The Cat’s whiskers

1949

WORDS MICHAEL STAHL

RetroSeries 68 JAGUAR XK120

1949

Sleek, speedy and super-successful, on and off the track

THE Jaguar XK120 Super Sports, sensationally launched at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show, was a watershed model for the Coventry cat. It stamped the brand’s design language and introduced a double overhead-cam, six-cylinder engine that would serve the company almost to the end of the century.

Proving its bold 120mph credentials (hence the name) in a speed-record run on a Belgian motorway on May 30, 1949, the XK120 became the fastest production car in the world.

Jaguar had signalled its performance intentions before WWII with the 2.5- and 3.5-litre SS100. That sports car’s iconic status encouraged company chief Sir William Lyons to initiate the cleansheet development of a pair of experimental (‘X’) dohc engines: an economy four-cylinder (XF) and a high-performance in-line six (XK). The iron-block, alloy-head designs were created by Jaguar’s engineering dream team of Bill Heynes, Claude Baily, Walter Hassan and Harry Weslake.

Lyons personally penned the graceful silhouette of the two-seat roadster. He had intended the XK120 (and a stillborn sister XK100 four-cylinder) primarily as a showpiece for the new engines, followed by limited hand-built production, as had been the case with the SS100.

This was reflected in 1949’s production total. Just 242 cars were built, with hand-formed alloy bodies on ash frames being fitted to their steel ladder chassis. One such example was delivered to actor Clark Gable. y America starred in the XK120’s success. The mantra of warravaged Britain was ‘export or die’ and MG had pioneered the market among returned US sevicemen. In 1949, legendary US sports car importer Max Hoffman ordered six months of production. It was no longer feasible to build them by hand.

The full production models, emerging from a properly tooled line in 1950, now featured steel bodies (actually lighter than the alloy/ash construction). Speed records and giant-killing motorsport performances on both sides of the Atlantic cemented the XK120’s reputation. In 1951 an SE version was added, boasting 142kW (up from 119kW) wrung from competition tweaks gleaned from the XK120-C (‘competition’), which became known as the C-Type and brought Jaguar its first win at Le Mans.

Also in 1951, the open two-seater was joined by a fixed-head coupe version, and in 1953 a luxury drop-head coupe. When production ended in 1953, a total of 12,045 XK120s had been built; fewer than 14 percent of them were in right-hand drive. p

160 Fast & factual 05

1

Go for Goldie

The XK100 four-cylinder was officially listed but never built. The 2.0-litre donk powered ‘Goldie’ Gardner’s EX.135 to 284km/h in 1948

2

Show off

In 1949, an XK120 prototype recorded 213.4km/h on an empty Belgian motorway, then ambled past the assembled press at 16km/h in top gear

In detail

Sedan genes

THE XK120’s steel ladder chassis was derived from Jag’s newfor-’ 48 sedan, the MkV. Front suspension was independent by torsion bars and wishbones, and at the rear was a live axle with semi-elliptic springs. Brakes were 305mm drums, while steel disc wheels (left) later gave way to wires (above) that promoted better brake cooling.

Twin peak

THE twin-camshaft 3442cc Jaguar XK straight-six the greats; boss Lyons sure that it looked good bonnet. The tough seven-unit made 119kW at 5000rpm and 264Nm at 2500rpm, 0-100km/h performance 12 seconds. It was handicapped by the slow and heavy Moss gearbox. 442cc is one of even made d under the en-bearing 000rpm m, giving nce of about ndicapped four-speed

Price was right

IF THE XK120’s performance wasn’t enough to convince buyers, the price certainly was; at just under £1000, it was a supercar at a luxury-sedan price. The interior was spacious compared with MGs, if much less so in fixedhead coupe versions, and the environment of leather, timber and sports instrumentation played the Euro-sportster card perfectly. The plush drophead coupe (below) came with a better roof and wind-up windows.

3

Bombproof

The XF and XK engine developments came with distractions: Coventry was a prime Luftwaffe target and took a pasting in November 1940

4

Speed week

On the banked Montlhery track near Paris in 1952, an XK120 coupe averaged 100mph (161km/h) for seven days and nights, covering 27,119km

5

Nabbed

Leslie Taylor dodged roos and road trains on a 1550km record run from Darwin to Alice Springs in 10.5 hours.

Then he was arrested

Next issue Mercedes-Benz 600 Grosser