the back, the roofline was extended rearwards, making this model easily distinguishable. Furthermore, the front footwells were lengthened either side of the engine and the screen moved forward. All of this added up to considerably more generous interior space and better suited those 120 FHC owners who tended to suffer from claustrophobia.
Mechanically, the 140s were given the uprated engines that had previously been offered in Special Equipment versions of the 120 and the brakes were improved a little. Handling was assisted by moving the engine forward and swapping the ancient lever-arm rear shockers for telescopic chaps. Rack-and-pinion steering made this department lighter and the generous provision of a UJ in the column altered the angle of the steering wheel.
Externally, there were some detailed but very obvious changes. To save money the delicate grille of soldered, fluted vanes was replaced by a rather crude cast replica. The trade commission at the British Embassy in Washington had highlighted in a report that the imported UK cars were inadequately protected front and rear from the vast and seriously heavy Detroit sedans. Hence the 140 was blessed with proper bumpers, as opposed to the ornaments on the 120, but these did little for the aesthetics.
The Roadster model, still known as the Open Two-Seater (OTS), shared most of these changes apart from the provision of the ‘nipper seats’ and remained delightfully selfish. This variant was really intended for the warmer climes of the world, and almost all were exported. They proved, like the other models, to be extremely successful for Jaguar and Britain.
Retrospectively, at least, views have diverged on whether the 140 was an improvement or not. Traditionalists felt the 140 had gone soft, and preferred the more he-man character of the 120. Others found the 140 considerably more pleasant to drive.
The 140 had evolved and, in parallel, the competition world had moved on; it was no longer possible to turn up with your 120, pump up the tires, remove the spare and enjoy a hearty club race. Jaguar had itself played a part in that progression with the C-type, which had been designed as a dedicated sports racing car: a rather new breed of animal. Hence the 140s did not sample, or enjoy, the same level of competition activity as their predecessors, which perhaps helps account for their softer image.
By 1957, the XK range needed an injection of updating to keep Jaguar at the forefront of sports car design. With the ludicrously small team of engineers having devoted most of their time to designing and developing the new ‘small’ saloon range and the fabulous D-types, which followed the C-type’s two Le Mans victories with three more, Jaguar was unable to introduce a completely new sports car at this stage.
Modernized in many ways, the 150 was the ultimate iteration of the XK theme and itself would sire various versions. The big step forward for the 150 was the adoption of disc brakes, which Jaguar had developed with Dunlop and had used very effectively on the later Cs and the Ds.This feature gave the 150 technical credibility and, apart from the very low-volume Jensen, a feature the competition lacked. A new B-type cylinder head increased power, which had progressed from the 120’s 180bhp to the 140’s 190bhp, to 210bhp.
Visually, the 150 was far more changed than the 140 had been over the 120. The old two-piece flat windscreen was looking very dated now and it was replaced by a wraparound one-piece item. The dramatic fall and rise of the wing line was considerably straightened and the cabin widened. This was achieved by putting the doors on a diet; the slimmer versions benefited the interior space considerably. Initially launched in Fixed Head and Drop Head Coup� form only, the range was augmented in late 1958 by the OTS.
Coincident with the launch of the 150 roadster, Jaguar made an additional ‘S’ version available for the Coup� models in early ’59. With a so-called straight-port head and triple two-inch SUs, power was raised to a claimed 250bhp. The horsepower race was on in the States and to compete Jaguar added XK engines enlarged from 3.4 to 3.8 liters, and offered an ‘S’ variant of the 3.8 which, supposedly, produced 265bhp (actually much nearer 200bhp!). There were thus 12 different XK150s available before production tailed off in late 1960, in readiness for the launch of the E-type.
The XK150 has probably been better revered in more recent years, when it could be judged as a stand-alone car rather than compared alongside its peers in period. The concept was, not surprisingly, aging by the end of the decade, but it was the ultimate example of the incredible XK range.